When British Europeans, or Pakeha, arrived in New Zealand at the end of the 18th century they were greeted by Maori men of rank displaying facial tattoo, ta moko. Early travellers, from Captain Cook onwards, recorded their admiration of this painfully acquired and elaborate adornment. European settlement saw an unprecedented escalation of tribal, as well as colonial, warfare and the settler government initiated repressive legislation to combat Maori rebellion. The tattooed face came to exemplify rebellion and with the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1906 ta moko was relegated to the pages of history.
The 1970s, however, saw a shift in the political consciousness of Maori people, culminating in acts of civil disobedience over old grievances. Art became a vehicle to reassert racial identity and Maori art flourished, contemporary and traditional. One result of this was the unexpected resurgence of ta moko in New Zealand, or Aotearoa, "the land of the long white cloud", as the Maori call it. Young Maori males, in defiance against what they see as an unfair political and social system, are once more assuming the mantle of the moko. Although the popular image is of angry tattooed Maori males with obvious gang affiliations trying to incite public unrest, this is not the true extent of ta moko in the Nineties. For example, Hohepa Potini, who lives in Otaki, 60 miles north of Wellington, wanted to have a moko after the death of his mother.
"I wanted to have it done by my 21st birthday," he said "and I approached my grandparents and another tribal elder to discuss it. They encouraged me to follow my conscience which I did, eventually meeting a tohunga, an expert. The moko took four seasons, working in the summer months, with traditional greenstone and bone instruments. It was a drawn-out and painful process. I would be lying prone on the ground.Sometimes I experienced the sensation of leaving my body, floating above it, or I would see myself out at sea in a waka [canoe] fishing. . .
Moko has always been a mark of chieftainship; the designs have social and spiritual significance, both for the wearer and the tohunga, or village shaman, who controlled the custom. The practice, which became woven into an esoteric lore, provided a link to the ancestors and gods of the past. Each moko represents key events in the life of the wearer or his tribe - its complexity depending on the individual's status and his ability to carry the weight of generations pierced into his skin. Ta moko was first and foremost about the prestige, or mana, of one's forebears - and for the Maori, mana was everything.
Today the sight of a young man with full moko in a busy street brings home the differences that have resurfaced in a country which, for a hundred years, convinced itself it was on the road to social and racial uniformity.