Maori Tattoos

Maori wooden display of moko facial tattoo

For those who know about Maori tattooing, most are educated about Maori facial tattooing and not much at all about Maori tattoos that appear elsewhere on the body. The level and type of significance varies from body placement to design intricacy. The Maori practice moko - the ancient art of facial marking indigenous to New Zealand and parts of Australia.

Maori Tattoo History

Maori tattoos date back to the ancient times of New Zealand and were initially created to help tribespeople differentiate between families, classes and of course, other tribes of Maori. The designs used by the Maori are largely thought to have been later adopted by Polynesians and even in Chinese tattoo practices.

The Maori Facial Tattoo

As with certain ancient forms of leg tattoos, Maori tattooing uses a small chisel and dark inks made from caterpillars and other natural sources. Moko facial tattooing is known as one of the oldest, most primitive and highly recognizable types of tattoo. Using the chisel and a small hammer, the Maori lightly tap into the surface of the facial skin after dipping the chisel into the dark navy ink. Following the completion of the chiseling, the artist will then drop the dye into the open wounds. Generally, facial skin will heal rather smoothly - with the healing involved with Maori tattooing, the skin heals in a raised fashion; it is largely theorized that this is due to some chemical, bacteria or other component within the caterpillar ink.

The Maori Body Suit

scarred tribal

Using designs similar to those of moko, the different tribes will decorate their bodies from legs to ribcage, arms to stomach, back, chest and shoulders. Designs are not germane just to the males of a tribe - women are also decorated with both moko as well as full body Maori tattoos to signify status and familial relations. Additionally, tattoos of the Maori are used to symbolize rites of passage.

Familial Significance

Familial significance is perhaps the most important reason why the Maori tattoo. To the many tribes that make up these peoples, tattooing is universal and ties families together and allows for a clear and simple way to tell with whom you are dealing when confronted with a new face. Moko tattoos will distinguish the tribe, family and status that a male or female has within the community. Additionally, not unlike Japanese tattoos different full body tattoos will tell of family histories and of past battles.

Maori Imitations

As with anything unique, the Maori tattoo designs used by families to designate heritage and tribal status have been imitated across the globe. Many of these imitations, such as those of the Polynesians and other tribes people have served similar purposes and a nearly identical symbolic significance. In recent years Maori body tattoos as well as moko facial tattoos and other forms of tribal art have been incorporated into Western tattoo cultures from the United Kingdom to the United States and even across European countries such as Germany. While some Maori tribes people have been comfortable with this transition into a modern usage of their body art, others have widely been outraged and discourage their brother and sister artists from teaching Maori tattoo methods to Westerners.

Thinking About Maori or Moko?

tribal art

If you are considering Maori tats or moko for yourself, there are a lot of things to take into consideration.

  • Maori tattoos and moko are extremely painful and those who are not direct descendants of the tribes have been known to go into shock due to the severity of the pain. For controlling the pain consider being coached ahead of time by a Maori native.
  • Consider the social implications, especially with regard to moko; facial tattooing can hold you at bay from many occupational opportunities.
  • There are hazards involving Maori tattooing that far exceed those of traditional American tattooing. Due to the depth of the incisions made by the chisels as well as the inks that do not undergo a sanitation process, the chances for infection and severe scarring go up by a significant percentage.
  • If you have made your final decision that Maori or moko is for you, make every effort to have a native artist work on you. Be willing to travel to New Zealand and to be able to spend the time healing there under the care of these highly skilled Maori artists.
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