`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."