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Few Conventions:

During the last 30 years of facial tattooing in New Zealand there appear to have been no inflexible rules about who was to be tattooed and at what age this was permissible (or, if such conventions existed, they varied considerably from place to place).

While the moko was said to have been restricted to people of high birth in the 19th century, it seems that any woman who wanted one in the days of needle tattooing was able to get it, provided her husband or her elders agreed and a tattooist was available, although women of ranga­tira status could well have had pre­cedence.

The question of ages is also an uncertain one. The only pattern that emerges is that a greater proportion of women with chisel tattoos were done in their teens and 20s than at a later age, while most women with needle tattoos obtained them when they were over 30, and many of them when they were already middle­aged. Nobody was tattooed before puberty.

Moko patterns varied slightly from region to region and from tribe to tribe, but there was also considerable overlap. Particular mokos were often perpetuated in a particular place by young women taking the patterns of their mothers or grandmothers. There is little information about the alleged "meaning" of the individual curves and strokes of the moko.

The weight of evidence suggests that an artist did what he thought was aesthetically pleasing within a basic stylised pat­tern, and that more esoteric explanations were created in retrospect. It was relatively easy, however, to reoognise the work of different artists by the texture of the moko and slight variations in style.

Recommended Maori Tattoo Book

Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo
In the traditional Maori world, the moko, or facial or body tattoo, was a sign of great mana and status. Male warriors wore elaborate tattoos on their faces and bodies; women took more delicate chin tattoos. After almost dying out in the twentieth century, Maori tattooing is now experiencing a powerful revival, with many young Maori wearing the moko as a spectacular gesture of racial pride.


Reasons for Decline:

Two fundamental questions remain to be answered and they are complex ones: why was facial tattooing in New Zealand retained for women and not for men, and why did the practice finally cease completely?

One common explanation is com­pletely untenable. It has been sug­gested that the tattooing of men and women was discontinued at the same time, but because women were younger when they received their moko, they outlived their male counterparts. The facts belie this argument.

Nineteenth century observers re­corded two traditional functions of the male moko which, unlike the fe­male one, often covered the whole face: it designated affiliation to a particular group and the individual's standing within that group. Thus a man's moko could be evidence of his tribe, his rank and his accomplish­ments, especially in battle.

It is significant that there was apparently no attempt to revive male tattooing after· the cessation of armed conflict between Maori and Pakeha. The association of the moko with fighting was an intimate one and men often received additional tattoos after notable achievements as warriors.

The absence of organised hostilities " as a major step in the debasement of the custom. Some chiefs, such as Wiremu Tamihana of Ngatihaua, are believed to have refused the moko because they wanted no further part in tribal wars.

Other factors contributed to the devaluation of the male moko: the tattooing of slaves for the smoked head trade, for example, violated traditional conventions; missionaries ericouraged their converts to reject tattooing as a heathen practice; the full moko was more obtrusively Maori than the chin one and therefore less easily reconciled with the pervasive process of Europeanisation and the newly acquired aesthetic tastes this process brought (Robley noted the increasing popularity of beards and moustaches in place of the moko); it was also extremely painful.

Women, however, were less vul­nerable to these pressures. In the first place, there was no association of their moko with fighting, and so the demise of the latter custom had no effect on the former.

Secondly, the conventions of the female tattoo sur­vived the period when those of the male moko were being destroyed: a moko on a woman was regarded as a thing of great beauty, particularly the blue lips, and as an indication' that a woman had assumed social responsibilities.

This last point was often expressed by putting the female moko into a small category of customs which were justified simply as "the Maori way". These associations con­tinued into the 20th century. It should also be noted that the chin tattoo, particularly when done with needles, was far more easily endured than the full-face moko, and that it was not regarded as being incompatible with Christianity.

By the late 1930s, however, the end of the female moko was in sight. Although women were still being tattooed in large numbers, more and more were being done against their personal wishes and in response to pressures exerted by male elders.

Most of those who took the moko voluntarily at this time were older women who were conscious of their status as kuias and the responsibilities which this status entailed, especially at tangis and other public functions.

A double standard was becoming increasingly apparent. Moko enhan­ced the status of a kuia but became less and less desired by younger women.

The urban drift which inten­sified during World War II and brought further social fragmentation to Maori communities helped to dim­inish the demand even further. Also, concepts of beauty had changed, even in rural areas-powder and lipstick took the place of moko.

It is true that tattooing ultimately stopped because there was nobody available to do the moko in what was regarded as a Maori way. But this fact was an effect rather than the cause of the custom's decline. If sufficient men and women had wanted to continue tattooing, artists would have emerged to do it.

The moko is now considered very fashionable and experiencing a huge resurgence.

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