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‘It’s Transformative’: Māori Women Talk About Their Sacred Chin Tattoos

Though the practice began fading after New Zealand’s colonization in the 19th century, the ancient Māori practice of moko kauae – sacred female facial tattooing – is coming back. Here’s why.

Last fall, Nanaia Mahuta made history by wearing a moko kauae in parliament – the first woman in the world to do so. As she told Vice, she did both for herself and her history, but also for her daughter.

“As a young Māori woman I want my daughter to know that everything is at her fingertips; she just needs to reach forward and grab it.”

For Mahuta, her moko marked both the anniversary of her father’s death and incorporated traditional designs of her tribal heritage.

Nanaia Mahuta. Photo by Kina Sai
“There were a number of milestones in my life, and it felt right to mark them in a way that is a positive statement about my identity,” Nanaia (above) told Vice. “Who I am, where I come from, and the contribution I want to continue to make. When I got it done, I felt incredibly calm. I felt like it had always been there.”

Nanaia’s first time in parliament wearing the moko was emotional. “There was a huge amount of pride from other Māori women,” she recalls. “It’s been an interesting thing. People look at you differently. It’s a cultural marker, and it says clearly when I’m sitting round a table that I do represent a certain way of thinking.”

Māori facial and body tattooing is known as Tā moko. An ancient art form, its origin lies in West Polynesia. The intricate designs were chiseled into the skin using a tool called an uhi; ink was then smudged into the carved lines. Tā moko represents the wearer’s family heritage and social status—it is believed that the receiver visits a spiritual realm where they encounter their ancestors, returning as a new person. 

Maori woman c. 1890. Photo courtesy of Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

But from 1840, with the influx of English settlers, Māori were pushed from their lands and assimilation began. Colonial laws were passed banning what are known as tohunga, or Māori experts, and children were caned for speaking Māori at school. By the 1970s, the moko had all but died out. Only a few female elders carried it, and elsewhere facial tattoos had negative connotations; adopted by disaffected urban Māori, they became associated with gangs and crime.

Things started to change in the 1980s, with a push to revive Māori language and culture, and in recent years there has been a revival in the ancient practice among both elders and young Māori women. Tā moko artist Pip Hartley, 33, is one of a new generation of Māori who are carrying the art form forward. When she was 18 she started traveling to remote regions of the country to learn the ancient art, before opening her Auckland tattoo studio, Karanga Ink, this year. 

The moko process is intensely personal, Hartley told Vice. “I prefer to draw straight onto the person, because it’s an exchange of wairua, or energy. It’s working with the contours of their body and translating their story, and for a lot of people it’s a transformative experience. Every time they see it, it’s a reminder of what they’ve achieved, and that their tupuna [ancestors] have their back.”

When a woman is ready to receive her moko kauae, there is an internal calling, Hartley says. “It’s definitely them representing their culture and making a commitment to it, and having a closer connection to their ancestors. There are people who might look at it with one eyebrow up, not understanding it, but I think that is something these wahine [women] are ready for—to feel confident within themselves. I can’t wait to get mine.”

For weaver Jude Hoani, receiving her moko last year was about defining who she is. “I’ve got one of those faces that can fit in many cultures,” she tells Broadly, “and for me it was about making a statement about who I am in relation to this country. I’d been thinking about it for the past 20 years.”

Hoani (below) first broached the subject with her late husband. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to have it done.’ I said ‘Well, it’s not your business, and you’re not part of the decision-making process at all, and you need to understand that.” Her cousin, renowned tā moko artist Gordon Toi, would tease Hoani, telling her: “I’ve got a seat for you on my table.”

When Hoani’s older brother died of kidney failure, her decision was made. “We were very, very close. Around that time, Toi just sort of reappeared in my life, and I said, ‘Well, I’m ready to get on your table.’ “

Jude Hoani. Photograph by Stephen Langdon

Jude says the actual tattooing, which took half an hour using a regular tattoo gun, wasn’t painful. “It was more uncomfortable. A quarter of orange in the mouth to bite on, and we were done.” The design on her chin is a stylised ruru, or owl. According to Māori tradition, the ruru is the kaitiaki (guardian) of the chin. Her moko also has elements of a carving design particular to her tribe, Ngāpuhi.

Since receiving her moko, Hoani says she feels more visible. “A lot of people in my town who had never spoken to me started talking to me. They actually see me, they look at me, they look at my face, they look into my eyes.” 

“I was speaking to a Pākehā [white New Zealander] friend of mine the other day who is in her seventies,” Hoani adds. “She was telling me she likes going into the city less and less because when she stands at a counter she gets ignored. She said: ‘I’m sure it’s because of my age.’ Now that I have this moko, that doesn’t happen to me. I’m not invisible.”

Forty-eight year old Benita Tahuri (below) spent more than half her life thinking about getting her moko. “I always knew inside I wanted one, and after going through a lot of life changes and challenges and much contemplation, I knew it was the right thing for me to do,” she says. 

“For me it spoke of healing, reflection, and empowerment and identity. It wasn’t any conscious kind of thought—the physical manifestation of moko kauae is the end of a journey.”

Benita Tahuri. Photo by Stephen Langdon

“There’s a lot of thinking that not anyone can wear one, that you’ve got to earn it,” Tahuri explains. “But my belief is that if you’re Māori, this is your birthright. No-one can stop you if you think it’s right for you. It’s something that was normal, and became not normal. We’ve had to struggle to get back so many things, so we shouldn’t put up barriers.”

“I wanted [the moko] to be part of what was normal for them,” their mother explains. “For me it was more of a process, but for them it was just what they did. And that’s when it’s special. You know, you can’t just put it away, like if you have a tattoo you wear a shirt and it’s covered. It’s there for life. It’s a commitment to yourself and your identity. 

“It’s saying ‘I stand in who I am, and this is who I am.’ “

Benita with her daughters Honey and Anahera. Photo by Stephen Langdon

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‘It’s Transformative’: Māori Women Talk About Their Sacred Chin Tattoos 'It's Transformative': Māori Women Talk About Their Sacred Chin Tattoos Reviewed by matt on 18:33:00 Rating: 5