Tattoo History | Seizure of Maori Sacred Land | Atlanta Tattoo Studio

Modern tattooing and modern tattoo culture owes a lot to its past and history. Tattooing has its deepest roots within indigenous communities. The word “tattoo” itself comes from the Polynesian word “tatau” meaning to strike or tap. In this post, we will look at one of the oldest tattooing populations and their current state of affairs.

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The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, most recognizable by the adornment of the Ta Moko, the intricate organic tattoo designs that embellish the Maori men and women. The type of tattooing practiced by the Maori is unlike that of any other race or culture, with their artistic designs adorned on the skin in a way that often completely covers everything up to the eyelids. 

Like most indigenous tribes from any region of the world, Maori culture and practices are based on the natural world around them where the land is considered holy and the water sacred. This is reflected in the tattoos they wear. The first brief European contact with the Maori was made in 1642 through Abel Tasman’s Dutch East India company. After being met with much hostility, the colonizers moved up the island, but contact would remain nonexistent until the arrival of explorer James Cook in 1769. Cook recounts that on his first voyage each tribe had separate ideas and customs when it came to tattooing, describing the markings as “spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance.”

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But since the first contact with Western Europeans, the Maori people, like most indigenous cultures all over the world, have struggled with the seizure of their sacred ancestral lands. Even today in 2019, governments still hold precolonial ideals that prioritize profit over principle and human decency.

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This past June, Maori tribes took to the streets of Auckland to protest the seizure of sacred land for housing projects and the taking of native infants into state care. Much like the Indian child welfare act of 1978 and the stolen aboriginal children of Australia, the “uplifting” of infants is solely based on institutional racism and disproportionately affects Maori natives. Last year alone, judges ordered that 281 babies be taken into state custody; over 71% of them were Maori. 

In addition, Fletcher Building, a New Zealand based housing project, has plans to move in on Ihumātao, a sacred site first settled by the Maori in the early 14th century. Ihumātao was forcibly taken by the British in 1863 and sold most recently in 2016. 

In an interview with the Guardian, Pania Newton, a Maori woman and co-leader of SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscapes) had this to say: “To me, this land is the very essence of who I am. It’s where my identity lies. How much more do we have to sacrifice at the hands of capitalism, at the hands of the crown, before it is all gone?” Newton traces her Ihumātao ties to the first Polynesian settlers to New Zealand who planted market gardens to feed their people as early as the 14th century. Stating her frustrations, she explains, “We have experienced ongoing injustices since Ihumātao was forcibly taken in 1863. Our ancestral lands have been quarried, our waterways polluted. We feel as though we have sacrificed enough for the greater good of Auckland, and all we’re asking for now is that this small piece of land is returned back to the guardians so that we can hold it in trust for all New Zealanders to enjoy as a cultural heritage landscape,” said Newton. The Maori have urged New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to show support for their struggle or she will face opposition in the next election.

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By: Jean-Luc Espinet