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Maori Tattoo Is Unique
The Maori are an indigenous Polynesian people found in New Zealand. They have a form of body art, known as moko, more commonly known as Maori tattooing. The art form was brought by the Maori from Polynesia. This art is considered highly sacred, and continues to be highly revered.
Since the Maori consider the head to be the most sacred part of the body, the most popular kind of Maori tattoo was the facial tattoo, which was composed of curved shapes and spiral patterns. It often covered the whole of the face, and was a symbol of rank, social status power, and prestige.
The Maori tattoo is one of a kind, and no two tattoos are alike. It is highly intricate and detailed, which displays the craftsmanship and artistry of the Maori culture.
For the Maori, tattooing was a rite of passage, which meant it was highly ritualized. Maori tattooing would usually begin during adolescence, and would be continually performed to celebrate important events throughout a person’s life.
The Maori ‘tattoo artist’ is called the tohunga-ta-moko, which means moko specialist. These tattooists are highly respected, and considered tapu, inviolable and holy. Tohunga-ta-moko are mostly men, but there are also some women who take up the practice.
Maori Tattoo Is Complex
Maori tattoo did not involve the use of needles. Rather, the Maori used knives and chisels made from shark’s teeth, sharpened bone, or sharp stones. The chisel, also called the uhi, is made from albatross bone, although some chisels are said to be made of iron. Knives and chisels were either plain and smooth, or serrated, and these were used interchangeably depending on the intended pattern.
The inks that were employed to do a Maori tattoo were made from natural products. Burnt wood was used to create black pigments, while lighter pigments were derived from caterpillars infested with a certain type of fungus, or from burnt Kauri gum mixed with animal fat. The pigment was stored in ornate containers called oko, which became family heirlooms. Oko are often buried when not in use.
The black pigment made from burnt wood was reserved for facial tattoos, while those made from the caterpillars or burnt Kauri gum were used for outlines and other less important tattoos. Before beginning, the tohunga-ta-oko would study the person’s facial structure to decide on the most appealing design. No two tattoos are alike.
Maori Tattoo Is A Challenging Pain
Having a Maori tattoo was a very painful one, and was done by first incising deep cuts into the skin. The chisel is dipped into the pigment and tapped into the cuts. Another process involved dipping the chisel into the jar of pigment and inserting it into the skin by striking the end with a mallet. This manner of tattooing leaves the skin with grooves after healing, instead of the usual smooth surface found in needle-point tattoos.
Maori tattoo was a long and labor-intensive process. Because it was very painful, only a few parts of the body were tattooed at a time to allow for healing. There are two designs for the Maori tattoos: The normal design only involved the blackening of the lines. The second called for blackening the background and leaving the lines clear – this was called puhoro. Maori tattooing often done during the winter seasons.
Maori Tattoo Is Sacred
Due to the sacred nature of the Maori tattoo, those who were undergoing the process, and those involved in the process, could not eat with their hands or talk to anyone aside from other people being tattooed. Those who were receiving the tattoos made it a point to not cry out from the pain, because to do so would be a sign of cowardice. Being able to withstand the pain was also an issue of pride among the Maori.
Prohibitions, especially for the facial tattoos, often involved abstinence from sexual intimacy while undergoing the rite, and abstaining from solid food. In order to meet these requirements, the person receiving a facial tattoo was fed from a wooden funnel to prevent foodstuffs from contaminating the swollen skin. A person would be fed in this manner until all the facial wounds healed.
The face would bleed and often swell up after a session so the leaves of the Karaka tree were often used as balms to hasten the healing process. The tattooing was often accompanied by music, singing, and chanting to help soothe the pain.
The main focus of Maori tattoo was mostly the face. Men have full facial tattoos, while women only tattoo their chin, lips, and nostrils. Some Maori also tattoo other parts of their body, such as the back, buttocks, and legs. Women are also known to tattoo their arms, neck, foreheads and thighs.
Maori Tattoo Is A Social Status
Only people or rank and status were allowed to have, and could afford to have, tattoos. A person who did not have any high-ranking social status, such as a slave, could not have a face tattoo. Those who had the means to get a tattoo but did not were seen as people of lower social status.
The Maori face tattoo was not only seen as a sign of rank, but was also used as a kind of identification card. For men, their face tattoo showed their accomplishments, status, position, ancestry, and marital status, among other things. It is considered highly insulting to be unable to recognize a person’s power and position by his moko.
The male facial moko or tattoo is generally divided into eight sections of the face:
The center of the forehead, called the Ngakaipikirau, designated a person’s general rank. The area around the brows, called Ngunga, designated his position. The area around the eyes and the nose, called the Uirere, designated his hapu, or sub-tribe rank. The area around the temples, called Uma, served to detail his marital status, like the number of marriages.
The area under the nose, known as Raurau displayed his signature. This signature was once memorized by tribal chiefs who used it when buying property, signing deeds, and officiating orders. The cheek area, called Taiohou, designated the nature of the person’s work. The chin area, called Wairua, showed the person’s mana or prestige. Lastly, the jaw area, or Taitoto, designated a person’s birth status.
A person’s ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally the father’s side, and the right side was the mother’s. Noble or high descent was a primary requirement before a moko was undertaken.
If one side of a person’s ancestry was not of rank, the corresponding side of the face would not have any design tattooed on it. And if the person undertaking the moko has no rank, or is not heir to any, the center of the forehead would have no design.
Maori Tattoos Is The Art
By the middle of the 19th century, full facial moko for men declined in frequency, but moko for women persisted throughout the 20th century. Since the 1990′s, the Maori tattoo has experienced a comeback, often being done with the use of modern tattoo machines.
Since tribal-pattern tattoos are growing in popularity, more and more non-Maori are copying original designs and incorporating it in their own art. Most of these modern-Maori tattoos use tattoo needles, rather than the traditional tools used for ta moko.
The Maori have revived the old methods of tattooing, in an effort to preserve their cultural heritage. Both men and women have now become more involved in the traditional practice. The art organization known as Te Uhi a Mataora was recently established by traditional Maori practitioners.
Te Uhi a Mataora envisions the retention and further development of Ta Moko as a living art form. Their main concern is the growing practice of ta moko by non-Maori. They strive to propagate the art-form by reviving old traditions and preserving original methods and designs. They also inform others that Maori tattooing is a cultural symbol, and should not be adopted lightly.
If you are a non-Maori who admires their tattoos and wants to have one done, it is advisable to seek out a Maori tattoo artist which sufficient knowledge in ta moko. He will be able to design a Maori patterned tattoo custom-made for you, without traditional patterns or symbolism exclusive only to the Maori.