Musician and songwriter Ariana Tikao’s story of her moko kauae is the subject of a new book, Mokorua, published by Auckland University Press this month. The photo essay by Matt Calman records Ariana receiving her moko from artist and tohuka tā moko Christine Harvey (of Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri) — which Ariana describes in this extract.
As a child, I never saw a living person with a moko. Come to think of it, even tattoos were rare back in the 1970s and ’80s. I had probably seen moko kauae in books and on television, but they seemed like relics from a world that I did not know.
When I was at university, I told some Pākehā friends in the pub that when I turned 21, I would have to follow whānau tradition and get my moko. But back then it was just a joke.
Thirty years later, I had changed — and so had Aotearoa.
. . .
I lay down on Christine’s table, and she began drawing the design directly onto my chin in felt pen: this took just over an hour. There was chatting, laughter and some waiata among the support crew. When she had finished, I stood up, had a look at the design and showed the others. I had told Christine I trusted her to go with her own creative process.
We had karakia, and then the actual moko started coming into being. I wasn’t sure what level of pain to expect — but I just breathed through it. There were certain parts that were more painful but mostly it was tolerable. Overwhelming the pain was the enormity of going through this rite of passage, and a deep commitment to becoming a new version of myself.
I had had a dream a few weeks before where I saw myself rising up at that moment, and I saw my moko. It was a vivid green. It started moving in slow animation, the patterns weaving in and around each other. It was beautiful.
When Christine had finished her mahi, I rose from the table and went around the room and hongied each person. Tears were flowing. It was such a charged atmosphere, full of aroha.
I saw the wonder in the eyes of my tamariki and their cousins, my nieces and nephews. Our whānau had reached another milestone in the decolonisation process — or, rather, in our journey of reindigenising ourselves, becoming who we always were. We are reclaiming the tohu, the marks of our tīpuna.
I’ve found it fascinating to see people’s reactions to my moko. Many people comment positively, saying how beautiful it is. Others seem a bit stunned and look away. Because I have pale skin and am what is known in Māori as a kiritea, for my whole life strangers I meet have not necessarily known if I am Māori or some other ethnicity.
Now, though, with my moko kauae, people know I am a Māori woman. One of the most precious things for me is how Māori respond: often they greet me with a “Kia ora, Whaea” and a smile, or sometimes just a nod of acknowledgement.
My moko has now surfaced from beneath my skin, and she, Mokorua, has revealed herself in her green-lined goodness.
This extract is taken from Mokorua, published by Auckland University Press. All photos by Matt Calman. (Recommended retail price $45.) See also Dale Husband’s interview with Ariana here.
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