Early ethnographic accounts of tattooing amount to the letters and logs of early explorers, people less interested in anthropology and a systematic recording of observations and more interested in charting unknown waters. Even so, these earliest accounts are sometimes our only glimpses into the why’s and wherefore’s of people and their tattoos before the tide of European civilization was to sweep over them.
One of the most striking forms of the traditional tattooing practices of indigenous peoples comes from the Maori of Aotearoa (better known to us today as the country of New Zealand).
Unlike the vast majority of other types of tattooing, the traditional moko (tattoo) of the Maori was done by carving the skin with shallow grooves (by tapping a small chisel with a mallet), creating channels in the skin, into which pigment was subsequently rubbed. Given the greater number of blood vessels and nerve endings in the face, the process must have been harrowing, to say the least.
Although moko likely encoded information regarding a person’s achievements in life, their status in the community, and their lines of descent, one person in particular gives us a personal glimpse into its meaning.
Te Pēhi Kupe was the “paramount chief of the Ngāti Toa at Porirua North Island,” a very powerful man during the “musket wars.”
In 1826 he was in England to procure weapons and, while there, was presented to King George IV, sat for numerous portraits and also drew many himself. Without the aid of a mirror, he was able to draw his own very complex facial moko and once remarked that “Europe man write with pen his name – Te Pēhi’s is here,” pointing at his forehead.
He drew the moko of his brother and his son from memory and when he finished that of his son he “gazed on it with a murmur of affectionate delight, kissing it many times and, as he presented it, burst into tears.”
On his trip back home, he sold whatever gifts he had received in Sydney to purchase arms and ammunition, which he used in 1828 during raids on the South Island–where he was eventually killed.