Tā Moko and Tatau


The best intention has been taken to prepare this document to provide a basic insight around Moko, Tatau and Kirituhi for those who are stepping into this journey.

Māori and Pasifika have oral traditions historically, as teachings are passed down verbally through generations and through other art forms such as dance, song and tatau/moko.

We have compiled these written words with the best care and explanations provided from a few highly respected Moko and Tatau artists who have been mentored from the generations of Ringitaa above.

Each Moko and Tatau artist are individual in their approach to concept, design and application but the following is a unified understanding and explanation surrounding the history and creation.

History of Tatau

“We aren’t putting the ink in; we are pulling it to the surface.”

Tatau is traditionally created as a representation and connection to your family. It is created to recognise your ancestors within your present life and your future life. It’s a pivotal path to embark on in life and especially when you create a family for yourself. It is traditionally received when you are mature enough to understand the responsibility of looking after people underneath you and carrying your ancestor’s legacy within the markings.

There is a common misperception that only someone of chiefly or high status is to be a wearer of traditional Tatau like the Pe’a or the Malu, but all Pasifika are meant to wear Tatau actually. It came from a misinterpretation from colonial times when Palagi first arrived in the islands and wrote about a chief wearing markings as a status symbol and it was written into books from there.

Also, interestingly it was originally woman who were the first wearers of Tatau.
Myth passed down and written in the lyrics of ‘Tatau Samoa’ says that it originated in Samoa when two sisters swam back from Fiti (Fiji) wearing Tatau on their forearms and before they emerged from the water it had changed to only men should wear this.

Most importantly, Tatau is created for you in recognition of the ancestors before you and carrying them with you. The Tatau is an outward representation of your genetics on the inside.

The different styles and patterns between islands

The patterns within Tatau are created from the surrounding environment and as people and Tatau artist migrated from island to island these changed to suit the new surroundings.

In particular plants, birds, landscape, volcanoes, animals and insects have been shaped to form symbolism that is incorporated into Tatau depending on your history and genealogy across the Pacific.

Pasifika patterns are generally more geometric than Ta Moko as the landscape in the Pacific Islands is a lot sharper, as are the pointier edges of the trees and even flowers like the Frangipani have a near perfect shape with 5 points.

The sharper patterns are also representative of the carving style in the Pacific Islands as the wood from the trees is quite hard, and naturally can only easily achieve sharp lines when chiselled.

What the symbols mean

Symbols can take on a few different meanings and aren’t used individually.
Rather they are combined with other elements to create a metaphorical ‘written’ story of your individual history. Say you had a bird symbol facing a certain way, that could be significant to travel for example and another symbol for happiness would need more behind it to give the reason for your happiness.

Malu and traditional female symbolism works with stars, ocean creatures and birds and are formed together to represent the wearer’s journey.

The traditional Pe’a created for males, if fully opened up on paper is actually shaped as a fale (house) so becomes representative of a house for the wearer, including ancestors and current fanau (family)

Machine vs Traditional tools

The ‘Ao’ is the traditional method used to create tattoos and is often referred to as the tapping method.

These days with new technology it is fine to achieve Tatau using machines as it is a new tool for a new era.

However, if you are receiving a Malu or Pe’a it is only done using the Ao as it is the highest regard of Tatau. The tapping motion is meant to take you into a form of meditation as you receive each part of this sacred Tatau and are recognising the creation of it on a spiritual level.

Non-Polynesian people:

As the above is explained, Tatau is a gift and is created for you by a specialist artist and in recognition of your own personal history and achievements.

It can be worn by Non-Pasifika people but needs to be created by the right person with knowledge that has been passed down appropriately as it is created with intention for a deep reason and purpose.
Before you start on your journey, know the essence of why you are getting this and what it means and carry the knowledge with you. A good idea to remember the explanation is to either film it with your artist at the end or take notes while it is being explained.  Ōtautahi Tattoo definitely wants you to have the best experience, so if your artist has overlooked this, please remind us and we will sort you with a massive smile!

The process of design and application

Our Tatau artists will meet with you either on the day of your sitting, or at a prior consultation.

They create the Tatau for you incorporating symbolism, lines and patterns to create your story freehand by using markers onto the area of placement to match up your natural lines of your body.

