Folktale: The Origins of Moko, the Maori Face Tattoo from New Zealand

by Christopher Agostino

My wife brought me a book of Maori folktales from the library: Land of the Long White Cloud: Maori Myths, Tales and Legends by Kiri Te Kanawa; © 1989; Arcade Publishing, Inc., New York. She came across it while looking for stories for a show she will be creating at an elementary school. The author introduces each tale briefly, writing about how she might have heard such stories as a child and what she imagined about them. The bio notes also explain that Kiri Te Kanawa is a famous opera singer and made her debut at the Royal opera House, Covent Garden, in 1971.

The tale “Mataora and Niwareka in the Underworld” especially caught my attention, as it offers a folkloric explanation for the origins of moko, the traditional facial tattooing of the Maori. In brief: a warrior chief named Mataora meets some beautiful women who come up from the Underworld. They tell him that the designs he has painted on his face are not true moko because they can be wiped off. He falls in love with Niwareka, winds up following her back down to the Underworld and meets her father, who is busy tattooing a young man’s face with a fine bone chisel. Mataroa sees that the process is excruciatingly painful but the man doesn’t cry out. Ue-tonga, the father, then tattoos Matarao’s face with “the intricate patterns, twirls and swirls” that make a warrior “look both frightening and beautiful.” Mataroa understands he must bear the pain bravely to receive the true moko, and afterwards he brings the tattoo tradition (and Niwareka) back up to the Overworld.

I’m fascinated by the idea in this tale that the Maori first painted their faces with the moko patterns before they used tattoo, Continue reading

Mike Tyson’s Tattoo: what the…?

Mike Tyson’s tattoo

By Christopher Agostino 6/9/2012

First off, I invite you to add your own comments to this one, as I am sure there are aspects to this that I am missing, and I have as many questions as opinions here. So, woo-hoo!, Hangover 2 gets to open because a judge rules that even though Victor Witmill does own the copyright to the tattoo design he famously put on Mike Tyson that was then imitated in the film, the financial damage of keeping the film closed would effect too many people to be justified. I’d only followed this with amused interest until I heard an “On the Media” report about the possible ramifications of tattoo copyright — and now I have some questions. (On The Media: This Week “Can you Copyright the Human Body?)

Is it the norm for a tattoo artist to retain the rights to a design they put on someone else’s skin? Or did it only apply in this case because Tyson is a celebrity and the tattoo artist was seizing an opportunity? What a weird idea that somebody else might own something on your skin. (In a related opinion of mine, I think that the models we paint at conventions should be allowed to get copies of all the photographs taken of them…the person on whom the bodyart is created is as intrinsic to the result as the art is)

Secondly, how does a non-Maori tattoo artist get to claim intellectual property rites over an obviously traditionally styled design? When Tyson first appeared with this thing around his eye I remember how he talked about it’s traditional origins and significance, so what about it makes it something that some tattoo artist can claim as original? I mean, really?  (In doing a web search for a common use eligible image of the tattoo I did come across an article from Techdirt about an indignant Maori response to this claim — see the quoted portion below)

However, the larger point I want to make, is what’s up with Tyson’s tattoo in the first place?

From the first I saw it and heard his comments about it, I had to ask: what the….? He talked real big about it being the sign of the warrior and all that, and for a few years afterwards I had all sorts of guys asking me to give them a Tyson Warrior Tattoo. But, what the….?

From Robley’s book: photograph from the 1890’s of a “well chiseled” Maori tattoo design

I’m no expert, just a fascinated artist, but everything I’ve read abut Maori tattoo traditions  (“moko”) say that warriors tattooed their whole face, not just some little bit around the eye, and that a big part of the process is enduring the months of painful work required for the full face. I didn’t go back just now to fact-check this little bit but I distinctly remember reading that only priests wore partial tattoos by the eye. Not only did the warriors tattoo the full face, but the designs were incised so deep that the skin became ridged and grooved like a sculpture. In H. G. Robley’s book, Maori Tattooing, first published in 1896 when the tradition was still in general practice, there is not a single example of a man’s face without extensive tattooing.

On the final night at the 2011 Face And Body Art International Convention (FABAIC), sitting in the outdoor courtyard after the party, I met a gentlemen who was extensively tattooed. He was a soldier, recently back from service, and he was fascinated by the painted people walking through the hotel. We talked about what I did, but then I got him to tell me about his tattoos. The first two he showed me were Cherokee inspired designs on his shoulders. Then he showed me others on his arms and legs, each one marking a place he had been in the service — some, it seemed, for lessons learned and experiences to be cherished (like a samurai inspired mark down the back of his neck from time in Japan) and some for more painful memories. We talked for a while and at one point he asked me if I had any Native American blood in me, and I said no, but that I knew that he was Cherokee, for I had learned from our talk that he wouldn’t wear a mark unless he’d earned it.

Robley’s sketch from the 1890s

From Techdirt:

An illustration from 1800, from Karl Gröning’s book “Body Decoration”

Maori Angry About Mike Tyson’s Tattoo Artist Claiming To Own Maori …

Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, author of Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo, described Mr Whitmill’s claims of ownership as insufferable arrogance. “It is astounding that a Pakeha tattooist who inscribes an African American’s flesh with what he considers to be a Maori design has the gall to claim that design as his intellectual property,” she said. “The tattooist has never consulted with Maori, has never had experience of Maori and originally and obviously stole the design that he put on Tyson…. The tattooist has an incredible arrogance to assume he has the intellectual right to claim the design form of an indigenous culture that is not his.”

I looked it up, from Wikipedia: Pākehā is a Māori term for New Zealanders who are not of Māori blood lines

There are a lot of intersting little articles about this whole issue, and the legal ramifications of tattoo copyright, here’s one: Copyright Yo Face!. Copyfight: the politics of IP

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