For the Māori women of New Zealand, getting a traditional tattoo isn't just an inconsequential part of their rich culture. The moko kauae, or traditional chin tattoo, serves more than just ornamental purposes.
"For me, it spoke of healing, reflection, and empowerment and identity"
The mid-19th century was a dark time for the Māori people, as the English settlers tried to erase their sense of identity by forcibly detaching them from everything that had to do with their culture. Today, it's crucial for Māori people to hold on to their history and culture. On a positive note, New Zealand has been doing a great job in the past few decades, beginning with the revival of the Maori language, and years later, the art form.
In August, New Zealand politician Nanaia Mahuta made history by becoming the first member of the parliament in the world to proudly display a moko kauae. She is one of the dozens of women who are leading the resurgence of the traditional art form among Māori women in recent years.
“Moko is a statement of identity, like a passport,” Nanaia Mahuta told the Guardian back in August. “I am at a time in my life where I am ready to make a clear statement that this is who I am, and this is my position in New Zealand.” The Labour MP's moko honors both her Waikato-Maniapoto tribe and her father's passing.
There are few nations that would allow somebody – especially a woman — with a facial tattoo to hold a high position in the government. Discrimination is far too rampant. But a country's culture is at stake here and Māori women are doing all they can to preserve it.
It also served as an inspiration and reminder to Mahuta's young daughter to stay true to her roots. “As a young Māori woman I want my daughter to know that everything is at her fingertips; she just needs to reach forward and grab it,” she told Broadly.
Mahuta's actions inspired other women to follow in her footsteps and reclaim their culture's honor. It also gave them a strong sense of pride, confidence, and most importantly, identity,
“For me it spoke of healing, reflection, and empowerment and identity. It wasn't any conscious kind of thought—the physical manifestation of moko kauae is the end of a journey,” said 48-year-old Benita Tahuri. It took almost half of her life to make the decision to get her moko. It's not something she regrets.
“There's a lot of thinking that not anyone can wear one, that you've got to earn it,” Benita explained to Broadly. “But my belief is that if you're Māori, this is your birthright. No one can stop you if you think it's right for you. It's something that was normal, and became not normal. We've had to struggle to get back so many things, so we shouldn't put up barriers.”
Brought up in Māori immersion schools, Benita's two daughters, Honey and Anahera would soon grow up to receive their very own moko. She instilled it in her two girls early on so that they would grow firmly attached to their roots. “I wanted [the moko] to be part of what was normal for them.. It's a commitment to yourself and your identity,” Benita told Broadly.
While the experience and the pain varies from one woman to another, each procedure is nonetheless a remarkable moment that binds their soul to their inner warriors. It's a time when the artist helps reveal the inner moko to the surface in the form of a tattoo. Drina Paratene, 52, talked about how perfectly tranquil she was as the process went on. It took place in the comforts of her own home in a session with renowned traditional artist Pip Hartley. Drina prayed beforehand, anticipating the high level of pain that comes with using traditional tools.
“I had been mentally preparing myself,” said Drina. “We said karakia [prayers] before we started. I was expecting quite a high level of pain, and I had none at all.”
Finally, we have Jude Hoani, a weaver who only received her moko the previous year against her late husband's wishes. After many years of being misidentified because of physical characteristics that look similar to other ethnicities, Jude decided it was time to face the world and make her identity clear. It wasn't until her older brother, whom she had close relationship with, passed away that she mustered up the courage to finally get it done.
A lot has changed since then and it has given Jude a sense of selfhood and visibility. “A lot of people in my town who had never spoken to me started talking to me. They actually see me, they look at me, they look at my face, they look into my eyes.”