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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 3 (June 1, 1940)

The Art of — Maori Tattooing

page 21

The Art of
Maori Tattooing

A good example of full tattoo.

A good example of full tattoo.

Along with a number of other primitive people of the Pacific area, the pre-Euro-pean Maori practised the art of Tattooing, or Moko. According to a native myth, Moko was introduced by one Mataora, who long, long ago visited the subterranean spirit world of Rarohenga, and after a short sojourn there brought the practice back to the mortal world. Some see in this story a perverted remembrance of a voyage made by some far-off ancestor to a land where tattooing was in vogue.

The prevalence of the custom among the Maoris was accounted for by the belief that it made the appearance of the warriors more terrible in war, when fighting was carried on at close quarters; and also caused them to be more attractive to the opposite sex, as well as its significance from a religious point of view. Tattoo showed at a glance, also, the rank of the wearer. The great chiefs had their faces and bodies covered with a variety of designs of extreme beauty, while all the freemen were more or less decorated in this manner, slaves only being denied the privilege. In the case of females the tattoo—which was purely to enhance their beauty—was usually confined to the lip and chin.

The process of tattooing was a long and painful one. The first step was the removal of the subject's beard, which would not be allowed to grow again until he reached old age, and was then a proof that he had ceased to care for his appearance, and thus the hairs were pulled out by the roots. In olden days a pair of mussel shells was employed for this purpose, but with the coming of the Europeans large tweezers took their place.

The instruments used for making the incisions in the flesh were like small narrow chisels, “usually made of bone, but in some cases a sharp stone or shark's tooth took the place of these. Of the bone chisels some had merely a sharp edge while others were furnished with comb-like teeth. These chisels were of various sizes and shapes so that they could be applied to different parts of the body and were used for fine or coarse work. The average width of a blade was about a-quarter of an inch, and all were hafted to wooden handles by binding with native twine.

After the removal of the subject's
Hafted tattoo chisel. (Original in the Otago University Museum.)

Hafted tattoo chisel. (Original in the Otago University Museum.)

beard, and the tattoo artist had prepared his instruments, the “sitter” would lay on the ground in a position convenient to the former, who then proceeded to sketch out the design on the subject's face with a piece of burnt stick or red earth. A greater part of the facial design was standard pattern, but the smaller details were arranged to suit the taste of the sitter, who usually was provided with a bowl of water as a looking glass. When the design was completed to the satisfaction of all concerned, the very painful work of chiseling-in commenced. The artist, seated on the ground beside the subject, held in his left hand (between the forefinger and thumb) the hafted chisel, in his right hand (between the third and fourth fingers) a piece of light wood about eight inches in length, the outer end of which was bound with flax to form a mallet, while between the thumb and forefinger of the same hand was held the black colouring matter. The page 22 page 23
Tattooed woman.

Tattooed woman.

artist smeared a small quantity of black pigment on the edge of the chisel which he then placed on the desired spot of the design, and gave it a smart tap with his mallet, driving the blade a short distance into the flesh, whereupon he removed it and drew the chisel again between the fingers holding the black pigment and placed the blade at the end of the previous cut, proceeding as before.

The method of applying the colouring matter seems to have differed with the districts, for some authorities state that the cutting instrument was dipped into the pigment, for each cut; others that the colouring matter was rubbed into each incision, or that a wisp of tow was drawn across the separate incisions.

A good account of a typical Moko operation is given by John Rutherford, one of the six of the crew of the Agnes, captured by the Maoris in 1816. He says:

“The whole of the natives having seated themselves on the ground in a ring, we were brought into their midst, and being stripped of our clothes and laid on our backs, we were each of us held down by five or six men, while two others commenced the operation of tattooing us. Having taken a bit of charcoal and … produced a thick liquid, they then dipped into it an instrument made of bone and having a sharp edge like a chisel and shaped in the fashion of a garden hoe, and immediately applied it to the skin, striking it twice or thrice with a small piece of wood. This made it cut into the flesh as a knife and caused a great deal of blood to flow, which they kept wiping off with the side of the hand, in order to see if the impression was sufficiently clear. When it was not they applied the bone a second time to the same place…. While I was undergoing the operation, although the pain was most acute, I never either moved or uttered a sound, but my comrades moaned dreadfully… Although the operators were very quick and dexterous, I was four hours under their hands, and during the operation Aimy's (a chief) eldest daughter several times wiped the blood from my face with some dressed flax. After it was over she led me to a river that I might wash myself (for, it had made me completely blind) … and then conducted me to a great fire … In three days the swelling which had been produced by the operation had greatly subsided, and I began to recover my sight, but it was six weeks before I was completely well. I had no medical assistance of any kind during my illness.”

To tattoo a person fully was, in fact, a matter of time, for if too much was attempted at once it positively endangered life; therefore weeks, months, and even years might be required to complete a piece of work.

As if the physical torture of Moko was not sufficient, the subject, while under the hands of the tattoo artist, was subjected to the laws of tapu or taboo, by which he was forbidden all communication with people who were not in the same condition as himself. In eating he could not touch his food with his hands, but was either fed by another appointed for the purpose, or took it up on a fern stalk as a fork, since according to the old superstition, the man who dared to raise a finger to his mouth before his Moko was completed for the time, would find his stomach invaded by the Atua or fiend, who would devour him alive,
An assortment of bone tattoo chisels. (Originals in the Otago University Museum).

