Traditional Maori tattooing, Ta Moko, was once commonly used to put a person's life and ancestry onto their skin!
Maori and Polynesian tattoo designs are some of the most popular tribal tattoos of the last two decades, they look cool and have great symbolism. But how much do people actually know about the traditional Maori tattooing practice of Ta Moko? Athletes, actors and musicians all sport Maori style tattoos, yet they differ quite a lot from traditional Ta Moko.
A series of photographs by Elizabeth Pulman, the woman believed to be New Zealand's first ever professional photographer, that document the practice of Ta Moko recently sold at auction and they are truly something worth seeing!
The ancient practice of Ta Moko was carried out by the indigenous Maori of New Zealand for centuries and was one of the original sources of modern tattooing. Although unlike modern tattooing Ta Moko does not puncture the skin to insert the ink it chisels it! Traditionally the marking was carried out by carving the skin using a mallet and chisel made from albatross bone before an ink made of plants and vegetation was put in.
One of the first westerners to document the Maori practice of tattooing was British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook who wrote detailed descriptions in his journals;
"The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination" -Captain James Cook, 1769
For centuries Maori decorated the bodies with elaborate tattoos to demonstrate marriage, courtship, ancestry and rank. It was a form of milestone used to show the change from childhood to adulthood.
Ta Moko was likewise used to symbolize rank and standing in the community as well as increase attraction for the opposite sex. Both men and women were decorated with the markings. On men they were placed on the face, thighs and buttocks and on the lips, chin and shoulders for women. Markings on the left side of the face represented the fathers history and the right the mothers.
Since the early 1990s traditional Ta Moko has had a resurgence. Many Maori have chose to get the markings as a symbol of pride in their heritage and ancestry, and while some have opted to get them with a modern tattoo machine others have gone through the traditional practice of chiseling!! Ta Moko as a practice may not be as prevalent as it once was but it is certainly a welcome sight to see that it has not died out!