As Massachusetts’s puritanical Blue Laws started to fade in the late 1990s, the kids on Comm Ave rejoiced. Suddenly, youthful rebellion in the Bay State had a host of new accessories, from legal exotic pets to shiny little doodads embedded in a flap of skin. A few years later, when a ban on the most ancient form of anti-establishment expression got lifted at last, no hipster’s pelt was complete without a bold new tattoo.
The Maori of New Zealand would probably find this impulse exceedingly shallow, and possibly immature. Their tattoo tradition, moko (monochromatic spiral-inspired face and body tattoos) is a sign of cultural solidarity and individual expression, and occurs only after much soul-searching and consultation with a tohunga ta moko, an expert tattoo artist. Moko gets a spectacular showing in a new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. “Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today” includes 30 images by photographer Hans Neleman, extracted from his 1999 book Moko-Maori Tattoo. The exhibition will also feature artifacts from the museum collection that relate thematically to moko, and a short film narrated by Maori community leader Tame Wairere Iti, which includes footage of Iti receiving moko on his shoulder.
“Body Politics” was sparked by curator Karen Kramer Russell’s own personal interest in tattoos (she’d gotten one at age 16 in Amsterdam). When Kramer Russell came across Neleman’s book, she realized that moko was a thematic fit with the Peabody Essex’s collections and tradition. Since 1799, the Peabody Essex collection has been built from treasures and curios gathered from remote locales by maritime merchants who wanted to show the hometown investors what their money was purchasing. When you consider how many sailors came home with tattoos after visiting the Pacific regions, moko can be seen as just another kind of souvenir.
“There are a number of reasons why people have tattoos,” explains Kramer Russell. “It’s a great way for group identity and cohesion, and in the 19th century, when sailors were going around the world and encountering new people and places, they were being inspired by what they saw. Moko artists will make sure that the moko design complements body features. And moko design is planned over time — that’s always been the case and still holds true today. For a Maori person to decide to ‘receive moko,’ (that’s their phraseology, they ‘take it on’), it takes on a life of their own. They think about this for a long time — why they’re going to have moko. It’s discussed within their family.”
I googled “moko,” “tattoo,” “New Zealand,” and a combination of other keywords, and came up with anywhere from 65,000 to more than two million hits for the concept. But when Neleman was in New Zealand in the mid 1990s, moko was truly underground. He had gone to the islands on another photo assignment and happened to see someone at the airport with a moko tattoo. Then he saw Once Were Warriors, a 1994 drama about contemporary Maori culture, which featured numerous characters with moko.
So Neleman returned to New Zealand for six weeks to find and photograph subjects for a book. “People said, ‘Travel there, and you’ll find them,’ and it became this Holy Grail kind of story,” he remembers. “Finally, at the end of all the travel, a week of crisscrossing the country north and south, we found two guys who agreed to have their picture taken and we set up a spur-of-the-moment studio in a hotel room, and then they said they changed their mind, and they needed to talk to tribal elders. They said, ‘We have a different opinion of photography than most other people. We have a history of having our photos abused.’ ”
The interested parties eventually convened at an all-night campfire session (hui, a meeting with the main members of the tribe). “Finally, at one o’clock in the morning, it was my turn to speak,” recalls Neleman. “It was very elaborate — this is a culture that pays very much attention to oral communication and singing. Everyone’s making their prayers and acknowledging everybody. Everyone said, ‘You’re outside our community — there’s no way we can trust you.’ ”
The Maori brought up their anger about the mokomokai, the tattooed souvenir heads that had been taken from the country decades prior. As Neleman explains, “In the old days, they’d have fights like soccer matches and the warriors would have full facial tattoos. One person would die and that person would become the trophy of the winning team, let’s say. When the explorers came and made their way around town and saw these heads, they started trading guns for them.”
By one New Zealand Web site’s count, mokomokai have been displayed in some 200 museums worldwide. “I wanted to dedicate the project to the return of the mokomokai,” says Neleman. “Now, people are making an effort that the heads come back, and this is something I am so proud of.”