Getting inked in New Zealand: a history

Tattoos have been a part of human history for thousands of years, taking many forms of style and practice. While they have faced varying degrees of social acceptance in different places, tattoos are undoubtedly part of the mainstream today.

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.

Maori man welcomes a tourist with a traditional hongi Mike Powell

This traditional welcome is called a hongi © Mike Powell / Getty

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.

Skateboarding Bradley Garner / NZ Tattoo

Skateboarding competitions are among the spectacle at the New Zealand Tattoo & Art Festival © Bradley Garner

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. And for those looking for a little outdoor whimsy, Pukekura Park turns into an electric wonderland every summer during its psychedelic Festival of Lights (festivaloflights.nz).

Len Lye Centre interior Patrick Reynolds

Inside the stunning Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth © Patrick Reynolds

So you want a new tattoo?

Known as Australasia’s biggest tattoo event, the New Zealand Tattoo and Art Festival (nztattooart.com) is in its sixth year, featuring an impressive roster of artists from around the globe specializing in all styles of tattooing. Some of the big names at this year's festival include Tommy Helm (empirestatestudios.com), Megan Massacre (meganmassacre.com), Jesse Smith (facebook.com) and Teressa Sharpe (teresasharpeart.com).

While tattoo appointments for the festival need to be directly booked with the individual artists, some take walk-up clients, should you feel like spontaneously taking the plunge into the world of permanent body art.

Tattoo festival Bradley Garner / New Zealand Tattoo & Art Festival

Tattoos of every type and aesthetic at the festival © Bradley Garner

For those who are more interested in checking out quality ink and mingling with other enthusiasts, the festival will also be hosting a number of entertainment acts, including freestyle motocross and BMX shows, a skating competition, as well as aerial and fire dancing performances. Already tatted up and ready to show off your art? See how your ink stacks up in the event’s annual tattoo competition.

In 2016 the festival will be taking place on November 26 & 27 at New Plymouth’s TSB Stadium. Adult single day passes are available for $25 in advance and $30 at the door, while two-day passes are available for presale at $40 and will $50 the day of the event. Kids under the age of 14 can attend the festival free of charge.

From geometric patterns to splashy watercolour pieces to traditional American sailor designs, ink is no longer a trend. It's here to stay, permanently.

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