Although still a rare sight in national politics, facial moko is increasingly common in contemporary New Zealand society. Tattoos often carry a huge cultural significance to the wearer, telling a visual story that connects natives to their ancestors.
A member of the Tainui Waka Alliance Maori group at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington in 2012, when the museum welcomed 20 heads with mummified tattoos brought to Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. Credit: Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images
For Te Kahautu Maxwell, associate professor at Waikato University (and the great-grandson of a moko artist), a face tattoo about 10 years ago was to “reclaim” his legacy.
“It is about my legacy and my place in society as an historian, a scholar and an orator or spokesman for my people,” he said in an interview. telephone inquiry. “It gives me a sense of pride and it gives my people a sense of pride.
“It also tells the history of my life,” he added. “It is something sacred and precious to me.”
Continuing with tradition
The practice of tattooing – known as tā moko – is said to take its name from Rūaumoko, the Māori god of earthquakes and volcanoes. A story of common origin involving a mythical figure, Mataoro, who fell in love with and married Niwareka, the daughter of a ruler of the underworld.
After beating her in rage, Mataoro followed his wife to the Underworld in hopes of forgiveness. While there, Niwareka’s father taught him the art of tā moko and, in order to punish his return to the “upper class” world, marking him with tattoos as a reminder to avoid evil actions. Future.
A woman has markings on her lips and chin, known as moko kauae, at the Alte Nationalgalerie museum in Berlin in 2014. Credit: Tobias Schwarz / AFP via Getty Images
Moko rituals are historically surrounded by customs and rituals. They often take place in temporary outdoor shelters, with tattooed people only allowed to eat through a carved funnel, which also helps to reduce the likelihood of infection. Recipients must abstain from sexual intercourse or bathe while they heal.
Traditionally, men would put markings on the face, buttocks, and thighs, while women usually put marks on the lips and chin.
Although tattooing has been practiced in Polynesian societies for centuries, Maori groups have developed their own specific techniques and tools. Organic pigments – created by burning the sap of the kauri tree, mixing soot with oil or other fluids – will be chiseled underneath the top layer of skin with tools forging from bird bones, usually seabirds Europe. (Around the beginning of the 20th century, the use of needles became more common, while today, modern tattoo machines are also in use.)
The popularity of moko on the face declined gradually after Europeans arrived – especially because the preserved heads of tattooed Māori warriors became very coveted among the settlers. The link between facial tattoos with gangs or criminals in other cultures may also contribute to their decline.
The late Ngapuhi Elder Kingi Taurua delivered a speech at Te Tii Marae in Waitangi, New Zealand, in 2012. Credit: Kenny Rodger / Getty Images
But with a renewed interest in traditional Maori arts like wood carvings, and the growing acceptance of tattoos in wider New Zealand society, tā moko art has witnessed. Revival in recent decades. Maxwell, 54, says the “normalization” of traditional tattoos in New Zealand began in the 1990s and 2000s, after previous generations left the custom.
“There was a lot of negativity, not only from non-Maori communities but also from our communities, because our parents and grandparents always thought moko should be left behind in the past.
“But we, the young generation of that time, were unprepared for this art form to become memory, (so we chose) to bring it back as an art of living and proclaiming it. that we are Maori. “
Opportunities to educate
However, there are more and more celebrities with facial signs in New Zealand society, such as journalist Oriini Kaipara, who last year became the first woman to suffer from moko kauae. a mainstream television station.
Journalist Oriini Kaipara speaks at the 2019 Inclusive Power Summit in Auckland, New Zealand. Credit: Michael Bradley / Getty Images
With increased visibility have emerged cases of alleged cultural appropriation. Mike Tyson, Rihanna and British pop star Robbie Williams have all been criticized for applying Maori-style tattoos in recent years. Fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier was also controversial in 2007, when he applied moko-inspired designs to the faces of white models for a fashion campaign.
Maxwell, however, welcomes interest from other cultures as an opportunity to educate people about the Māori tradition. He describes Mahuta’s recent appointment as one such opportunity, seeing it as a “pivotal moment” for indigenous communities.
“She will take moko to places it has never been before – consulates, embassies and government offices around the world,” he said.
Nanaia Mahuta, the first female member of parliament to wear moko kauae, was taken in February 2020. Credit: Bookmark Tantrum / Getty Images
Rukuwai Tipene-Allen, a political journalist for Māori Television, who wore a moko shirt on his face meanwhile said that the appointment “shows our culture has a place on the international level.”
“The first face that people see on an international level is someone with a Maori-like voice, appearance and sound,” she told CNN earlier this week and added: ” Her ancestors show everyone that there are no boundaries with the Maori and where they can go. “