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Ta Moko Maori Tattoo

When Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Insult

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Traditional Haka performed by Maori warrior
Tim Graham/The Image Bank/Getty Images
They say that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". In many cases, this is true. Imitation is important in many cultures. Children learn by imitating their parents. Teens seek acceptance from their peers by imitating fashion trends, choices in music and even linguistic phrases. Even adults will often imitate their mentors to show their respect and admiration. But there are situations when imitation is actually an insult, not flattery. Ta Moko is one of those situations.

Ta Moko is the tapu (sacred) form of family and personal identification among those of Maori whakapapa (genealogy). Genealogy is so important to the Maori people that they know their family history back 2000 years. Moko is the process of carving (cutting deep grooves) and coloring a family history story-telling pattern into the skin of a Maori descendant. It is not limited to facial tattoos, as many mistakenly assume, although it certainly can include partial or full facial patterns.

It is not surprising that members of other civilizations have come to admire the beauty of Ta Moko. Some have even gone to the extent of copying tattoo patterns and language phraseology taken from the Maoritanga (Maori culture). This is a very serious mistake, and one that has members of the Maori culture very upset.

Theft of Identity
Most of us are familiar with the horrors of identity theft. Someone lifts your wallet, and the next thing you know they're parading around with your name, your credit cards and your reputation. But maybe the thief was just imitating you because they liked you so much! Aaaahhhh......not so flattering now, is it?

Copying a Maori's Ta Moko is nothing less than identity theft. It's disgraceful and it's immoral. The only difference is that the Maori really don't have any recourse against anyone who is thoughtless enough to rape them of their individuality. Ta Moko is as unique to the wearer as your own fingerprints - how would you feel if someone stole those from you?

In the Words of a Maori
"Kat" is a Maori who shares her views on Ta Moko imitation. "Pakeha (whites) are distinctly known for not asking, [and] for assuming that how they see the world is [how] others do so also...[They] bastardize our spirituality and culture and claim it as theirs...Non-Maori wearing it as a form of body art are generally considered wannabees, fakes and frauds that show not only a disrespect for our culture, but lie about their own. (How can you respect your own family when you wear the family signature of strangers?) Even if non-Maori do it in a 'respectful' fashion (according to what their non-Maori values dictate is respectful), this is still rude. There is not, in other words, any sense of it being 'okay' for non-Maori to wear Maori Ta Moko."

Kirituhi - A Possible Alternative
If you are dead set on getting a tattoo that is fashioned in the style of Ta Moko, consider instead kirituhi. Kirituhi is a form of pattern art that looks like Ta Moko, but deliberately does not make any reference to Maori symbolism. Kirituhi literally means "skin art" and the patterns are designed to meet the demands of non-Maori wishing to have similar tattoos.

He Taonga Whakamiharo (Treasures to be Admired)
There are many forms of splendor in the world that we admire from a distance. It is not necessary to kill an animal and display it in your home to enjoy its beauty. Flowers are best appreciated when left alone, rather than picked and allowed to wither and die in a vase. And the sanctity of Maori culture, along with their Ta Moko, is honored most when respected, not imitated.

Haere ra!

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