Wet Plate Photography Makes Traditional Māori Tattoos Disappear

Inspired by wet plate portrait photography of the past, photojournalist Michael Bradley‘s Puaki is an examination of the Māori culture. Specifically, Bradley explores tā moko, the permanent markings on the face and body practiced by New Zealand’s indigenous culture.

“The idea was first sparked when I saw some wet plate collodion images from photographers around the world who had shot people with tattoos,” Bradley explains. “I had been shooting on the wet plate collodion method for a few months and was looking for a long-term project when I saw these images of people with tattoos and noticed that some faded away depending on the color of that tattoo.”

Bradley realized that when photographs of traditional tā moko were captured back in the 1800s, the tattoos themselves barely showed up at all and where therefore lost to history.

“The wet-plate photographic method used by European settlers served to erase this cultural marker – and as the years went by, this proved true in real life, too,” the project’s statement reads. “The ancient art of tā moko was increasingly suppressed as Māori were assimilated into the colonial world.”

Tā moko is different from ordinary tattooing because chisels (called uhi are used to carve the skin and opposed to using needles and puncturing. As a result, the skin is grooved rather than smooth in the tattoo areas.

“In Māori culture, it is believed everyone has a tā moko under the skin, just waiting to be revealed,” writes the Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi. “The problem is, when photographs of tā moko were originally taken in the 1850s, the tattoos barely showed up at all. The wet-plate photographic method used by European settlers served to erase this cultural marker—and as the years went by, this proved true in real life, too. The ancient art of tā moko was increasingly suppressed as Māori were assimilated into the colonial world.”

This exhibition forms an important social documentary of the people who choose to proudly wear tā moko today embracing their history and showcasing one of the many endangered traditions still holding strong in today’s modern society.

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