July 26 2017, updated 10:33pm

Myth and the moko

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
SHANE TE RUKI: "(My moko) reflects my passion for kaupapa Maori."

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The proud history of ta moko has been honoured in a beautiful new book, writes Kate Monahan.



Shane Te Ruki is a stunning man.

He sits outside a cafe in Hamilton's Worley Pl, and people can't help but stare. A couple whisper and the woman turns around for a look. Passers-by double take.

His moko is a work of art, blue-green lines curl around his chin, cheek and nose, spirals like mist, lines arching like rivers across his forehead.

Sharply dressed in a suit and tie, pounamu at his neck, 39-year-old Te Ruki embodies Maori pride and identity, circa 2007, a modern businessman with a face paying homage to the past. He runs Kowhai Consulting with partner Tania Simpson, advising government agencies, businesses and individuals on projects including environment, culture, treaty issues, real estate and early childhood education. They have offices in Waitomo and Hamilton, and staff in Auckland.

Seven years ago, after much thought and searching, he had a full face moko done. It took the entire weekend, with the whanau gathered around him at Te Kopua marae, south of Te Awamutu. There were tears, emotions, it was a pivotal moment.

"It changes your life," says Te Ruki, sipping his coffee. "You are not the person you were before." He is featured in a new book, Mau Moko, written and compiled by researchers from Waikato University.

The book, dedicated to the memory of Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, has been researched and written by a team led by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.

It is a beautiful book, tracing the history and mythology of Maori tattoo, its significance to wearers and artists, from the past through to modern times. The story of each moko is as different as the people featured.

For many, the motivation is identity, for others, it is vanity.

"From childhood, I wanted a moko," says Te Ruki, who lives at Waitomo. "I don't ever remember not wanting it, and as I grew up, the desire grew more." In the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, there were few qualified ta moko artists. "There were plenty of tattoo artists," says Te Ruki. "But there is a difference between ta moko and kirituhi (skin art and general tattooing). Ta moko is within the bounds and foundation of the whanau and hapu, and kirituhi is an individual's pursuit."

Te Ruki searched for years for the right ta moko artist before he found Rangi Skipper from New Plymouth. "The person I was going to choose was going to be working intimately with my being, and I needed to know if this person was right, safe, and working from a good place. It had to be a spiritual connection and a whakapapa connection, a connecting of philosophies." He spent the day at Skipper's home. "We chose each other," says Te Ruki. "At the end of the day we stopped talking, and he said, `Are we going to do this thing?' And I said, `Okay, let's do it."'

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He says his family were concerned about him getting a moko, but that faded. He planned his own design, and as a former carver, drew out his own tauria, a distinctive pattern. "The design follows the general pattern of the eldest son, which I am, and the emblem of the teacher. It reflects my passion for kaupapa Maori and all things Maori, and wanting to see our traditions and culture thrive, and the moko was an extension of that."

Forty or 50 family members gathered at the marae over three days. It was more than 10 hours of tattooing, but Te Ruki says it wasn't too painful. "It was a little like sunburn, full of sensitivity. The worst part was the drone of the needle. If you can imagine, it's like hopping on an old rattling bus and travelling along a rocky gravel road for 10 hours, with your head on the metal."

In the late 1700s and 1800s, traditional uhi chisels were used, and other tools developed over the years. "The needle is nice and fast, but there are comments that needle tattooing is not moko," says Te Ruki. "Real moko is done in the context of hapu or whanau, whether done by uhi or by electric needle. It's the context that is important."

Te Ruki says 99 per cent of reactions to his moko have been positive. Most of the negative reactions come from other Maori, particularly those who identify more with American black culture than their own. "I think younger people are taken aback, and my perception is that ta moko challenges them about their own inadequacies in Maori culture."

Ta moko is increasingly accepted and celebrated, but in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, there were few practitioners, and the art was kept alive by gangs such as Mongrel Mob and Black Power.

"Ten years ago there was a real disdain for moko," says Te Ruki. "It is also seen as a thing for rangatira (aristocrats or chiefs). They think, `who are you? Who do you think you are, to have a moko?' There was a perception around ta moko that it was for old women, and for chiefs and chiefs alone rangatira."

Te Ruki says before European colonisation, moko was commonplace, not linked to rank, age or status. Post 1850s, as Maori struggled for survival due to land wars and disease, arts such as tattooing and carving declined.

Te Ruki and his wife have two children a daughter, Ariahuia, eight, and a son, Hawaiki, six. "I often ask them, are you going to get a moko like me or your aunties?" says Te Ruki. "I'm really glad that my kids are growing up with a father with a moko."

Travelling overseas has been an interesting experience, with different reactions in different places. Japanese considered tattooing as "subversive," and in Korea, people didn't know where to look, nervously giggling.

