In western culture tattoos are often a mark of rebellion against tradition. In contrast, New Zealand’s Māori tā moko is a visual connection to the past, the present and the future engraved into the skin.
While tā moko, including facial tattoos, has made a resurgence in recent decades, for a long time it was looking dire for Māori arts and crafts. New Zealand’s government’s 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act outlawed the spiritual and educational role of Māori experts (tohunga) and with them the knowledge of cultural practices of the indigenous people.
Tā moko skills, along with those for whakairo (wood carving), raranga (weaving) and kapa haka (group performance) had to be rediscovered by a generation of Māori who now proudly connect with their heritage.
The Māori Arts and Crafts Institute at Te Puia in Rotorua played an essential part in the survival of these central elements of Māoridom.
The institute was established in 1963 by the New Zealand government to revive the dwindling knowledge of Māori arts and crafts. Today the institute, based at the Whakarewarewa geothermal valley in Rotorua, with bubbling mud and the Pōhutu geyser, welcomes visitors who want to get a close-up view of a rich, living culture.
The school invites visitors to watch as skillful master craftsmen train young Māori in the ancient arts. Although tā moko isn’t taught at the NZMAC, it is omnipresent.
Arekatera Maihi, who leads the woodcarving division cuts an impressive sight with black lines etched into his forehead, around his eyes and curling over his nose and his chin. After honing his skills on wood, the artist and musician also branched out into tā moko.
He says that tā moko is more than simple tattooing. It is the art of translating the wearer’s personal story into a visual design on the skin. It is also considered a taonga or treasure, and so each moko design is considered intellectual property.
For Māori, their whakapapa (the line of ancestors a person descends from, and a deep connection to the land where they are from) forms an essential part of their identity. Tā moko indicates the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations and their placing within these social structures, in addition to his accomplishments and marital status.
Ngaa Rauuira Puumanawawhiti, researcher at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, says his people believe that “we are already born with moko.”
“The moko already exists inside the person and is only manifested externally and added to over time as the person progresses through their life journey,” he explains.
“The chisels’ grooves and cuts are a visual to be worn on the human exterior”. However, the spiritual depth that is associated with moko and for which it is so revered lies within the person themself.
It is only natural then that tā moko designs cannot be picked from a catalogue but are developed by the tohunga tā moko, or Māori tattoo expert, to represent the wearer’s history.
Maihi explains that when he’s working with a client “we have a series of conversations that help me understand where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing and where they’re from.”
Facial tattoos are now worn with pride again, but for many decades they were associated with gangs and crime.
And gangs did indeed play a role in the tā moko resurgence in the late 70s, Maihi explains. “They allowed their faces to be tattooed.” Although the majority didn’t follow the traditional patterns of tā moko, they still raised an awareness for tattoos.
The political Māori renaissance of the 1970s and the rediscovery of the traditional designs in wood carving paved the way for a greater interest aesthetic of tā moko too. In the late 20th more Māori started having their faces tattooed again.
However, the wearers of facial tattoos have long been afflicted with social stigma by the predominantly white society of New Zealand. While in recent decades Māori have reclaimed ownership and pride in the art form, the decision to “take moko” is still not taken lightly.
“It’s a big journey and a massive undertaking to consider getting a facial moko,” Maihi says.
And he should know. Although he has been tattooing people for 15 years, he only got his own facial tattoo last July.
“It has taken me 15 years to feel comfortable with myself and to get to the point to not care what other people think.”
People still react in a certain way. “You have to know that you can handle the finger-pointing and the camera shooting,” he says.
Facial tattoos aren’t just reserved for men. The female moko kauae is traditionally limited to the chin, lips and the area above the upper lip.
Last year Nanaia Mahuta became the first member of the New Zealand parliament to wear a moko kauae.
“People look at you differently. It's a cultural marker, and it says clearly when I'm sitting round a table that I represent a certain way of thinking," the veteran politician who has been an MP for 20 years said in an interview.
With its rising popularity there is some concern among Māori that tā moko is increasingly being adopted as a fashion trend, while others are unhappy with non-Māori who want to adorn their bodies with them.
“Some tā moko artists use the word kirituhi, meaning skin decoration, for tattooing non-Māori. They believe they lack a connection to the origins of tā moko, but I personally don’t,” Maihi says.
At Wellington's small Tattoo Museum visitors can learn about the origins, traditions, rituals, tools and practices of the sacred art.
“We aim to help bring tā moko back into the public realm,” museum founder and tattooist Stephen Maddock says.
In his opinion tā moko and tattoos are very different sectors of one artistic medium.
“Tā moko is a rich cultural tradition, a birthmark, a fingerprint, a show of pride in heritage and culture and is reserved for Māori alone,” he explains.
But MaIhi feels that the best way to keep his culture alive is to share it with the rest of the world, and Puumanawawhiti hopes the moko, as the most visually obvious expression of Māori culture, will become normal for the younger generation.
"My hope is that there will come a day when tā moko will be so common among Māori that we will all be amazed and curious about those who don't wear moko and ask what 'not wearing' moko means," he says.