The Maori and their tattoos, the Ta Moko and Kiri Tuhi
I'll start by saying that the Ta Moko is well represented of course in the Maori folklore and traditions.
For the mythology:
The legend of Mataora
A less historical explanation of the origin of Maori tattoo can be
found in the local legend which suggests that ta moko, the Maori
tattoo, came from the underworld, called Uetonga. The legend states
that there was a young warrior called Mataora, who fell in love with
the princess of the underworld, called Niwareka. Niwareka came above
ground to marry Mataora.
However, Mataora mistreated Niwareka, which in turn, made her return
to the underworld. Mataora, sick with guilt about the way he treated
his wife pursued her to the underworld, only to be greeted by her
relatives who laughed at his ragged appearance and smudged face paint.
Mataora apologized before Niwareka’s family, and this act won Niwareka
back. Before returning above ground, it was said that Niwareka’s
father, the king of the underworld taught Mataora the art of ta moko.
Mataora brought back these skills to his people and that was how the
Maori came to have their distinct type of tattoo.
The Ta Moko seems to have been offered to the Maoris by the king of the underworld where dwells many gods and powerful entities. So we can consider that this art was given by a godlike entity (Don't know much about the Maori lore yet, but can improve this part later).
The Kiri Tuhi contain your personnal "Mythology"
Part of the tattoo represents all your life and the people that took part in it:
How you tell your story in KIRITUHI TATTOO otherwise known as TA MOKO
Kiri means Skin and Tuhi means Art, we generally tattoo the body and
arm areas on our customers so it will be defined as Kiri Tuhi rather
than Ta Moko was reserved for the face only.
All Maori design is made up of a number of essential design elements.
Main Manawa Lines are the skin looking lines in your maori tattoo,
MANAWA is the Maori word for Heart and represents Your Life, your Life
Journey and your time spent on Earth.
Main Korus coming off the Manawa Lines are used represent people and
people groups . Korus are based off the tiny new growth shoots on the
New Zealand Fern plant and represent New Life and New Beginnings.
When you add every koru off your Manawa line you can be adding the
important people in your life journey , Mothers , Fathers,
Grandparents, Children , siblings , Loved ones friends family and so
In a culture where the ancesters are so important, you could consider this as if each of the Maoris having a Kiri Tuhi were living records of their own family mythology/ancestry.
Maori tattos are a rite
The culture of the Maori tattoo is very complex. As any religion would have very detailed rites, the Maori tattoos are a rite:
Maori tattoo is very sacred
Due to the sacred nature of the Maori tattoo, those who were
undergoing the process, and those involved in the process, could not
eat with their hands or talk to anyone aside from the other people
being tattooed. Those who were receiving tattoos made it a point to
not cry out in pain, because to do so was a sign of weakness. Being
able to withstand the pain was very important in terms of pride for
There were other rules and regulations around being tattooed,
particularly while undergoing a facial work. Many Maori had to abstain
from sexual intimacy while undergoing the rite, and had to avoid all
solid foods. In order to meet these requirements, the person was fed
from a wooden funnel to prevent foodstuffs from contaminating the
swollen skin. A person would be fed in this manner until the facial
wounds had fully healed.
Because the face was often bleeding and very swollen, the leaves of
the karaka tree were often used as a balm that was applied after the
session had finished, to hasten the healing process. The tattooing was
often accompanied by music, singing and chanting to help soothe the
Maori tattoos gave a higher social status
There I just show how positive this was seen to wear tattoos:
Only people of rank or status were allowed to have, and could afford
to have, tattoos. A person who did not have any high-ranking social
status, such as a slave, could not have a face tattoo. Those who had
the means to get a tattoo but did not were seen as people of lower
The Maori facial tattoo was not only seen as a sign of rank though,
but was also used as a kind of identification card. For men, their
face tattoo showed their accomplishments, status, position, ancestry
and marital status. It is considered highly insulting to be unable to
recognise a person’s power and position by his moko.
There is many designs with particular significations and some of them really suit the question here:
- The design of Nga Hau E Wha, that pay respect to god for what he gave us:
This tattoo design is a representation of the four corners of the
earth and nga hau e wha – the four winds. Tawhirimatea and Tangaroa
are two Maori gods or Atua have the power to destroy anything in their
path and they have done so on many occasions. No matter what your
beliefs in life may be, this still applies to all mankind. It’s all
about respecting what God has given us, regardless of how big or small
you are. Aotearoa, is a place for all people of all races and creeds.
Tamanuitera represents new growth and warmth and Hei Matua is strength
and prosperity in whatever you desire to do and koru is a continuation
of all of these things.
- The design of Pikorua, that symbolizes life:
The term pikorua is Maori for the growth and joining together of two
different things e.g. the earth and the sea.
Some iwi (tribes) believed it wasTangaroa and Papatuanuku who were
together in the beginning. Maori people believe that we came from
Mother Earth and one day we go back to her, as the tattoo design
depicts all rivers eventually lead to the ocean. So it is believed
that in life, we all take different paths and there are many different
bends that we all end up in the same place. This Maori tattoo is a
representation of life and journey that it takes.
The manaia is known as a spiritual guardian, and carrier of
supernatural powers. Traditionally depicted as a bird like figure with
the head of a bird, body of a man and the tail of a fish it acts as a
provider and protector over the sky, earth and sea. Likened to a bird
sitting on your shoulder, looking after ones spirit, and guiding the
spirit where it is supposed to go when the time comes.
My biggest source is from a tattoo shop website