Maori Tatoos

Maori TatooThe island of New Zealand is famous for the tatooing practices of its indigenous people, the Maori. It is believed that the practice of “Moko” or tatooing was brought to New Zealand by the Polynesians who migrated there. Moko facial tatoos are still being worn by today’s Maori who strive to preserve their heritage. While Polynesian tatoos were used primarily for denotation of communal and family rank, the Maori escalated this practice to a fine art. In 1910 noted moko historian James Cowan wrote “the term for a face devoid of moko is papa-tea, which may be interpreted as bare-boards, In other words a face with no decoration.” Westerners have been aware of the importance of moko to the Maori culture since first recorded by Sydney Parkinson, artist for James Cook on his first voyage in 1769. Parkinson brought back no less than three recorded examples of moko tatooing. These examples extolled both linear, and curvilinear elements.

Tatooing or ta moko, amongst the Maori tribes was most predominantly a male activity. All tatooing was done in total silence, by male specialists, (tobungata-moko). Before beginning the ta moko process, the specialist would consider the recipients bone structure, and other facial attributes. Unique differences in some individuals’ features would be incorporated in the design. Since these specialists were not bound by a single village, tribe, or even localized by region; styles seem more likely bound by cultural areas, or prehistoric regions, i.e. North and South Islands, and areas not transcended by tribal warfare boundaries.

Although Maori tatooing is most generally thought of as being facial, other areas of the body were also subject to the practice of tatooing. Tatooing of the body was a different practice from the facial tatoo or moko. Body tatooing was done in the more traditional methods of other Oceanic practitioners. The comb or rake method was most common, and there is evidence of the use of colors such as red and blue in addition to black. Such body tatooing was generally restricted to the area between the waist and the knees, including the buttocks, thighs, and genitals. Male body moko was generally completed while the person was still a youth. In both sexes the body moko was used as a marking of the achievement of puberty as well as to commemorate other rites of passage and personal achievements. This practice did transcend genders, although less common amongst women. The body moko involved both swirling spirals on the buttocks and oblique and angular designs on the thighs and upper legs. This design is reminiscent of tatooing designs of other Oceanic cultures, however the double spiral is most commonly associated with traditional Maori designs.

However ancient the practice of moko, by the end of the tribal wars, whether or not due to European influence, the practice of moko amongst the males lost its traditional significance. The arrival and increasing influence of missionaries in New Zealand may have also led to the demise of moko, as it was widely proscribed by them. By the late 1860’s the practice of male moko was diminishing.

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