Maori man with full <i>moko</i> tattoo
Maori man with full <i>moko</i> tattoo
Role of Tattoo
Tattoo Stories

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

A rare portrait of moko applied by "grouped" darning needles around 1910.

Maori moko

Due to the highly tribalized and stratified nature of ancient Maori society, moko had great status within Maori society, and moko was used to differentiate between and within social classes. There was enough variation in Maori tribal styles that it was possible to determine regional or tribal affiliation based on the patterns and placement of the moko. For some tribes, the moko also indicated the rank, genealogy and even the occupation of the wearer. Underlying it all was the great prestige that came from showing others that you had endured and survived the ordeal. During the years just after the European arrival in Aotearoa/Te Waipounamu, many Maori were signing various legal documents, e.g. land titles, using their facial moko patterns, such was the individuality of the designs. Perhaps the most well known image of Polynesian tattooing is the facial moko of the Maori. However, for men, the most prominent areas were the face and the thighs and buttocks, similar to the Samoan pe'a. Women were also tattooed on other parts of the body including the arms, abdomen, thighs, and the crotch area.

Although many Maori do not seek moko with a desire to make a political statement, all moko are perceived as such by the general non-Maori population. The statement says, "I am Maori."
While many of the other Maori moko, like the puhoro, were applied like the other cultures of Polynesia, the facial moko was applied using a process unique in the world. The design was actually incised into the face. The uhi (tattoo chisel), often cut into the skin one-eighth of an inch, but on occasion went even deeper. There are some instances where the uhi actually punctured through the cheek or nostril. After the initial incision for the facial moko ink was added to the skin by rubbing in the pigment over the open incisions or going over the original incisions with a serrated uhi, which had been dipped in the pigment. The final healing stage of facial moko also held its own mysteries. The designs healed with the grooves intact rather than keloiding or healing smooth as the skin usually does when cut this way. This unique healing phenomenon may have been possible due to the inks used, which were made through a special process using a particular species of caterpillar.

Maori men's puhoro.
Maori men's puhoro. Original watercolor by Joseph Jenner Merrett. The hunchbacked person to the right in this powerful picture has a koru loop going up and down by his ear. He is a tohunga of the upper and lower way with his moko identifying him as Te Wairoa, a paramount chief of the Tuhoe and Taranaki tribes. This portrait also shows a good example of buttock tattoo prevalent in some areas at this time. The center man is of a higher rank with a forehead design and can be identified as Waaka Putere of Ngat Kahungunu and Tuwharetoa. Here he is depicted with a jade hei tiki around his neck. The man holding the taiaha is Tainui Hawea of Tranaki and Tuhoe; he has five forehead rays on one side, six on the other. Collection of Mark and Carolyn Blackburn.

Considering the great breadth of shapes used in Polynesia, it is interesting to note that the spiral motif was found only among the Maori of Aotearoa/Te Waipounamu. The overall style of moko was curvilinear and flowed with the natural curves of the human body. Among the Maori, the spiral (generically called a koru) was very common in tattooing, carving and other arts. The two most common meanings of the spiral were as a pitau (unfurling fern frond), or as a pito (navel or bellybutton). The former use implied a new beginning or the future, and the latter a representation of a solid foundation or past.

It was not until the mid- to late-1980s that moko began to make its reappearance among the Maori after falling into disfavor in the mid-20th century. Today, most of the Native practitioners in Aotearoa/Te Waipounamu use the tattoo machine when applying traditional moko motifs. By using the machine, the artist is able to work with greater speed and is usually able to create a more intricate product. Although many Maori do not seek moko with a desire to make a political statement, the tohunga agree that all moko are perceived as such statements by the general non-Maori population. The statement says, "I am Maori." It is a wero (a challenge) to the dominant Western world that colonized our societies. Just as in the past, the tattoo is an inalienable heirloom that cannot be taken or diminished whether one is poor, incarcerated or otherwise oppressed. Thus, while moko are no longer fully understood in their original capacities by the general population, they still hold much meaning for the individuals and contribute to the construction of identity and self-image.

Hawaiian Uhi

The ancient tradition of kakau (tattooing) in Hawai'i was perhaps the least regimented or regulated of the tattooing traditions in Polynesia. Use and application of uhi (tattoo) was sporadic among different islands, villages, and families and among the social strata. Hawaiians also marked nearly every part of the body as well to a greater or lesser extent. There was even an instance where each member of a company of warriors, known as the Pahupu, had a solid black tattoo covering every part of their body except their teeth and eyeballs.

