FOR many wahine Maori and tane Maori a facial or chin tattoo is more than just a symbol of their whakapapa.
In fact, taa moko (Maori tattoo) doesn’t only represents the continuation of whanau – the koru, a Maori symbol commonly found in the artform, represents new life and growth.
The Maori customary practice of applying mataora (full facial tattoo) or moko kauae (chin tattoo) has spanned generations. It tells a story of a person’s whanau, ancestral links and role within the tribe.
Historically, when a young woman reached puberty, it was celebrated through the application of her moko kauae. A carefully selected tohunga (specialist), chosen for the purposes of applying facial and chin markings, is an integral part of the tapu (sacred) practice and, traditionally, the rite of passage was ministered by the kaumatua or tupuna of each tribe.
He kai kei aku ringa, a Maori proverb meaning there is food at the end of my hands, perfectly sums up Raki Rangi of Te Teko who proudly bears his mataora, a representation of his responsibility in the continuation of the life skills passed down from his tupuna. Raki says the intrinsic designs which begin on his nose, represent one bird feeding another.
Raki is a keen hunter and gatherer who follows in the footsteps of his elders, gathering kaimoana (seafood), freshwater species and hunting. He is passionate about helping young, vulnerable Maori who are susceptible to falling through the gaps in society and this motivates the kaiwhai (hunter) to continue his work towards the preservation of the necessary life skills needed to sustain whanau, hapu and iwi.
“My mataora is my signature and represents who I am as a hunter gatherer in my whanau,” he says.
A mana wahine who proudly wears her whakapapa on her chin, Mawera Karetai, says before receiving her moko kauae, she felt incomplete.
“For the first time I looked in the mirror and thought, there I am,” says the Whakatane woman, originally from Dunedin.
A chin marking, which speaks to the environmentalists in the whanau, is said to be the representation of the men on her fathers’ side who worked diligently towards the protection of the planet.
After attaining her master’s degree in environmental management, Mawera says she knew it was time to get her own moko kauae.
Wearing her chin tattoo has, at times, been a difficult and confronting journey but Mawera says her favourite part in all of this is how children respond to her, embracing and smiling without fear at the woman who bears the resemblance of her tupuna on her chin.
“It’s a really beautiful thing when tamariki look at me without judgement,” she says.
Since the late 19th century there has been a resurgence in the practice of taa moko (Maori tattoo) for both men and women, as a sign of cultural identity and a reflection of the general revival of the language and culture.
Taa moko is closely identified with carvings on meeting houses and carvings found in and around ancient villages, and each moko design is considered taonga (treasure) for the tangata whenua (people of the land).
Every moko contains tribal messages specific to the wearer and tells the story of the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations and their placing within these social structures.
The moko is much more than an art form – it is a historical record.