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Object: Uhi Tä Moko (tattooing instruments)

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Title Uhi Tä Moko (tattooing instruments)
Production Unknown (artist), 1800-1900, New Zealand
Materials leather, bone, nonferrous metal
Classification tattooing equipment, pouches, personalia
Dimensions Overall: 185mm (Length) x 163mm (Width) x 48mm (Depth)
Registration number WE000300

This is the tä moko kit of a tohunga tä moko (expert tattooist). This kit consists of a leather satchel containing fifteen nonferous metal uhi (chisel blades), fourteen bone uhi, and a taper with fixed uhi. Traditionally only bone uhi were used, especially the wing bones from the albatross because of their light weight together with hard, high density bone structure. However, after European contact Maori adopted the use of metal to replace stone and bone in woodcarving, tattooing and other activities.

The origins of Tä Moko.
The Maori origins of tä moko are found in the legend of Niwareka and Mataora. When Mataora struck his wife Niwareka, she fled to her parents who dwelled in the underworld. Mataora pursued Niwareka and came upon her father Uetonga, a great expert in the art of tattooing. Uetonga looked upon Mataora and commentated on his plain, un-tattooed face. Mataora was then forcibly restrained and his face tattooed. Mataora and Niwareka later returned to the surface world brining with him the art of tä moko. Mataora translates as the 'living face',

The Western and Eastern Pacific method of tattooing is based on the use of broad notched combs of varying widths called uhi, dipped in dark pigment, and struck into the skin with small mallets know as tä. The teeth of the comb pierce the skin and deposit the pigment. Mäori brought this method of tattooing with them from Eastern Polynesia.

As the art and practice of tä moko developed in isolation in Aotearoa New Zealand, Maori pioneered the use of smaller, narrower uhi without teeth that cut grooves through the skin by gouging and channeling. This process was followed by the application of small, toothed uhi combs that applied the pigment. This method of tä moko as it is applied to the face is more accurately a form of scarification, which iin practice is very similar to wood carving, and is characterized by deep grooved furrows stained with dark pigment.

Maori also tattooed various parts of the body, especially the buttocks and thighs. The buttocks were tattooed in a design pattern called rape, which consisting of two sets of concentric spirals that come together in the centre. A further pattern is applied to the thighs known as pühoro. The pühoro design is also featured on the bow of war canoes and echoes the swift currents and eddies that rip through fast moving waters. The pühoro represents speed and strength. These two dominant forms were further complimented by designs that extended from the base of the spine, covering the hips and joining at the navel.

The meaning and significance of these design motifs appears to be a complex interplay between high aesthetic and a visual language that underscores artistic excellence, identity and role.

Many of the design motifs are universal, especially the spiral elements applied to the nose, cheek and lower jaws; and the curvilinear rays on the forehead and from the nose to the mouth. The remaining elements were carefully chosen to accentuate and enhance the individual features, giving meaning to the expression Mataora, the living face. Moko may also indicate social status, role, and expressions of identity though genealogy, but this remains unclear.

However, taken in its entirety it remains a bold visual expression of personal identity and was applied to early documents, as a mark of both individual and collective identity and authority in much the same was as a signature in European society.

"Ngä uhi matarau a Uetonga." 'The many pointed chisels of Matarau."

Related information

Disclaimer: This information was created from historic documentation, and may not necessarily reflect the best available knowledge about the item. Some collection images are created for identification purposes only and may not be of reproduction quality. Some images are not available due to copyright restrictions. If you have information or questions about objects in the collection, contact us using our enquiry form. You can also find out more about Collections Online.