In New Zealand, Moko tattoos experience revival as Māori 'reclaim a sense of identity'

·6-min read
© Mokonui-a-rangi Smith

The traditional art of Māori tattooing, known as tā moko, was at risk of total extinction after New Zealand’s brutal colonial-era efforts to suppress indigenous culture. But 50 years later, tā moko is far from vanishing - it has undergone an unprecedented renaissance. Our Observer, Mokonui-a-rangi Smith, told us this regeneration has been hard-won, and offers a way to revive Maori culture and "decolonise".

In Māori culture, receiving tā moko (the permanent marking or ‘tattoo’ as traditionally practised by New Zealand’s indigenous people) constitutes an important milestone between childhood and adulthood. Apart from traditionally signalling rank and status, the practice was also used to make a person more attractive to the opposite sex. Men generally received moko on their faces, buttocks (raperape) and thighs (puhoro), while women usually wore moko on their lips (kauwae) and chins.

'Māori people are trying to reclaim a sense of identity and decolonise'

Mokonui-a-rangi Smith works by hand with the traditional Māori and Polynesian hand tools known as Uhi in his studio in Auckland. He is one of very few practitioners working to revive the art in New Zealand, after decades of being suppressed by British colonists.

It's an art form that was at risk of being lost. It was discouraged a lot in the 1900s, and the number of practitioners declined significantly. Within a generation, it almost completely disappeared. I’m part of a Māori revival effort, I’m trying to recover what our ancestors used to do.

I have been doing this for seven years and in the first few years, my clientele was really low. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism disappeared, and somehow Māori people have woken up and they have been wanting to learn more about their ancestors and their culture. They’ve had the time to do the research.

It has been really meaningful to work with Māori people who, through tā moko, are trying to reclaim a sense of identity and decolonise. They are trying to heal trauma that stems from being ashamed of not knowing much about their culture or not knowing the language, for example.

'People wearing tā moko in the public sphere has bolstered a feeling of normality'

When an increasing number of English colonists arrived in New Zealand from the late 18th century, tā moko prevalence declined. Māori were shamed for wearing moko by the crown, and there was a period when tattoo artists weren’t allowed to practise their art.

Mokonui-a-rangi Smith told us that for a long time, public figures continued to get moko but hid it under their clothing due to the stigma. However, in current New Zealand society, a growing number of public figures are wearing moko on more visible parts of their body.

In 2016, New Zealand politician Nanaia Mahuta got a facial moko. Meanwhile in 2021, Māori journalist Oriini Kaipara became the first person with traditional facial markings to host a primetime news program on national television in New Zealand.

An increasing number of politicians and people in the public sphere are wearing tā moko, which has bolstered a feeling of normality that we’ve been working to create for the past 40 years. Our hope is to have parity, equal representation and to represent ourselves in a way that is true to us. It started off with leaders wearing tā moko under their clothes, so they wore it, but didn’t show it publicly.

So, I think it's really important for these leaders to be wearing tā moko and showing how proud they are in parliament, on TV and in spaces of responsibility, to normalise our culture and our traditions. It also serves to show people that there are different ways of living your culture. There are different ways of considering beauty, which is very important in a world that is becoming increasingly globalised and homogenised.

'There are increased sensitivities around giving out elements of our culture'

The interest in New Zealand’s indigenous tattoos is not just growing among the Māori, but among non-indigenous people as well. To reconcile the demand for Māori designs in a culturally sensitive way, Mokonui-a-rangi Smith uses tattoos with “Māori flavour” that can be applied anywhere, for any reason and on anyone, as opposed to using moko that is charged with sacred significance.

It’s a constant negotiation because the political landscape is changing all the time. In the 1700s and 1800s, New Zealand was a very Māori country, the chiefs had sovereignty over their lands and their people. At that time, tattooing foreigners wasn’t a problem as it was an exciting way of bringing these foreigners into our soul and into our world.

The climate is very different now. Foreign powers have set up a whole structure and called this land New Zealand. There are now increased sensitivities around giving out elements of our culture that are sacred to us.

So I try my best to adapt to this and avoid giving some of our patterns that are more loaded with responsibility and are more sacred. I give them tattoos with Māori flavour but that are less loaded with meaning - meaning that they would not necessarily understand.

'Younger generations are going to keep pushing the boundaries'

The resurgence of tā moko reflects the general revival of Māori language and culture in what has been called the ‘Māori renaissance’.

I am part of the first generation who grew up benefitting from the fruits of our parent’s protests and hard work to be able to express our culture fully. We are now reclaiming this culture that was lost for so long. For some people, they find this through language, for others, it’s storytelling or medicine or performing arts. For me, it’s tā moko.

The culture of New Zealand is changing really quickly, we’ve turned a corner and there’s been an acceleration in integrating the Māori world into a dominantly white New Zealand. It’s really exciting. The mainstream TV and radio have woken up and are including Māori language into their bulletins, for example. These little ways of integrating our culture into the mainstream landscape has got everybody really excited about the future.

It’s obviously still tentative and there’s a lot more work to do, but younger generations are going to keep pushing the boundaries further.

In June 2021, 875, 300 people in New Zealand identified as Māori, making up 17 percent of the national population, according to government figures. They are the second largest ethnic group in New Zealand, after European New Zealanders (“Pākenhā”).

While the practice of moko is increasingly widespread, those wearing tā moko are still subject to discrimination or racist abuse. Last year, a petition was launched to formally prohibit discrimination against people with moko.

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