Tattoo/Tatau/Ta Moko

One of the earliest forms of Pacific Islander media is the tattoo, a word that is Polynesian in origin. The reason I refer to it as a type of media is because tattoos were traditionally used as a means of transmitting information about the person wearing them. None of the Pacific Islander cultural groups had a written language prior to colonization, but they managed quite well until then with oral histories, dance, and visual “alphabets” of different symbolic designs used in tapa/kapa cloth and tattoos.

Hawaiian Tattoo (Jacques Arago)

Lately, Maori-style tattoos have become quite popular as a type of “tribal design” for ink enthusiasts everywhere (I must concur that they are pretty badass), but traditional Ta Moko designs (Maori tattoos) are really meant for the families they represent. From what I understand (as I’m not Maori), Ta Moko is akin to wearing one’s family tree or genealogy, or information about where they come from, on their face or body. Knowing this visual “alphabet” of Ta Moko design, strangers can then “read” each other and identify who they are without needing verbal communication. Within this cultural context, the tattoo transgresses its decorative or aesthetic value, and becomes something else entirely – a sort of “skin text” if you will.

Ta Moko design

That’s not to say that non-Maori can’t admire or pay tribute to Ta Moko designs by incorporating them into their own tattoos, there is actually a separate set of designs “open” for that use, but what I’m more interested in is the looking. Why do we (non-Maori) evaluate and look at these tattoos, or tattoos in general, in the particular way that we do –  as only decorative body art, and/or as signifier for various subcultures? What prevents us from considering the possibility that these images could function in any other way, such as an alternate, personal form of media? (As in actual transmission of information, not just personal expression.)

Ta Moko design (photo source unknown)


Shane Te Ruki (photo by Peter Drury for Waikato Times)

It’s the same question I have always had about abstract art. For example, contemporary art history teaches us that Picasso, inspired by a particular kind of traditional African art, began creating work that came to be known as abstract. Well, why isn’t the African art that inspired him also considered abstract, rather than just tribal and/or “primitive” (a word I hate)? If the art is produced by the same process, with similar formal results, why are they not ever classified or looked at in a similar way? I’ve never read or heard anyone articulate the qualitative difference between the two, in terms of their “abstractness.” Can’t they both be abstract? If abstract art is defined as “having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content,” the distinction made between Picasso’s art and the African art that inspired him betrays a limited imagination in regards to our looking. More so, that distinction suggests that we’re assigning an intellectual value to work such as Picasso’s, in a way different than how we perceive and evaluate the manner in which traditional African art was produced within the same time period. I think you could argue that Picasso and his contemporaries borrowed the process of creating abstract art from their African and Asian influences just as much as the aesthetic, a point that doesn’t diminish his genius.

Really, I could ramble write about this for pages and pages, but I guess my main point is that we often overlook the dazzling array of knowledge and experience that exists beyond what is presented and taught to us…epistemological wonders buried away because they challenge the status quo, and so we don’t know to look for them…like the original function of the tattoo!

Tahitian Tattoo (photo source unknown)


Samoan Tattoo (from

* These images are not mine, they were taken from the Internet.


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