The resurrection of tā moko raises questions for Maori

THE drawing is almost complete. Her eyes fill with tears as she examines the Māori design drawn meticulously across her foot. Originally from France, she has spent the last four years travelling around New Zealand. Wiping an escaping tear from her cheek, she says she is getting this tattoo to show her connection to the land, and her love for this country.

It is time to begin. The violent humming of the tattoo gun dominates the studio. Mark Kopua, a Māori carver who has been tattooing for over 20 years makes the first incision. “How does that feel?” He asks – making sure his client will be able to handle the pain before going any further. She nods, permitting him to continue. This is her first tattoo. The Māori design is becoming an intrinsic part of her with each stab by the needle. It represents her connection to New Zealand and its indigenous people, and will be etched on her skin forever.

If you walk down the street on a sunny day you might notice the art of tattoo is commonly found on the bodies of many New Zealanders. But it is not tā moko.

Tā moko has been around for hundreds of years, yet there is still a lack of understanding and education about the art form in New Zealand. Jessica Lai, who is conducting research with the University of Lucerne, says in her thesis Māori Culture in the Modern World that an important part of New Zealand’s history slipped through the cracks in the 20th century due to the after-effects of colonisation.

“As a consequence of the colonisation of New Zealand and the subsequent removal of many Māori from their traditional social structures and norms, Māori culture and identity has become muddied in the Pākehā dominated world.”

Mark, who is Ngāti Ira, Te Aitanga a Hauiti, and Ngāti Porou, lifts the needle and looks at me with stern eyes as he speaks. His face is covered with tā moko. The korus and patterns accentuate each part of his face, each piece tells a story.

“There were three main things that came from colonisation which stopped tā moko in its tracks.” He re-focuses on the work in front of him before he continues speaking. “Church activities discouraged the acquisition of new moko once you joined the church. If you got new moko you would be banished. Guns were traded for tattooed heads; it was a flourishing business. And finally, litigation. The law.”

Nicole MacDonald, author of the book Moko – Māori Tattoos, says because of colonisation Māori were assimilated into “mainstream” New Zealand culture. Part of the reason for this she says was because Māori culture was often suppressed either legally or through strict enforcement of certain policies.

“The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 expressly denied Māori the freedom to practice their culture by outlawing the spiritual and educational role of tohunga (priests or experts in Māori medicine and spirituality). The ancient art of moko (facial tattoos) was almost lost as a consequence of its repression by Pākehā missionaries and colonial governments. Stories of children being physically punished by school teachers for speaking in te reo Māori throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are also common.”

An ever-evolving art form

Tā moko resurfaced in the 1970s and was slow to start, but it has grown momentum ever since. Mark says in recent times it has been revived as an important art form among Māori, and is worn as an expression of cultural pride and integrity. Like any other art form, moko is constantly evolving.

“Tā moko changes every year. The more new people get involved and become artists the more developed the designs become. There is some stuff in traditional moko that we had to get rid of because it’s no longer applicable. As culture changes, the artwork changes. It’s inevitable.”

While Mark concentrates on the work in front of him, Wiremu Barabell, a tā moko artist from the same studio, is busy drawing a moko on a Māori woman’s thigh. He asks her what she would like in her moko. She thinks intensely for a few seconds before speaking. “My children, mother, father, and two sisters,” she replies. He nods in agreement as he begins to incorporate these aspects into the design.

He says while he has been tattooing for 20 years, he seconds Mark’s opinion that the art of moko has changed over time. He draws effortlessly with the marker as he speaks. “The moko still carries the same meaning, but it is more contemporary. All art evolves.”

Traditional tā moko was done by tapping with a tool called an ihu. The face was cut and ink was rubbed into the wounds. With other parts of the body, a combed edged chisel was used. Tapping is still used today, although less common than the tattoo guns, which are faster and more accurate.

“Tapping was about genealogy, rank and status,” Wiremu says, leaning back in his chair to evaluate his drawing. “But now times have changed. Everything changes, and we’ve had to adapt. People are getting moko in places that weren’t traditionally done before, but that’s starting to become a tradition in itself.”

