The Polynesian people are a grouping of various ethnicities native to over 1,000 islands scattered around the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The particular group indigenous to New Zealand is the Maori, for whom body and face marking have historically played an important role in traditional culture.
When people refer to “Maori tattoos”, they are referring to moko, which is actually distinct from conventional tattoos in that the skin was traditionally marked with small chisels (uhi) rather than punctured with a needle.
This style of marking (and the tools used) are common to many Polynesian peoples, and they leave the skin with grooves as opposed to a smooth surface.
In terms of Maori legend, the art of Maori moko originated in the netherworld. A young warrior by the name of Mataora loved the princess of the underworld, Niwareka. However, he beat her, and she fled back to the underworld. Heartbroken, he followed her into the underworld, overcoming various trials and tribulations, until he finally reached her. By this point, however, his warrior’s facepaint was smudged and messy, and he was mocked by Niwareka’s family. Broken, he begged her forgiveness, which she eventually gave. In response, Niwareka’s father taught him the art of moko, which he brought back with him to the surface.
Before Europeans also settled the Maori homeland, nearly everyone with social standing had moko, and the receiving of moko came with various rituals and ceremonies. The moko served many purposes: apart from simply looking attractive, they marked the transition from childhood to adulthood and signified social status. The artists themselves were revered as sacred. In short, moko are a big deal, not something to be taken lightly. Some have pointed to a spiritual aspect as well, as individuals with moko might have often believed they would have them in the afterlife as well, and the various patterns could identify them to fellow tribesmen and family members.
Facial moko are probably the most famous and distinctive to the world at large, but moko were often received on the thighs and buttocks of men, as well as on the lips or chin by women. In the late 19th century, needles came to replace uhi, as they were quicker and less dangerous. Naturally, this also changed the moko itself, giving it a smooth feel as opposed to grooved. And as Maori people interacted with Europeans, fewer and fewer took moko, allowing themselves to assimilate more fluidly.
However, the 1990s ushered in a renewed popularity in moko among Maori who took the marking as a form of cultural self-identification and a mark of pride. Then, a few celebrities received Maori-inspired tattoos, among them singers Ben Harper and Robbie Williams, causing a bit of a cultural fervor – moko, after all, were not traditionally to be taken lightly, and represent far more than a fashion statement to the Maori people.
Though this is largely lost in modern times, among Maori tribesmen the patterns in moko worked as an instantly recognizable form of identification on several levels.
New Zealand in History identifies 8 common correlations between location and significance in traditional Maori design:
1. Ngakaipikirau (rank). The center forehead area
2. Ngunga (position). Around the brows
3. Uirere (hapu rank). The eyes and nose area
4. Uma (first or second marriage). The temples
5. Raurau (signature). The area under the nose
6. Taiohou (work). The cheek area
7. Wairua (mana). The chin
8. Taitoto (birth status). The jaw
The significance of specific curves, lines, and spirals varied from group to group, so there is no easy “guide” to follow today – the fact of the matter is that modern Maori designs are generally more concerned with the Maori aesthetic, and meaning on a very specific level comes from the person who receives the tattoo. For many people, however, it is a way for them to associate with their cultural heritage or to identify as a warrior.
Among women, the chin has always been the most popular location to receive moko, and this practice was still fairly common all the way through the 1970s.
Stylistically, Maori designs are bounded by curving lines and based on intricate series of spirals. In recent years, what non-Maori people call “Maori designs” is becoming more and more loose, but virtually all legitimate designs will center heavily on spirals.
Additionally, most people today with Maori-inspired designs do not get them in the traditional places, often opting instead for the torso as well as the calves (as opposed to the thighs). Sleeves are especially popular, though they were not among traditional Maori people.
French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier created further controversy by appropriating Maori tattoo designs for a 2007 clothing collection. Fashion blogs quickly associated the designs with cannibals and vicious activity, with one proclaiming: “I’ll eat your liver and still look fabulous.” One of the ads also featured a woman with a traditional Maori tattoo posing with her legs spread open, which was seen by many as culturally offensive.
Drama re-surfaced in 2011 in regards to Mike Tyson’s now-iconic facial tattoo, which many suggest is inspired by traditional Maori designs. When a character in the movie The Hangover Part II sported the same tattoo, Tyson and the artist that did the tattoo attempted to halt the movie’s release on the grounds of copyright infringement.
Tyson’s simple design does show us some of the facets of Maori art. Certainly, it does serve the purpose of making him look more intimidating and fierce as a warrior, which traditional Maori tattoos also did. And there are parallels with the types of spirals featured – it looks like a koru (a fern frond), a common motif in Maori art. It also, for example, shows a certain symmetry common among Maori designs, as well as follows the natural contours of his face.
The extent to which Tyson’s tribal design is inspired by Maori designs specifically is irrelevant, but it has brought increased attention to the Maori tattoo tradition, as have the other controversies surrounding the design in the West. Maori tattoo designs are typically taken by those who wish to show their association with their culture, identify themselves as having a warrior spirit, or simply like the look of them. However, Maori designs have historically been steeped with meaning, and it is suggested that people do not take them lightly.