Larger pieces like sleeves can take more than one day or two days, so it is important to map out sizing and placement at the time of your booking. Polynesian work is very heavily detailed so depending on your Artist, they may like to complete it in sections if it is a larger ongoing piece.  The main thing, and we can’t stress this enough, is to trust the process and your artist.  Our artists are incredibly skilled and have their chosen steps they follow!   

Ta Moko

Symbolism of Moko

Moko is based around elements and surroundings as well as your ancestral Iwi lines.

Your Moko is created using the energy lines on certain areas of your body incorporating symbolism and patterns to create your story.

Patterns and symbols can be based on the Gods such as Tangaroa, the surrounding nature, environment and migration.

For example a Manawa line is similar to a life-line and the koru that come off it are symbolic to branches that can represent your own growth, or whakapapa. Whereas a Koru that is based from a surface line can be representative of growth and grounding in your life.

Moko is very metaphorical much like other Pasifika art in that not one symbol means something in particular and is used alongside others to tell your story and representing personal experiences.

The process, consultation and design:

All Moko is created intentionally for you as the individual wearer and is carried out by a well-practised Ta Moko artist. All Moko artists are individual in their learnings, creativity and application so most have their own styles and unique Moko ‘stamp’ to their art form.

Because the Moko piece is created unique to yourself, the Artist will connect with you personally and create the design freehand on to the area of placement before your sitting.
This can either be done on the day of your sitting or at a booked pre-consultation.

For Maori:

Come in prepared with your whakapapa/pepeha and any genealogy or information around your Iwi that you have. Ask any whanau as much as possible for information, as this is a significant part in acknowledging your ancestors and the journey ahead.

Some questions they may ask:

Were you immersed in Te Ao Maori in childhood?
Or is this the beginning of your journey now?
What are the reasons for wanting to receive this Moko?

Your Ringataa (moko artist) will be able to form your Moko based on this and add in symbolism to reflect your personal history so far. If you are younger, some will often leave the tail end so you can add on parts later in life especially if you have a family of your own.

The most important part of this process is the Korero at the beginning and the responsibility of being genuine in the process as much as it is for the Moko creator. So, take your time and ask questions too.

The obligation as a Moko wearer is to take responsibility of your Moko and the history and maintain the Mana behind it, and wearing it as a cultural taonga, the representation that has been created for you alongside your whakapapa and for future generations to come.

For Non-Maori:

Traditionally it is thought that it was a colonial misinterpretation that Moko is only created for Maori, although pre colonialism there weren’t any non-Maori around.

In this respect, Moko can be created for non-Maori and created on the same principles of respect and obligation as a wearer, that this is created specifically for you and by a learned Moko artist.

The term used for Moko for a non-Maori wearer is Kirituhi.

It is the responsibility of the Moko Artist to accept any job and with non-Maori the same applies.

From a spiritual basis, some Artists prefer that you do your own research and know your lineage and history as the same kaupapa applies and that this taonga is created for you at a certain point in your life journey.

It is your obligation to have ongoing respect for the taonga of our culture and to wear the Moko/Kirituhi with pride as a gift from a genuine Moko Artist. And to recognise your own ancestry within the creation.


Moko is a unique and meaningful form of art that is deeply rooted in history and symbolism. Whether you are Maori or non-Maori, the process of receiving a Moko involves a personal consultation and design with a skilled Moko artist who will take your whakapapa, genealogy, and reasons for receiving the Moko into account.

Once the design is complete, it will be carefully hand-drawn onto your body and then etched into your skin using traditional tools.

As a Moko wearer, it is your responsibility to take care of your Moko and maintain its mana for future generations to come. Whether you are Maori or non-Maori, the process of receiving a Moko is one that should be approached with the utmost respect and sincerity.


  • Ta Moko – “application of Moko”
  • Moko – “tattoo”
  • Kirituhi – “moko for non-Maori people”
  • Ringa Taa – “moko Artist”
  • Taonga – “property/gift”
  • Whakapapa – “geneaology/lineage”
  • Iwi – “specific tribal area for Maori”
  • Pepeha – “personal acknowledgement to iwi”

If you are interested in getting a Tā Moko

it is important to get in touch with a reputable tattoo studio like Ōtautahi Tattoo. Our skilled Moko artists will work with you to create a unique design that reflects your personal history and ancestry. We take our responsibility as Moko artists seriously and we will work with you to ensure that your Moko is of the highest quality and is worn with pride.

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