I’m sure you know what a tattoo is and might even have one, but do you know the origin of the word? Compared with the history of the tattoo, the word for it is of comparatively recent origin. In 1769, the British seaman, Captain James Cook, first recorded the word in the account of his first exploration of Polynesia, where, in Tahiti, he saw the body markings of the indigenous people. It is likely to derive from the Polynesian word, “tatau,” meaning “mark or puncture of the skin.” Naturalists on board his ship, HMS Endeavour, were the first Europeans to observe and document the practice. Cook, of course, went on to explore the south Pacific a second time and the north in a third voyage, which led to his tragic death in Hawaii.

Cook’s sailors came home adorned with tattoos and they were also used in colonial America to identify American sailors and avoid their impressment into the British navy. The recent fashion for tattoos is said to have its roots in the 1970s-80s when it became more common for men other than merchant seamen or those in the military to indulge in the practice. Tattoo historians identify 1970 as the date from which European women began to acquire what is now called “body art,” citing the late Janis Joplin, the rock and blues singer-songwriter, as the first female celebrity to acquire tattoos: a wrist adornment and tiny heart on her chest. Even into the ’80s it was still considered a little racy for the average woman, if such there be, to have a tattoo, and tiny butterflies proliferated. The resurgence in popularity of tattoos has a lot to do with more modern means of application, which have reduced the painfulness of the original procedure.

“ …the various parts of a Maori tattoo tell the life story of the individual.”

The English word for tattoos may be relatively recent, but the practice of tattooing dates back millennia. Probably the earliest proven example being the 61 skin markings on the body of “Otzi, the Iceman,” the hunter whose mummified body was discovered frozen into a glacier in the Alps between Austria and Italy just 30 years ago. Those tattoos have been dated to about 3,200 BCE. It was a worldwide cultural practice among indigenous peoples, often associated with rites of passage (particularly for women), achievement, or status.

Notable among these are the Maori of New Zealand for whom traditional tattoos are still widely practiced. Ta Moko is the traditional art form that marks family, status, social position, culture and personal history. It is for those of direct Maori descent only and should not be crafted for non-Maoris. This is because the tattoo embodies the personal life story of the wearer, each one being carefully designed by the artist, and each one unique to the individual. Often they are inked to fit the body shape of the wearer. Due to the popularity of what is now known as an art form, there is a demand for similar tattoos by many who are not of Maori blood, and this form of the art is called Kirituhi.

Hei Matau

Maori women’s traditional tattoo is called a moko kauae and is carved into the chin and lips. It too carries enormous significance to the wearer both as a cultural identifier and a life record. It is not acquired without much deliberation. Benita Tahuri spent 20 years thinking about it, not an atypical period. “For me it spoke of healing, reflection, and empowerment and identity. It wasn’t any conscious kind of thought—the physical manifestation of moko kauae is the end of a journey.” Though the motifs are different, the markings still convey the status and experience of a woman. In 2018, a white woman sparked a storm in New Zealand by having a traditional Maori moko kauae despite having no Maori heritage. As a life coach and being pictured on her website, this gave rise to accusations of cultural appropriation and using the traditional device inappropriately to garner marketing advantage.

Jonny Blanche is of English descent and spent nine years working in New Zealand accompanied by his German-born partner, Sandra. During that time he became acquainted with one of the foremost practitioners of Maori tattoo art. It prompted him to study the history of Maori culture and the deeper meanings of their tattoo art over the course of several years. Not just a decorative motif, the look and significance of the work persuaded him to ask his Maori friend for a Kirituhi tattoo. His Maori friend agreed, knowing that Jonny would approach this with a serious commitment following his embrace of the culture.

Jonny explained that the various parts of a Maori tattoo tell the life story of the individual. Traditional designs with specific meanings are intertwined with specifics about the individual learned during an initial interview of the subject. Jonny defines for me the meanings of some of the traditional markings. The koru loop is one of the most distinctive features of a Maori tattoo. It is a spiral shape that loops around the body contours and is based on an ancient proverb that looks toward the future with hope and the belief that life will go forward in a positive way; the fern shape references family, friends, and those dear to the subject. The Pikorua are two intertwined figures of eight or fern-like shapes that signify a close relationship between two people. This references a Maori myth of a bond between the Sky Mother and the Earth Mother. The Hei Matau is a fishhook design symbolizing good luck, prosperity and safe travels over water. It is considered a cultural treasure of the Maori people with a very strong meaning. Pakiti are the small lines within the overall design that are allied to travel, strength or courage. The Mangopare motif symbolizes the hammerhead shark carrying the meaning of traits useful in warfare and life, strength, agility, tenacity, determination and leadership. Fish scales and weave patterns carry further associations. The art of a Maori tattooist is to compose the various meanings of the traditional designs, as exemplified by the subject, into a coherent artistic design that fits the body of the wearer.

Janis Joplin

Jonny explained to me the process he went through. Initially, he spent 3 or 4 hours relating his life experiences to the artist, who then developed a sketch of the proposed tattoo. In another similarly long interview, the sketch was tweaked to improve its accuracy. The outline of the sketch was then transferred to his shoulder and arm in a 3- to 5-hour session, and the fine line infill and shading each took up to 6 hours to apply. Traditionally, the tattoos were applied with sharpened bamboo implements, mainly a chisel-shaped tool and a mallet; the process was very painful. Today’s needle-guns inject ink about 1/16” into the skin below the surface layer and are not always painless either. Sometimes a 5 percent lidocaine ointment is applied as an analgesic. In a lengthy session, Jonny told me, the body can go into shock and it is advisable to indulge in some sugary treats beforehand or during the process. The reason tattoos are generally black, blue or green is that the inks are of negligible toxicity, while red is rarely used because of its toxic dangers.

Jonny declined to allow me to photograph his tattoo since it represents his personal life story, a sort of visual curriculum vitae or biography that can be read by a Maori. He did not wish it to be copied just as a decorative design, which, he says, has happened to others.

© David Cuin 2023