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  • Lavanya Nair

Maori Body Art:

Body modification has become an outlet for many people to express their individuality, be it through piercings, vivid hair colours or tattoos. The latter of which is unfortunately the result of a wild night of inebriation. While there are many who seek the somewhat sharp sensation of an ink gun in order to permanently archive a specific design that holds much significance or pay homage to a particular event, figure or loved one, a large percentage of the population appear to display hostile behaviour upon meeting those that are heavily inked. With multiple stereotypes driving us to equate body art with one who indulges in criminal acts, the ever increasing issue of discrimination during job interviews, comes as no surprise. Nevertheless, the concept of decorating one’s skin, so as to proudly flaunt their heritage and ancestral roots, is prevalent amongst the more indigenous clans of people such as the Maori tribe, which has intriguing origins rich with history and folklore.



Referred to as ‘ta moko’, the Maori form of tattooing was initially introduced by the Polynesians in 1769 and is recognised as the most sacred rite of passage a tribe member experiences. Regarded as wonderfully, intricate and complex, every design contains distinctions that set them apart from their counterparts with the most detailed masterpieces displayed on the head; the most revered part of their bodies. The procedure itself, proved to be excruciating since iron chisels were utilized to incise the skin which would then be pigmented with the monochromatic ink; created with organic ingredients that included burnt wood, animal fat and insect remains. The phrase ‘tattoo’ was in fact coined from the Tahitian word ‘tautau’ by Captain James Cook, who along with his colleague, Joseph Banks, found themselves fascinated by the culture.

Europeans travelled across the cerulean seas in an effort to immerse themselves in the local customs and mores. What was discovered was the somewhat barbaric practise of decapitating rival clan members and encased them within their collections in the form of trophies from each battle. After gaining more exposure, the tribes were approached by various explorers, keen on converting them to Christianity. In 1814, the Europeans sailed back home with a chief by the name of Hongi in tow who collaborated with scholars at Oxford University and successfully translated the Bible into their native tongue. To express gratitude for his evangelic philanthropy, King George IV bestowed him with many gifts, all of which Hongi traded for ammunition. Upon learning of the Western barter system, consisting of Maori heads being traded for weapons, the tribes adopted this practise and eventually the body parts were sold to private museums, constructed within Europe.


According to Maori folklore, the ‘ta moko’ originated from the mythical realm by the name of Uetonga. A young warrior, Mataora, became enamoured with the beautiful Niwareka; the princess of the underworld. After marrying her, Mataora began to mercilessly mistreat his wife causing her to return home. Racked with guilt, the warrior begged for her forgiveness in the presence of her relatives who disparaged his facial ink. After winning back his wife, her father, the king, taught Mataora the art of sacred tattooing; a skill that the warrior relayed to his fellow tribe members and thus the art of ta moko was born.



The concept of a hierarchy forming one of the crucial pillars on which a society functions is seemingly outdated in Western settings. Nevertheless, the otherwise classist, system of respect has always been an integral aspect of Maori culture. Historically, the main indicator that enabled one to distinguish individuals in a position of higher authority would indeed be the intricate pigments that have been chiselled onto their bodies. For instance, a tattoo displayed on the central forehead would signify the person’s general rank while a mark underneath the eye would inform others about his marital status. Furthermore, one would be able to trace their paternal and maternal lineages as the corresponding designs would rest on each side of the face. Currently, the indigenous tribe are fiercely proud of their tumultuous past, with both men and women opting for patterns that have evolved and become popularised by pop culture with many non-Maoris, abandoning designs with little semblance and immersing themselves in the alternate paradigm, rich with tribal secrets. A spiral (Koru) illustrates new beginnings and clean slates while the Hei Tiki depicts an unborn human embryo; thought to be a good luck charm and the key to fertility.


One can highlight the distinct clash in attitudes towards the aged art of tattooing with many questioning why a person would want to mar their body. As the years have progressed, ideologies have been challenged with those more anarchic in nature while less diverse ethnic groups remain true to their roots, adopting rituals that may be perceived as barbaric and savage, but are truly deep with cultural significance.


Lavanya Nair

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