Tattoos in Maori Essay

Tattoos in Maori            Tattoos are one of the defining things that identify a person or a culture. Tracing the beginning of this ritual, tattooing is a very old practice which was initially beyond physical beautification purposes. The most distinctive tattoos in the world is said to be the Maori tattoos. Maori tattoos are carved into the skin and indicate the person’s rank, lineage, occupation, prowess, descent, and affiliation.History of the Maori People            The Maori people were said to be the earliest settlers of New Zealand. Through the use of maternal deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), scientists were able to connect the Maori people to the ancient Asian people.

It was found out that aside from the DNA analysis, there were linguistic and cultural evidence which point to the possibility that Maori people journeyed from the Cook Islands between 800-1000 AD. If this is correct, the journey of Maori people from the Cook Islands to New Zealand is an impressive feat (Rogers).The explanation for this is that, it was suggested that the original Maori travelers have no idea that there was land in the direction of New Zealand. They assumed that there was when they observed the migration patterns of birds. Then they would have traveled hundreds of miles during the time when the prevailing winds could have rendered their journey difficult. If this hypothesis is correct, the ancient Maori people who traveled and all of the Maori tribe have something to be proud of (Rogers).From other historical accounts, the Maori people originated from a homeland they call “Hawaiki.” As they set foot in New Zealand, they observed that it was a land different from the one they came from.

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Compared to tropical Polynesia, New Zealand was colder and has volcanoes and snow-capped mountains. They called New Zealand Aotearoa, meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ (“Maori History”).Other theories about the origins of the Maori tribe include the speculation that Hawaiki was near Hawaii. The most accepted theory is that the Maori people came from China and traveled through Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Melanesia, and reached Fiji. From Fiji they journeyed towards Samoa, through Marquesas, Tahiti, and passed by the Cook Islands. From there, they traveled to New Zealand. Another theory indicates that it was purely by chance when Maori found New Zealand when they “could have been blown off course” during their navigation. However, there is evidence pointing to Maori having sophisticated knowledge of the ocean currents and stars.

This knowledge is seen as carvings in their houses. Presently, the Maori population is about 14% of the population in New Zealand. This accounts for 600,000 Maori people. The majority lives in the warmer part of New Zealand (“Maori History”).Maori Tattoos            The Maori tradition is not complete without the tattoos.

For many generations, tattoos have been used to signify cultural and personal identity. Tattoos are considered as body ornaments aside from clothing and ornaments. While tattooing is a common practice in Micronesia, this was extensively done in Polynesia. In fact, the term tattoo originated from Polynesia.

It is called moko in New Zealand. Highly stratified societies, such as Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and New Zealand, have high regard for tattooing. Males and females display tattoos, with men having more.

In addition, the location of tattoos differs in both sexes. In New Zealand, males have tattoos primarily in their faces and buttocks while females have tattoos on their lips and chin (Kleiner, 2008, p.883).            The purpose of having tattoos is beyond physical beautification (Kleiner, 2008, p.

883). Tattooing starts from early adulthood and is usually in stages because the process is a very painful one. This is because the skin is carved with patterns and ink is applied to the cuts (Rogers). For this reason alone, the Maori tattoos are considered as the most distinctive in the world.

In addition, this practice has a sacred significance, owing primarily to the painful process of getting the tattoo and the tattoo design itself. Acquiring a tattoo is also a show of “strength, courage and status.” It is a ritual done with chant, music, and fasting (“Maori Tattoos”).Maori tattoos are beautiful, which consist of intricately patterned curved shapes and spirals. Maori tattoos are primarily based on spirals and are curvilinear.

As previously stated, tattoos are beyond physical beautification. Facial tattoos indicate power and prestige. They are designed as a way to intimidate and impress, particularly in battles. In addition, no two facial tattoos are the same. Thus, they symbolize one’s identity (Rogers).Generally, moko is an indication and differentiation between social classes.

One can determine the tribal affiliation by just looking at the patterns and placement of tattoos. More often, the designs communicate the wearer’s genealogy, rank, and occupation. For some Maori, just showing that they endured the long and painful process is enough to indicate great prestige. In some instances, facial tattoos were used as signature for legal documents (Public Broadcasting service).

Among women, tattoos indicate descent. Tattoos are also indication whether the woman is legitimate. If not, tattoos also indicate if the father acknowledged paternity (Coe 134). Among males, tattoos communicate a lot of things. Tattoos indicate status, depending on the quantity and quality of the patterns.

There are patterns that only elite individuals can have, although common people have tattoos, too. Tattoos are also used for identification purposes. For instance, slaves in Hawaii have tattoos on their foreheads while slaves in New Zealand have tattoos on their backs. In certain societies, tattoos serve as identification for familial connections. Furthermore, tattoos communicate significant events. For instance, tattoo placed in the tongue indicates grief in Hawaii. It was said that the pain the person bore was a sign of respect for the deceased (Kleiner, 2008, p.

883).Generally, facial tattoos among males are divided into certain parts. In the right-hand side of the face, tattoos communicate information about the person’s paternal tribal affiliation. The left-hand side bears information about the maternal tribal affiliation. The tattoos in the forehead area, on the other hand, communicate rank depending on lineage. The tattoos covering the temple to the ear communicate about one’s father’s or mother’s lineage, rank, descent, or birth order.

The area near the nose communicates tribal affiliation. Lastly, tattoos placed between the midcheek and the jaw line indicate the person’s job. Majority of these tattoos indicate ascribed status. Some of these designs show a male’s prowess (Coe 135-136).

Only the Maori of New Zealand use a spiral motif for their tattoos. These tattoos flowed “with the natural curves of the human body.” The spiral pattern is a very common one in tattooing and in other arts. There are two common meanings for the spiral pattern. One is pitau, which signifies a new beginning, and the other is pito, indicating a solid foundation. Pitau is for the future while pito is for the past (Public Broadcasting service).

The Maori tribe is said to have originated from Cook Islands, although there are some theories about where the ancient Maori people came from. They have settled in New Zealand and comprised about 14% of the population. The Maori people are known around the world for their tattoos, which were considered the most distinctive due to the intricate designs and the process of acquiring them. Tattoos among males are in the face, buttocks, and thighs while females have tattoos in their chin and lips. Tattoos communicate a lot of things about the wearer, including rank, descent, lineage, genealogy, paternal and maternal tribal affiliations, one’s tribal affiliation, prowess, and occupation.Works CitedCoe, Kathryn.

The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art as Adaptation. United States: Rutgers University Press, 2003.Kleiner, Mamiya. Intl Stdt Edition-Gardner’s Art Thru/Ages: Globl Hist. United States: Cengage Learning EMEA, 2008. “Maori History.” N.

d. Virtual New Zealand. 16 April 2009 <>. “Maori Tattoos.” 2009. Freetattoodesigns.

org. 16 April 2009 <>.

Public Broadcasting Service. 2003. Role of Tattoo. Pacific Islanders in Communications.

16 April 2009 <>.Rogers, Krista.

2005. History of the Maori People. Mount Holyoke College. 16 April 2009 <>.


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