“Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today” at the Peabody Essex Museum

Maori Tattoo Today\

Banner for the exhibition “Body Politics” at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts

Salem, MassachusettsTo look at the face of an elderly person in any culture is to see their history. Assuming they haven’t been Botoxed or lifted, every wrinkle, every line is part of the narrative—hard living etched into place, overindulgence gently plumping out the creases, and gravity, over time distending cheeks and jowls.  The mostly youthful faces of the Maori shown in the photographic exhibit,  “Body Politics,” at the Peabody Essex Museum here, contain more than personal history. They are writ large with the symbols and messages of their culture.  

Writ, as in inked.  Inked as in tattooed.


Lauren (Piata) Heenan: “My moko is the moko of a woman proud to be a wahine.”


To be honest, it’s a shock to see.  A filigree in blue black ink is like a curtain over facial muscles. Is that a grimace…or the ink? How do I match up what’s in the eyes to what’s on the skin? These faces are fierce!  But I’m imposing my New England-bred, New York City-honed identity on people who have an entirely different life and culture. (Yes, of course I’ve seen plenty of tattoos, but on the face, not so much. And certainly not with such an urgent sense of  culture and self.)  The decision to receive moko, to be tattooed with the symbols and stories of their culture—indeed, to receive the specific patterns of their familial ancestors—is not just personal among the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. One’s entire family and iwi (tribe) are involved. Permission must be granted from the elders, a design drawn up and accepted.

Moko is not new.  For hundreds of years it has been part of the culture. Organic spiraling designs feature fernlike shapes that symbolize new growth as well as ancestral roots. Each design, customized so that its whorls and eddies fit the contours of its wearer’s face, is unique as a distinct record of whakapapa (genealogy), whenua (land), and personal accomplishments. New Zealand has been under British rule since 1840, according to the wall text, and in 1907 the colonial government banned Moko and denied Maori access to their language, land, and beliefs. Gangs revived the tattooing initially, not so much with tribal patterns but with words like “Mongrel” and “Outlaw”  to assert their independence over authority. That rebellious spirit pervaded the larger culture, and regular folks took the ink.

“The revival of Moko for many of us is really exercising our rangatiratanga—our fundamental right to exist,” says Tame Wairere Iti, whose image is on the banner I photographed in front of the museum (top). He is a robust man with shoulder-length hair, ink-blackened lips, and a frond-like facial pattern that swoops down to the chin and up to the forehead from a starting point on the bridge of his nose.  An accompanying video shows him as the host of a Maori language radio program and identifies him as a Maori Cultural Advocate.

Maori culture not a closed loop. Contemporary wearers of moko live contemporary lives. While the patterns typically come from or are inspired by one’s ancestors, their wearers are attired in fleece sportswear and Nike logos, and there is at least one groups of practicing Rastafarians with dreadlocks to accompany their moko.

Photographer Hans Neleman has documented some of this revival. The Dutch-born, New York-based photographer visited New Zealand in 1997 and was inspired to record the faces of  the people he saw. Receiving permission from the Maori elders after agreeing to work within their cultural parameters, he returned the following year with an 8×10 camera and a crew of three to travel the country, “capturing the renaissance of ta moko,” he says. His sitters approved their images, and each shared something of her or his story, which accompanies their large-format photograph in the exhibition.


  Piri (Dave) Iti

“I am the only member of the New Zealand Army to wear a full face moko,” says Piri (Dave) Iti, who sought the approval of his wife and family before taking the moko. He is photographed in his uniform.


Kimiora Ereatara Hohua

“The bottom of the design represents my mountains, the sides my whakapapa, the curls at my lip my children, and the top spirals each side of my family,” says  Kimiora Ereatara Hohua, whose chin moko is complemented by larger tattoos on her upper arm and thigh. Women’s moko tends to involve the chin rather than the entire face, though some women are additionally tattooed on the forehead.


  Dion Hutana

And the gang members? For some, moko has changed their lives. Dion Hutana, photographed in a suit, says, “Originally I put the moko on as part of the gang experience. Then it changed with my life. Now I’ve got no choice but to speak the body language.”  

That body language typically means, says one sitter, ethnic pride and  “a healthy context for my body: no drink, no smoke, no drugs.”

The exhibition consists of large-format color photographs installed in the museum’s photography gallery, a second-floor wraparound balcony overlooking a collection of Colonial American objects. It’s an effective exhibition space. A wide perimeter encourages both intimate looking and step-back views while affording wider vistas of the exhibition across the balustraded opening.

After my initial apprehension, I enjoyed reading the faces and the snippets of story that accompanied them. But the photographic style is just a little too reminiscent of the Gap ads from that period. I guess this is what happens when a commercial photographer ventures into territory that embraces sociology, portraiture and fine art. Still, if you’re in the area, go see the exhibition. (Just don’t go in late October, when the area around the museum turns into a Halloween horror show).

“Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today,” organized by Karen Kramer Russell, PEM curator of Native American Art, will be up through February 1, 2009.

Photographs (except top image) by Hans Neleman, courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum 

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Museum postscript:  Founded in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum is the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States. It began as the East India Marine Society, when Salem was one of the largest trading ports in the country. Its members, Salem-based sea captains, returned from their Asiatic voyages with objects to establish the collection, which also consisted of objects and artifacts of Native America and New England marine history.

The soaring lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum

The lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum

If you visit Boston, drive up to Salem—or take the commuter line from North Station (about 30 minutes), which will bring you to within a short walking distance of the museum. Recently renovated by architect Moshe Sadfie, it boasts a new lobby whose soaring spaces and strong curves are reminiscent of the sailing ships that brought back the early acquisitions. If you are an architecture buff, the museum contains the 200-year-old Yin Yu Tang House, recently installed after a piece-by-piece dismantling in China (the video is informative and quite moving); as well as three nearby properties: Salem homes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  And if the weather is nice, walk Derby Wharf, a half-mile jetty that runs straight into the hah-bah (you know, where the boats are) where a recreation of the 18th Century “Friendship,” a three-masted schooner, is docked.

Speaking of pronunciations, you’ll be marked as a tourist for sure if you pronounce Peabody as pee-body. Everyone in these parts call it pee-b’dy.

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  1. August 26, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    Lenny Said,

    Cool! I was once a talking head on a Turner Television documentary on tattoing, but my input was the West’s own ancient history of tattoing as I am an avid Pictophile (history of the ancient Picts)…

    As an ex navy dude, I sport a couple of tattoos myself…

  2. September 11, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

    sam Said,

    hi this so werid dnt like it

  3. September 20, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

    Ida Said,

    If you visit Boston, drive up to Salem—or take the commuter line from North Station (about 30 minutes), which will bring you to within a short walking distance of the museum. Recently renovated by architect Moshe Sadfie, it boasts a new lobby whose soaring spaces and strong curves are reminiscent of the sailing ships that brought back the early acquisitions.

  4. May 18, 2009 @ 1:59 am

    Anonymous Said,

    its very interesting want to know more of your art.

  5. November 24, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    Richard Freeman Said,

    Piata Heenan is exquisitly beautiful. Her facial tatoo is lovley beyond words.

  6. March 12, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Dtattoo Said,

    That is amazing! I like this post so much

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