Folktale: The Origins of Moko, the Maori Face Tattoo from New Zealand

by Christopher Agostino

My wife brought me a book of Maori folktales from the library: Land of the Long White Cloud: Maori Myths, Tales and Legends by Kiri Te Kanawa; © 1989; Arcade Publishing, Inc., New York. She came across it while looking for stories for a show she will be creating at an elementary school. The author introduces each tale briefly, writing about how she might have heard such stories as a child and what she imagined about them. The bio notes also explain that Kiri Te Kanawa is a famous opera singer and made her debut at the Royal opera House, Covent Garden, in 1971.

The tale “Mataora and Niwareka in the Underworld” especially caught my attention, as it offers a folkloric explanation for the origins of moko, the traditional facial tattooing of the Maori. In brief: a warrior chief named Mataora meets some beautiful women who come up from the Underworld. They tell him that the designs he has painted on his face are not true moko because they can be wiped off. He falls in love with Niwareka, winds up following her back down to the Underworld and meets her father, who is busy tattooing a young man’s face with a fine bone chisel. Mataroa sees that the process is excruciatingly painful but the man doesn’t cry out. Ue-tonga, the father, then tattoos Matarao’s face with “the intricate patterns, twirls and swirls” that make a warrior “look both frightening and beautiful.” Mataroa understands he must bear the pain bravely to receive the true moko, and afterwards he brings the tattoo tradition (and Niwareka) back up to the Overworld.

I’m fascinated by the idea in this tale that the Maori first painted their faces with the moko patterns before they used tattoo, and that Mataroa is ridiculed by the Turehu (Underworld people) because his design isn’t permanent. At one point, when Mataroa argues that his moko is the true one, Ue-tonga just reaches out and smears it off. Mataroa is distraught because he suddenly has no moko on his face, and he hears “the laughter of women”.

There are a number of cultural examples I’ve seen in which face and body painting designs are incorporated into masks to serve as permanent, ritual objects—such as in the Sepik River cultures in Papua New Guinea in which the distinctive face paint pattern a person wears in life is re-created over a mask made from their skull after death that serves as the repository of their spirit. I think this is the first I’d read of a body painting tradition transforming into a tattoo tradition.

Folktales are stories, stories that change over time. The anthropological accuracy of the information in them is uncertain and so I also noted a second aspect of this tale—the description of the intricate swirls of the moko that Ue-tonga creates—and wondered if this is a “modernization”, an example of how we storytellers re-craft a story for the understanding and expectations of the audience we are telling it to, for today those really intricate swirls are what come to mind when we think of the Maori facial tattoo. Researching moko for my book, I was surprised to learn that earlier forms may have included other, coarser patterns, and that the incredibly fine line, intricate swirling patterns of iconic Maori moko may have only come into being after European contact, as a result of the introduction of metal tools that could make much finer tattoo lines than the traditional bone chisels.

Here are a couple early illustrations of moko: one is H.G. Robley’s own sketch of a Maori man for his 1896 book Maori Tattooing; and the other is Robley’s reproduction of a sketch from an earlier book by John White that depicts what that author describes as the ancient moko pattern called “Moko Kuri”.

Moko - Maori facial tattoo - sketched in the 1890s by H. G. Robley


A more ancient type of moko pattern called "Moko Kuri"



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