The Treating Yourself cabinet in our Medicine Man gallery contains two tattoo exhibits. One of them is a facial plaster cast depicting Tā-moko, traditional Maori tattooing. Incisions are made into the skin using uhi (chisels) made from albatross bone; the skin is carved, leaving it with grooves, rather than a smooth surface, in which soot is rubbed for colouring.
Moko designs are very much about belief and spirituality; never just decorative, they have to be earned. A mark of rank, they are generally concerned with ancestry and Iwi, or tribal, information. Captain Cook often remarked on these practices during his Pacific voyages and reputedly coined the word ‘tattow’, or tattoo, from a local word.
Body modification and personal adornment seems as popular as ever. Whatever the motivation for being permanently inked, we encounter it throughout the ages and across cultures. Mummified human remains, ceramic figurines and art all give us a glimpse into historic practices. Getting a tattoo is usually viewed as a painful event; however, a view into the past suggests that it may have served as, and maybe had its origins in, a procedure for pain relief.