Tawhiao, Maori King, photograph printed by Muir & Moodie Photography Studio (between 1904-1915)

Was facial tattooing common practice 

In her book published in 2007, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku explains that traditionally both men and women underwent the process of Tā moko (tattooing), and that in the South Island it was customary to see women with “fully ornamented faces”.  Though most early European accounts describe moko on women as being limited to “the colouring of their lips and decorative inscribing of their chins, foreheads, and brows”, there are some records of women with “extensive facial work”, and others had body work done as well.  Historically, female Māori practised as Tā moko artists.  However, more recent attitudes have “undermined” this tradition, meaning that sometimes women marking the faces of men has been considered “inappropriate” and therefore prohibited.

Oriwa Solomon explains that before the arrival of Europeans to New Zealand, Tā moko was done using bone tools by experts called tohunga, employing ancient and sacred traditional practices.  Moko were “individualised to suit a person’s genealogy and character”, serving as a signature by which a person could be identified. Michael King notes that some chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi document using their moko sign instead of a name.  “It was not that they were illiterate – many could write.  It was just that they regarded their moko patterns as a repository for their mauri, their life force, and therefore a more sacred way of sealing a contract.” 

The arrival of Europeans and their technology changed the tools used for tattooing, as well as influencing the ideas and materials employed.  By 1840, tattooing tools used for Tā moko were made of steel.   

A much older account by the missionary Rev. R. Taylor, written in 1855, describes that the practice of Tā moko was commonplace, and those of higher rank were more highly and elaborately tattooed than those of lower position.  Men could have every part of their faces tattooed, along with their thighs.  Women also had moko - on their lips and chin, and sometimes also near their eyes, on their breasts, and thighs.  

Some Toi moko show evidence of post-mortem moko, which means that the tattooing took place or was added to after death.  This is visibly different from pre-mortem tattooing, particularly in the way the post-mortem moko does not ‘hold’ the pigment of the ink in the same way.


Te Awekotuku, Ngahuia, Linda Waimarie Nikora, Mohi Rua and Rolinda Karapu. Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo, Auckland: Penguin Viking, 2007.  

Solomon, Oriwa. Tā Moko Storyboard: The Visible Embodiment of Māori Culture, 2003.  

King, Michael. “Moko and C.F.Goldie”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 84, 1975, pp. 431-440. 

Taylor, Rev. Richard. Te Ika A Maui:  New Zealand and Its Inhabitants, London: Wertheim and Macintosh, 1855. 

Walker, Timothy. Robley: Te Ropere, 1840-1930, MA Thesis University of Auckland, 1985.