Maori tattoos in New Zealand

There are many different styles and methods of tattooing in modern day New Zealand. From traditional Maori and Pacifica styles, through to post-modern symbolism, the styles vary, but tattooing first began in New Zealand with Tā Moko. 

Tā Moko

It’s impossible to establish when Tā Moko started as there are no written records before the Europeans arrived, as there was no formal Maori written language. Instead, historians have had to rely on archaeologists and the accounts of the first European settlers.

Excavated sites have found tattooing tools dating back to the very earliest settlers, with some of the tools the same as the ones used in Samoa. Although the patterns and designs vary throughout the Pacific when it comes to tattoos, the technique of rhythmically tapping a bone chisel, lashed to a small wooden shaft remains the same.

Some of the earliest accounts of tattooing in New Zealand were by Sydney Parkinson. Parkinson was Captain James Cook’s artist on board the Endeavour, when it landed in Poverty Bay in 1769. He sketched and painted local Maori displaying their Moko, and described in detail the different styles and patterns he witnessed.

The Explorers noticed that Maori women were not as extensively tattooed as the men. Their upper lips were outlined, usually in dark blue, and their nostrils were also very finely incised. The chin moko was always the most popular, and continued to be practiced even into the 1970s.

Not just a pretty face

Tā Moko facial tattoos aren’t just for decoration, they also tell a story. A person’s ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally (but not always, depending on the tribe) the father's side, while the right-hand side indicates the mother's ancestry. If one side of a person's ancestry was not of rank, that side of the face would have no Moko design. Likewise if, in the centre forehead area there is no Moko design, this means the wearer either has no rank, or has not inherited rank.

Come to Sunset for a Maori tattoo

If you’re interested in getting a Maori tattoo design, then you should come see Tristan at Sunset Tattoo.

Tristan is of Te Rarawa descent, from the Hokianga in the far north. He graduated from the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts institute in 2014 with a diploma in Whakairo Rakau (traditional wood carving). Not long before Tristan graduated, he approached Tom about learning the craft of tattooing and bringing his knowledge of carving and Maori art over to the medium.

Tristan is now tattooing full time with Sunset, and specializes in Ta Moko, Blackwork, pattern work, geometric and dot-work tattoo styles.

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