The old man with the light grey eyes lived in the kaumātua flats next to the marae at the Mount and rarely finished his sentences because he assumed you just knew where he was going.

Clutching my hand, he would show me off to his neighbours, introducing me as his “girlfriend”, before leading me into the kitchen of his little house to tempt me with a beautiful array of cakes that had been dropped off by his last visitor. He was 89.

When he was 10 years old, Te Kani a Takirau Poata would cradle the heads of women who were having their moko applied by his father Tame Poata, one of the last of the traditional tohunga tā moko to use the chisel. The old man described the scene. Whānau would join the ceremony, singing and chanting non-stop, filling the room with mōteatea to soothe and calm the woman. Hypnotism. Māori styles.

Because the head the most sacred part of the body was touched and blood spilt,
the whole ceremony was tapu
The tip of a birdbone chisel dipped into sooty black pigment
Tapped by a beater to the sound of songs created to soothe
The painful process of creating moko so don’t use that word tattoo*

The old man could never shake the memory of the pain he witnessed. “I used to say to my father, why don’t you just hit them over the head with a length of four-by-two? Knock them out? That would be quicker and more humane.”

The old man. Te Kani a Takirau Poata

Gotta love that generation. Practical bunch.

I knew little about moko. Although there were a number in Tūhoe, the only people I had seen with moko were a handful of kuia on the veranda at Tūrangawaewae marae a very long time ago. It was hard not to stare. I couldn’t take my eyes off these living, breathing portals to our past, dressed in black with their backs against the wall, mysterious yet tangible reminders of a world lost to my generation.

Women received kauae or chin moko
Some copied their mothers or grandmothers
Others allowed the artist to express their own creativity
The moko indicated genealogy, rank, accomplishment
It represented masculinity, beauty, warriorhood, identity
So don’t use that word tattoo.

When director Kerry Brown and I  started collaborating on music videos in the ‘90s, we were hellbent on showcasing every iconic Māori image we could, to make up for the invisibility of our people across the media and popular culture.

AEIOU was the very first NZ On Air funded video. We stuffed it full of Māori design, faces, dance, haka. It was an in-your-face declaration that Māori were still here. I really wanted to pull someone in with moko, but, back in the ‘90s, it was a rarity. One of my girlfriends dragged a big, burly, leather-jacketed mate to the shoot. Despite the blurry images, he owned the last few frames of that video.

It was Tame Iti who credited the gangs for keeping the notion of the moko alive. Even if their facial tattoos were a far cry from the traditional designs, the concept of wearing allegiances on the face, of using the skin as a canvas to tell a personal story that went beyond design, was a distinctly Māori expression. One of Tame’s most revolutionary acts was to take on the full facial moko himself, to move it out of the gang space and back into the mainstream.

The classic Māori moko has the male bearing complex spirals on both cheeks
Both sides of the nose
Lines spread between the eyes to the temple
The nose to the chin
Over nineteen names have been identified for different parts
Of the pattern

I’ll never forget watching Tame being interviewed on television about his newly-acquired moko. A well-known journalist suggested to Tame that the act of receiving moko was less about him reviving a traditional cultural expression than it was him intimidating Pākehā. I was gobsmacked. So was Tame. Taken aback, he spluttered and switched into Māori. “Speak English,” admonished the journalist. “No one can understand what you are saying.”

I was so angry at seeing this proud Tūhoe man humiliated on state television.

Deirdre Nehua

Deirdre Nehua

A few months later, our mutual friend Deirdre Nehua told me she was going to receive her moko. Deirdre thought long and hard about how the moko would impact on her life. To her, it was a declaration that carried responsibilities, that required her to behave in a certain way, so she could fully honour the kauae.

Deidre: “Niko Tangaroa did this hour-long karakia at 4am for me. We had been on the Whanganui river for a week and I came straight off the awa and headed north to have it done. I fasted all the time I was on the awa in preparation and I was rock solid when the time came.”

And then one day, there it was. Beautiful.

“My whānau didn’t want me to do it and my mother went absolutely nuts when she saw it. I got a lot of flak from Māori, especially men who refused to hongi me, who said I was too young, who refused to speak English to me when they knew I couldn’t speak Māori as a way of proving to themselves that I shouldn’t have it. I had Māori tell me it made me look ugly, that it was too tapu for me to have. It went on and on.”

Deirdre told me her kids said that their mother’s moko was always on the inside. Moko artist Gordon Toi Hatfield had used his skills to draw it to the surface.

I wear my pride upon my Skin
My pride has always been within
I wear my strength upon my Face
Come from another time and Place

Inspired by Tame and Deirdre, I hunkered down in a little B&B up in Matakana with a 4-track machine and every book I could find on the subject, trying to understand the difference between moko and tattoo. And then I started writing.

The word tattoo describes the marking of patterns
by inserting coloured dyes under a smooth skin
The word moko represents a traditional Māori custom in which spirals,
unique to Māori are carved deeply below the skin’s surface
to produce a grooved scar.

