Thursday, October 7, 2010

FF: Maori Moko- Identity, Pain, and Pride.

 Tena koutou!

In Focus on Folkways, we'll be looking at the art of a particular culture, and how it looked during the Age of Steam. Today we'll see the brilliant tattoo-work of the Maori people of New Zealand, called moko.

Photograph of a Maori woman- Dunedin, late 19th c.

 Read on to hear about Maori I.D., head-hunting, and Kirituhi

Moko is a spiritual declaration, an identity card, a geneological chart, and record of great deeds all in one art. Designs would integrate sacred images and symbols of the Maori language to tell an individualized story of the wearer's past. A chief would wear a chief's a moko- a warrior would wear his. In this way, it was also a means of deference, as you could tell a person's importance clear as the nose on their face.

The Making of a Tattoo: Ta-Moko
The traditional way to Ta-Moko (the verb form of the word) was a long and painful process, including weeks of healing. First the tattooist would gouge the design into the skin using sharp awls made of boar tusk or albatross bone. Then, while the wounds were still open, the awl would make a second pass, dipped this time into a black pitch-like substance derived from anything from ash, to burnt tree gum, to even roasted insects! Naturally going through the process as stoicly as possible was more desired... and a lot easier for the tattooist (particularly if going over the delicate skin near the eyes, as they often did). It took months for the designs to heal, and sometimes multiple procedures to insure the design sticking.

Women also wore moko- though traditionally this was only on the chin, lips, and jaw.

Various tribes of Maori also tattooed their torsos, buttocks, and backs- some men encasing their entire bodies in blue-black designs.

Moko in the Age of Steam
With the advent of white settlers in New Zealand, the moko tradition (along with most other Maori traditions) changed. Metal needles were used instead of the albatross or boar bone, making the final design smooth- like a modern tattoo- instead of carved into the flesh. Moko-wearers were also being photographed, much to the delight and shock of Western viewers of such portraits as the ones featured in the Lindauer collection. There was also the unfortunate side-effect of head-hunting; whereupon the Maori discovered that the Europeans would trade rifles in exchange for the embalmed, tattooed heads of their enemies. This was the basis of many turf wars and even the unheard of practice of tattooing slaves, just to harvest their heads.

One of Lindauer's portraits- King Tawhaio

Almost as tragically, towards the end of the 19th century, many Maori gave up the old knowledge of moko as European influence in their country grew unstoppable. Thankfully though, their beautiful art can be viewed in many extant photographs and portraits, in addition to being adopted by a new generation of Maori.

Moko vs. Kirituhi
First of all it should be noted that many modern Maori disapprove of non-Maori getting moko tattoos as they view it as a theft of identity and spirituality. Instead they encourage people to use "Kirituhi"- or facial tattoos that are fashioned like moko, but do not directly draw from existing designs or use the traditional symbols.

I do not condone the idea of any steampunk, other than one who is Maori using Ta-moko in their steampunk. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there are ways you can involve a similar look into your kit with kirituhi-style tattoos. Image searches will render a variety of designs you can pull from without causing any offense. Besides, a steampunk traveler in the Pacific during this time would be getting their tattoos from a Maori or Polynesian islander, who wouldn't in their right mind put a sacred moko on an outsider- so you'd probably be getting a kirituhi anyhow.

In fact, it might be fun to mix some of the Maori-styled designs with that of whirling cogs, clockwork, or other engine mechanisms. A Maori-styled tattoo would particularly work on a sailor, airship pirate, or well-traveled individual who felt like shocking the folks back home.

To make a good-looking kirituhi for your ensemble, I would recommend splurging on a bottle of Temptu. Temptu is an alcohol-based resin which seals a design on the skin that's waterproof- and yet can be removed with a swabbing of rubbing alcohol. Furthermore when powdered down, the designs look incredibly like real tattoos (which is why many make-up professionals like to use it for movies and tv). Yes, it is a bit pricey- but a little bottle goes a long way (I had mine for a good four years before I used it bit up last spring).

Hinepare by Lindauer

Unidentified man- c. 1900

Unidentified man- 1880

Helpful links: - the History in New Zealand website, including more on the language of moko tattoos. - An article on the outrage of some Maoris over the non-Maori use of moko, and how to develop a kirituhi. - a New Zealand-based site dedicated to Gottfred Lindauer and his portraits of the Maori.


  1. That first picture is stellar. clgbutterfly.

  2. Thank you for your sensitive handling of Ta Moko - as a pakeha (white New Zealander), I always appreciate it when others also 'get' the sacredness, etc of parts of other cultures (it save sme pointing it out!)

    On a more fashion-based note, if you're looking for Polynesian influenced clothing for steampunking in a less than tropical climate, the Maori people did mix and match a lot of European and traditional styles together. Here's links a couple of photos for inspiration: and (for Maori women dress reformers)

    BTW love the idea behind your blog - I'll be reading often!!

  3. That's a cool idea, for both post and blog in general. I've been looking for ways to spice up my steampunk persona outfits. She's an outlaw airship captain that goes by the name Helena Isis Danvers. About the kirituhi, though. Would it inappropriate to have one on the chest area, right above the breasts?

  4. Well traditionally, it's a facial tattoo - worn on the chin/lips area. The chest is not usually tattoed (not even men). So, pretty much inappropriate, sorry!

  5. Kirituhi and moko are not just on the face- they can be on any part of the body