Tattoos have never been more popular than today. As a birthday present, to celebrate the end of university or to seal an eternal friendship. Occasions of getting your first tattoo are numerous. And getting tattooed after important life events was the real meaning of Maori tattoos. Coming from Tahiti and surviving in New Zealand, this art has a wide range of patterns with a strong symbolic dimension.
History of Polynesian tattoos
When we talk about Māori tattoos, we tend to refer to the tattoos worn by impressive rugby players in New Zealand. The Māoris are part of Polynesian civilization. Originally coming from South East Asia, these populations are now located in the Marquesas Islands, Samoa, Cook Islands, Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand.
Mata Mata Arahu and Tu Ra’i Po’
Tahiti is the most important island of French Polynesia. The first type of tattoo came from this island. Historically, Polynesia did not have a writing system. The tattoo was a way to present the personality, social rank and genealogy of a person. It was also a proof of sexual maturity. Therefore, this power symbol protects its bearer from the loss of Mana, the Polynesian source of energy found within everything.
Tattoos originate from Polynesia’s genesis, during a dark period called Po’. Ta’aroa, the great god of Tahiti, had two sons: Mata Mata Arahu and Tu Ra’i Po’. They were both attracted by the first daughter of humanity, Hina Ere Ere Manua. In order to preserve her honor, her mother made her live reclusively. To seduce her, the two brothers invented the “TATAU” and trimmed themselves with the Tao Maro pattern. Hina Ere Ere Manua fled away with the brothers and became the first tattooed woman. Mata Mata Arahu and Tu Ra’i Po’ became the tattoo’s gods and taught this art to men.
The tattoo art got better until reaching perfection in Tahiti. Missionaries banned the practice in the 18th century. It survived in the Marquesas Islands, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.
The Legend of Mataora and Tā Moko
Mataora was a young warrior who fell in love with Niwareka, a princess living in the underworld realm of Rarohenga. She climbed to the upper world, where she met and married Mataora. But one day, he turned jealous and slapped her. Then, Niwareka fled back to her father, Uetonga, in Rarohenga. Broken hearted, Mataora decided to go get her. Arriving in the Uetonga realm, he noticed his journey made the drawings on his face disappear. Niwareka’s family made fun of him for that. He begged his wife to forgive him and she accepted.
Then, he met Uetonga, who was tattooing someone’s face. He erased Mataora’s face drawings to show him that real tattoos are permanent. But it provoked more mocking from Niwareka’s family. Accusing Uetonga for ruining his tattoo, Mataora got all the patterns of the underworld drawn on his face. Then, Uetonga tattooed him, using a sharp tool to pierce his skin. Mataora discovered the pain of tattoos and Uetonga taught him the art of Tā Moko (the Māori tattoo technique). Once Mataora mastered this art, he went back to his world with Niwareka.
In the 19th century, the Moko became very popular during the New Zealand Wars in 1845. It was referred as the “art of the Devil”. First because of Mataora’s legend and because it made its bearer’s faces look scarier.
The Moko was Māoris’ identity card, showing their social rank and the story of their family. Even if the Moko was traditionally on the face, it could be tattooed on buttocks, thighs, back, stomach and calves for men. Women could get a Moko too. It was limited to their chin and lips. But other parts of the body known to have Moko for women are the foreheads, buttocks, thighs, neck and back.
The Tiki is a Māori symbol, representing a half-god, half-human being. Common to all Polynesian cultures, it’s a lucky charm against evil spirits and symbolizes power and masculinity.
Shells, in Tahitian culture, are precious, especially the turtle’s shell. They are symbols of protection, well-being and peace, but also of intimacy, fertility and femininity.
The most important animal in Tahitian culture. The turtle represents wisdom, as it can live more than a hundred years. Local populations believe that the ocean is the path to another life, where the soul goes after death. And turtles are the only independent creatures able to cross this path, between earth and ocean. Therefore, they are seen as spiritual guides.
Most of the time, the sun, associated with other patterns, accentuates a sense of greatness. It’s a symbol of wealth, magnificence, leadership and revival, rising up every day.
Polynesian populations have a very close relationship with the ocean. It represents the land where ancestors live. Both representing death and life, the ocean is a complement to another pattern, like the sun. It represents obstinacy.
The ocean and its inhabitants are recurrent in Tahitian tattoos. And shark teeth have an important place in this art. Named niho mao in Tahitian, they represent adaptability, shelter, security and ferocity. The design looks like triangles and can change depending on the tattooer’s style.
Even if it’s cute to some and scary to others, the gecko is an endemic lizard of Polynesian islands and also…a representation of Gods. Like the turtle, the gecko is an animal living between earth and ocean for a very long time. This little guy is a symbol of luck and protection.
The Enata is a frequent pattern in Marquesas Islands. It represents men and Gods and is a symbol of energy. Depending on the bearer’s life experience and combination with other symbols, its meaning changes. The Enata illustrates life moments, like births and marriages. A reversed Enata represents an enemy.
The Manta Ray
Most of the time, Polynesia lovers choose this animal as a tattoo for its beauty. In Tahitian culture, it symbolizes liberty, gentle strength and wisdom.
To tell the story they’re supposed to tell, Māori patterns can be single or combined.
Typical of male tattoos, it symbolizes the bravery and strength of warriors.
