Meet the First Naval Officer with Tā Moko

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Meet the First Naval Officer with Tā Moko

Rawiri Barriball is the only member of the Royal New Zealand Navy to ever have traditional Māori facial tattoos.

Though the last century hasn't been kind to indigenous peoples and their respective art forms, the tide of history seems to be changing for the better. One of the indicators of this positive trend is the resurgence of traditional Māori body art. In the last several years, numerous individuals who hold important positions in New Zealand (even a parliamentary representative) have received tā moko — Māori facial tattoos. Recently, a sailor in the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), Rawiri Barriball, joined the ranks of these tattooed members of the indigenous community, and in doing so, is literally changing the face of the country's military.

After over two decades of service in the RNZN, Barriball became the military organization's first officer in history to wear tā moko. "I've always felt I was gonna get it," Barriball said in an interview with Newshub. "I just wanted to achieve a few things first and one of them was [serving] 20 years." By having these traditional bodily markings, he has become one of the many individuals making important headway into defusing prejudice surrounding this culturally significant body art. 

Though the decision to get facial tattoos is a very personal one, especially for members who belong to the Māori tribe and other indigenous communities with similar cultural practices, Barriball's choice to receive tā moko was not his alone to make. Due to various legal restrictions placed on having body art by the RNZN, he had to apply to be allowed to have his face tattooed, and was granted permission just last month, and now, after a ten-hour session, he proudly wears the markings.

Barriball has a firsthand understanding of why the RNZN is so hesitant about it's officers openly sporting tattoos, especially ones as pronounced and visible as tā moko. "With my job being a seaman combat specialist, we're face to face with people that we're trying to help different parts of the world," he said. "If they see something as in moko they might be a bit intimidated." It is true. To the uninformed, seeing someone with facial tattoos can be a bit unnerving, but by continuing to carry out his duties, he will be taking part in a larger effort to disarm the stigma exerted on the cultural art form. 

Though acceptance of Māori body art is on the rise, discrimination toward individuals with tā moko is unfortunately still widespread throughout New Zealand and elsewhere in the world, and going outside for the first time with his new tattoos, Barriball instantly experienced the negative effects of such intolerance. "When I left my brother's house, straight away you can see the reaction of people," he said. "Even body language, which I was prepared for, but the way people talk to you, it changes." 

Regardless of the fact he's already seen the ugliness that fear and misunderstanding of facial tattoos can cause, Barriball remains confident that future is bright for the resurgent art form. "I know there's a bad rap with people having moko, but the more people that get it the more it will be accepted," he said. "It's not something you should be scared of: I'm just like any other human being."

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