Permanent

By SALLY CRAGIN  |  February 20, 2008

Besides the traditional and more urban Maori, a third demographic Neleman identified was — wait for it — Rastafarians, a small group of which lives on the eastern coast of the north island. “A lot of their tattoo iconography incorporates the spiral design,” says Kramer Russell. “Though moko is fairly monochromatic, some of the Rastas use red, gold, and green.”

Despite continuing resistance to the project, and Maori subgroups’ mistrust of each other, Neleman pushed forward. “When we were finally semi-approved and we shared the Polaroids, we gave the rights back to the people and the royalties from the book were donated,” he says. “That was a big difference from how I have worked, but that was the right way to do it.”

Then again, a lot of things were different about this project, such as an odd demand made by Tame Wairere Iti, an early supporter of Neleman’s project who is featured in three photographs and in the Peabody’s exhibition film. “You can take our picture if you tattoo your nose,” he said.

“Ultimately we became good friends and he came to Holland later,” says Neleman. “I was close to making a mark on my body to commemorate all this, but the time wasn’t right for it. . . . I actually feel more comfortable being an outsider looking in — being a photographer and having a passport for discovery.”

Neleman didn’t get to photograph everybody with moko for his book — many of the famous tattoo artists refused to be photographed because they were working out their issues. “But in the end,” says Neleman, “these people decided this was an important book, so we photographed traditional Maori, the gangs, and different types of folks. There are some modern tattoos shown in the exhibition, but among the traditional Maori they felt it should be more pure. The issue between the traditional Maori and the Rasta and the people in prison is they all want to claim they brought it back. But when it really came forward is when people started marking their faces out of spite, which is probably the traditional way it started.

“It had never died out,” adds Neleman. “There were old ladies with chin tattoos, but this was a silent revolution and a political statement: we are of this land and we’re inspired by our past. That’s what attracted me — not the tattoos — but that a culture is looking to the past to look forward.”

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Related: Thirteen ways of looking at ink, Skin deep, Flashbacks, February 3, 2006, More more >
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