Vintage portraits of the last traditionally tattooed Maori women before the Ta Moko tattoos were outlawed by British colonialists, 1890-1910

These late-19th and early-20th century photographs show some of the last Maori women to wear the traditional Ta moko face marking before it was outlawed by British colonialists. Ta moko is the name for the permanent body and face marking by Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.

The tattoos depicted the story of the wearer’s family, their ancestral tribe, and their position within that group. Moko were associated with mana and high social status; however, some very high-status individuals were considered too tapu to acquire moko, and it was also not considered suitable for some tohunga to do so.

Receiving moko constituted an important milestone between childhood and adulthood, and was accompanied by many rites and rituals. Apart from signaling status and rank, another reason for the practice in traditional times was to make a person more attractive to the opposite sex.

Men generally received moko on their faces, buttocks (raperape) and thighs (puhoro). Women usually wore moko on their lips (kauwae) and chins. Other parts of the body known to have moko include women’s foreheads, buttocks, thighs, necks, and backs, and men’s backs, stomachs, and calves.

While its exact origins are unknown, the art of ta moko came from Eastern Polynesian culture. Before the needle was introduced, ta moko instruments consisted of uhi chisels made of bone that would carve directly into the skin, leaving grooves rather than smooth skin.

As such, the ta moko process was long and painful, taking as long as a year for a piece to be completed. The pigment used in ta moko was usually made from charcoal mixed with oil or liquid from plants. Known as wai ngarahu, it was stored in special containers.

Women continued receiving moko through the early 20th century, and the historian Michael King in the early 1970s interviewing over 70 elderly women who would have been given the moko before the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act. Women were traditionally only tattooed on their lips, around the chin, and sometimes the nostrils.

After the Brits colonized New Zealand, ta moko declined as a cultural form. This was partly due to the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, which outlawed Maori medical practices. As these were closely linked to Maori spiritual and cultural traditions, the Maoris lost much of their culture and became what was termed as a “lost race.” The Act was eventually repealed in 1962.

Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of the practice of ta moko for both men and women as a sign of their cultural Maori identity.

Two Maori girls with chin mokos in an ancient greeting, circa 1900.
This photo shows Monika Ruke. She has a chin moko and is wearing feathers in her hair and earrings. A feather cloak with a taniko border is wrapped about her shoulders.
An unidentified Maori woman with a chin moko, feathers in her hair, and European clothing, taken around 1895.
This stunning portrait from the 1890s shows an elderly Maori woman with intricate markings across her face.
An unidentified elderly Maori woman with a lip and chin moko and a scarf taken around 1895.
An unknown Maori woman with a chin moko, circa 1890s.
Susan Rotorua, a young Maori woman with a tiki around her neck, circa 1890s.
Head-and-shoulders portrait of a Maori, facing front, in native clothing, circa 1890s.
A Maori woman wearing a korowai (tag cloak), probably associated with the Pai Marire party, taken in the 1870s.
An unidentified Maori woman in a top hat shows off her chin moko. The photo is believed to date from around the 1890s.
These long-haired Maori women are wearing Maori kiwi cloaks, tiki (greenstone ornaments), and are holding traditional weapons. The woman on the right is seen with a chin moko.
A carte de visite portrait of beautiful Maori woman Beti Karaitiana with a chin moko circa 1870s.
Portrait of a Maori woman and child from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, taken between 1880 and 1900.
Portrait of a Maori woman from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, circa 1870s
A striking portrait of Irini Kemara, a young Maori woman with the words ‘Pera’ and ‘Kemara’ tattooed on her left arm, taken in July 1888
A portrait of Susan Jury, taken by Grand & Dunlop of Christchurch, circa 1890s.
Arihi Te Nahu of Te Hauke, a Maori woman, wearing a kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), taken on 16 December 1892.
An unidentified Maori woman with a chin moko, circa 1890s.
An unidentified Maori woman with a chin moko, circa 1890s.
Pikau Teimana of Putaruru, wearing a piupiu and with the words ‘Aohau Taute’ tattooed on her right arm. She is wearing two huia feathers in her hair, and two pendants in the shape of fish around her neck.
Karaitiana Takamoana, a Maori woman with a chin moko, taken on 14 November 1878.
An unidentified Maori woman with a chin moko, circa 1890s.
An unidentified Maori woman with a chin moko from Denedin, New Zealand, circa 1890s.
Julia, a Maori woman from the Hawkes Bay district, taken on 23 November 1888.
Portrait of Makire Pikihuia, wearing a korowai, taken on 17 December 1892.
An unidentified Maori woman with a chin moko, circa 1890s.

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