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Maori Tattoos – History and Meaning

Maori tattoo meanings

There are so many people who have at least one permanent or temporary tattoo on their bodies nowadays. They surely love how it looks and the idea of having art drawn forever on their skin, but many of them have no idea about how tattooing began and what its history looks like.

Actually, the practice of tattooing dates back to prehistory, when people used to draw on stone walls and trees. The technique was not much more different than what we have in modern times: they used to pierce or lacerate the skin with the help of a sharp object dipped in oil or permanent ink, made from different plants, powders or ashes.

Why did they do it? Well, the same as us, for cosmetic and decorative reasons, but also for more practical purposes such as differentiating between different ranks of the members inside a tribe.

The tattoos also stood as signs for people who were deemed outside the society, slaves, convicts or socially unfit people.

  • The word “tattoo” came as a loan word into English, from the Polynesian “tatau”, which was derived into “tattow” by colonizer Captain James Cook, after naturalist Joseph Banks coined it for the first time.

Actually, these two men marked the beginning of tattoos as an art form for the new world, when they discovered the designs of the Maori tribe people who had brought their art to New Zealand.

Their designs were concentrated on the facial tattoos which were called “moko”, while the action of performing the tattoo on the skin was called “ta moko”.

  • A common practice in the Maori tribe was keeping the tattooed heads of their enemies as trophies after battles, secured in ceremonial boxes, in order to show their power and to be protected.

European made often contacts with the Maori, at some point even taking one chief Maori back to England with them, to convert him. This chief, called Hongi, was taken to Oxford and trained by a professor there who tried to translate the Bible in the Maori language and write a bilingual dictionary. He also met King George IV of England and was compensated with gifts for his efforts. What this chief did was to exchange the gifts with guns and go back to New Zealand and attack his enemy tribes.

Later on, a new form of trade between the Maori and the Europeans took place, exchanging tattooed heads with guns. This way, the Maori would give the Europeans heads for museums and private collections and they would receive fire arms in exchange. They even started to behead slaves and people who died in battles and tattooed their heads in order to sell them.

Except for these facts, there is also a legend that talks about the beginnings of tattoos and says that “ta moko” came from an underworld called Uetonga. It is said that Mataora, a young warrior, fell in love with Niwareka, the princess of Uetonga and that she came up to marry him.

Unfortunately, Mataora treated the princess badly and she returned to the underground, followed by her repenting husband who was received with mockery by the relatives of the princess, because of his face paint and ragged look.

Mataora expressed his apologies to the royal family, won Niwareka back and he was also taught the art of ta moko by her father. He taught this art to his people and this way the tattoos began to spread among the Maori.

Although there is a lot of mystery floating around the exact origins of the Maori tattoos, there are plenty of books written by Europeans which talk about their history after being discovered. Michael King and John Rutheford are two of the writers, explorers who helped in the preservation of the interest in the Maori tattoos.

Nowadays, the patterns and designs have been adapted to modernity and thus changed a lot. If you are interested in getting a real Maori tattoo, you should do a little bit of a research in advance and show the tattoo artist exactly what you want. There are plenty of temporary Maori tattoo designs also for you to try on and see if they are the right thing for you. View all here!

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