The process of tā moko was a highly skilled operation. Its association with blood commanded a high level of respect for the recipient and, more importantly, for the tohunga tā moko (tattooing expert).
Commissioning a tattoo artist
If a hapū (sub-tribe) had no tohunga tā moko among its members, invitations were sent out to a tohunga to come and practise their art. The hapū would commission the tohunga with taonga (treasures) such as weapons, cloaks and greenstone, and payments of food. Like European master artists, expert tohunga tā moko could gain fame from their work and demand a high commission. Their individual styles and designs became well known and recognised as unique to them.
The process of tā moko was very ritualised, and both the tohunga tā moko and the client were considered to be in ‘te ahi tā moko’ (the fire or oven of tattooing). This association with fire shows that the process was conducted within a very dangerous state of tapu (sacredness). The tohunga tā moko worked in a space kept apart from communal areas. In most instances the hapū would construct a temporary structure to house a visiting tohunga tā moko and the recipient. Its temporary nature meant this house could be burnt to the ground after use to whakanoa (spiritually cleanse) the area.
To indicate that the process was tapu, before beginning the operation the tohunga tā moko would strike his chisel (with or without ink) into the left shoulder of the recipient. Special funnels were also an essential part of the process. These elaborately carved vessels were used to feed the recipients of tā moko, whose mouths would be swollen as a result of the process.
The most prominent of all the tohunga tā moko in the 1930s revival of the art form was Tame Poata, who travelled extensively around the country. He had begun by using chisels but found them difficult to manipulate, and preferred to use needles attached to a piece of wood about the size of a pencil. At first Poata used some half-dozen needles, but by the later 1930s refined his technique and only used two. He dipped his needle instrument into the ink so that the liquid soaked the cotton lashings on the handle. Using a quick wrist action, he applied the needles so that the ink ran into the punctured skin. His moko took two hours at most, and the skin would heal within about three days.