Maori man with full moko tattoo
Maori man with full moko tattoo
Role of Tattoo
Tattoo Stories

Skin Stories: The Art and Culture of Polynesian Tattoo

Maori carving showing tattoo styles.

excerpts from an interview with Manu Neho

Growing Up Maori

I was born in the Bay of Islands, up north. I grew up with my grandparents, my mother and father, and was the oldest grandchild of all the grandchildren on my father's side. We lived up north for until I was nine, and then we moved to Auckland.

I don't have this conscious memory, but I believe my mother told me that when I was three weeks old, my grandfather took me into the forest, into what we call the nahiri. And he took me there for a week. And there in the nahiri, I believe I was given lots of information of how we are, why we are, and how we will be. So that was on a spiritual plane.

My grandfather died in 1958. And at that point, I was four years old. Now, in my mind, everything stopped. The death of my grandfather had such a traumatic effect on me that I stopped speaking Maori, which was my first language. My first recollection of having anything to do with the European population was when we moved to Auckland and I started school at Richmond Grade School… And I didn't realize that I was actually Maori, I suppose if you like, until a teacher called me [a derogatory name]. And that wasn't devastating, you know, because I had shut everything out. From the death of my grandfather, I'd shut everything out, I'd turned off my Maori, it was so traumatic.

Rediscovery of Her Maori Heritage

And from then on, right up until I was about thirty, I believed that [Maori struggles] were valid, but I also thought that people should do things, you know, get up and do things rather than protest about it. I had some real colonized views about how things should happen. And being part of a religion and growing up as Mormon didn't assist the process. So you were a Mormon and you weren't a Maori. And — rightly or wrongly —that's how I felt right up until I was thirty. It was hard for my family when I became a Maori again. It was really hard for them.

The Decision to Get a Moko

I think that subconsciously I've always wanted to have a moko. I suppose it has to a lot to do with that week in the bush at three weeks old. There are some things you know instinctively and there are some things that you learn. You have an accumulation of inherent knowledge and learned knowledge. And so I believe the moko is part of my inherent knowledge. Having left the Mormon Church and having made that decision to be more Maori, to take up an active political struggle of the way that we were, it just was a natural progression to physically stumble upon ta moko.

My mother said, "Oh, no, Manu. If God wanted you to have that, you would have been born with it." And I said to her, "Well, if God wanted you to have clothes, you would have been born with that as well."
Then you know it's only natural that one should have a yearning. And having awakened that yearning, it became a need to actually move it from a yearning to a reality. So we had a huge day — a weekend, in fact, here where four women took the moko kawai and several others had pieces of work done on them, on their bodies. Our children all had pieces done that weekend.

I had made the decision on a Saturday morning and called my mother. When I talked about my moko, she said, "Oh, no, Manu. If God wanted you to have that, you would have been born with it." And I said to her, "Well, if God wanted you to have clothes, you would have been born with that as well." To which she replied, "Don't be stupid," to me. [LAUGHS] So that was a lot of fun... However, she wasn't pleased about it and we didn't speak again until after I had come back from Samoa. But her whole thing is that she's so devoted to the church and its beliefs, that anything outside of that square is not the norm for her.

So having made that decision to have my moko was a real big decision. It needed to be swift so that it would happen and it would be over, and then I would have it. And it was really done not only for myself, but I did this for my grandchildren and my children.

The Ceremony and Rebirth

Manu cries after receiving her moko[I had my moko done with] three other women. It was a lovely weekend in October, 1999. It was important that I have it done before the millennium, before the Year 2000. It was also important that it was done in a place where I had some control. It was important that that I had the people that mattered the most around me, and that there were some control mechanisms in place in terms of who, how, why, and what for. So we had it here.

[First we had] a wamea — a time where we explain and learn about the history of ta moko, the process that will happen, and what is expected of those who come. So we had seventy people here. The majority were my family and very dear friends who came to support. And it was a time of celebration, because it was a revitalizing in our particular family of this art form which had almost died and has been revived, so it was a big celebration.

So the highs and the lows were just absolutely wonderful. And people sobbed their hearts out, and it was a huge cleansing of souls and cleansing of spirits, and cleansing of history. It was absolutely wonderful. I think it was my rebirthing. Because as I sat up after I had been completed, there was this overwhelming sense of rebirth. Just I sat up and the tears just flowed. I sobbed, literally sobbed as I held onto each one of those that were here to support. I just cried and we held each other, and we have photos of all of that. It was a busy time …[with a] spiritual language that no words of this plane can ever describe.