April 3, 2007

Maori Tattoos are Cultural and Hip

Celebrities like boxer Mike Tyson and musician Robbie Williams have made Maori tattoos decidedly hip by sporting these striking, distinctive designs on their bodies.

But most people who submit themselves to the Maori tattoo artist's needle do so in the name of cultural identity rather than fashion.

In Australia, the art form is thriving because of the growing number of Maori living across the Tasman, says traditional Maori tattoo expert, Tania Simpson.

Simpson is the executive director of the Maori consulting company Oceania Group, which recently travelled to Sydney to give a seminar on Maori tattoo art, ahead of other talks in Melbourne and Brisbane.

She says the growing number of Maori here, many of them second or third generation Australians, view getting a traditional tattoo as a way of reconnecting with their cultural heritage.

"It is the younger generation and mostly it is arms and legs," she says.

Maori tattoo, or Ta Moko, is loaded with symbolism and has multiple layers of meaning.

Simpson's own tattoos represent two important events in her life - marriage and childbirth.

The curls of a tattooed wedding band on her arm represent her family tribe, while the Stingrays tattooed on the small of her back symbolise herself and her children.

"They might show what trade they do ... Mine is a wedding band ... you can create your own meaning."

Films like Once Were Warriors have done much to popularise Maori tattooing, arguably the most recognisable style globally when it comes to indigenous tattoo art, as have celebrities like Tyson and Williams.

But the danger in this, says Simpson, is that people may get a Maori tattoo without appreciating its cultural significance.

In Los Angeles, you could see a man walk down the street wearing a Maori tattoo that is supposed to be worn on a woman, she says - something guaranteed to produce "cultural cringe" amongst Maori.

In Australia, a large number of tattoo artists have moved over here and are starting to build up a network, charging on average $150 an hour for the work.

Sydney-based artist Tuta Tuheke, 39, who lives in Waterloo, says Maori tattoo art, once a dying art form, is experiencing a renaissance.

There are currently about five Maori tattoo artists in every state, he says.

They mainly work on people who are predominantly Maori and can't go home and get a tattoo.

With a background in carving and graphic design, Tuheke, a practitioner from New Zealand's King Country in the North Island, says when he began as a tattoo artist several years ago, there would be four clients a week.

Now there are three a day.

This increasing popularity brings responsibility for the artist, he says.

"The Maori tattoo is part of a cultural religion and worn like a crucifix ... When you step outside New Zealand, as a practitioner, you have a responsibility."

Ta Moko is rooted in Polynesian culture and symbolises tribal connections and significant personal events.

In contrast to the negative connotations tattoos can have in western society, having a tattoo is considered a great honour amongst Maori, Tuheke says.

For a woman to have a facial tattoo depends on her ranking.

Worn on the face, buttocks and chin by men and the lips and shoulders by women, tattoos were traditionally done when a person reached puberty.

Artists used a chisel made from a albatross bone and gum and vegetation dye mixed with oil for the pigment.

The tattoo artist himself was considered amongst the most honoured of all members of Maori society because he worked on the most sacred part of the body, namely the head.

Traditionally, the left side of the face relates to the father's history, with the right side relating to the mother.

After tattooing, sexual intimacy and solid food were not allowed as long as the face was still swollen.

Asked what he thinks about celebrities wearing Maori tattoos, Tuheke answers carefully.

"I think artists identify with the beauty of the symbols," he says.

But he says he is choosey about who he works on.

"I operate on only those who come from the right angle with the right intentions. I have to be fussy because of the potency it holds." (AAP)


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