Pioneer female Māori tā moko artist 'born to do it' gallery

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"Ko whaea Elizabeth Pokai."

Elizabeth Pakai's kauwae moko in progress.

"Ko Taute Taiepa me tōna hoa wahine me ā rāua mokai Rocky."

Nga Rongoa Lentfer completed her kauwae and had her lips fully coloured in 2017, completed only days apart.

"Ko whaea Hikitia received her kauwae in 2016 and completed lip colour this year. Ko whaea Hikitia he whanaunga me tāku mete Nga Rongoa Lentfer."

Finishing a piece of pūhoro.

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It was the mid-90s and a young Christchurch artist named Chris Harvey was starting out as a tohunga tā moko (Māori tattoo artist).

"When I started, people were wondering if it was OK to work and I didn't know myself," she said. "I wasn't sure, I just did it."

Twenty years later, Harvey remains a reputable name in the Māori art world, continuing to bring her flare to the traditional tattoo art form.

Traditional Maori tattoo artist Chris Harvey has been practicing ta moko art for 20 years.
MONIQUE STEELE/STUFF

Traditional Maori tattoo artist Chris Harvey has been practicing ta moko art for 20 years.

Born and raised in Christchurch, Harvey has travelled the country, designing and inking traditional tā moko art.

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Tā moko, traditional Māori or Polynesian tattoo designs, tell stories of an individual's identity, their ancestry and tribal lineage, practised as a way to preserve Māori cultural heritage.

Chris Harvey using uhi, traditional tattoo tools.
MONIQUE STEELE/STUFF

Chris Harvey using uhi, traditional tattoo tools.

Countless whānau and friends around the country sport Harvey's unique artworks inked on their face and bodies, with many requesting her work specifically because she is a woman. 

"When I started I was so young there was a thing about me being a woman and young, 20-something . . . I'm lucky, I had some good role models."

Starting out under the mentorship of renowned Māori artist Riki Manuel, Harvey went headfirst into the Māori tattoo art world.

"I've been a pioneer in this kind of work. I've been doing it for so long," she said.

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"I feel like I was born to do it. I did it because I cared about people and wanted to make them feel good about themselves and it really does make them feel good – non-Māori too," she said. 

"Now I'm working on people's kids that I've worked on."

Harvey said people got tā moko for many reasons.

"For many women it's all about their family, it's about connecting with family, which is whakapapa.

"Many of these people are committed to their Māori whakapapa community and are making the effort to learn or speak te reo."

In addition to her tattoo work, Harvey teaches art at the Te Kura Whakapumau Te Reo Tuturu ki Waitaha school in Christchurch, where her five children, aged 6 to 15, study. 

"We want to uplift the mana of our kaupapa and te reo."

She said more young women were in the field now and the attitudes towards moko were "like normal now", but her work was still more than walking into a tattoo parlour.

"It's really intimate," she said.

"I feel for every person that comes through that door.

"My work is a gift, I've always said that. I give it, even how I get reciprocated is in different forms, not always money, as long as it's not live chickens," she said, laughing.

At her New Brighton home, Harvey's tattoo studio features beautiful art works of koru and hei matau, and photographs of clients she has tattooed.

Paintings of pukeko and tiki hang up on the walls of her home, as she spoke proudly of her children's artistic abilities, who were no strangers to the tattooing process.

"I've just bought the paints and said do something and let nature take its course," she said.

"One day it'll be them."

 - Stuff

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