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No. 43 (June 1963)
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The drawing above is by Theo Schoon


The art of moko—or tattoo, to use the pakeha word—has almost disappeared. It is two or three generations now since men wore its proud marks on their faces, and there are few women left now—probably, none of them are under fifty—who have a moko.

As the moko becomes rarer, and as the faces on which it is worn become older, it grows all the time more remote from modern life. These

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days, most of the old ladies with a moko live in the parts of the country where Maoris have kept most to the old ways: in Ngaruawahia and in the Ureweras, for instance. There are still many more of these old ladies than most pakehas would imagine, but the moko is not nearly as common as it was a few years ago, and nowadays most people probably associate it with wrinkled, peaceful old faces and a quiet, serene, old-fashioned way of life.

The only time now when we see the moko on young faces is at Maori concerts where the performers have drawn it on their faces with greasepaint. These marks are almost always clumsy smears which look nothing at all like the old patterns, and serve only to make handsome faces ugly.

A Sign of Aristocracy

In the old days, moko was not at all like this. It was a sign of aristocratic birth; as James Cook noted in 1762, tattooing was ‘peculiar to the principal men among the New Zealanders’. It would have been quite impossible for a slave, or any other person of low birth, to aspire to possess a moko on his face, although practically all men except slaves were tattooed from their knees to their waist.

Another early traveller, the Frenchman Dumont d'Urville, wrote in his diary that ‘A New Zealander one day examining the seal of an English officer, noticed the coat of arms engraved on it and asked him if the design was the moko of his family’. And Te Pehi Kupe, whose facial moko is on the inside cover of this issue of ‘Te Ao Hou’, said much the same thing when he explained to his English friends that the marks on his forehead represented his name. He also drew for them the corresponding forehead marks — the ‘names’ — of his brother and son.

Even though we have no really adequate explanation of the full meaning of moko, its general significance is clear. Distinguished families possessed marks which belonged to themselves alone, and these were handed down from father to son. Always, though, there were differences; no two moko were ever the same, and the designs allowed for infinite variations.

A famous man's moko would be known far and wide, by his friends and by his enemies. Many old stories show that this was so. When, for example, Hatupatu, the youngest of three brothers and his father's favourite, was going with his brothers on an expedition to avenge the burning of the Arawa canoe, his father secretly taught him the tattoo marks of Raumati, the leader of their enemies, so that it would be Hatupatu, rather than his two brothers, who would gain the honour of finding and killing Raumati.

Wearing a moko was like having your name written on your face in very beautiful writing. It was also a way of showing that you had reached adulthood, for it was only at puberty that boys and girls were allowed to be tattooed. No girl of good birth was regarded as fit for marriage until this was done, and until then, no boy could consider himself a proper warrior, a person of some consequence in his village.

So they endured the terrible pain stoically, sustained by their pride and by the knowledge that henceforth, they were no longer children: they were men and women. In this way, the ceremony of tattooing served as an initiation rite: as the sign of their transition from one role in society to a different role. All so-called ‘primitive’ societies (that is, societies, such as that of the Maori, which did not possess a written language or an elaborate technology, and which lived in comparatively small social groups), had initiation rites of some kind. They served the purpose of bringing home to the boys and girls concerned, and to their relatives and fellow villagers, a sense of the importance and finality of their change of status. Usually, as with the Maori, the initiation rites were accompanied by prayer and pain, and by

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This Maori chief's drawing of his moko is on a land deed in the possession of the Hocken Library, University of Otago.

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a permanent visible sign of their new place in society.

This was why slaves could have no moko, unless, of course, they had been captured as prisoners of war. The moko was a mark of a man's or woman's position in society; but a slave, by definition, had no place in society.

Men who were not slaves, but who were of undistinguished ancestry, wore the moko from their waist to knees, but did not have it on their faces. Probably, this was because the head, being tapu, was especially important as a mark of distinction.

The only important men who did not wear a moko were the tohunga, or priests. The writer does not know of any tradition telling why this was so, but it seems likely that it was a consequence of the prohibition against shedding the blood of a tohunga. Not even another tohunga could do this safely; if you found a tohunga from an enemy tribe, and wanted to kill him, you had to strangle him, or use some other method which avoided shedding his blood.

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This dried head is in the Dominion Museum in Wellington. There are very few of these heads in New Zealand now, though there are quite a few overseas. Maoris preserved the heads both of relatives and of conquered enemies. Enemies' heads were exposed to view and jeered at, but the heads of relatives were carefully guarded.
Their method of preserving them was so good that even today hardly any heads show signs of decay.