Just as the kakau traditions varied from place to place in ancient Hawai'i, so too did their usage. Uhi has been used to commemorate major life events, demonstrate loyalty to a chief, teach a lesson to others within the community, and establish a connection to a particular place, person or god. Of its various uses by Hawaiians, kakau most often served as one of the primary expressions of grief and sorrow. With the death of a loved one, including a well-loved chief like Kamehameha, an individual would often mark or scar their own the body in various ways. In fact, the use of kakau in this context is the most documented. Another use for kakau that is surprisingly well documented is the kakau of a class of outcasts known as kauä. Finally, the uhi was sometimes used as simple adornment. One account describes how the women of a particular hula troupe had their left hands covered entirely with uhi to enhance their visual appeal during the dance. With the coming of the European, aboriginal usage of the design changed a bit and new motifs, and even text, were introduced and used to continue the older traditions.

With the death of a loved one, including a well-loved chief like Kamehameha, an individual would often mark or scar their own the body in various ways.
Although Hawai'i experienced a similar cultural renaissance in the 1970s as the Maori, tattooing was not a major part of this resurgence at first. Hawai'i started its revival of kakau nearly a decade later and that revival is still in its infancy. The lack of trained practitioners and the overall perception of tattoo as an undesirable practice may have delayed the revitalization of this art. In Hawai'i today, uhi serves as a means of expressing personal identity; a commitment to the aboriginal Hawaiian community, culture and heritage; and as a form of adornment.

Hawaiians marked nearly every part of the body.
Hawaiian's marked nearly every part of the body. Original ink wash drawing by Jacques Arago entitle “Naturel Des Isles Sandwich” (Native of the Hawaiian Islands). This very famous drawing, done in August 1819, shows a multitude of tattoo motifs including a memorial inscription on his arm relating to the recent death of Kamehameha I. The crescent fan motif or peahi niu is seen here on his opposite arm. The breast tattoos are also quite beautiful and unusual and consist of goats surrounded by a circle and composed of interspersed triangular motifs and circles with what appear to be dots inside. His legs show a classic run of triangular design elements running equally up each side. Honolulu Academy of Arts, Gift of Mrs. Frances Damon Holt in memory of John Dominis Holt. Collection of Mark and Carolyn Blackburn.

One of the most common forms of tattoo today is the Hawaiian armband, located on the biceps similar to those found in Samoa. In Hawai'i, the history of the armband is quite different, though. The armband was not a part of ancient tattoo tradition. The armband was created by Mike Malone in the mid-1970s. He created the armbands using motifs loosely based on Oceanic designs. Because the renaissance was just starting to take off, bringing with it an increased sense of pride in many young Hawaiians, the armbands became a very popular symbol and expression of aboriginal pride. Unfortunately, the history of the armbands was never fully understood by most of the current generations. Many people today think that the armband was a traditional form of kakau. This unquestioning acceptance is the result of a cultural vacuum that evolved during the 20th century as Hawaiians had their language and culture diminished in every possible way.

Lately, the ala niho, (leg stripe), used quite frequently by Keone Nunes, has grown in popularity as a Hawaiian design, perhaps as a reaction to the knowledge that the armband is not "traditional." However, even the contemporary predominance of the leg stripe belies the vast repertoire our ancestors had.

The Future of Polynesian Tattoo

With increased exposure between the cultures of Polynesia as well as the rest of the world, appropriation, borrowing and exchange of cultural concepts and artifacts are occurring with greater frequency and relative ease. The changes from these occurrences range from intriguing to alarming depending on one's perspective. Today, anyone wanting to study the art of tattoo in Polynesia should keep in mind that much of what has been published, especially based off of the observations of early European explorers, tends to be flawed or incomplete. Over the last decade or so, there has been an emerging group of native scholars who have the skill in the language and culture of their forebears and most importantly, the access to the sacred knowledge often associated with tattooing. Therefore, anyone truly interested in not just the art of the tatau, but also in the cultures that created it should consult with the aboriginal people of the culture. Doing so gives recognition to our ancient ancestors and respect to those who have dedicated their lives to the perpetuation of the art today.