Wiremu, who is Te Atiawa, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Raukawa, and Te Rarawa, says he would not have labelled himself as a tā moko artist in the early stages of his career. “Twenty years ago words like tā moko weren’t getting thrown around much. There was a lot of uncertainty about it and it wasn’t common. Moko may be popular now, but it wasn’t back then.”

He says a single definition cannot be given to tā moko because beliefs and ideals about the art form vary amongst different iwi. “To me, moko is about identity and how that is portrayed is very broad. It is mainly used for Māori to affiliate themselves to their iwi. It is a mark of identity.”

Who can get tā moko

Wiremu says only Māori can get tā moko because it is specific to Māori culture. However, anyone can get Māori inspired designs, for which the term kirituhi is used. “Kirituhi means skin art. It is a safeguard for non-Māori who get Māori inspired designs. I have no problem with non-Māori getting Māori designs, but with the terminology they use.”

Arden Harrison, who has been a contemporary tattooist for five years, says the differentiation between tā moko and kirituhi is important. “I always clarify that I only do kirituhi because tā moko is only done by proper Māori tattooists with the proper background. I can’t do tā moko. I’d say most of the people you see with Māori tattoos are technically kirituhi, it is important for people to understand the difference.”

Wiremu says kirituhi is made from freestyle custom work. Aesthetically it has all the bits and pieces and some meaning, but it is more artwork than moko. Tā moko is about the individual’s whakapapa. Landmarks and ancestors are used to symbolise iwi.

“It could be a number of combinations. People now put their kids in their moko which wasn’t traditionally done before. I guess there are loose rules; a lot of it has to do with adopted symbolism and elements of carving.”

Kataraina Karehana, of Ngāti Hikairo, who works as a primary school teacher, says her tā moko incorporates her iwi, hapu, extended whānau, husband, and her three boys.

“Tā moko is very important to me. It’s a huge part of culture. It’s our whakapapa, it’s our history. It would be a huge shame if tā moko stopped. However I do believe every piece should tell a story and no two pieces should be the same.”

Her tā moko artist explained what each part of the design represented and wrote it down for her.

“The three corners are my iwi, hapu, and whanau. The dead centre is the eye of a Manaia, [a bird-headed mythological creature and symbol of protection in Māori mythology] which is my baby son’s name. The two smaller pieces are my older two boys, and the larger piece is my husband.”

Kataraina says she doesn’t have a problem with non-Māori getting tā moko or using the term over kirituhi.

“I do believe they should be ‘Kiwi’ and by that I mean someone who holds Aotearoa dear to them, after all my culture belongs to all New Zealanders.”

However, she says some people are more entitled to tā moko than others.

“I don’t believe a celebrity such as Rihanna should have got tā moko because a few days later she got it covered. My mother is pākehā and I know she wants tā moko, and why shouldn’t she? She has Māori tamariki she speaks Māori and practices tikanga. If a pākehā is getting tā moko for the right reasons I say go hard.” The “urbanisation” of Māori culture

Researcher Jessica Lai said the urbanisation of Māori culture has resulted in many Māori having very little contact with Māori culture, other than what is “mainstreamed,” such as tā moko. This results in “pop-culture” appropriations of Māori culture being made.

“The current interest and, hence, increased pop-culture visibility of indigenous cultural heritage is sometimes mistakenly viewed as contributing towards the modern movement by indigenous peoples to recover their heritage. However, this perspective does not appreciate the underlying values of a culture and its ability to change over time.”

She says Māori culture is increasingly becoming a part of New Zealand culture, but it is questionable how deep the inheritance goes and whether it is a superficial undertaking of Māori culture rather than a true appreciation and representation.

Brad McIver, who has been a tattooist for 10 years, says he designs and tattoos Māori inspired art works as long as they are contemporary. “They don’t mean anything they’re just to look good. I explain that to the client before I start. If any person comes in for a Māori design I tell them that it’s just a design.”

Brad said Māori tattoos, like most tattoos, are only designed to look good.

“Māori tattoo is becoming more of a fashion statement. When celebrities or athletes have Māori tattoos I get people coming in and asking for a design similar to theirs. People from overseas get Māori inspired tattoos, it’s like there is a hunger for the ‘exotic’.”

