Inked in New Zealand

New Plymouth might seem like an unlikely place for an international tattoo exhibition, but in November this hip little coastal town attracts some of the world’s most sought-after artists to the New Zealand Tattoo & Art Festival, adding to the country’s already storied history of tattooing.

The Māori moko

For the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, the tattoo tradition of the moko is a sacred part of cultural identity. Before the arrival of the Europeans, receiving one’s moko was a significant rite of passage, marking the transition from childhood to adulthood and indicating social status. Traditional Māori tattooers carved intricate designs onto the skin using a tool called the uhi, a chisel that creates the unique scarring effect that sets the moko apart from other styles of Polynesian tattooing.

Historically, moko has been worn by both genders. For men, bold full-face tattoos communicated important aspects of the wearer’s identity – their rank, lineage, and tribe were all represented – and the designs were often memorised and used as signatures. Men also wore puhoro,elaborate, swirling tattoos stretching from the torso to the knees, to enhance physical attractiveness. Women most commonly wore a variation called moko kauae on their lips and chin, which similarly signifies important information about the wearer’s life.

When large numbers of English colonists arrived in the second half of the 19th century, they attempted to oppress Māori culture and practices – people were punished for speaking Māori and moko actively discouraged. However, like other forms of tattooing, moko has experienced a resurgence in popularity; while artists more often complete the designs with a tattoo gun than an uhi, the sacred designs remain an important symbol of Māori cultural identity and resistance.

In 1873, Czech artist Gottfried Lindauer became fascinated by Māori body art, painting over 100 portraits of Māori people. One of the most detailed historic records of moko ever produced, this collection is housed at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Artsy New Plymouth

New Plymouth was already known in New Zealand for its quirky art and festivals scene. It’s host to Womad (womad.co.nz) – arguably New Zealand’s best music festival – every March,  so a tattoo festival seems a natural addition to the local calendar.

Among the city’s other diverse cultural offerings there’s the Len Lye Center, housed in one of New Zealand’s more playfully designed buildings, which gives visitors a crash course in Mr. Lye’s postmodern visions via his collection of experimental films and kinetic sculptures. Neighbouring Govett-Brewster Art Gallery hosts a wide range of contemporary local and international shows.