Maori Tattoos: Identity, Family, and Honor

What moko, the tattooing tradition of New Zealand’s Maori people, can teach us about self-expression.

Today nearly one in three Millennials has a tattoo. From feathers and arrows to quotes and coordinates, ink is everywhere. And tattoos aren’t just for the hippies and punks among us, either. Never have tattoos been more acceptable in mainstream culture.

But let’s be real—the practice of tattooing isn’t a new fad. We’ve been applying ink to our skin since the beginning of human history (remember Otzi, the 5,300-year-old frozen mummy? Yeah, he had tattoos too; 61 to be exact). In light of its meteoric rise back into the mainstream, it’s enlightening to look back to the roots of tattooing, a custom steeped in shamanism and spirituality.

In New Zealand, for example, the ancient tattooing practice of the Maori people, called moko, has regained popularity as a powerful symbol of heritage and pride. Moko is traditionally worn by both men and women, often on the face and buttocks of men and the lips, chin, and shoulders of women. The resurgence of moko in 21st century New Zealand is an assertion of heritage, keeping Maori culture alive and visible in an increasingly diverse nation.

Living in New Zealand has given me a deep respect for the tradition, and has profoundly changed my perception of tattoos. The Maori approach to tattooing has a lot to teach us about self-identity and the significance of marking our bodies for a lifetime.

Where You Come From Matters

Maori tattoos are visual representations of whakapapa (family heritage) and social hierarchy. Every line, arc, and spiral is used to signify hapu (clan), life achievements, and social standing. In colonial times Maori chiefs signed treaties by drawing their moko designs rather than writing their names. Moko is the ultimate symbol of identity, and in order to receive a moko, the wearer must first ask permission from family elders. Once permission is granted, the design is chosen by the tribal tohunga (expert tattooist).

In the book Dedicated by Blood: Renaissance of Ta Moko by Patricia Steur and Gordon Toi Hatfield, Tuhipo Maria Rapido Kereopa explains the significant of moko:

“The moko is my voice; it is my visible presence in this time and in this space. It is my rite of passage to the past and to the future. It is the revolving door to my tupuna [ancestors] and my descendents. My children and grandchildren will not suffer the oppression of intolerance because I have asserted my tino rangatiratanga [sovereignty, autonomy].”

Commit to Permanence

This is not a drunken spring break tattoo. Afterall, it’s on your face—not exactly subtle. The Maori believe the head is the most tapu (sacred) part of the body, being the closest to the sky.

Moko is a literal and figurative declaration of who you are and what you stand for. A moko isn’t something you can hide under a sleeve or collar. It’s confrontational. It’s a commitment to be unapologetically yourself, unapologetically Maori. Couldn’t we all use a little more boldness in how we present who we are to the world?

Honor Your Body

Moko is also a reminder to honor the body—the vessel of our consciousness, giving us the ability to walk this earth.

In his book Moko: Maori Tattooing in the Twentieth Century, historian Michael King quotes Waimana tribe member Netana Whakaari, who says, “You may be robbed of all your most prized possessions. But of your moko you cannot be deprived, except by death. It will be your ornament and your companion until your last day.”

In this way moko also reminds us of the emptiness of materialism. Honoring your body, rather than coveting possessions, is a path to health and happiness. Moko grounds the wearer in what truly matters: family, community, honor, love.

Pain is a Part of Your Journey. It’s Necessary and Beautiful.

Traditionally, the tohunga used a small mallet and bone chisel to tap the pattern into the skin, creating grooves with raised borders, a skillful combination of scarification and tattoo. The process was extremely painful, shed a lot of blood, and often took an entire day to complete a small portion. Considering the great pain one has to endure, it’s no wonder moko also represents courage and power. In addition to genealogy, moko was also given to commemorate the pain and triumphs of life such as warfare and childbirth.

“It was at once an image of beauty and of ferocity,” writes King in Moko, “an indication that you were able to bear the pain and take responsibilities, domestic and public.”

Moko reminds us that pain is another milestone in life to be welcomed, contributing to wisdom, growth, and the Maori concept of mana [respect, authority].

You Are a Part of Something Bigger

Serving as a visual link between the wearer and their spiritual ancestry, taking on the “family mantle” is said to channel and honor the ancestors of the past. It expresses that you are culmination of all those past lives.

Moko is also about who you are as a person, including what you have yet to realize. “Moko is not just about beautiful designs,” says moko artist and Dedicated by Blood author Gordon Toi Hatfield. “Moko does not make a person, but complements the existing and often unrealized potential of that individual. The individual is the testimony to the moko, not the other way around.”

You hold their power and wisdom within you. King describes it as “a breathing connection between the present and the past.” It serves as a beautiful reminder that we’re not alone on our journey. We have the strength of generations inside us.

How do your tattoos define you emotionally? spiritually? Share your thoughts in the comments below—and join us for the rest of the series exploring of the sacred traditions of tattooing in other cultures of the world.

sizedEmily Hill 16Emily Hill is a nomadic health and wellness journalist. In her travels from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Auckland, New Zealand, she’s reported on everything from underground electronic music to nerdy nutrition science. Emily is an avid women’s cycling advocate and amateur yogi. Her favorite food is red wine. Follow her @EmilybyNight.