Tattoos exist around the world in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and interpretations. Depending on where you are in the world this type of body art can mean something very different. Tattoos are the intentional changing of skin pigment for a variety of reasons. In some cultures tattoos are used to mark social class, rank, aesthetics, or a religious-mythic purpose. In the United States tattoos are a partially acceptable socio-cultural norm. In Russia tattoos are largely associated with criminals and those that have been in prison. In New Zealand the Maori culture views tattoos as an essential part of the history and mythology of the culture.
Maori tattoos are typically facial tattoos that are known as ‘moko’, and the process of making them is known as ‘ta moko’. Ta moko is documented as being an integral part of Maori culture during the 18th century. The legend behind them comes from a story about a great warrior named Mataora who fell in love the princess of the underworld named Niwareka. She came up to the world in order to marry him, but he mistreated her and then she returned to the underworld. Guilt ridden Mataora travels into the underworld and is found by her relatives, who all laugh at his smudged face paint. He apologizes to the relatives and Niwareka decides to return with him. Her relatives decide to bless Mataora with the knowledge of performing ta moko.
Europeans became fascinated with Ta moko and decided to send missionaries to New Zealand and bring the Chief Hongi of the Maori people back with them. King George IV of England gave trunks full of gifts to the chief who spent them on weapons during his travels back to New Zealand. He then used the weapons to wage war against rival tribes. Soon the collection of tattooed heads, that were originally a symbol of power during war, became a tradable commodity to the European visitors for weapons and other goods. Maori tribes would eventually begin wars just to collect more heads to be able to trade to the Europeans. The largest collection of Major General Heratio Robley’s heads can be found in the Natural History Museum of New York.