Rangi Kipa and I talked for a while before he reached for his needle. I trusted Rangi to tell my story. He simply pressed the needle into the skin above my wrist. It felt like hot, broken glass being dragged across my skin. I tried to breathe evenly and concentrate on the song swirling in my head, grateful the needle wasn’t striking into my chin, and on my lips. It embraced my arm like a secret, one that only he and I shared. I was the first in my family — my five siblings followed suit.

Moko resonates with people all around the world.

The international rise of tattoo in pop culture has seen moko appropriated across products by companies who have no connection to Māori. It’s a way of selling stuff.

The designer for Ford Motors plonked a moko design across a Ford truck after deciding that the moko represented “strength and pride, it’s a lot like what our trucks are about.” Truly.

The makers of The Mark of Kri were looking for a new way to sell their next game featuring a warrior, and they thought the moko made their character look way more “authentic”.

Some individuals collect tattoos like stamps. There was the guy who came up to me at a pow-wow in Toronto, and showed me his tattoos from Japan, Scotland, Tahiti. (“I need a Māori one now.”)

There was a heavily pierced white guy I saw strolling along the cobbled streets of Venice with a moko kauae. I thought briefly about telling him he had it all wrong, but decided to have another wine instead.

There was the Swedish tattoo artist whose Samoan lover — a renowned tatau master himself — apparently tattooed crude moko-like designs on her chin.

And the buff Italian in a market in Naples whose arms were bedecked with moko. I tried to chat with him, but he had no idea what a Māori was, let alone what the designs meant.

Then there were the two guys wearing tino rangatiratanga t-shirts and pareu decorated with koru. They had woven kete on their backs, carved weapons protruding. One was carrying a mere pounamu. In the foyer bar of a venue we were playing at. In hindsight that should have been a giveaway. His pounamu hei tiki was bigger than any I’d ever seen. They wore pūhoro. My sister Trina and I were both surprised and delighted. After all, we were in the middle of Europe.

“Kia ora! No hea kōrua?” we asked. “Where are you from?” The men looked at each other, shrugged, and laughed. “We are German!” Whoa. Didn’t expect that. They looked more Māori than we do.

Some of my haka crew spied them too and were making a beeline. I subtly shook my head. They rearranged their faces, polite yet wary. It didn’t take long for the mask to slip. One of my band leaned in to whisper: “I want to smash that fucking bastard. He just asked me, ‘When are you getting your pūhoro? Why haven’t you got one?’ Can you believe it?”

In other words, I’m more Māori than you. You’re not Māori enough. You’re not a real Māori. The fan had morphed into the adjudicator.

Moko is a Māori custom, ritual, and expression. Facial tattoos exist in other cultures, among the hill tribes of Taiwan, the Inuit, across the Middle East and into South America. Each has their own style and significance. But the spirals and lines of moko are distinctly Māori.

It is a right for Māori women to wear the kauae, and for males to wear full facial moko and pūhoro. Some of the ritual and conventions may have changed around who can create and receive, but it’s generally accepted that we don’t need to be perfect. We just have to be Māori. While tohunga have declined some of our own, usually it’s good enough for us to be who and what we are. All we need is whakapapa. And whakapapa isn’t measured in percentages. It simply is.

The moko reflected the carvings and rafter patterns inside the Whare tipuna
but some were made so distinctive they were like an autograph
a beautiful signature written all over the face
In 1815 Te Pehi Kupe drew his own moko without the aid of a Mirror
every line firmly in his mind and then he drew the moko
Of his brother and his son

Feeling aroha and empathy for Māori doesn’t make anyone Māori. I feel skinny and rich, but a closer look in the mirror or into my bank account snaps me out of my reverie.

Pākehā allies exist because they have never felt threatened or diminished because of us. They are comfortable in their own skins. They don’t want to be us or take anything more from us. They understand the history of dispossession and disempowerment at the hands of the Crown and how Pākehā continue to benefit from that.

They get the cherry-picking of our culture, the fondness Pākehā have for haka, hangi, and hongi; the affection Pākehā have for the simple stuff that connects them to the land their ancestors took from us. They understand the irony, the power denied to us. As Moana Jackson once said: “You can’t claim to love the culture if you don’t love the people to whom the culture belongs.”

It’s a privilege for non-Māori to wear the markings of our ancestors. The custom of kirituhi was apparently developed by moko artists to enable non-Māori to adorn their skin with our beautiful design. Kirituhi is a special and intimate expression, but it is not moko. Tohunga tā moko drew a line in the sand. We need to hold it. So much was stolen from us, we don’t need to give it all away. Giving Pākehā everything won’t make them love us more.

Netana Whakaari said in 1921:
You can lose your most valuable property through misfortune in various ways
you may be robbed of all your prized possessions
but of your moko you cannot be deprived
It will be your ornament and your companion
until your last day
so don’t use that word tattoo


* These are the lyrics of Moko, the spoken-word song by Moana (dedicated to Tame Iti and Deirdre Nehua) which won the Grand Jury Prize of the International Songwriting Contest in 2003.

© E-Tangata, 2018

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