This changes the pigment of the skin, and is done so for decorative, cosmetic, or practical reasons. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word ‘tautau’. It’s modern phraseology was first coined by the naturalist Joseph Banks, who referred to it as ‘tattow’.
Banks was a naturalist aboard the ‘Endeavour’, led by Captain James Cook. The word ‘tattow’ itself might have been Banks’s and consecutively, Cook’s adaptation of the native word ‘tautau’. Primitive cultures use tattoos not only for decorative purposes, but also to designate rank and status. Some are done for religious and mystical purposes, while others are applied as markers for social outcasts, slaves, or convicts.
The History of the Maori Tattoo
The art of the Maori tattoo was brought by the Maori to New Zealand from their homelands in Eastern Polynesia.
The Maori name for tattoos, particularly facial tattoos are ‘moko’, and the process of making it is called ‘ta moko’. Since the Maori kept no written records, the exact date or time that the Maori adopted the art of tattooing is still uncertain.
It is probable that the Maori adopted the art much later, inspired perhaps by other kinds of Polynesian body art.
The Maori Tattoo Legend
A less historical explanation for the origin of the Maori tattoo can be found in the local legend which suggests that ta moko, the Maori tattoo, came from the underworld, called Uetonga. The legend states that there was a young warrior called Mataora, who fell in love with the princess of the underworld – called Niwareka. Niwareka came above-ground to marry Mataora.
However, Mataora mistreated Niwareka, which made her return to the underworld. Mataora, sick with guilt, pursued Niwareka to the underworld, only to be greeted by Niwareka’s relatives, who laughed at his ragged appearance and smudged face-paint.
Mataora apologized before Niwareka’s family, and this act won Niwareka back. Before returning above-ground, it was said that Niwareka’s father, the king of the underworld, taught Mataora the art of ta moko. Mataora brought back these skills to his people, and that was how the Maori came to have their distinct type of tattoo.
Despite the little amount of information that we have on the origins of the Maori tattoo, it has a rich recorded history. The lack of definite origins seems to add more mystique to this already captivating form of early art. Perhaps it is that mystery which has made the Maori tattoo endure.