The maori tradition: moko is not just a tattoo

When we decide to get in touch with a tradition far from us, whichever it is, we should always show respect and be careful. Today we are talking about one of the most ancient, fascinating and meaningful tattoos of human history: the moko, that is the facial tattoo typical of the Maori population in New Zealand.

The moko is a spiral drawing which accurately follows the features of the one who bears it in perfect symmetry. Originally it concerned only the lips and the chin, but then it was extended to the whole facial surface. What it is not known is that the moko is not just a traditional tattoo of people who do not consider facial tattoos a taboo: it is very much more. The moko, in fact, is above all a practice full of deep meanings, beginning with its creation itself.

The maori tradition | Tattoo Life
The maori tradition | Tattoo Life

The maori tattoos express the social roles and positions that the individuals conquer and perform inside their tribe. Getting a moko was a really long process which began with the adulthood to underline the reaching of the first milestone of human life. Then this process went on during the whole existence of men to witness each phase of it. This tattoo used to represent the social status of the man, his work and its importance in the society above all.

The maori tradition | Tattoo LifeIt was a really painful and dangerous process as well. The skin was engraved with a rudimentary comb-shaped machine made of wood which had some needles at its end. Once the line was marked on the skin they rubbed the pigment on it. It was typically lampblack. There was a very high risk to take infections which needed a long time to heal. Many Maori even died because of them.

Despite all the risks, the Maori kept getting their precious moko because it represented not only their status, but their own identity. It meant for them what our full name means for us today, that is what identify us as a different person from all the others. In fact each moko was one and unique, nobody had the same one as another individual, as they were shaped directly on each man’s face. It is a sort of finger print alone in the world. Just consider that the moko has been used to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the Maori and England regarding the cession of the lands in New Zealand.

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