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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Tattooing the Face was a Fine Art

Tattooing the Face was a Fine Art

(14) And this suggests that one of the motifs of the art was sexual; it was intended to increase the influence of the individual over the imagination of the other sex, an intention brought out more clearly by the body tattooings page 188of the Samoans, Tongans, and other islanders. In New Zealand the concentration of all the resources of the art upon the face would alone reveal that there had been a revolution in clothing through the change in climate; a man has no passionate longing any more than a woman to decorate what will never be seen. The islanders had little or no face-tattooing; there was sufficient canvas for the artist in the broad skin-expanses otherwise exposed in the tropics. That the Maoris still continued to tattoo other parts shows their tropical origin and their habit of stripping for war and for work, that had followed them even into the bracing climate of New Zealand. Some of the tattooings of the Polynesians seem to be a reminiscence of garments or body-coverings; the Easter Island women and some of the men of some other islands have an imitation of stockings and sandals or mocassins, and others an imitation of drawers; it looks as if in migrating from a colder climate to a warmer the body-coverings were discarded, and tattooed imitations were substituted. It is even said that the Polynesians who came to New Zealand had no tattooing on the face, but only about the thighs.

(15) Be this as it may, it was face-tattooing that ultimately became the essential of a warrior, and on it the finest art of the race was concentrated. This may have been due to the custom of preserving the heads of friends to mourn over, but it was still more due to the necessity of wearing body raiment in the colder winters of the new country. At any rate, the thigh-tattooing degenerated into a conventional pattern pretty much the same on all bodies. The face patterns are infinitely varied, and especially marked by the beauty and delicacy of their details and the grace of their general effect.

(16) And that there were true artists amongst the operators is evident not merely from the results, but from the de-page 189scription of an operator and his work given by Earle, the draughtsman to the Beagle Expedition. He had been a slave; but men from all parts and all tribes crowded to him to have their faces beautified, and he had grown wealthy and influential. This indicates that, though there was so much that was tapu, or sacred, about the operation, the conquering immigrants accustomed themselves to the conquered and lowborn operating, an indication that goes far to confirm the evidences that the fine art was acquired from some aboriginal race. The greater beauty and variety of the forms and details than in house-decoration, or even canoe-carving, shows the effect on art of an untrammelled career for the artists. Special families were devoted to carving. But in tattooing it was the individual that succeeded, and won both wealth and fame; the talent was allowed a free career, in spite of birth or environment. And the artist knew that his works would have enduring fame; the faces he had done would touch the hearts of generation after generation, for the heads would be preserved as heirlooms in a family, like the portraits of ancestors in Europe, done by great painters.