Maori Tattoo Designs - Think Before You Ink
The urge to decorate and adorn our bodies is human nature but for some cultures their body art is more than just a decoration and for the Maori their Mokos (as the Maori Tattoo Designs are known) hold powerful meanings.
Maori tattoo designs which are among the most distinctive tattoos in modern society have their origins in the ancient tradition of body art practiced by the Maori people of New Zealand. The main distinguishing factor of Maori tattoo designs is that they are based on the spiral and are curvilinear as opposed to the straight-line geometrical designs of other Polynesian tattoos.
References to Maori tattoo designs were recorded as far back as the 1800s in the journals of Europeans who settled in New Zealand. During these times the tattoos were not only for decorative purposes but more to portray the legal identity of the individual. As the Maori were illiterate, they used to draw the entire facial design when they signed legal documents. This meant that each of the Maori tattoo designs had to be unique as they were in effect the only way that the Maori could write their name.
For the Maori, these tattoos symbolize spiritual rituals related to specific events in a person's life. The Maori men were only allowed to receive their first tattoo upon reaching adolescence. (In the photograph of Maori Warriors above the younger man has only his first tattoo whereas the older warrior has his entire face tattooed.) Only significant events that called for celebration would be rewarded any further additions to the original moko. Before receiving a Maori tattoo, the person would have to fast. The entire lwi would be present at the ceremony itself, and this would be celebrated with music and dancing. The only men who were not tattooed were commoners and slaves. All tribesmen had at least a face tattoo, and many had tattoos on other parts of their bodies as well. The men believed that the moko made them both attractive to women and fierce warriors.
Women Maori were also tattooed but invariably only outlining and coloring of their lips and a few lines or spirals on their chins, cheeks or foreheads.
Maori tattoo designs are meant to enhance the facial features and expressions of the individual and therefore follow the natural contours of the face or body. Tattoo designs for the legs and buttocks are similar to the face tattoos except that the curves and spirals are more distinct and bolder than the face tattoos.
The Maori tattoo designs traditionally followed set rules that often had unique variations depending on the location of the individuals. The variations were mainly due to the cultural complexities of the many lwi and clans native to New Zealand. Although the rules governing Maori tattoo designs were well known and practiced the designs remained specific to individuals, families, clans, and tribes.
The Maori people ceased using full facial moko tattoos by the end of the 1800s, but the practice of tattooing of other parts of the body was continued by the native people. The revival of tattooing in New Zealand during the past few decades is so heavily influenced by the Maori moko past that it is now recognized as a genre on its own.
The use of bold lines combined with the repetition of specific design motifs distinguishes Maori tattoo designs. What makes Moko so unique is the fact that not only were the faces tattooed but the skin was cut to make parallel ridges and grooved scars.
Modern Day Tattooing
Ta Moko is the art of facial decoration and was performed by a tohangu ta moko (tattoo specialists) who were usually men. Ta Moko was traditionally performed using various chisel-shaped instruments made from Albatross bone, shell or metal. These "chisels" were dipped in ink, (made of burned wood for facial tattoos) and then struck with a mallet. This had to be done with a reasonable amount of force to ensure that the scarred ridges and grooves would be made, an integral part of the moko.
Despite the fact that this caused intense pain and excessive bleeding the Maori men had been taught that it was indignant to flinch or make a sound during the entire process. Judging from the comment by Mana Maori in response to this article, it seems that the Maori have a high pain threshold as some deny that the tattooing was intensely painful.
There are two different type of moko patterns one where the lines of the pattern are pigmented, and the other where the background is pigmented or darkened and the lines of the pattern in clear skin then contrast with the pigmented skin. This type of tattoo is known as the puhoro.
Examples of Maori Tattoo Designs
I read a slogan somewhere that said:: "Think before you Ink." This is particularly applicable to Maori Tattoo designs, and one should study the Maori culture before deciding on any particular Maori tattoo.
The original beauty of the Maori tattoos are not always evident in the newer adapted Maori Tattoo designs. The Maoris chose designs that best suited the contours of the individual's facial features something that the modern tattoo artist sometimes fails to do.
Many people select a design based purely on the aesthetic value of the design disregarding their unique contours of their face. If you wish to honor and respect the tribal cultures behind these exquisitely designed tattoos, then you should at least take the time to research the lives and art behind these tattoos. Once you understand their culture select a design that you can relate to and understand.
No-one should consider getting a Maori facial tattoo without truly understanding the origin and history of the design.
The real art of the Maori tattoo designs is the actual art of tattooing, and only an experienced tattoo artist should be used to ensure that the end result is of the highest quality.
Remember that whatever you allow someone to place on your skin will from now on be your face you present to the world.
Modern Maori tattoo designs are more commonly placed on the body and not on the face as was the tradition of the Maori tribes. The arms and legs are now adorned with the long spiral designs that were originally placed near the ear and cheeks.
Many people prefer not to use exact replicas of the original Maori designs as a sign of respect for the Maori culture. The tendency is to use designs inspired and influenced by the Maori art, but instead of using graceful rounded spirals people select to use a square variation of the spiral and bring clouds, waves, fire or wind into their Maori tattoo designs.
Modern Maori tattoo designs are generally more colorful and often include red, blue, orange or yellow if the design lends itself to multi-coloring.
I doubt whether you will find another author who has so much insight into the Maori tribes. D. R. Simmons, is an expert on the Maori Tribes, their customs and origins. He has written six other books about the Maori namely:
- Whakairo: Maori Tribal Art
- Maori Auckland
- The great New Zealand myth: A Discovery of the study and origin traditions of the Maori
The Whare Runanga = The Maori Meeting House
- Iconography of New Zealand Maori Religion
- The Carved Pare: A Maori Mirror of the Universe
An excellent documentary by Don Stafford, well known New Zealand historian documenting the Maori traditions. This DVD has unique footage of Maori traditions including the War Dance (the Haka)., Powhiri (Traditional Marae Welcome) plus songs and dance, making this video a timeless record. This documentary will take you thousands of years back to the coming of the Maori. You will be able to see the progress of the Maori through the ages and the struggles they encounter in developing the land and the unfolding of their unique isolated culture.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Laura du Toit