An assortment of bone tattoo chisels. (Originals in the Otago University Museum).

and should by chance he touch a water vessel in drinking or washing his hand this could not again be used for ordinary purposes.

Before the coming of the white man to New Zealand the pigment employed in the Moko process consisted of either the burnt and powdered resin of the kauri pine, kahikatea, or that of koromiko, a veronica, the latter being considered to give the best results. In European times, however, gunpowder was used as a colouring agent. This was rubbed into the cut and produced a blue mark which time could not efface.

The earliest form of Moko pattern was probably that called by the Maori “Moko Kuri,” which consisted of a set of short lines successively set at right angles to its neighbour, on either cheek, with the variant of the form S in the middle of the forehead, but the designs employed at the time of the coming of the Europeans were much more complicated, of which the accompanying illustrations are good examples.

Certain features were common to all Moko patterns, so that at a distance one fully tattooed man looked exactly alike another. Chief among these features were curved lines on either check-bone, four curving lines on each side of the forehead, lines between and below the check-bones and ears, lines on each side of the nose, six lines on either side of the chin, and lines on the centre of the forehead, the latter usually taking the form of eight radiating bars with a V-shaped central recess. From the nose to the end of the chin on either side were sometimes three or four sets of lines passing the corners of the mouth like a parenthesis. The upper lip was adorned with varied and suitable patterns, while the lips themselves had rows of closely-placed horizontal lines. The page 24 cheek or jaw was decorated with spirals, and sometimes in the older examples bands of tattooing go across one or both sides of the face. In such spaces as the corners of the eyes, between the lines on the nose and lips the subject was allowed to chose his own designs; thus no two faces were replicas; unless copied one from the other, which was only done under special circumstances.

It is clear from the above that the majority of the lines and curves which go to make up the Moko design follow the course of the facial muscles and wrinkles, giving emphasis to the whole.

The operators or artists in Moko were usually professionals who worked for hire. The reputation of a skilful man became well-known, and he was regarded by his less talented countrymen as a person of great ability. The professionals acquired their skill by practice, which was only made possible by the fact that some Maoris, being unable to afford the fee of a fully-fledged artist, considered the efforts of a beginner better than no Moko at all. To secure the services of a distinguished artist men would travel considerable distances, while presents and payments flowed into the coffers of the widely renowned operators—double-barrelled guns, canoes, clothes and even slaves were presented to these distinguished persons. A certain Aranghie, one of the most famous of artists in Moko, according to Mr. Earle, draughtsman to H.M. survey ship Beagle (1827) “… was considered by his countrymen a perfect master of the art of tattooing, and men of high rank and importance were in the habit of making long journeys in order to put their skins under his skilful hands … I was astonished to see with what boldness and precision Aranghie drew his designs on the skin and what ornament he produced. No rule and compasses could be more exact than the lines and circles he formed … It was most gratifying to behold the respect the Maoris pay to the fine arts. This professor was merely a slave, but by skill and industry raised himself to an equality with the great men of the country, and as every chief who employed him always made him some handsome present he soon became a man of wealth….”

In addition to enhancing the appearances of the wearer and showing him to be a man of rank, it ensured that upon the death of the tattooed one, his head would be severed from the body, preserved, and become one of the family treasures. The chief object of this custom appears to have been the perpetuation of the memory of the dead, and the preserved heads of mokomokai, as they were called, took the place which statues and other monuments fill in European society. In the case of a departed chief his mokomokai was a sign that in some mysterious way his presence still dwelt among his people, inciting them to emulate his virtues and to follow in his steps. Mokomokai of a slaughtered warrior served to keep alive the memory of the injury received by the tribe in whose possession it remained, and afforded a constant challenge to revenge or retaliation. The heads of relatives or friends were kept carefully hidden awaay in some secluded spot, being brought forward for the public gaze only on great occasions, such as tribal gatherings.

The process used for the embalming of the heads differed from district to district, but in a typical case the first act following decapitation was the removal of the brain from the skull by way of a perforation at the back of the latter, the cavity of which was carefully cleaned of all fleshy matter. Next came the removal of the eyes, and a small manuka stick was inserted between the skin and bone of the nose to preserve its form, and in a great number of cases the tongue was also removed. Thus far completed the head was next exposed to the rays of the sun, and then smoke-dried over a wood fire. When the desired stage of desiccation was reached, this process ceased, and the eye sockets were carefully filled with flax or in some cases artificial clay and shell eyes were placed in them, but if the former filling was used, the eyelids were simply closed and sewn together.

The first example of mokomokai to reach Europe was a specimen taken home by Captain Cook, and was only given over by its owners with very great reluctance. With the arrival of unscrupulous traders, however, a regular business in preserved heads sprang up, and all the beliefs and ceremonies of ages were swept away, and no man with a well-tattooed face—other than a chief—was safe since such individuals were constantly watched with the hopes of being caught off guard, so that they might be killed and their head sold to the traders. In 1831 Governor Darling, of New South Wales, issued a proclamation prohibiting this form of trade, and so successful was it, that when an expedition from America visited New Zealand in 1838, only two heads were obtained.