Title: Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930

Author: Timothy Walker

Publication details: University of Auckland, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Timothy Walker

Part of: The Moko Texts Collection

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Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930

Mataora Moko

page 101

Mataora Moko

The designs of Maori male facial tattooing commonly known as Moko, are also referred to as Mataora Moko. Mataora is the Mythical figure attributed with venturing into Rarohenga (the Underworld), bringing back with him knowledge of tattooing. Elsdon Best recorded a number of versions of the Mataora Myth in “Maori Religion and Mythology; Part II [1892:227–240], of which the first example is here included in abridged form.1

“‘The maid Niwareka was a member of a race of Turehu whose abode is in the underworld, the spirit world called Rarohenga, to which descend the spirits of the dead. She was a descendant of Ruamoko and of Hine-nui-te-Po, the Lord of Earthquakes and Queen of the Spirit World.
‘Now it came about that Niwareka ascended to this world with a party of Turehu folk, and came to where Mataora lay asleep in his house … On observing the party, Mataora saw that it contained a remarkably handsome woman … Mataora asked that one of those women should be given him, and was asked which he preferred, whereupon he pointed out the handsome woman … This was Niwareka, daughter of Uetonga, of Rarohenga, the spirit world.
‘So Mataora and the Turehu maid were married and lived happily together for some time, until he became jealous and enraged, and so it came about that he struck his wife. Niwareka then fled to Rarohenga, the home of her elders and parents, while Mataora mourned for and lamented her.
‘Mataora resolved to go forth in search of his wife. He went to Tahuaroa, at Irihia, to the above of Te Kuwatawata within Poutere-rangi, … Te Kuwatawata, who is guardian of the entrance to the underworld, allowed Mataora to pass down to Rarohenga, the spirit world. He went on until he met Tiwaiwaka … Mataora enquired for his wife and was told: “She has passed on with swollen eyes and hanging lips.”
So he went on until he came to the home of Uetonga where he saw that chief engaged in tattooing a person, and the blood of that person was flowing freely, hence he called out: “Your mode of tattooing is wrong; it is not done in the page 102 the upper world.” Uetonga replied: “This is the way we tattoo in the lower world. Your method is wrong.” Said Mataora: “Our method is the hopara makaurangi.” “That mode of tattooing,” said Uetonga, “is so termed when applied to house decoration, but when devices are merely marked on a person it is known as tuhi.” Then Uetonga put forth his hand and wiped the painted devices from the face of Mataora. All the folk laughed to see tattooing effaced, and Uetonga remarked: “O the upper world! Ever is its adornment a farce, behold how the tattooing is effaced; it is merely a marking. Know then that there are several branches of whakairo (adornment); there is the female branch, the embroidery of cloaks; and the male branch, the carving on wood; that on your face is simply a marked pattern.” Then Mataora learned that these people of the underworld tattooed by puncture, it was not merely marked on the skin. He said: “You have spoiled my tattooing and must now do it properly.” So Uetonga called to those who delineated the tattoo patterns, and told them to mark them on Mataora, which was done. He then commenced to tattoo him, puncturing the marked lines with his chisel.
‘Mataora now experienced the intense pain of being tattooed …’
‘[Mataora] then proposed that [he and Niwareka] should return to the upper world … Came Uetonga to Mataora and said: “Maybe you are thinking of returning to the upper world; if so return, but leave Niwareka here. Is it the custom of the upper world to beat women?”; and Mataora was overcome with shame.
‘Then said Tauwehe, brother of Niwareka: “Mataora, … Let us dwell below; leave the upper world and its evil deeds as a realm apart from the lower world with its peace and goodly ways.”
‘Then Mataora answered Tauwehe: “I shall adopt the ways of Rarohenga (the lower world) as mine in the upper world.”
‘Now at last Uetonga and his sons allowed Niwareka and Mataora to return to the upper world. The former said: “Mataora, farewell; return to the upper world, but beware, lest the evil of that realm afflicts us again.” Said Mataora: “By the token of the incised tattooing you have embellished me with, the ways of the underworld shall be my ways.” …
‘After the return of Mataora to this world, then the art of tattooing by puncture became known, and the fame of it spread to Awarau, to Tonga-nui, to Rangiatea, and to Hui-te-rangiora, such being the names of islands in the region of Tawhiti. A messenger came to ask Mataora to go to Irihia, to the home of Nuku-wahi-rangi, that the people of those parts might see him.”
page break
Orekoukou of Cape Brett (after Sydney Parkinson) Parkinson shows clearly the lines of facial puhoro tattooing. Reproduced from “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” fig. 1. The original Parkinson work is in the Collection of the British Library, British Museum.