This pattern comes from Taranaki area in New Zealand, known for its prosperity
These fish scales represent health and abundance
The Ahu Ahu Mataroa
This is the symbol of an achievement, or sometimes, a new challenge
The Manaia is a spiritual guardian. It has the head of a bird, a human body and a fish tail. He protects the sky, earth, and sea.
Symbolizing new beginnings, this spiral is the most emblematic design in Maori tattoos.
The Hei Matau (Fish Hook)
Fish is Maoris’ most traditional food and the hook symbolizes the strength of Māori people. Therefore, the Hei Matau pattern is another symbol of prosperity.
The Single Twist
It represents the trail of life. Like the symbol we know as Westerners, it is the symbol of eternity
The Double or Triple Twist
This pattern is a favorite in Māori symbols. These twists represent the union of two people or two cultures for eternity. Persons who get this tattoo will experience life’s ups and downs together.
This tattoo features the sea and the earth and is an illustration of life.
The Nga Hau E Wha
This combined pattern shows the four corners of the earth and the four winds. It’s a message to respect the Gods and their actions.
This pattern represents parents and children together until their paths separate.
The Tahitian Ritual
The very name “tattoo” comes from the term “TATAU”, meaning “to hit”. When an initiate proved himself in trials, he could get new tattoos and gain more prestige. For women, tattoos were seen more as jewelry. Therefore, the execution of the tattoo was more precise, and the design more elegant. There are four types of tattoos in Tahiti: those reserved for gods, priests and kings, those reserved for chiefs, those reserved for great warriors, dancers and oarsmen and those for people with no notable ancestry.
Boys can get their first tattoo at the age of 12. When reaching puberty, the tattoo will make them look more attractive. For girls, the first tattoo could be an 8th birthday present. It was a way to show they’d reached puberty.
As the tattoo included rituals, ceremonies preceding the process were frequent. While the priest was doing the tattoo, women and men would dance, play music and blow in conch shells for support. This function gave the tattooer the name of Tahu’a Tatau. He could sing to the rhythm of the stick he used to tattoo the young man. The Tahu’a Tatau had two instruments to do the tattoos: a bradawl (to pierce the skin) and a stick. The bradawl contained 36 shark teeth. It entered the skin thanks to the stick, which worked like a hammer. Crushed and burned Kekuna tree’s nuts and monoi were the ingredients for the ink (Tia iri).
A man covered in tattoos had the greatest prestige. His numerous tattoos meant this man had many virtues. When someone dies, the Gods will judge him through his tattoos.
The Pain of Māori Tattoo
For the Māori tattoo, the process can be complex as it includes a code. The face was divided into eight areas, for each important moment in a person’s story. For instance, the forehead shows the person’s rank. Under the nose, the tattoo was the signature of the person. Chin was for the prestige of this person and the jaws showed his birth status. On top of being complex, the Māori tattoo is extremely painful and dangerous. The uhi was the main tool for Māori tattoos. These sharpened scissors, made of bird bones, were used to incise the skin. Then, ink made of dried plants and oil will fill the cuts.
With Europeans’ arrival, gunpowder became the tattoos’ ink to accentuate the patterns, and later would be replaced by Indian ink. In the 19th century, Māori replaced these traditional tools with metallic ones. It gave the Māori tattoo more recognition. Because of the pain the tattoo process could represent, this recognition was important. A man who got a Moko on his face could not eat anything during the healing process, which could last several days, sometimes weeks. He could only drink liquids given to him through a wooden funnel.
Appropriation of tattoos by Westerners
In 1771, captain James Cook was the first explorer to discover the Polynesian Islands. He was the first who introduced tattoos in Europe.
Today, Polynesian tattoos have never been more popular. Celebrities like Robbie Williams, All Blacks rugby players, or Dwayne The Rock Johnson, proudly show their tribal tattoos. The young Polynesians want to reconnect with their traditional values. This is why they insist on getting tattooed with traditional tools. Today, for these youngsters, tattoos are a real sign of regained identity. If you are non-Polynesian and planning on getting The Rock’s tattoo on your arm, you’d better think twice. Copying a Māori tattoo is a great insult.
For instance, Robbie Williams’ tattoo was controversial as he doesn’t have a Māori genealogy (instead of Dwayne Johnson, who is Samoan-American). As a result, the Te Uhi a Mataora group created the term kirituhi, meaning, “drawn skins”, for a pattern which can be used by anyone for any reason.
Maori and Polynesian tattoos today
In 1986, tattoos, through traditional practice, were forbidden in Tahiti. The tools, made of wood and bones, were non-sanitary and getting infections could be frequent. But today, the Polynesian tattoo has gained more popularity in the last decades. Younger generations in the Polynesian triangle and around the world tend to pay attention to their origins. Therefore, one of the greatest ways to show this original pride is to get a tribal tattoo.
Some youngsters of Polynesian culture tend to regain this identity with a tattoo that will tell their personal story. Their enthusiasm is so that the practice of tattoos with traditional tools has a strong revival as well.
The respect for this traditional practice grows with the recent awareness of primary civilizations’ legitimacy. Today, people tend to discover the real meaning and symbolism of Polynesian tattoos. It is well-known today that a non-Polynesian person getting a Māori tattoo can be disrespectful. Hopefully, native societies will try to find a common ground to make the tradition accessible to the largest possible number.