Ta Moko, an ancient art form practiced by the Maori people of New Zealand, represents much more than skin adornment. This time-honored tradition, involving the intricate and painstaking process of chiseling patterns into the skin and filling them with pigment, has cultural, social, and personal significance. As Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, in her piece "Ta Moko: Culture, body modification, and the psychology of identity," outlines, Ta Moko is "about metamorphosis, about change, about crisis, and about coping" (Te Awekotuku, 2002, p. 123). Through Ta Moko, Maoris connect with their heritage, assert their identity, and document their personal journeys.
-Ta Moko is a Maori art form involving chiseled skin patterns, representing cultural heritage and personal identity.
-The practice declined due to European settlers labeling it barbaric.
-Ta Moko saw a revival in the late 20th century, symbolizing pride and cultural identity among Maoris.
-Globalization brought Ta Moko international attention, but also cultural appropriation concerns.
-Recognizing Ta Moko’s significance to Maori culture is crucial, as it embodies ancestry, spirituality, and personal stories.
Historical Background and Origins
Ta Moko is unique to the Maori people, involving not just tattooing but also cicatrization, resulting in raised furrows on the skin (Te Awekotuku, 2002). This art has roots in mythology, where it is believed that Mataora, which translates to "The Living Face", brought the art from the underworld, thus introducing it to the Maori people (Te Awekotuku, 2002, p. 124).
Over the years, Ta Moko has been used to fascinate, terrify, seduce, and beguile. It has also served to record, imprint, acknowledge, remember, honor, immortalize, and transform the flesh, the skin, and the soul (Te Awekotuku, 2002, p. 123). When the Maori first settled in Aotearoa, New Zealand, they brought along this practice of permanent skin adornment.
With the arrival of European settlers in the 18th century, Ta Moko underwent a period of decline. The colonization of New Zealand by Europeans led to an initial fascination with Ta Moko, as evidenced by the paintings and writings of early European settlers, but this fascination eventually gave way to dismissal and cultural erosion. As colonization continued, Ta Moko was marginalized and almost eradicated. Missionaries particularly played a role in the decline, labeling it as "the Devil’s art" (Te Awekotuku, 2002, p. 125).
Revival and Contemporary Significance
Despite the setbacks, Ta Moko made a resurgence in the late 20th century as a symbol of pride, celebration, and identity for Maoris. This resurgence was part of a larger cultural revival that sought to reclaim and assert Maori language, art, and traditions that had been threatened by colonization. Te Awekotuku (2002) notes that while many Maori mark their bodies to show their heritage, some now choose when and how to show their moko, with some wearing it openly on the face as a visible symbol of their identity and heritage (p. 125).
Globalization and Appropriation
With globalization, Ta Moko has gained international attention. Some non-Maori individuals, including celebrities, have adopted patterns that mimic Ta Moko. However, this appropriation is seen by some as undermining the cultural significance of Ta Moko. True Ta Moko is about personal and cultural narratives, spirituality, and genealogy, while tattoos inspired by Ta Moko but worn by non-Maori individuals are referred to as "Kirituhi", meaning painted skin (Te Awekotuku, 2002, p. 126).
Ta Moko is an enduring Maori tradition that connects the Maori people with their ancestry, heritage, and identity. It is a testament to the strength and resilience of the Maori culture that Ta Moko has survived colonization and continues to thrive in contemporary times. Through the art of Ta Moko, Maori individuals not only carry their personal journeys but also the rich history and spirituality of an entire people.
- Te Awekotuku, N. (2002). Ta Moko: Culture, body modification, and the psychology of identity. Proceedings of the National Maori Graduates of Psychology Symposium, 2, 122-127.
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