The lips of some are tinted midnight blue, tendrils of scrolling ink permanently running down their chins. Others have intricate lines swirling across their entire face, circling around their eyes and climbing up into the hairline.
Many of them didn't want their picture taken.
Photographer Hans Neleman, however, was fascinated with ta moko — the traditional art of facial tattoos in New Zealand. And he was persistent.
His subjects are members of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand who don facial and body tattoos known as moko.
They weren't easy to find — and they didn't readily pose for the camera. Neleman and his team had to immerse themselves in the Maori culture to capture the images.
"We had to rinse ourselves in rivers and cleanse ourselves. We had to sing songs when we met people," Neleman explained of how his team got inside the Maori culture.
"It was spiritual, it was crazy, it was weird," he said.
It also was worth it.
The photos he took were published in the book, "Moko — Maori Tattoos" in 1999. Thirty of the photos will be on display at Peabody Essex Museum.
The exhibit, "Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today," runs until Feb. 1, 2009.
For centuries, moko tattoos signified rank and status within a Maori tribe, and also marked important events in a Maori's life. Each piece of the intricate design held meaning and was understandable to other Maori.
But through decades of European settlement, the Maori culture was outlawed and the moko tattoos banned.
Now, the moko is in a resurgence as Maori people work to reclaim their heritage. Today, about 7 to 9 percent of New Zealanders claim Maori ancestry.
"This is a group of people who are willing to dedicate their face and move forward by looking backward," he said.
Even a decade after visiting the Maori people and shooting the photos, Neleman still speaks passionately about his experience.
He first became interested in the subject while working as a commercial photographer in New York in 1997. The Dutch-born Neleman went to New Zealand, originally to give lectures and show his work at the Institute of Professional Photographers.
"I saw some people when we first landed (with the moko tattoos) and it was like, 'Hey, what's that?' " he recalled.
After his lectures and showings, he said, "We went to see if we could find some people."
Later, when he saw the film "Once We Were Warriors," which portrays a Maori family's troubled life, he was hooked.
"It became a little bit of an obsession," Neleman said last week in a phone interview.
After securing a grant to help offset some of the cost, Neleman spent six weeks in 1998 meeting Maori members who had the moko tattoos and gaining their trust.
It wasn't easy. The last 300 years saw the Maori people's culture desecrated and their numbers dwindle. European settlers started coming to New Zealand in the 1600s, bringing with them disease, weapons, Western customs and missionaries — all of which corroded the Maori culture and traditions.
Fighting for land between the native New Zealanders and the British lasted throughout much of the mid-1800s, with much Maori land confiscated. Ancient traditions — such as the moko — were outlawed.
A resurgence of Maori culturalism began in the 1960s, and moko (outlawed until 1962) became popular among young gang members and men in prison as a way to display their ethnic pride, and as an act of defiance.
So Neleman understood why the Maori he encountered were very suspicious.
"As we made a more and more desperate attempt" at finding their subjects, "it made us realize the difficulty and the resilience of the people," he said.
As he gained the trust of his subjects, his group became the "visual voyagers" who helped explain the long and complicated history of Maori.
"They're a group of people living together under the same beliefs, but like so many ethnic groups, they're people fighting to regain their own identity," he said. "And these facial tattoos and body tattoos are one way they are doing that."
A home at PEM
Karen Kramer Russell, who curated this exhibit, said when the chance came to host the photo exhibit it seemed like a natural fit.
PEM, she points out, "has one of the oldest collections and largest collections of Maori art outside New Zealand." And as moko enjoys a resurgence, the museum was happy to have this exhibit to coincide with its existing collection.
The museum included seven related Maori wood carvings it has in its collection of Oceanic art, which is a permanent display there.
Kramer Russell culled the images for the show from Neleman's collection and shared her picks with him. After a little back and forth the final shots where chosen.
"I was looking for photographs whose composition spoke to me," she explained. "I needed to somehow connect with the person in the portrait — whether it was eye contact, or body language ... or some combination of lighting and composition."
She was sure to include images from each of the three groups of Maori who have the tattoos: urban gang members, a group that call themselves the Rastafarians and a group of "contemporary Maori people living in more rural traditional villages."
Locating these subjects was a far cry from the orchestrated studio shots Neleman had been doing in New York for advertising clients.
He and his team would meet subjects in all types of places, basically by wandering around. One night they met a man with a moko as they were driving in the dark.
"It's the pitch black of night, and we see a guy by the side of the road," he said. "So we turn around, find him, and put up something in the background, and shoot his picture.
"We had to dive headfirst into it, that was the only way to do it, the only way to be honest about it," he said. "You come out for air six weeks later and say, 'Hey, what happened?' "
The project, Neleman said, changed his life.
"We were so obsessed by the people, listening to this other culture, seeing life through other people's eyes," he said. "There's a saying, 'Money's good for fire.' Meaning that, money isn't the most important thing, it's family."
Neleman admits that he was used to the rat race in the Big Apple, "where nothing's important except getting your images on billboards and in magazines."
But his integration with the Maori changed his perspective. Six months after his return from New Zealand, he was married to a woman he met a week after his return. They now have three children.
His trip also gave him a reverence for the Maori, and what he describes as their painful past, but brighter future.
One of the subjects in Neleman's collection is shown in a business suit, a stark contrast to the moko that covers his face.
"This guy said, 'Look I'm a student.' And he looks like an odd, out-of-place character even in his own world," Neleman said. "He wanted to wear a suit. This was to be a contrasting statement about where we are in this moment, but it's a statement about where we will be in the future."
Staff writer Michelle Morrissey can be reached at 978-946-2496, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
What: "Body Politics," an exhibit on Maori moko that features 19th-century and contemporary woodcarvings
When: Saturday through Feb. 1, 2009
Where: Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem
For more information: www.pem.org, or 978-745-9500