There are two types of Maori tattoos – one of which is sacred and allowed to be performed only on initiated tribesmen and is based on family history, achievements and warrior code. The other type of art is merely a design with a bit of Maori inspiration.
The ‘real’ tattoos are called Tā moko and although it can be considered a tattoo in the broader sense it is actually carved into the skin with a bone instrument called an ‘uhi’ which is used like a chisel, rather than a needle to puncture the skin. The original chisels were made out of bird bones.
The ink is made up of blackened soot and gum from the local trees. Needless to say, the procedure is very painful and when completed,it leaves ridges on the skin rather than a smooth traditional needle ink tattoo. In Maori culture, the artists – Tohunga tā moko – are regarded as sacred men.
Maori body art was seen as a decoration according to one’s status in society and those who were regarded as important always had some form of the art on their face or body. People who did nit have body art were looked at as lower class.The art was also considered to be a rite of passage to adulthood with many rituals taking place to mark a person changing from a child into an adult. The art was also used to enhance beauty and men normally applied it to their face, backside and upper legs while women normally applied it to their lips, foreheads and chins.
In the late 1800s, the practice was phased out and replaced by the use of needles which carried less health risks and was cleaner. But since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence in the traditional way of doing tattoos perhaps because of the novelty associated with it.