The origins of tā moko lie in the ancient story of Niwareka and her husband Mataora. They lived at a time when the art of chiselling the skin was not known and designs were painted on the body. One day, Mataora mistreated Niwareka who fled to her father’s people in Rarohenga, the underworld. Mataora pursued his wife, wanting to persuade her to return. But when he reached Rarohenga, the designs painted on his face were smeared with sweat from his exertions. Seeing his appearance, his wife’s people laughed at him - their faces were marked with permanent incisions.
Ashamed, Mataora begged his wife's forgiveness and asked his father-in-law to teach him the art of tā moko. Niwareka eventually forgave her husband and returned with him to the world above, taking with her the art of tāniko, a delicate and intricate form of weaving. Mataora brought with him the knowledge of moko. In that way, knowledge of these arts entered the world.
The first Europeans to document the art of moko were artists who travelled with Captain Cook in 1769. Later European visitors and settlers, such as Christian missionaries, regarded tattooing as savage and vulgar and encouraged Māori to abandon the practice.
By the early twentieth century the art of tā moko had almost disappeared. But towards the end of the century there was a revitalisation of its practice that continues to this day. More Māori are choosing to have moko carved on their bodies, and pride in this art form is growing