The Māori Markings of Gordon Toi

Gordon Toi is a wood carver and former traditional Māori weapons instructor in Mapua, Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand). He also fulfils the very important task of traditional Māori tattooing, as the heritage of these tattoos run very deep within Māori culture and to receive one is considered a great honour and not a something to be taken lightly. Gordon demands respect and focus on his tattoo table and rightly so as every tattoo he does is a veneration of his ancestors.

Along with his assistant Rossi (a stone carver and grave digger), the process consisted of 4 consecutive days on the table making this the largest tattoo piece I have had done so far. Along with the ink, I was also taught about the Māori culture and philosophies which are essential to understanding the importance of the ink I was receiving. It was done by machine as to hand tap this in the traditional Māori way would have taken significantly longer.

The Māori word for tattoo is “moko” and is derived from the name of the god of volcanoes and earthquakes, who marks the earth much like a tattoo marks the skin. The tattoo tools consist of bone chisels tied to a handle (from the mid-1800s sometime also metal, and more recently electric tattoo guns) which is then tapped with a mallet to cut grooves into the skin giving it a textured finish. This process is considered sacred and the design of each moko is unique to the wearer and conveys information about their genealogy, tribal affiliations, status, and achievements. When this tattoo is applied to someone who is not of Māori descent it is referred to as “kirituhi” (“to adorn the skin with painting”) rather than “moko” which is a term strictly reserved for the Māori people.