Maori Tattoos

Published on October 27, 2013 by Naomi V

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word "tatau". Captain James Cook used the word "tattow" when he saw tattooing for the first time in Tahiti in 1769. The archaeological record shows that tattooing arrived in New Zealand from early Eastern Polynesian tribes. The tattoos would be made with a bone chisel dipped in a sooty pigment made from burnt caterpillars and Kauri gum. The chisel is either serrated or has a very sharp straight edge. These Maori tribal tattoos were done by a specific individual in the tribe, had many rites, and were considered very important. The Maori view tattooing as very important for both their sexuality and status in society.

     In Maori culture the head is the most sacred part of the body and getting a tribal tattoo on the head and face is done to all of the high ranking members in society. One with no tribal tattoos is considered as low in the social hierarchy. In addition to this due to the fact that the face is prone to a lot of bleeding during this long and strenuous tattooing process the tattoo artists, "tohunga-ta-oko", are surrounded with taboos and are thought to have special powers. The "tohunga-ta-oko" are known for their precision and intricacy in designing the tribal tattoos. All of the tattoos they chisel are done free hand and on the spot. The "tohunga-ta-oko" often studies the individuals’ facial structure and body shape before executing. The first tribal tattoo one gets is during puberty.


Tattooed Maori Man.


     During the tribal tattoo process there are many prohibitions and rules. One can not have sex or engage in any sexual conduct. One is also prohibited from eating solid foods. They are so strict about this that the person is fed liquid food through a wooden funnel to ensure that nothing touches the swollen skin. After the person receives the tribal tattoo special leaves from the Karaka tree are placed on their face to help heal the swelling. It was mostly common for men to get the larger and more intricate tribal tattoos on their entire faces. Women would usually get the outline of their lips tattooed and would get a chin “moko”. A “moko” to the Maori is similar to an identity card. The tribal tattoo in an essence was the “Moko”. I represented a man’s rank as a warrior as who someone was as a tribesman. The men’s tribal tattoos were divided into eight sections; the central forehead, around the brows, eyes and nose, the temples, under the nose, the cheeks, the chin, and the jaw.


Traditional Maori Facial Tattoo in process.


Traditional Maori Tattoo Chisel called Uhi.

     The ancestry of a person was located on both sides of the face by different types of “moko” or tribal tattoo. The father’s side was generally on the left while the mother was the right. As one got older they received more “moko” on their face. The assumption is that as one gets older their status gets higher and they get more tribal tattoos. Something that is interesting is that the Maori see the tribal tattoos as sexy and attractive. I suppose they would have to since they tattoo their entire faces some time.