Tattoo art is not something modern but has its history rooted into ancient tradition of the Polynesian islands. Among Polynesian tattoos, Maori tattoos are regarded as one of the most famous ones. The Maori tribe which is native to New Zealand is famous for its unique Maori tattoo art, which is revered by them as a sacred art form. Indigenously referred to as moko, Maori tattoos are traditionally concentrated on the facial area, since head is considered sacred by this clan. These tattoos are extremely alluring and have a great aesthetic value, as they are designed in intricate curvilinear shapes and spiral patterns. In the Maori culture, these tattoos depict the status and prestige of the bearer.
The basic difference between Maori tattoo art and other tattoos is that the former are created by chiseling them on the body, rather than using puncturing technique as in conventional tattoo art. This makes the process painful and hard to bear, but the end results are absolutely fabulous.
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Traditional Maori Tattoo Art
In the Maori tradition, tattoos are created on both the sexes, usually during adolescence, so as to mark this important transitive event in the life of the bearer. These tattoos were considered as a symbol of status and worth of the individual. While men have these carved on their faces, legs and buttocks, they can be seen on the lips, chin, back and neck of the females. Amazingly, every Maori tattoo is unique in design and it is impossible to find duplication. Rather, they depict wonderful craftsmanship, with intricate detail and outstanding designing. The tattoo art is crafted by a moko specialist, who is called tohunga ta moko, most of these artists being male. The tradition of carving a Maori tattoo was celebrated more as an event and involved rituals like fasting, chanting and music. The logic behind the ritual of fasting is probably that the tattoos would cause the face to swell up, which made it necessary to fast.
Origin of Maori Tattoo Art
The ancient legend traces the roots of Maori tattoo art to the underworld. The legend narrates that a young warrior called Mataora fell in love with the princess of the underworld, Niwareka. She left her underworld home to marry him, but was ill-treated by him, which made her return to her home. Mataora went back to repent and win over his lady-love, where he was taught the Maori tattoo art by the underworld king and he brought back the art to the Maori tribe.
In the modern times, it was believed that Maori tattoo came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia. These amazing tattoos were a source of fascination for the European explorers in the region. It is said that tattooed heads of the enemies were often kept by the Maori tribesmen as a symbol of power and conquest. They were even exchanged for weapons as Europeans were interested in collecting them.
Maori Tattoo Procedure
Maori tattoo art involves chiseling rather than carving, which is the reason why it uses unique equipment to carry out the same. As opposed to the use of needles in conventional tattoo art, Maoris use special kinds of chisels made of albatross bone or shark teeth, called uhi, along with knives to create these designs. These were either smooth or serrated and were used together to create desired Maori tattoo designs. The tattoos were then created with the help of ink applied in the incisions. The ink used in Maori tattoo art is natural, and is basically of two types a black ink made of burnt wood and another one lighter in color, which is derived from an organism, which is a hybrid of a caterpillar and a vegetable. The former was used for creating facial tattoos while the latter was used for outlining.
The tattoo specialist creates the design by taking into consideration the facial structure of a person and designing the tattoo accordingly. The procedure is quite tedious and painful as it involves making deep incisions or cuts in the skin and then filling the same with pigment, with the help of chisels dipped in the same. After the procedure is completed and the cuts are healed, grooves are left on the skin rather than the smooth result after needle tattooing. The bearer is supposed to endure the pain in order to exhibit his courage and power, as a person who cries or shows his suffering is considered weak. It is like a matter of honor for the people of the Maori clan. The healing process would probably take its time, with the skin becoming swollen and bleeding after the procedure. Application of a balm made of the leaves of karaka tree is recommended to speed up the healing process. Some other precautions to be observed after the procedure include abstinence from sexual intercourse and having just liquid food with the help of a wooden funnel, at least till the wounds are properly healed.
Significance of Maori Tattoos
Traditionally, Maori tattoos stand for power, prestige and status and only influential people of the society could have them carved on their faces and bodies. Only people with a good social standing could afford these tattoos and low class people like slaves were not allowed to have them. Face tattoos symbolized the social position, accomplishments and ancestral lineage of men and it was an insult not to have the tattoo by high ranking people. For non Maori people, who are interested to have Maori tattoo designs, they must bear in mind the cultural significance of these tattoos before choosing a design. Most Maori designs are done on the sleeves and arms in contemporary times and tattoo lovers who have them just for the love of it prefer non-traditional designs. The reason is that traditional Maori tattoo designs are very detailed, which make their carving a very painful process.
Maori Tattoo Designs
The traditional Maori tattoo designs are very intricate and fine in detail, using some of the most amazing patterns ever seen in tattoo art around the globe. Here are some popular Maori tattoo designs:
- Male Facial Moko – The male facial moko is one of the most preferred traditional Maori tattoo design, which is a symbol of power and prestige. It divides the face into eight sections- the center of the forehead, the area under the bows, the area under the eyes and nose, the area around the temples, the area around the nose, the cheek area, the chin area and the jaw area, each indicating a particular thing about his status and lineage. The left side displays the paternal side of ancestry, while the right side stands for the maternal side, and the design is made on each side according to the rank of his family sides.
- Pikorua Design – Pikorua is a traditional design in Maori tattoos which depicts growth and joins together the sea and the earth. It shows that we may take diverse paths in the journey of life, but all of us ultimately end at one and the same place.
- Nga Hau e Wha Design – This design represents the four corners of the earth. It shows that man should respect God as He is all-powerful, as shown by the Maori Gods, Tangaroa and Tawhirimatea, who can destroy everything with their miraculous powers.
- Te Ora O Maui Design – This design showcases the powers of the legendary character Maui, who discovered Aotearoa, which is the Maori name of New Zealand. Maui, the last among the five boys, was thrown in the sea by his mother who thought he was still-born. But he was washed up on the shore and raised by a tohanga. This boy had amazing powers and made great accomplishments.
- Koru Design – Koru refers to the spiral design and it stands for growth and new beginning. New Zealand is recognized the world over for its beautiful ferns and this leaf is represented by this spiral design.
- Single and Double Twist Designs – Symbolically, single twist design is a symbol of the path of life as per the Maori culture. Besides single twist, Maori designs can also feature double or triple twists too, which represent the bonding of two people in a relationship of loyalty and friendship, something which would last for an eternity.
- Hei Matau Design – Hei Matau or fish hook represents prosperity in Maori tradition, as it stands for fish which is available in abundance in the New Zealand and is also the staple food of the country. It also signifies good health, strength and a safe sail over the rough waters of life.
- Hei Tiki Design – Hei Tiki is a good luck charm, which represents fertility, knowledge and clarity of thought of the wearer. It is a representation of an unborn embryo and has been considered as a good fortune talisman in Maori culture since ancient times.
- Manaia Design – Manaia, a combination of bird, man and fish, is the spiritual guardian, who has mystical powers of sky, earth and water.
Besides these popular tattoo designs, Maori tattoo art makes use of diverse patterns like Hikuaua, Unaunahi, Taratarekae, Ahu ahu mataroa and Pakati, each having a symbolic meaning and significance. These traditional tribal tattoos have recently seen a surge in popularity among tattoo lovers all over the globe. They have been also used as a means to preserve the cultural heritage of this tribe.