The Cultural Significance of Maori Tattooing
Tattooing in the Maori culture does not only serve an aesthetic purpose but also represent strong cultural links (Ellis, 2004). A cultural significance of Maori tattooing is as a source and expression of individual identity as a member of the community.
The origin of Maori tattooing is divine folklore. The story starts with a mortal man marrying the daughter of the ruler of the underworld. The daughter left her world to live with the mortal man. One day, the man beat his wife. Due to this wrongdoing, his wife returned to her father’s world. After realizing his mistake, the man wanted to win back his wife. He traveled to the underworld in search of his wife. Due to his remorse, the gods awarded him the art of tattooing, which he brought back to the world. (Palmer & Tano, 2004) Tattooing represented a commitment to not doing any wrongdoing and man’s divine connection with the spiritual world. Tattooing for the Maori is a gift from the divine and a sign of goodness. Individuals receiving tattoos gain a divine favor by taking part in this gift from the gods.
Maori tattoos are unique. It is different from person to person because the design of the markings depends on individual circumstances (Palmer & Tano, 2004). Every curve and line represents an aspect of a person’s life (Kuwahara, 2005), which differs even with common experiences. The Maori people with tattoos display their marks with pride as a badge of their character as individuals.
Personal Identity in Maori Tattooing
Maori tattooing expresses individual identity as a member of the community and overall cultural identity of the Maori people as an artifact of cultural beliefs, practices and values that distinguish the Maori from other people (Ellis, 2004). It represents both individual property and cultural identity (Pritchard, 2000). As an individual property, tattoos comprise an extension of the individual’s self. It also serves as the connection of an individual to the community and its way of life. As a source of cultural identity, members of the community share Maori tattooing as part of common belief and experience. Tattooing serves as a bridge between individual property and community or cultural identity. Tattoos are not solely individual exclusive property but it is also not an exclusively common property because the markings are unique to an individual (Pritchard, 2001). Tattoos also represent cultural boundaries by defining beliefs, values and practices of a particular culture (Kuwahara, 2005) such as the Maori way of life (Ellis, 2004).
Maori tattoos express a person’s identity since the tattoos are unique to an individual and the design portrays different aspects of the life of its bearer encompassing social, economic and political aspects (Kuwahara, 2005). A person’s tattoos relate lineage and family background (Palmer & Tano, 2004). There are certain markings distinctly common among family members. This is a mark of lineage even if the overall design of the tattoo marks is unique to every family member.
The Maori tattoos are also a source of tribal affiliation (Palmer & Tano, 2004). While similar principles apply in Maori tattooing, there are distinct markings identifying the different tribes. This serves as an individual identification among the different tribes. Each tribe can recognize its own member through the tattoos.
The tattoos also represent passage through life’s stages determined by Maori cultural beliefs. Puberty is one important stage that could be a reason for getting a tattoo. The tattoo in reaching the stage of puberty represents the achievement of manhood or womanhood. Other achievements such as victory in war or taking over a leadership position in the community are also stages that constitute reasons for obtaining tattoos. (Palmer & Tano, 2004)
Maori tattooing reflects individual economic standing in the community (Kuwahara, 2005). The tattoos reflect work so that there are distinctive tattoos for warriors as well as for other work or trade. The presence or lack of tattoos also says something about once rank in a given trade. Tattooing is also costly so that only those with a high economic status can afford tattoos (Palmer & Tano, 2004). As such, the more tattoos a person has, this represents the extent of personal or family wealth. By indicating economic standing, tattoos also found use in trade. As a form of identification unique to individuals, the tattoos have a distinct pattern committed to memory by its owner and recognized by other people so that it became a means of trading property such as in signing land deeds in lieu of a signature (Palmer & Tano, 2004).
Tattoos are also the basis of identity in political situations. The location and number of tattoos represents leadership status within the community and to other tribes. Tattoos especially on the face and marks covering the entire face represent a high position of authority and respect in the community for both men and women (Palmer & Tano, 2004). Members of the community take pride in their leader’s tattoos and the leaders of other tribes recognize their counterparts during negotiation through the location and extensiveness of tattooing.
Maori tattoos extend beyond an individual’s life, which in effect keeps a person’s identity intact even after death (Pritchard, 2000). When tattooed members of the community die strict rules governing the preservation of their tattooed heads apply. The heads serve as tokens from the dead person and represent the person’s position as a member of the family and tribe (Palmer & Tano, 2004). The preserved heads serve a purpose in time of war and in negotiating peace. During war, the victors collect the tattooed heads of leaders. They use the heads to show valor and return the heads to the families in accepting a peace offer.
Tattooing is largely an individual feat and having a tattoo builds personal identity and reflects on an individual’s personal characteristics. Tattoos are identification marks for the Maori people, which distinguish the spiritual, social, economic and political dimensions of personal character. This justifies the high value accorded to tattoos by Maori communities.
Ellis, J. (2008). Tattooing the world. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kuwahara, K. (2005). Tattoo: An anthropology. New York: Berg.
Palmer, C., & Tano, M. L. (2004). Mokomokai: Commercialization and desacralization. Denver, CO: International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management. Retrieved July 26, 2009, from http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-PalMoko-t1-body-d1-d2.html.
Pritchard, S. (2000). Essence, identity, signature: Tattoos and cultural property. Social Semiotics, 10(3), 331-346.
Pritchard, S. (2001). An essential marking: Maori tattooing and the properties of identity. Theory, Culture & Society, 18(4), 27-45.