The social media company that owns Snapchat has removed filters that applied images of sacred Māori tattoos to users’ faces, after the discovery of the culturally offensive filters on social media apps provoked an outcry in New Zealand.
An investigation by Radio New Zealand revealed filters featuring tā moko tattoos have proliferated on social media apps such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Tā moko represent the Māori genealogy of the wearer, and are a taonga, or treasure, for New Zealand’s Indigenous people.
This raised new questions regarding the way sacred cultural artefacts are treated on technology platforms. There was also debate over whether New Zealand should give them stronger legal protections.
The Guardian viewed at least 10 such filters on Instagram at the time of publication, all with names that included “Māori” or “moko”, that were created by users of the platform. Meta, the owner of Instagram, didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Snap, who owns? Snapchat, told the Guardian it had removed one such filter – called a Lens – from its platform, along with a duplicate, after a New Zealand-based reporter raised concerns from the Māori community about the tools.
“We encourage our community to create Lenses that are inclusive and any shared on Snapchat must comply with our community guidelines,” the company told the Guardian in an unattributed statement. “These are clear that we prohibit content that demeans, defames, or promotes discrimination.”
Tā moko are only intended for Māori. Each is created to be unique to the wearer’s ancestry, which meant multiple social media users applying the same filter compounded the “huge disrespect” caused by the “highly offensive” tools, one analyst said.
“The moko you see is that person’s genealogy and achievements and the whole design ends up becoming a treasure for that individual’s family,” said Dr Karaitiana Taiuru, an expert on mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and intellectual property. “They’re very sentimental, they’re very precious.”
Social media users might also be applying the wrong moko for their gender; only Māori men wear the full facial tattoo, with moko kauae – which cover the lips and chin – designed for women.
A renaissance in the appreciation of Māori art during the past decade has sparked a renewed interest among Māori in taking tā moko. But Māori had previously faced widespread discrimination for wearing them, making the use of the tattoos as an aesthetic tool on social media was even more inappropriate, said Taiuru.
“I’ve seen in my lifetime people yelled at or assumed to be gang members because they wear a traditional Māori tattoo,” he said.
It is not the first time the technology industry has faced criticism over its treatment of tā moko. Taiuru and other advocates have attacked racist AI systems, which fail to recognize the faces of tattoo users.
Popularity and knowledge of New Zealand’s culture overseas appeared to have sparked a new wave of appropriation, but it was no longer possible for companies abroad to claim ignorance, said Taiuru, who sometimes consults with firms that have faced criticism.
“We had a stage where cultural appropriation was prolific, it was just everywhere,” he said. “It seemed to calm down but now it’s started back up again.”
Taiuru said: “I don’t know why but these social media tools are everywhere and they’re so easy to distribute.”
The furore raised questions about greater protection for Māori taonga (treasures) under New Zealand’s intellectual property laws. The Waitangi Tribunal – a body set up to address claims brought by Māori against the Crown from the colonisation of New Zealand – recommended in 2011 a new legal regime for Māori knowledge and culture. It is currently in process of being established.