Paitangi is one of the few female Maori tattooists in the world. Based in Paihia, New Zealand, she brings a unique and inherently feminine take on the timeless traditions of this art form.
As part of their three-part video series The Other Side, VICE recently aired an intriguing episode entitled “Tā Moko and Tebori: Exploring the Meaning of Ink in Māori and Japanese Culture.” In this mini-documentary, Paitangi visits several artists in Japan to explore the differences and similarities between tā moko and Irezumi.
Paitangi meets Megumu Kamata, a long-time practitioner of traditional Japanese tattoos, to discuss a wide range of topics related to their respective crafts. Their rapport is as charming as it is captivating, and it’s moving to see how they bond over their love of body art.
The different ways that these two individuals found their way into the world of tattoos shines light on disparities of body art’s reception from culture to culture. In Kamata’s case, he chose to go against the grain of mainstream Japanese society by becoming involved in the industry fairly early on, while in Paitangi’s, she only became a kai tamoko (Māori tattooist) after reconnecting with her heritage. Though their experiences are very divergent, they both illustrate just how life-changing devoting one’s self to the art form can be.
Due to body art’s stature as a popular art form, all too often the honor embodied in the act of tattooing goes under acknowledged. Though Paitangi and Kamata operate in very different styles, they express a mutual reverence for the traditions from which they draw their influence. They see tattooing as more than merely creating imagery on people’s skin. For them, it’s a spiritual undertaking, in which they and the recipients of their tattoos collaborate to create a shared form of cultural expression.
This notion of reconnecting with culture through immersing one’s self in it is extremely powerful. It illustrates that a strong sense of cultural belonging is something that has to be cultivated and nurtured. This aspect of personal identity, like tā moko and Irezumi, is handed down from generation to generation and must be rehearsed in order to be perfected.
The processes behind the creation of tā moko and tebori are as rich with cultural capital as the images these techniques are used to create. Unlike machine tattooing, these approaches to making body art are closer in touch with their tribal origins. By using the same tools and techniques as their ancestors, artists like Paitangi and Horiken are actually acting as curators of practices that extend centuries into the past. They are, in part, preserving something that would otherwise be subsumed, like so many other ancient traditions, by mankind’s relentless technological advancement.
The interaction between Paitangi and Kamata culminates in a striking collaboration to create a tā moko and Irezumi drawing featuring waves done in the traditional Japanese style with a Māori whale tail breaking the surface – a beautiful fusion of the two cultures.
Be sure to check out the other installments of The Other Side, exploring the cultural connections of New Zealand and Japan, presented by Steinlager Tokyo Dry.