Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

The Art of Tattooing by Augustus Earle

Rangi, tattoo artist

Specimens of Tattooed Faces and Thigh. (From "Expedition de l'Astrolabe.")

This description by Earle says a lot about how artistry was viewed amongst the Maori, for his friend the tattoo artist; Rangi was a slave the lowest position a man could fall to in Maori society, yet was treated with honour by all, because no doubt his gifts were considered sacred.

The art of tattooing has been brought to such perfection here, that whenever we have seen a New Zealander whose skin is thus ornamented, we have admired him. It is looked upon as answering the same purposes as clothes. When a chief throws off his mats, he seems as proud of displaying the beautiful ornaments figured on his skin as a first-rate exquisite is in exhibiting himself in his last fashionable attire. It is an essential part of war-like preparations. The whole of this district of Kororarika was preparing for the approaching war. Their canoes, muskets, powder and balls, increased daily; and a very ingenious artist, called Rangi, arrived to carry on this important branch of his art, which was soon placed in requisition, for all the mighty men in the neighbourhood were one by one under his operating hands.

As this "professor" was a near neighbour of mine, I frequently paid him a visit in his "studio," and he returned the compliment whenever he had time to spare. He was considered by his countrymen a perfect master in the art of tattooing, and men of the highest rank and importance were in the habit of travelling long journeys in order to put their skins under his skilful hands. Indeed, so highly were his works esteemed, that I have seen many of his drawings exhibited even after death. A neighbour of mine very lately killed a chief who had been tattooed by Rangi, and, appreciating the artist's work so highly, he skinned the chieftain's thighs, and covered his cartouch box with it.

I was astonished to see with what boldness and precision Rangi drew his designs upon the skin, and what beautiful ornaments he produced; no rule and compasses could be more exact than the lines and circles he formed. So unrivalled is he in his profession, that a highly-finished face of a chief from the hands of this artist is as greatly prized in New Zealand as a head from the hands of Sir Thomas Lawrence is amongst us. It was most gratifying to behold the respect these savages pay to the fine arts. This "professor" was merely a slave, but by skill and industry he raised himself to an equality with the greatest men of his country; and as every chief who employed him always made him some handsome present, he soon became a man of wealth, and was constantly surrounded by such important personages as Pungho Pungho, Ruky Ruky, Kivy Kivy, Aranghy Tooker, etc., etc. My friend Te Whareumu sent him every day the choicest things from his own table. Though thus basking in the full sunshine of court favour, Rangi, like a true genius, was not puffed up with pride by his success, for he condescended to come and take tea with me almost every evening. He was delighted with my drawings, particularly with a portrait I made of him. He copied so well, and seemed to enter with such interest into the few lessons of painting I gave him, that if I were returning from here direct to England, I would certainly bring him with me, as I look upon him as a great natural genius.

One of the important personages who came to the village to employ the talent of our artist was a Mr. Rooky Rooky (and he was always very particular in remembering the Mister); he brought four of his wives with him, leaving six more at home (polygamy in New Zealand being allowed to any extent). One of this man's wives was a little girl not more than ten years of age, and she excited a great deal of interest amongst us, which, when he discovered, he became very anxious to dispose of her to any of us. He importuned us incessantly on the subject, saying she was his slave, and offered her in exchange for a musket.


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