The world and work of Maori tattooing has filled volumes of books and hours of documentaries, deservedly so. With its deep cultural history, its rich layers of meaning, and its great beauty, there is no shortage of fascinating topics in which to delve. Here at TattooSymbol.com, though, we’re especially on the lookout for the particular meanings of specific tattoo symbols. Sources as divergent as ancient Chinese myths to modern weapons of war contribute to the incredible variety that contemporary tattoos take. In Maori tattoos, one form above all seems to underlie the great majority of the designs that have been and continue to be created. It is a symbol taken from the natural world of New Zealand, specifically from the plant world: the koru.
Turning and Returning
The koru, a Maori word for “loop,” is the spiral design element to which so much of Maori visual art owes its distinct aesthetic. Not unlike some of the Celtic spirals, the shape of the koru suggests movement but also a sense of something unending. Most interpretations of the koru link it directly to the pitau, the spiral frond of a fern as it begins to emerge. In the shoot of the fern–which particular fern, we may never know since there are over 300 hundred ferns native to New Zealand–not only is there a large spiral but, sprouting from it, are smaller spirals that circle toward the center of the larger one. The pitau is not just new plant life. In a wider sense, it is a natural analogy for new life, in general, and also a return to its origin. At the same time, the koru is also associated with the pito, the word for navel. For the Maori, the navel wasn’t just where an infant was connected to its mother. The navel came to represent a solid foundation and a secure past.
Curves and Recurves
Combined with a crescent form known as the kape, the koru in all its tight and loose forms, all its dark and reverse image versions, and in all the forward and backward ways that these two shapes can be united, there is literally no limit to the variety of designs that can be produced. From the austere symbol of Air New Zealand to the well-known facial moko (a complex tattoo that often reflected achievement, lineage, and even occupation) of Te Pehi Kupe, there seems to be no end to what can be inspired by the koru. In fact, the individual nature of a moko was so well known that a drawing of one could suffice as a signature.
Spearheaded by the first missionaries to arrive in New Zealand, in the early 1800s, Maori tattooing quickly came under widespread and relentless attack. Although reviled and discouraged as a heathen practice, tattooing was simultaneously a bizarre subject of fascination for some Europeans that even lead to collecting heads with facial moko. Remarkably, after nearly two centuries of repression, traditional Maori tattooing is again on the rise. New practitioners and devotees of Maori tattooing are once again creating and ascribing deep meaning to their tattoo symbols. While modern tattoos of traditional Maori motifs are a reminder of their recent and bitter legacy, they are also an outward sign of an even deeper and enduring indigenous tradition. As always, though, at the design heart of Maori tattooing of any era is the koru, with its allusion to new life and also a solid past. What could be more fitting?