For anyone thinking to get ta moko, Te Ruki has some advice.

Look around, and don't settle on the first artist you meet.

Think long and hard about what you want, your situation, and how it may affect your life, and job, or future jobs.

Talk to others who have moko about living with the markings. It can bring expectations about language ability, knowledge of Maori culture and tradition, and even a presumption that the wearer is a great orator.

Apart from any health issues, Te Ruki says it's important to consider how having a moko can impact mental health. "It can be isolating, if you didn't have support," he says. "Your moko may affect your ability to gain good employment. It's not the fault of the moko, it's perceptions, and that can weigh on you."

He is heartened by the number of talented ta moko artists coming through the ranks, including his nephew, Mitchell Hughes from Waitomo, who has 15 years training as a traditional carver. "His work is exquisite, he has a steady hand and a steady mind."

For the team behind the book Mau Moko The World of Maori Tattoo, it's been a labour of love and more than four years of research, interviews and writing.

The journey began in 2000, when they got funding. The project, based in the Maori and Psychology Research Unit at Waikato University, was spearheaded by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, with a team of researchers, including Linda Waimarie Nikora, Ariana Simpson, Rolinda Karapu and Mohi Rua.

The book begins with the mythic narrative, the story of Mataora, who pursued his fairie wife to the underworld after she fled his abuse. He learnt the art of ta moko from her family, as a sign of forgiveness and promise to change his ways, and ta moko was introduced to humankind.

"Tattooing is an extremely old art form," says Nikora. "There are mummified bodies that are thousands of years old with decorative marking. Maori are not the only ones with traditions, they span from the Middle East, the Americas, Celts, Pacific and Asia. Japan has a brilliant history and tradition."

There is archaeological evidence of tattoo chisels uhi in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, and the older sites had wider blades that may suggest rectilinear and crosshatched tattoo designs.

There were different uhi, some that cut the skin and others which struck the ink colouring into the open wound; and special uhi for delicate work around the nose and eyes; still others, more comb-like, which were used for shading and adding vast amounts of colour to areas such as the thighs.

Pigment varied, but the basic ingredient was soot taken from charcoaled moth larvae, fired resin from kauri or kahikatea trees, and mixed with things such as sap, blue-black poroporo berries, and healing plants to create a sticky black ball, which was often kept hidden until required, then reconstituted into a gleaming ink with water or plant juice.

For the researchers, talking to people about their moko was a privilege. "It was extremely moving," says Rolinda Karapu. "We listened to their life stories, and for a lot of people, it started when they were young. For the older participants, they would see a kuia with a moko on the marae, and if they were younger, in their 30s, they would see moko in photographs or carvings, and want that. It was about their identity, and being Maori, and showing the world they are Maori."

Mohi Rua says for many of the Maori men, especially those involved in sports such as waka ama, it is also about aesthetics. "It's about exposure and attractiveness and being Maori and being proud."

The team has been travelling the world, to conferences in Hawaii, Australia, the US, Puerto Rico, Rome, Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge and Banff. "We've been all over the world, because people out there are that curious," says Te Awekotuku.

In recent years, moko images have been appropriated by overseas celebrities and advertisers, to much criticism. The likes of English singer Robbie Williams, boxer Mike Tyson and musician Ben Harper have taken Maori tattoos, and fashion designers have used moko on the catwalk. "We live in a digital age, and it is so easy to take images and spread them across the globe," says Nikora. "On one hand, we want to share and show (moko) but not, on the other hand, to have the work taken with no consideration to us."

Also on the negative side, people with moko have faced discrimination, and been banned from bars.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku has a moko herself, her chin decorated by elegant swirls, her lips a vivid blue. She was one of 16 women who recently took the moko as a mark of respect to Dame Te Atairangikaahu.

"I was part of a privileged and special group of women to choose actively to take the moko," says Te Awekotuku. "I like the aesthetics of it." Unlike most of the book's participants, she says for her it was about vanity. "I love the look."

For her, the lips were "excruciating" and took several sessions with different artists.

She says the meaning behind each moko is as individual as the wearers. "It's like asking, what is the meaning of art? Many people want it to mean something, as if to say, why would you want to do something to your face? If there is a cultural explanation, they can understand that, but would you go up to someone with a flesh tunnel through their nose or eyebrow, or someone pumped full of botox and collagen, and ask them, what is the significance of that? Can't it just be because it looks good?"

For the researchers, it is inspiring to see the number of people out in the community, with moko.

"You never used to see people with moko around before," says Nikora. "But now, you go to the Frankton or Otara markets and even Chartwell, and there is a chance to see someone with a face."

Mau Moko, The World of Maori Tattoo, by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku with Linda Waimarie Nikora, and photography by Becky Nunes ($65, Penguin Books).

- Waikato

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