Maori Face-Tattoo

By: Gerda Sebbelov

Originally Published in 1912

View PDF

A TATTOOED Maori head is becoming a rare thing. One large collection (the Robley Coll.) is owned by the Museum of Natural History in New York. Outside of this few specimens are known to exist and the University Museum has been fortunate in acquiring three of these in the valuable E. W. Clark Collection.

Tattoo is of frequent occurrence among different peoples, and on some of the Polynesian Islands the early travelers found natives whose bodies were so profusely covered with minute and well executed tattoo-designs, that they at a distance mistook them for elegantly woven garments. Maori men also tattooed parts of their bodies, but they applied the art especially to their faces and in this respect the Maoris were unique.

Profile of a head with intricate swirling facial tatoos
Fig. 7. — Tattooed Maori head, E. W. Clark Collection.

The women used the tattoo to a less degree than did the men. They always tattooed their chins and lips; because red lips were regarded as a disgrace and no man would have a red-lipped wife. When a woman of high rank had her lips tattooed, a day was chosen for the ceremony and a captive sacrificed in honour of the event. In addition to the tattooing of the lips, the women sometimes had their faces marked with crosses, dots, or short strokes, and a woman of high rank might have a design in the center of her brow between the eyes. There seemed, however, to be no common rule of design for the women.

With the men this was different. The rules for their facial decorations were as fixed and conventional as was their hospitality, or any of their tribal laws. The brow ornaments, the lines over the eyebrows, the spirals on the nose and cheeks, and the lines running from nose to chin were uniformly alike, while minute differences were introduced into the designs on forehead, chin, and at the ears. Every part of the face tattoo had its name, and these names varied in different localities.

The men did not always have the entire facial design applied, the amount de-pending partly on age, and partly on wealth. The operation was exceedingly painful and it caused a great deal of inflammation, which permitted only small sections to be decorated at a time. Besides a good tattooer was regarded as an artist and demanded exorbitant prices. The decoration was usually begun at puberty and continued throughout the greater part of a man’s life. During the operation the person to be decorated lay down on a flax floor-mat, and the operator sat beside him sometimes applying his chisel and mallet, and wiping the wound with flax dipped in charcoal, till the subject of his artistic skill was writhing under the acute pain, and had to be held down by several men.

The heads decorated in this manner were usually preserved after the death of their owners. The brain and tongue were taken out. The head was stuffed with flax, and then steamed or subjected to the heat of a fire, while oil was poured over it to keep it from burning. Later it was exposed alternately to the rays of the sun and to the smoke of a wood fire, till the flesh had become immune to the tooth of time. The Maoris kept the heads of their friends in secret and sacred places, while those of their enemies were exposed in public and treated with marked disrespect.

The Maori habit of tattooing the face has excited a great deal of comment by travellers and students of ethnology who have at different times come into direct or indirect contact with these people. A variety of theories regarding its origin and purpose have been advanced. They have been discussed and argued about. Incidents pertaining to Maori life, laws, and legends have been extracted in support of each theory in succession, and still we do not yet know whether the Maori tattoo was primarily a tribal mark, an insignia of rank, a means of beautification or a device for terrifying the enemy. The habit of tattooing had dwindled away and disappeared with the old men who knew about it, and we have only the heads in a few stray collections to bear witness to this strange custom.

Edward Tregear in his book on the Maori Race gives some few legends about the origin of tattoo, and as they throw some light upon the attitude of the natives themselves towards the question it may be well to repeat them in an abbreviated form. A man, Mataora, who had lost his wife went to the underworld to search for her. He came to a fire, whereat tattooers were sitting. The chief artist looked at the painted face of Mataora and wiped the design away saying: “Those above there do not know how to tattoo properly.” Mataora was thrown prostrate and the operation of tattooing begun. The victim called on his wife in a song, and she came to him and tended him in his pain. They left the underworld together and Mataora taught men the art of tattooing. Before this they had only painted.

Another legend relates, that Tama was deserted by his wife, because he was very ugly; so he went to the underworld to ask his ancestors to make him handsome. They drew graceful, curved lines all over his face and body. After many days of suffering the work was done, and when he returned to his home, all the women remarked that his ugliness had disappeared, and that he was now a noble looking man, and his wife came to him, her face radiant with smiles.

These legends as well as some songs sung during the operation, point to the motive of beautification, but there are proofs as strong as these to sustain other theories. It is not unlikely that, as in so many human customs, other ideas have been added to the original motive, all of which may eventually have been associated with tattooing and found expression in the development of its conventional pattern.


Cite This Article

Sebbelov, Gerda. "Maori Face-Tattoo." The Museum Journal III, no. 1 (March, 1912): 15-18. Accessed July 12, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to