We have said that boys and girls were not tattooed until adolescence, and that their moko served as a sign that they were now adults. However, only a small amount of tattooing was done at one time; it was so very painful that it would have been quite impossible to do it all at once. This was particularly the case with men, who had so much more tattoo on their faces than women.

The artist who did the tattooing was very highly skilled, and was well paid for his work. People eagerly sought out the best artists, as they were very anxious to get as good a moko for themselves as they could; if the artist was a bungler, he could easily ruin their looks for life. A good artist was rewarded with such gifts as canoes, clothes, even slaves; in fact, one of the songs he sang, while he was working away at the tattoo, was a reminder to his client that he was expected to be generous with his payment. People who were not in a position to pay for a good carver often submitted themselves to someone learning the art, feeling that even a clumsy moko was preferable to none at all.

One often finds among Maoris today the mysterious belief that art is ‘commercialised’ and debased if it is associated with money. In the old days there was certainly no such attitude; then, the artist—whether carver or tattooer—was paid handsomely for his skill and labour, using the goods which were then the equivalent of money.

Faces Were ‘Carved’

These days tattooing is done by making lines of very small punctures in the skin with an instrument like a sharp needle, rubbing in the colouring matter as this is done. This is comparatively painless, even if a local anaesthetic is not used. But instead of puncturing the skin in this way, the old Maori tattooer carved it, using a small fine chisel made, usually, of bone. The chisel was hafted to a handle and was tapped with a light mallet, so that it cut a furrow in the patient's skin. This was of course a much more painful method than the modern way, and in those days there were no anaesthetics. The patient managed to endure it, though, because he knew that this was a test of his courage, and it would have been ignominious to cry out. And while the lines were being chiselled the tattooer, or the patient's relatives, would sing magic songs to make him brave.

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The original of this Maori chief's ‘signature’ is in the Hocken Library, University of Otago.

The patient's face soon became covered with blood, and the tattooer wiped this away as he worked, dipping his chisel in the pigment as he went along. (The colouring material was often burnt and powdered kauri gum, or else charcoal, mixed with oil or fat. After the pakehas came, gunpowder was sometimes used. When they were healed the lines looked not so much black as dark blue.)

The most painful parts were the lips and the corners of the nose and eyes. When the skin around the eyes was tattooed, it swelled up so much that the patient was altogether blind for several days afterwards. For three or four days after the operation, both the artist and the patient were very tapu; they were not allowed to eat food with their hands, or to communicate with anyone except those in the same condition as themselves.

The moko lines are so intricate and so exact that it is very difficult even to copy them in a drawing, or to carve them on a wooden statue. To carve them on someone's face is almost unimaginably difficult. Maori tattooing is among the most ambitious and skilful that the world has known, and it is very famous because of this.

Before he started work, the artist drew the lines on his patient's face with charcoal. Certain lines were the same on every moko, while others were handed down from father to son, but there were some places where the artist put patterns of his own invention. The patient took a keen interest in this, and when the charcoal lines were drawn he would examine them carefully, using a gourd of water as a mirror, to make sure that his moko was the way he wanted it.

Sensitive to Art

In pre-European times Maoris were much more sensitive to good design than most people in this country are nowadays, and they understood much more about the impact and power which good art possesses. The fact that

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Maori moko, like Maori sculpture, was important for social and religious reasons and, almost certainly, involved detailed symbolism of which we now know nothing, does not alter the fact that it was important to them for aesthetic reasons as well. These two things are the two sides of the same penny; they cannot be separated. For art to be meaningful, it had to be part of the social and religious fabric of their life; we have shown, briefly, how this was the case with moko. And if the designs were to perform their function properly, if they were to have mana, it was important that they should be well made and beautiful.

Drawings of Moko

Three of the illustrations accompanying this article are drawings of moko which were made by Maoris in the early years of their contact with Europeans. In these first years Maoris were naturally not able to sign their names in the pakeha way. Sometimes, though, when a chief was selling some land and had to put his name on the document recording the sale, he did not merely put a clumsy mark in the place where the pakeha told him to. Instead, he made a drawing of his moko; doing this was, to him, much more meaningful as a signature than making a simple mark, or writing his name in the pakeha way, would have been.

Most of them had never handled a pen or pencil before, and in most cases they would not have been specialised artists. It is remarkable to see how exactly they knew the lines of their moko, and with what sureness and sensitivity they depicted them. These drawings of moko are works of art in their own right; the more one studies them, the more apparent this becomes.

