The Face of a Man (a Maori Man)

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These are the faces of men, tattooed in the traditional Maori fashion.  I was first exposed to  the Maori people when I learned about the New Zealand team the All Blacks.  This rugby team uses interesting intimidation moves at the beginning of their games called the Haka.  What really got me intrigued by these people were the pictures I’d seen of traditional tattooing on the face of Maori men.

After reading more about the history of the tattoo and its process, I found out that these markings were used in traditional Maori culture as markers of rites of passage, social prestige and rank, and were also thought to be attractive to women.  Many rituals accompanied the tattooing process (called Ta Moko) which was typically started at puberty.  This coming of age event entailed the use of a sharp bone chisel to cut into the skin and then a chisel to tap pigment into the skin.  Makes our tattooing process look pretty wimpy, huh?

This painful process declined greatly in the 1860s with changing fashions and the desire to be accepted by white New Zealanders.  Today, most tattooing is done by needles.  What was really fascinating about this whole process is the fact that the Maori women were not tattooed to the same extent as the Maori men.  Women would be tattooed some on their upper lips and also on their chin.  I think this difference is due in part to the different social positions of Maori men and women.  Men were brought up to be warriors and the more tattoos you had the more prestige you gained as the tattoos showed how fierce you were in battle.  I would like to look into this area more to fully understand the implications of the different facial adornments of the Maori people.

Maori traditional ta moko is not only beautiful, but also serves as an interesting look at the different expressions of masculinity and femininity in Maori culture.

About Mary Casteen

Linguistics and people fascinate me. I also get really excited about God's love for the whole world! Can't wait to get to know all you lovely folks in ANTR 320 =)
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4 Responses to The Face of a Man (a Maori Man)

  1. While I was reading your post I was thinking about how these observations might get applied to how mainstream American tattoos might break down along gendered lines too. We might hypothesize that men use tattoos to display strength and for women beauty. You could look at it both in terms of what the tattoo is and where it is located on the body and how that reflects cultural ideas about the significance of those body parts.

    As an aside, when I was living on the reservation there was this guy who worked as the handyman in our trailer park. I’m spacing on his name, but he was covered in tattoos. According to this guy in one of these South Pacific islands the ink is more toxic, so part of the ritual of these rite of passage tattoos was sweating it out. That you actually had to survive the tattooing proved you were a man (or whatever). I wonder if that’s in my field notes somewhere!

    I was going to guess that the word tattoo also comes from the Pacific, but according to Webster’s it comes from “tap” referring to the needle, I guess.

    • Correction, the word does come from Tahitian, “tatau”.

    • Mary Casteen says:

      Yeah that’s a good point! Now thinking about it, it’s also interesting to look at tattooing as a way to boost sex appeal, e.g. tattoos on a woman’s lower back or on the biceps of a man. And that’s pretty neat about the handyman! I bet you met a lot of interesting folks on the reservation =)

  2. Pingback: Folktale: The Origins of Moko, the Maori Face Tattoo from New Zealand « the story behind the faces

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