Brad agrees that tā moko is a mark of identity, but says it is a superficial one.

“It’s like a label that says ‘I have a Māori tattoo so I am Māori’. You don’t need a tattoo to prove to the world that you are Māori.”

However, Māori writer and academic Dr Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, who is Professor of Psychology at Waikato University contests this point of view.

“Tā moko today is much more than a fashion statement, a passing fad for Māori. It is about who we are, and whom we come from. It is about where we are going, and how we choose to get there. And it is about for always, forever.”

She says the days of tā moko have been resurrected, and this is just the beginning of the revival of the art form. “The past is recent, and the past is today – which is why Māori are wearing it now. On our bodies – and increasingly, on our faces too.”

Wiremu says tā moko is a way of connecting with your culture and etching that culture permanently into yourself.

“It is very important that moko is kept alive because if it wasn’t for people walking around with moko you could think you’re in any country. The people tell you where you are. It is what makes New Zealand unique. It comes down to identity I guess. It’s about making a connection to the culture and is a form of expression.”

A lack of understanding

FINAL INCISION: Mark Kopua is finishing off the kirituhi.

Mark says women traditionally wore moko on the chin, as well as occasionally appearing on the forehead, upper lip, nostrils, and throat. His personal goal is to increase the amount of Māori women with moko on their chins.

“People are worried about getting moko on their faces because of social stigma, but that used to be the tradition. There’s a lack of acceptance in New Zealand. They still want to put us on the fringe of society.”

Mark has experienced social stigma from his tā moko first-hand when he was asked to leave a pub in Christchurch in 2009.

“When they see someone with moko on their face they assume they are in a gang.”

Wiremu says that is why New Zealand needs tā moko artists.

“We need to do this to carry on the practice. We want to normalise it and to change people’s perception of facial moko being associated with gangs.”

He says the perception of tā moko is changing, but slowly.

“There is merely a lack of understanding about Māori culture, and this should start in schools. In schools you don’t even learn about your own backyard.”

While tā moko is reserved for Māori, kirituhi is available for everyone. Māori tattoo is both a form of identity and a fashion statement. It is worn with pride by Māori and non-Māori New Zealanders as well as by people from overseas, such as the French woman getting kirituhi to show her love for the country.

Both tā moko and kirituhi are art forms, but they carry different meaning. For non-Māori it is a very popular art form. Celebrities like Robbie Williams, Mike Tyson, and Rihanna have had Māori inspired designs tattooed. It is an artistic form of expression and carries different meaning tailored to the wearer.

While there are arguments that tā moko is a short-lived attempt at resurrecting the culture, the practice of tā moko and kirituhi has grown so popular that it has become an intrinsic part of New Zealand culture and Māori identity, which is how it was before colonisation. It is a practice that needs to continue in order to preserve the tradition. Once a deeper understanding of tā moko is made through education, negative perceptions will change and the moko revival can truly flourish.

In exploring the cultural significance of tā moko, it’s fascinating to see similar practices in other parts of the Pacific. Hawaiian tattooing, or ‘Kakau’, shares a connected history and cultural importance. Like tā moko, Kakau has experienced both a decline due to external influences and a modern revival that seeks to preserve heritage while adapting to contemporary times.

What is Tā Moko?

  • Tā Moko is a visual language that connects the wearer to their whakapapa.
  • Every moko contains ancestral/tribal messages specific to the wearer. These messages tell the story of the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations, and their place in these social structures.
  • Traditional Moko would also contain the wearer’s ‘value’ by way of their genealogy, and their knowledge and standing in their social level.

Why is Ta Moko worn on the face?

A moko on the face is considered to be the ultimate statement of one’s identity as a Māori. This is because the head is believed to be the most sacred part of the body. To wear the moko on the face is to bear an undeniable declaration of who you are.

How is Ta Moko applied to the skin?

Many opt for the needle as it is faster and more precise. However, some people are choosing hand tools or ihu in order to make the process more in line with traditional ways.

What is a real Ta Moko artist?

Tā Moko artists generally have backgrounds in Māori carving. They understand the art form and its symbolism through their carving training.


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