"Healthy face." According to legend, the first Māori to be tattooed. Chief Mata-ora descended into the underworld looking for his wife Niwa-reka. He came upon her father Ue-tonga who was tattooing the face of another man. When Ue-tonga saw that the designs drawn on Mata-ora's face where of charcoal he said that those above did not tattoo properly. He then threw Mata-ora on the ground, wiped the charcoal tattoos (moko) off, and began carving designs into the chief's face with a sharp instrument. Despite the pain Mata-ora endured the process. Thus he became the first mortal to be tattooed in the traditional style (spiral and rectilinear designs, by puncture). The patterns of tattoo acquired by Mata-ora were the poniania, pihere, ngu and tiwhana (the first and third are designs marked on the nose, the second at the side of the mouth, the fourth over the eyebrows).

Mata-ora and his wife left the underworld but because they failed to leave one of Niwa-reke's garments with Kū-watawata, the guardian of the gates to the underworld, no mortal has ever been allowed to return from the land of the dead.

Once back in the upper world, Mata-ora taught the art of the "correct" form of tattooing to others. Hence the proverb for tattooing: —

Of Ue-tonga —
The art of tattooing;

also, —

The core of Mata-ora —
The work of Ue-tonga.



  • Best, Elsdon. (1924). The Maori. Wellington: Harry H. Tombs, p. 172.
  • Tregear, Edward. (1891). Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary. Wellington: Government Printer, p. 225.
  • White, John. (1887). Ancient History of the Maori. 6 vols. Wellington: G. Didsbury, Government Printer, pp. 2:4-6.