We have all seen tribal tattoos and are probably quite comfortable with them, but what happens when someone’s “cool design” crosses over someone else’s cultural identity?

Recently a young Utah woman faced a backlash when she wore to her high school prom, a traditional Chinese dress, known as a Cheongsam or Qipao. Many people criticised her because she was not of Asian heritage and therefore she was accused of Cultural Appropriation. Many felt quite strongly that she had no right to wear such a dress, and some went further and accused her of directly attacking their Asian heritage.

Perhaps, much worse, is when people wear the Native American feather headdress at music festivals and the like. Native Americans feel this is deeply disrespectful and provocative, whilst the ones wearing the headdress would probably say it’s simply harmless and fun.

For New Zealand Maori women, the moko kauae, or traditional female chin tattoo, is considered a physical manifestation of their true identity. It is believed every Maori woman wears a moko on the inside, close to their heart; when they are ready, the tattoo artist simply brings it out to the surface. Earlier in 2018Nanaia Mahuta became the first member of parliament in the world to wear a moko kauae. The 46-year-old made history, not only because of her decision to wear her Maori identity on her face in a political arena but as part of the resurgence in Maori women receiving the traditional ink. When New Zealand was colonised in the 1800s, the ancient Maori practice of moko kauai, or sacred female facial tattooing, began to fade away.  Now the art form is having a resurgence.

For Māori women, as historian Michael King notes in his seminal book Moko, the moko was a rite of passage, marking the passage between girl and adulthood.

But from 1840, with the influx of English settlers, Māori were pushed from their lands and assimilation began. Colonial laws were passed banning what are known as tohunga, or Māori experts and children were caned for speaking Māori at school. By the 1970s, the moko had all but died out. Only a few female elders carried it.

Things started to change in the 1980s, with a push to revive Māori language and culture, and in recent years there has been a revival in the ancient practice among both elders and young Māori women.

The facial tattoos have been a part of Maori culture for centuries, being a marker of the wearer’s heritage and genealogy and is considered very sacred.

One woman’s distinctive Moko, has stirred an angry debate in New Zealand, because she is white, with no Maori heritage.

Sally Anderson, who is married to a Maori man, says her Moko symbolises her personal struggles and life story.

One expert said, “we have to protect the last bastions that we have as Maori that make us different.”

Is it ok for someone, who many would say isn’t a member of the “club” or “tribe” to wear the “club colours” or in this case the facial tattoo?

Tribal Tattoo on Face

If we expand the normal definition of “Tribe” to include Urban Tribes, we can see many tribes in our society, without diminishing the deeply sacred practices of traditional tribes. We can say The Bra Boys of Maroubra constitute a tribe, or perhaps many bikies who may have Club tattoos as well as the “patches” of their jackets are members of a tribe.

Many supporters of Melbourne football clubs would consider themselves members of a tribe, tattooed or not. Members of the military might also consider themselves as being members of a tribe, likewise the Police, Federal Police, and Border protection officers.

A recent change to Australian Federal Police (AFP) uniform policy now requires tattoos to be completely covered by uniformed officers and those wearing AFP insignia such as lanyards. … “There used to be a common sense approach like most other employers, but this policy since September 2018 requires all visible tattoos to be covered”.

The regulations are part of Home Affairs’ standardisation of its various agencies, including the Australian Border Force, under which employees will have to cover up tattoos while on duty.

More than 100 pages of emails from July about the dress code introduced on 1 September 2018 have been released by the AFP under FOI laws, with many condemning the policy as regressive and hindering police work. Names of the staff members who wrote the emails complaining and protesting the changes have been censored but they cover two days of heated debate within the AFP in mid-July.

The Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA) and Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) both attacked the policy when it became public in August 2018

“My cultural background is Aussie Bogan, Tatts are a part of it! My culture is as important as anyone else’s” one email read.

“Time to change peeps. Tattoos are a part of our community, aren’t we???” another read.

“It’s getting a little concerning how unimportant policing and investigations seem to be at the moment and how important dental hygiene and long sleeve uniforms are” wrote one worker.

Recent research suggests 19 percent of Australians have tattoos, with the figure rising to one in every four for women.

Some emails complained about having to wear sleeves and gloves, particularly in Australia’s hotter environments, while others mentioned the importance of having tattoos in certain communities.

“I am no longer in general duties, but work in the National Anti-Gang Squad, so once again my tattoos are one of the many tools I can use when I speak to bikies etc” said another.

So here we have a policy change by a government, forcing a group to change the way they see themselves, in this case the AFP forcing its members to hide and cover up visible tattoos.

We are not for a minute suggesting this policy is in any way the same as the struggle the Maori and other indigenous people experienced during colonisation in the 1840s but for many it’s just as ludicrous and unjust.

It does seem that tattoos are here to stay, at least for now and society needs to come to grips with it, for some sectors of society they might represent “the devils work” while for many others it’s a legitimate expression of their individuality, and for some it is a deeply personal, expression of their cultural history and identity, their “tribal markings.”

Everyone has a different reason for getting a tattoo and equally everyone has their reasons for getting a tattoo removed, while you’re not likely to want to change your heritage in the future, its possible you may regret the hard drinking and partying tattoos of your youth when you become a parent or decide to join the Police Force or similar institution for example.


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