Orekoukou of Cape Brett (after Sydney Parkinson)
Parkinson shows clearly the lines of facial puhoro tattooing.
Reproduced from “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” fig. 1. The original Parkinson work is in the Collection of the British Library, British Museum.

page 103

The tattoo designs described at Mataora Moko are the most recent stage in a long development of facial tattooing by the Maori. The earliest designs of which we have some knowledge are those referred to as Moko kuri.

“This fashion of tattooing consisted in rows of short straight linges, alternately horizontal and vertical, repeated all over the face, except between the eyes … the central forehead mark took a shape resembling the letter ‘S’. [ Black and white drawing of straight lines arranged in the shape of the letter 'S'.].”


The facial tattoo designs which were apparent to early Europeans such as Sydney Parkinson mediate exactly between Moko kuri and Mataora Moko. Their carved, pigmented marks echo the lattice-work nature of the earlier designs but ‘frame’ uncarved and unpigmented ‘positive’ elements. These trilateral scrolls — puhoro — are near-straight lines which are curved at their ends — like breaking waves — to thus run into new lines. This arrangement is usually continued until the lines describe a triangular form. Puhoro elements were retained in the titi forehead designs of Mataora Moko, as well as in the late-period tattooing of the thighs. [see page 182]

It is clear that Mataora Moko arose directly out of the puhoro trilateral scrolls. The two systems are, in a structural design sense, very similar. The exact nature of the development of Mataora patterns from the earlier puhoro appears to have had its root in the manner in which Moko was formulated and applied.

It is known that the Tohunga ta moko initially painted designs upon the face.3 The spaces between these painted lines were then carved and pigmented. The outcome of such a process was that the designs first painted on the face were an exact ‘negative’ of the patterns tattooed — that is to say of the marks lefts on the face after the original paint was washed away.

The puhoro ‘system’ of design is clearly derived from this practice, the pigmented areas being tattooed to ‘fill’ in the spaces between the intended patterns (the trilateral scrolls). In this manner of formulating designs, the act of tattooing is noticeably of secondary importance to the ‘drawing’ of those lines.

The genesis of the Mataora patterns may be traced to the increasing influence of the act of tattooing in the formulation of designs. In contrast to the earlier styles of tattooing the carved, page 104 pigmented areas in Mataora Moko describe only those marks of the uhi (chisels) rendered in the articulation of the uncarved, unpigmented elements. There is thus an equal correlation between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ elements; in some areas of Moko the former appears to describe the ‘pattern’, in other areas the latter.

“the decision [Augustus Hamilton] comes to, that the spaces are the pattern — I am considering it cannot be so on the nostrils however … only on thigh …”


The importance of the physical and formal properties of tattooing is suggested by the remarkable economy with which very elaborate motifs are rendered. From designs such as the interlocking (‘breaking-wave’) points of the puhoro scrolls, the spirals of Mataora Moko are a practical extension; suggested by the properties of a carved form of tattooing and by the specific nature of the physiognomy thereby tattooed. In expanding this process, the human face became tattooed in Moko, rather than decorated with Moko. The nature and extent of carving allowed by the peculiar qualities of living flesh, of the human face — and it must be remembered that the threshold of human pain is essentially involved — came to define the patterns of Moko.

The patterns of Mataora Moko were formulated within a standard structure. Within that ‘system’ of design the Tohunga ta moko was able to ‘interpret’ the exact nature of the patterns tattooed.

“… the art was done by regular rules, from one set of lines that must first be done spring a 2nd — 3rd & so on, besides framing patterns to finish … [Right & Left] being always different & these which are the distinguishing marks … the other lines of Mataora being so much alike that one fully tattooed man looked like another (till examined …) it requires … a map portrait of a chief, two side views — no pictures, photos &c have given these & any ½ or ¾ face does not show near ear — so that portraits in books & taken even by good artists are not complete …
“… [My] collection [of Mokamokai] is historical and quite irreplaceable — it shows … what is not known & will be forgotten — the first lines — the gradual extension from ornaments or bases given by the first placed — the way a spiral or ornament is filled in &c. Only this will demonstrate otherwise all will be oblivion.”


“… the lines and formation of the face [were] followed so that one general idea, Mataora, could be carried out at intervals & by different artists …”


page 105
Illustrated letter; Robley-Mair:n/dAlexander Turnbull Library Robley-Mair; qMS/1898–1922

Illustrated letter; Robley-Mair:n/d
Alexander Turnbull Library Robley-Mair; qMS/1898–1922

1 The original text of the myth quoted by Best appears, in unabbreviated form, in the Memoirs of the Polynesian Society, Vol 3, 67–76.

2 Tregear: 1926 p. 262.

3 An account of traditional processes by William Marsh (Te Rangikaheke) records this fact. [APL GNZ MMSS 89]

4 Robley-Mair: c. 1921 ATL qMS/1898–1922

5 Robley-Mair: c. 1904 op cit.

6 Robley-Best:n/d ATL MS72/5a