`From their reactions, I see who people really are'

It may look painful, but the traditional Maori moko has suddenly caught on. Is this the future of tattooing? By Barbara Sumner

WATCHING A design being cut, with a hand-made chisel, into the face of a 14-year-old girl should be a chilling experience. The room is quiet except for the sound of the mallet hitting the head of the chisel and a hushed karakia (chant) from the women supporting her. But surprisingly, there is an air of serenity, and Hana sits as calmly as if she were having her hair done. She is silent, strong and clear as she pushes her face towards the tool. Hana is a Maori, a member of the indigenous race of New Zealand. She is studious, well-read and bi-lingual, with a clear vision for her future.

Hana is perhaps the youngest person in New Zealand to have her chin tattooed in the traditional manner. "Yes, this hurts, but it has a purpose," she tells me. "It's a form of meditation, a connection with my ancestors and my mokopuna (grandchildren) of the future. I'm not doing this for me, so the pain is shared." The cloth the skin carver uses to wipe away her blood is soaked. As he takes a break, Hana tells me that she believes she is carrying not only her history and her inheritance on her face but also the future of her people. "Without this distinction," she says, "that which is most precious about our people will die out."

Later, when the day's "carving" is over I wander back to look at the tools. The tohunga ta moko (expert in the ancient Maori art of moko, or skin carving) has cleaned and laid them reverently on a small mat. Hana joins me and together we look over the hand-made chisels with their finely honed edges and crafted wooden handles. To my eyes, the tools look aggressive and brutal, as if they have been designed for an entirely different purpose than to pattern the skin of this girl.

Face carving doesn't fall neatly into a contemporary definition of body modification, adornment, piercing or branding. It is considered tapu or sacred, and imbues the wearer with special status. The tradition for attaining a moko involves seeking the tribal leaders' approval and extensive research into the background and standing of the recipient. Urban Maori negotiate a less stringent process where they must be known to the tohunga and be able to show they have a lifestyle that's worthy of the moko's symbolism.

Now traditional moko designs are being applied to other parts of the body by a wide range of young people. One Auckland tattooist, Inia from Moko Ink, says he spends most time on designs for shoulders, backs and thighs. Clients are a mix of Maori and Pakeha (Europeans).

As Europeans, the moko we know is of the angry face of the hit film, Once Were Warriors. But that, says artist and teacher, Te Kohatu, 36, is a problem. "It is a finely chiselled carving embodying the spiritual essence, the wai rua, of the individual and of the collective whole."

Until recently, the full-face moko on men was seen only as a gang symbol. But now - and in part thanks to popular New Zealand activist Te Kaha whose face is entirely covered by complex designs - it is sexy. Today designs are mainly applied with standard tattoo machines but some tattooists are returning to handmade chisels, albeit in steel instead of albatross bone. Industrial inks have replaced the dye of soot and dog fat traditionally rubbed into the splits in the skin. Moko design is also now simpler, perhaps a single motif repeated in various ways. A number of young urban Maori are beginning to use their motif as their signature.

In Australia tattooists have also noticed more young Maori applying traditional designs to their faces. They see this as a sign of a culture coming back to life in ways politicians and even elders did not expect.

Nehe is 37. Now living in Auckland he tells of the time when he received his full-face moko: "For me it is like a priesthood. My moko is my calling to walk a path between being a warrior and humility. When I received my moko I was reborn as a man. My name is now Kororia - Glory. My tattoo is a testimony to my dedication to my God, my king and my country."

Nehe is aware his full-face moko attracts unwanted attention. However, he says it also lets him see others more clearly. "People can't hide their reactions. I get to see who they really are, real quick. I'm either a person to them, or just another damn Maori."

But others are concerned the moko is losing its integrity. One tattooist says he has seen a number of examples of men with women's chin designs on their faces. It is even used to sell Bounty bars in a new UK television advert - a woman bites into the chocolate, and a moko swirls over her face and then disappears.

Te Kohatu and others are determined the reclaiming of Maori pride through moko will not be diluted. Moko is not a tourist product, he says with great passion. He realises popular culture is appropriating moko, but says its real power is in having it on your own face - "and only Maori will go through that procedure". As the old Maori saying goes: "You can take my land and you can take my wife, but you cannot take my moko."

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee