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traditional and modern Maori style tattoo art

Chances are you’ve seen a Maori style tribal tattoo on somebody before, maybe even one of your friends or family members, but many people aren’t aware of what that might entail.  The Maori are an indigenous people of New Zealand and parts of the surrounding Polynesian islands, believed to have originally settled there in the late 1200s.  The Maori tattoo, known to them as the “moko,” is one of the longest standing elements of their traditional culture, and comes with a set of social and spiritual meanings.

 world map showing New Zealand

Traditional moko were made in much the same way as other tribal tattoos during the time period: by scoring the skin and forcing in pigment.  The methods, however, were a little bit different.  Instead of standard punctures or sewing lines, the Maori used various sizes of chisel which they call “uhi.”  The sharp end of these implements would generally be made from bone and then fastened to a handle for easier use.  The chisel tips would be dipped in pigment, usually made from ashes or specific plant material, and then pounded into the skin to create a specific pattern.  This caused a unique retexturing of the skin when the tattoo healed, leaving actual grooves along the dermal surface.

 Maori moko art being performed

After a long period of cultural upheaval, the Maori population began to recover starting in the 1960s, and a resurgence of traditional culture soon followed.  During the past twenty years in particular, this ancestral style of tattooing has begun to make a comeback, with women as well as men now taking up the art.  Although the time-honored designs common to historic moko have regained popularity, their cultural significance has often been overlooked in favor of emulative fashion, most recently by a number of high profile design houses.  In the spirit of preserving their long-established heritage, a new term has consequently been coined in an effort to separate fashion-based and often historically inaccurate art of this type: kirituhi.

In the interest of maintaining culture sensitivity, a number of organizations have promoted the clear separation of kirituhi and traditional moko, as well as education concerning the sacred significance of the true moko art form.  Those who continue this amazing school of tattoo art are preserving a truly beautiful and humbling outward emblem of the inward identification with a rich and amazing Polynesian heritage.

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