Key Points:

A tattoo is more than a painting on the skin; its meaning and reverberations cannot be comprehended without a knowledge of the history and mythology of its bearer. Thus it is a true poetic creation, and always more than meets the eye.

To endure the excruciating ordeal inherent in the decorative techniques was not only to pass in initiation from innocence to experience and from childhood to maturity, but also to establish an explicit connection between the individual and the realm of the spirits. To be tattooed or effectively scarred was to be human, and to be human was to know the gods.

Moko has many meanings to those who carry it. Moko is about identity; about being Maori in a Maori place, being Maori in a foreign place, being Maori in one's own land and times, being Maori on Maori terms.


It is about survival and resilience. It reflects Maori relationships with others; how they see Maori, and more importantly, how Maori want to be seen.

Wearers become experts in communication, exponents of the art of explaining symbol and significance, because the outsider needs to be reminded that Maori are different. Different from them, and different from one another, and in this difference there is celebration, on a metaphysical as well as physical level.

Everyone with ink, every thinking or conscious tattooed person on the planet, has an awareness of the colour beneath and on their skin. Is it different for Maori? For us, it is more than skin deep; neither pumped in, nor painted on, it is a resonance through the blood that rises to the surface, it stains the needle and blends with the ink, it marks the chisel; it moves with heart rhythm and breath.


People have lived in the islands of the western Pacific for many thousands of years, migrating through the south-east Asian archipelagos to gradually become a distinctive cultural group. As the Lapita peoples of New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and other islands, capable long distance navigators, they colonised over 50 sites across 4000km of the western Pacific Ocean and left the remains of distinctive settlements marked by unique pottery forms, and design. They also left reminders: small tattooing chisels in Lapita sites suggest that the Lapita people also had the Polynesian custom of face and body tattooing.

Tattooing was (and in some parts of Polynesia still is) a major component of adornment and identity. Bone tattooing chisels are found in archaeological sites of all ages in New Zealand, as well as in early sites in Eastern Polynesia. The Moriori do not seem to have practiced tattooing.

In New Zealand, the widest blades were found in early sites, and it has been suggested that this may reflect a preference for more rectilinear patterns in earlier times. However, narrow blades seem to have been used at all periods.

The first uhi (chisels) to adorn human skin came from the magical realms of Rarohenga (the underworld); and their manufacture and reproduction required as much skill and attention as the art itself.


Te Tuhi Pihopa crafted a set of four uhi toroa specimens for [ethnographer] Elsdon Best and they are now in the Auckland Museum. He identified each one and described its manner of use; he also referred to the art form as te whakairo tangata - the art of carving people.

The first implement applied was the uhi whakatataramoa, described as the one to clear the way. This chisel's plain, razor-sharp edge sliced a channel into the skin, preparing it for the insertion of ink, which was the next step in the process.

Ink was then inlaid by the uhi puru, which had a finely notched edge to carry the colouring agent, ngarahu. It was initially dipped into the ngarahu, and then struck again into the waiting, open wound, where the colour remained.

For the acutely fine and delicate work of the rewha around the eyelids, and the pongiangia spirals on each nostril, a tiny but forceful tool, the uhi kohiti, was used. Usually less than 2mm wide at its cutting face, this chisel punctured the skin, and colour was then struck into the raw flesh. Te Tuhi's final example is the celebrated uhi matarau, literally the chisel of a hundred faces; this type was up to 6mm wide, with multiple serrations and a comb-like appearance. In modern tattoo terms it was a shading tool, and was used for making the lines known as kaha maro which cast considerable amounts of colour across a larger surface like the thighs, the buttocks or the shoulders, as well as the desirably darkened and dramatic lips.

... For work on the body - the limbs, trunk, back, hips and buttocks - the serrated uhi were engaged, puncturing the skin, immediately inserting colour without serious trauma and resulting in a relatively smooth but darkish pattern. This knowledge of a form with roots in the earliest Lapita period was thus retained.

It continued uninterrupted by colonial and missionary incursion in Samoa and has been revived recently by Maori practitioners who have trained with Pacific masters.


One of the first foreign commentators was Joseph Banks, scientist on the Endeavour crew. He noted in March 1770 that "their faces are most remarkable. On them they, by some art unknown to me, dig furrows in their faces a line deep at least and as broad, the edges of which are often indented and most perfectly black."

His account was confirmed a few decades later by Samuel Marsden, who recorded in 1819 that "the chisel seemed to pass through the skin. Every stroke and cut is as a carver cuts a piece of wood. The chisel was constantly dipped in a liquid made of soot ... I observed proud flesh rising."

Such artistry depended on rhythm, on chant, on trust, and also on a canny sense of balance and co-ordination to ensure that the pigment was absorbed immediately, and the colour held.