Although Maori drawings of moko were apparently fairly common once, they are not found everywhere; for instance, the signatures on the Treaty of Waitangi do not take this form. They occur only on very early legal agreements, as Maoris stopped drawing them when they learnt writing. Apart from Major-General Robley, whose book ‘Moko’ was published in 1896, few people have shown an interest in these Maori moko drawings, and apparently no collections of them have been made. The editor of ‘Te Ao Hou’ has located a few others apart from the ones illustrated, but apparently surprisingly few of them have survived. She would greatly appreciate hearing from anyone who may be able to tell her of any more such drawings.

The lines in the facial moko which were the same for all men were chiefly the curving lines around the mouth and the lines on the forehead over the eyes. If the moko was a full one there were usually two large spirals on either cheek, though differences between these spirals are to be found. Occasionally, too, one of these spirals was not present, being replaced by other patterns. This was, for example, the case with the preserved head which was used as a model for the drawing on page 30. There are many other more subtle regularities; for instance, the spirals on the nostrils always have much the same form, and certain lines in the central forehead pattern seem always to be the same.

It is interesting to compare the detail of one moko with another, for this makes it possible to understand better the nature of the differences between them, and to appreciate how ingenious and beautiful these differences of detail are. The harmony of the whole becomes most clear when one studies closely the way in which these infinite variations are possible within the framework of such a strict discipline.

For Living People

The more carefully one looks at moko the more one sees, too, how well its lines are designed to suit the contours of the faces on which they were carved, and how effectively they added to their wearers' dignity.

One only wishes one could see those finely tattooed faces in motion—especially in the middle of a haka. We can see this art now only in drawings and on dried heads in museums, but it was designed for living people: for a fierce race of warriors who were also artists.

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A Wellington newspaper, ‘The Dominion’, has donated a cash prize of £100 for the winner of a Maori choir contest.

The contest, which will be one of the classes of the Wellington Competitions' Society's festival held in August and September, will be open to choirs with a minimum of 16 and a maximum of 40 performers, who must appear in Maori costume.

The class will be known as ‘The Dominion’ Maori Choir Championship and will be in two sections, a test piece and an own selection. The test will be the hymn, ‘Fierce Rage the Tempest O'er the Sea’, and the own selection item must be a choral, not an action song.

After working on the ‘Aussie circuit’ all this winter, the Howard Morrison Quartet hopes to travel on a concert tour of the East and may take up a contract in the United States later this year.

‘If it was just a matter of going to the States, we could have gone 18 months ago,’ Howard said. ‘But most contracts tied us down for too long a period. We'll be back in New Zealand if I have anything to do with it.’

Training in the carpentry and joinery trade is now available for Maori boys at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The special carpentry centres established in these three places now provide pre-apprenticeship training in this trade for 72 Maori boys each year. In addition, special one year pre-apprenticeship courses in plumbing, electrical wiring and motor mechanics are now being conducted at the Seddon Memorial Technical College, Auckland, with twelve Maori boys in each class.

These special schemes now provide training for more than 100 Maori boys each year.

These schemes are available to Maori boys living in country areas, who are not able to obtain apprenticeships in or near their home towns. If your son qualifies under this heading and is interested in taking up a worthwhile trade when he leaves school, you should get in touch with the nearest office of the Department of Maori Affairs to learn more about the scheme.


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feel myself that Maoritanga will be embellished by the pursuit of Western civilization.’

Mr Bennett said that the concept of appointing a Maori as head of one of New Zealand's overseas missions four years ago was a new development in our international politics and was viewed with interest by a number of countries—particularly in Africa and Asia, where it was assessed as being symbolic of New Zealand's racial policy.

As a result, the image of New Zealand as a tolerant, enlightened country had been enhanced.

During his appointment in Malaya, Mr Bennett said he had been struck by the number of words in the Malayan language which were identical or similar to Maori words. This had afforded personal proof of the accepted theory that native races from as far north as the Philippines and Malaya, and right down to the South Pacific, were all part of the same language group and shared a common origin.

This was probably one of the reasons why he and his wife had not felt strangers in Malaya; nor had they been treated as strangers.

By undertaking schemes under the Colombo Plan to help raise the living standard of Malaya (now second to Japan among South-east Asian countries), New Zealand was strengthening one of Asia's last strategic outposts resisting the spread of Communism, said Mr Bennett.

For a democracy to exist, he added, a country must have a reasonable standard of living and literacy; an efficient civil service; and secure and able political leadership. At least one of these attributes was missing in any country which had been taken over by a dictatorship or Communism.

‘Every penny we have put into Malaya has been money well spent’, he said. ‘By helping Malaya we are really helping ourselves.’

One of the very few Maoris to gain a Master of Science degree in recent years is Quentin Tapsell, who belongs to a well-known Rotorua family. Last year Quentin obtained his M.Sc. in crystallography at Canterbury University and was also a University Rugby Blue. At present he is at the Teachers' Training College in Christchurch.