Ta Moko and Ierzumi: the Art Behind the Maori and Yakuza Tattoos

Topics: Tattoo, Tā moko, Tattooing Pages: 5 (2160 words) Published: April 23, 2014
Ta moko and Ierzumi: The Art behind the Maori and Yakuza tattoos Cultural Anthropology 101
February 24th, 2014

Body art has been around for thousands of years in many different forms from tattooing to physical body modification. “Adornment is the obvious, but not the sole, purpose for such a painful and permanent art form…”(Morris, 2002, para 1). The skin is a very large canvas, that past generations have taken advantage of to not only identify one tribe or clan from another but as a form of punishment as well. In today’s world they hold many different meanings to the individual wearing them whether they have the traditional tribal ‘ta moko’ of the Maori or the criminal background of the Japanese Yakuza. There are many cultures in the world that feel marring the body in any permanent way is sacrilegious so why do some cultures feel the need to do so? The Maori are an Eastern Polynesian culture originating in the South Pacific. They were a somewhat migratory people and colonized many Pacific islands including New Zealand and Hawaii. The Maori culture developed on New Zealand creating a unique establishment of its tattooing culture. It is uncertain where the idea for tattooing of their bodies and faces came from but it is known that they originated around the mid to late sixteen hundreds according to European explorers. The local Maori says that it was brought to the people by a young warrior who went to the underworld and fell in love with a princess and married her but the warrior mistreated her and she left him to go back to the underworld. He was distraught and went to the underworld to apologize to her family and win her back. They forgave him but laughed at his smeared body paints. The king of the underworld taught the young warrior the art of the moko and he and his bride brought it back to the people (Zealand Tattoo, n.d). When Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand in 1769 the Maori were heavily tattooed but one hundred twenty seven years ago explorers made no mention of these intricate markings. The Maori tattoo or tatu is sacred with no two tattoos being alike. Morris (2002) states that the “ta moko is the resurgent Maori practice of chiseling facial tattoos that depict the wearer's whakepapa or ancestry” (para. 6). Traditionally only people of rank would have the tattoos because they could afford it. The moko on the face was not just a sign of rank but was also a way to identify each other. It was considered extremely rude to not be able to identify someone by the markings on their face. Rank was not enough to acquire these tattoos; courage was also required because the process was extremely painful. Being able to withstand the pain was a matter of pride with the Maori people. “The Maori ‘tattoo artist’ was known as tohunga ta moko which means moko specialist” (Zealand Tattoo, para 5). The Maori used chisels and knives made from sharpened stones, shark teeth, and sharpened bones. The ink was made from natural ingredients of blackened wood and caterpillars then it was either smeared into the wounds or inserted directly by dipping the tools in the ink paste first. The tools were either smooth or serrated depending on the design. The tattoo was achieved in one of two ways. The first was done by first making cuts in the skin and then the chisel would be dipped into the ink and tapped into the skin. The second way was to dip the chisel in the ink beforehand and then striking the end with a mallet. This method left deep groves in the skin. The Maori men and women had different places that were tattooed; the women only tattooed their chin, lips, and occasionally their nostrils whereas men not only tattooed their whole face but other body parts such as their back, buttocks, and legs (Kaeppler, 2001, para 12). As a social status the moko identified not only rank among the people but it also spoke of one’s ancestry, marital status, accomplishments and position. The face was traditionally...


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