Makereti Papakura contemplated how the artist "commenced marking the patients cheeks and forehead with beautiful spirals and curved patterns. The uhi, instruments of different widths being used for different curves, he held in his left hand between forefinger and thumb. In his right hand, between the third and fourth fingers, he held a piece of fern stalk, a span in length, the outer end being bound in flax. Between the thumb and forefinger of this hand he held the black pigment, first drawing the uhi through the pigment, he would lay its edge in the skin, making an incision by striking it with the fern stalk. Wiping away the blood with the side of his hand, he would see if the incision was sufficiently deep. If not, the uhi was applied a second time. Its edge was again drawn through the pigment and the second incision made, and so on, until the pattern was completed."

Although she does not note the change of chisels, and the pause to uplift the container of pigment and put it back down, what Makereti has described is exactly how a tohunga ta moko makes this art of the uhi a Uetonga on a Maori face in modern times.


Over the last two centuries, artists have manipulated, experimented with, and mastered various techniques and instruments in achieving the perfect moko. Bone and stone chisels were replaced or complemented by iron, and then, for a few decades, sharp steel needle clusters predominated.

All these techniques relied on human ingenuity and strength, and their successful application required steady hands, reasonable rhythm and a focused concentration. The power source was the human operator, none other was needed. With the late 20th century revival electricity was essential, as rotary guns and then double coil machines prevailed. Their awesome speed and capacity to pump in layers of instant colour appealed greatly to the new wave of moko men and women, for whom getting as many people done as possible was a high priority.

Machines continue to be the most popular tool of choice, allowing the achivement of work of exquisite artistry and elegance. Most practitioners, particularly those for whom moko is the sole income source, prefer this technique for its speed, its efficiency and, more significantly, for its guaranteed hygienic standards in a volatile environment.

For many artists, working with uhi is the ultimate experience, like the returning of a precious gift and the honouring of an authentic ancestral practice.

Henri's training and expertise is in the chisel technique. She is very aware of people's ideas about this form. "Most people I've talked to have a low expectation of uhi because they are used to seeing the fine details and quickness of the gun. They think uhi has to be more painful, and that you are carving the skin, rather than tapping into it."

Perceived as an extension of herself, the uhi are almost sentient beings. They cannot work on their own, but they do inform or restrain. To a sensitive operator who is also their maker they transmit information about the client and his or her physical and spiritual circumstances.


Music was a major factor in the management of pain. Most of the wearers talked of this, and a few had very vivid accounts of their time under the needles, or the chisel. The music varied; two or three played Mozart, most preferred Maori music, others chose reggae; the common requirement in every chosen piece was rhythm. And a significant number of people had live singers, family members, close friends, especially in the home or marae environment.

Whare talks of her experience: "I think the main thing is to try and relax. It's really a mind game; I felt myself working at welcoming the pain and to look forward to the pain. It is a spiritual exercise and I found it taking me to a different sort of place like another dimension. During this time I also felt my tipuna were present."

Pain management is about imagination, creativity, courage and a high threshold; it is also about faith in one's self and one's whanau and unseen supporters, all there to help you through. But it is still pain; it still hurts. The question is, how much?

In the early days some wearers endured excruciating pain as part of the process itself; they chose to take it all, realising that they were at the mercy of an artist still in training. Sometimes learners were nicknamed the Butcher, or the Beastmaster; as their skills grew, and their hands softened with experience, the playful labelling was no longer applied.

For most wearers, the physical sensation of pain, the taking and enduring, still remained an essential and sensual part of the experience. Seriously heavy work - lower body projects or facial engraving - evoked acutely memorable and varied sensations. Monty recounts his experience over many hours; he swears it was worth it.

"Different areas cause different pain. Sometimes you break out into a sweat, especially when he's doing around the groin area and around the tail-bone. Places where there's no meat between the skin and bone. It's sore in those areas. The buttocks themselves - it feels as though someone's going along and just slicing you open. To me that's how it felt ... You feel the pain but when you see the result, the pain is nothing."

[Artist] George Nuku was getting moko on his chest; his face was also a work in progress.

He actively managed his experience, steeling himself to be still, because he was so conscious of the correct and aesthetic placement of lines into his skin. In the final hours he was accompanied by a relative, another artist whose face and body carry extensive moko. His description is graphic.

"It was excruciating. I like to think I was ready for the pain; I trained myself to regulate my breathing, and keep my upper body, my chest and head, immobile. Absolutely still. And so I got a good rhythm going, breathing, I would hold on to that. But to be completely honest, it was excruciating, like a tomahawk chopping and hacking into my chest, opening up the ribcage, exposing all that was in there to light.

"There came a point when I was truly not there, and that was when Nehe, a tangata mau moko from Kahungunu, came in and sat with me. That was good. He brought me back; that did help me."