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THEY WERE THEIR TATTOOS

Body-Marking Lore of Tribal New Zealand

THE JOURNALS of Europeans who settled New Zealand in the 1800s record that the intricate facial tattoos of the native Maoris served not only as decoration but as
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The top likeness of Te Pehi Kupe (also known as Tupai Cupa) was drawn from life in 1826 during a visit he made to Liverpool, England. The lower image is his own drawing of his facial tattoo that he used as a "signature." It's intricate detail was such a part of his sense of himself that he drew it freehand without consulting a mirror.
the individual's legal identity as well. In effect, the Maoris WERE their tattoos. For instance, whenever Te Pehi Kupe (also known as Tupai Cupa), a tribal chief, was required to sign his name to a European document, he painstakingly drew his entire facial design. At left is a drawn-from-life portrait of the chief as well as a copy of one of his "signatures" from the 1820s.

These facial tattoos -- so unique and culturally important they also served as the person's name -- were called "moko." The practice of using them as written signatures was a result of the Maoris' earliest encounters with British colonizers who ultimately took control of the country. The Europeans later recorded: "When the natives agreed to give the Marsden Mission the land it required and a deed was drawn, the missionaries were at a loss as to how get the document signed, as the Maoris could not write. Hongi suggested that the tattoo markings on the face of Kuna, the chief conveying the land, should be drawn on the deed ... the suggestion was adopted and this became the common way of signing Maori deeds in the early days."

Hongi was a powerful Maori chief in his own right who later became infamous among Europeans as the "Napoleon of the Maori." He befriended missionaries and was ultimately taken back to England to assist in translating the Bible into the Maoris' spoken language. While in London, he simultaneously studied European weaponry and warfare theories, ultimately arranging to have 300 muskets, gunpowder and ball sent back to New Zealand. There, upon his return, he embarked on campaigns of conquest against neighboring tribes who had only spears and war axes for weapons.

The use of full facial moko tattoos died out among the Maori by the end of the 1800s, although the native people continued tattooing other parts of the body. During the last three decades tattooing has experienced a cultural renaissance throughout New Zealand society. Artistically, the country's tattooing is so influenced by the patterns and traditions of the Maori moko past that it constitutes its own genre.

Maori designs are also one of the primary sources of the tribal tattooing that has become so popular in the United States and other countries in the last twenty years.

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Drawings made by some of the earliest Europeans in New Zealand show ornate Moari village gates topped by a moko face design.
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Two books that provide hundreds of highly-detailed and richly illustrated pages of the history and art of Maori tattooing on face and limbs are "Ta Moko: The Art of Maori Tattoo," (includes 143 illustrations and photos) by D.R. Simmons, an ethnologist and internationally-recognized authority on Maori culture, and "Maori Tattooing," by H.G. Robley, a reprint of the 1896 illustrated study of Maori tattooing that itself includes more than 180 photos and illustrations. Below are a few examples of the contents of the books which document the meaning and physical specifics of the visual "language" of Moko tribal tattooing.
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