I always had interest in fascinating culture of indigenous people of New Zealand, Maori. Maori are Polynesians and make up 15% of the population, filling the country with their own unique culture. The folk art of Maori is exciting and I am particularly impressed by the tradition of carving the meaningful tattoos on the various body parts. These tattoos are called “Ta Moko”. The origin of Ta Moko believed to derive from the legend of Mataora. Mataora was a young warrior of Maori who fell in love with princess of the underworld.
Princess came above to marry Mataora but he treated her badly. She left back to underworld and Mataora, full of guilt, came to her relatives begging for forgiveness. Princess’s father forgave him and taught him the art of Ta Moko (Zealand Tattoo, 2015). This might not be the actual origin of Ta Moko but it is part of oral folklore of Maori tribe. Every tattoo has a special message about the wearer, his family and the tribe he belongs to. In my opinion the most unusual about Ta Moko was that these tattoos were also carved onto face.Order now
For Maori tribe face was the most sacred part and therefore tattooing it was a significant event for a young Maori. Most of Maori get their first tattoo when they move to adulthood phase. Men had full face and particular body parts tattooed (e. g. back, buttocks, legs), while women tattooed only chin and the nostrils. The master who makes Ta Moko is called “Tohunga”, which can be translated to specialist of moko. These people got a lot of respect from the tribe and were seen as tapu, which means holy and untouchable.
The ritual of tattooing was really sacred and therefore there were number of rules around it. The process supposed to be accompanied with spiritual music, dancing and singing. (Zealand Tattoo, 2015). The European population dramatically outnumbered Maori by the early 1900’s. By the 1950’s the art of Ta Moko had a drastic decline. In my opinion, the decline of this form of folk art happened due to Maori assimilation into European culture. However, in the late 1990’s Ta Moko gained back the popularity not only with Maori people but with non-Maori, foreigners too.
Nowadays, the original Maori tattoos are changing and people adding their own messages that have meaning to them. I think that these tribal tattoos came back due to Maori people searching for their identity. The late 1990’s and early 2000’s had first debut of the films dedicated to Maori culture in the history: “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Riders”. Both of the films show how assimilated Maori families live in the Europeanized New Zealand. They speak English language, listen to songs in English and do not know where they truly belong.
In my opinion most of the Maori felt the same way: lost in their own identity. Which culture did they belong to? They already were part of modern New Zealand but at the same time they could not forget that they used to be warriors and indigenous people of this land. That was the time they got back to their roots and at the same time implementing their old traditions into the modern life. Ta Moko tattooing was back but in a milder way as I think it is hard to live nowadays with a face covered in tattoos.
There are still Maori people left who live the way indigenous tribe used to live, following the traditions, but most of them are elderly people. The use of Ta Moko by non-Maori people is concerning as they make changes in design and methods. Therefore, Maori practitioners established organization called “Te Uhi a Mataora”. They are trying to stop the modernization of Ta Moko as it is a sacred cultural symbol. I find Ta Moko tattooing tradition as way of Maori tribes to express their cultural heritage. As I said before these tattoos show the most important things about wearer’s life.
If I compare Ta Moko to my culture (Kazakhstan), I would say that they could be similar to the ornaments in our traditional tent, called yurt. The ornaments inside the yurt showed the story of the owner’s family. I do not think that Ta Moko and yurts are completely similar but both of them are mean of self-identification. Generally, tattooing was and is common in small tribes and indigenous cultures. In ancient Egypt tattooing was used for medical and healing purposes. In India tattoos were used to divide Hindu people into casts.
Also, I had encountered meeting an old Pilipino lady while I was staying in Manila. She told me that women in her tribe got tattoos to use them as clothes. That was surprising, as I never heard of this usage of tattoos. I think it is captivating to observe how at the first sight incomprehensible lines, circles and letters begin to get a meaningful form as you start exploring the culture of the tribe. Not only the shape but also the place where the tattoo was made, will give you more information about the message behind it.
Maori also had other traditions that created folk art such as: wood carving, kapa haka (dance performance) etc. Nowadays, we have a problem of a slow disappearance of small nations/tribes/cultures’ traditional folk art. I think we need to have respect for them by understanding that these are part of their personal identities and we should not try to modify it or make use of it. The younger generation who inherit the traditions of the indigenous culture need to be taught and recognize their roots to shelter the feeling of belonging and pride into themselves.