Tā moko panel

What is a Toi moko 

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage has defined a Toi moko as ‘a tattooed, preserved head of Māori or Moriori origin’.   

Toi moko is the preferred and accepted Māori name for these heads, although there are a number of other terms by which they are known:

  • Mokomōkai or Mokamōkai – this term refers only to the head of a slave, though many of the Toi moko were not slave-heads, and is considered a derogatory term
  • Upoko tuhi – inscribed, engraved, patterned head
  • Upoko whakairo – carved head
  • Mahanga pakipaki – preserved head
  • Moko mai – tattooed, preserved head

A good English language equivalent for the term Toi moko is “ancestral head”, because it recognises that the Toi moko are tūpuna (ancestors). 


Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. “He Maimai Aroha: A Disgusting Traffic for Collectors: The Colonial Trade in Preserved Human Heads in Aotearoa, New Zealand”, in A Kiendl ed. Obsession, Compulsion, Collection: On Objects, Display Culture and Interpretation, Alberta: The Banff Centre Press, 2004.

Pomare, Maui.  Letter to Director Māori and Bicultural Development, 16 September 1993.

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

Bentley, Trevor. Pakeha Maori The extraordinary story of the Europeans who lived as Maori in early New Zealand, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1999. 

Letter from Ministry for Culture and Heritage to Te Papa Tongarewa, 31 August 2004.