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.

Manu's Moko Kaiwai Design

The design of my particular moko kaiwai is significant to my genealogy, my whaka papa. And incorporated in that whaka papa is a shark that's swimming from the Pacific to Autearoa, which symbolizes my mother coming to New Zealand, meeting my father, and then I'm the result. And the rest of it talks about where I was born, which means two rivers. And so it's significant that there's a lot of water flowing. The particular hapu or sub-tribe that I belong to is Teorewai, which means "to gently swivel the water so that it ripples and splashes just a little." And then of course, I live on the edge of a lake... And so water figures a whole lot in this particular design. And it's a design that links me with my roots of origin and it keeps me in line.

Manu and friendAlso you'll see that in this area here, there seems to be either a V or an N, which I might add, adds character to my moko. The line is supposed to be a straight line that goes from one side to here. But as my cousin was stretching and [the artist] was working, my oldest granddaughter was so consumed with the fact that they were hurting me that she leaned forward, bumped my cousin, who bumped my chin, who bumped the artist, and there was a little notch in there. Deirdre looked at [the artist] and he said in a glance and a little bit of a raised eyebrow, I'll fix it up on the other side. And so there is a real neat character thing to my moko.

The whole idea of the moko has been a wonderful idea. It is a wonderful reality. I find it the most wonderful fashion addition. It's a wonderful accessory. It looks wonderful in the garden as it does dressed up with diamonds and pearls. But it looks wonderful just with an old hat and a gardening shirt and a trowel as I'm in the garden tending to the roses. So it's at home anywhere, and I'm at home anywhere with it. And it's just natural. Our grandchildren love it.

Public Reaction to the moko

Oh, for the first year, it was a novelty. For the first six months, people would leap out in front of you and stare or sort of stalk you in a shopping mall. And invariably, they were white people, paki people. And they were always positive comments. Always positive comments. The negative comments have come from our own people. They're not so negative as lack of understanding statements, I think: "Why did you do that to your beautiful face?" I think that they just don't have an understanding for themselves.

It's a wonderful accessory. It looks wonderful in the garden as it does dressed up with diamonds and pearls.
Non-Natives and moko

The reality [of moko] is that it has a specific cultural purpose. And whilst it's to adorn the body, and it's for the beautification of the body as seen by the wearer, I suppose, I must say that I was absolutely shocked when I got off the plane in Samoa in 1999, and Gordon and I went out into the airport terminal after collecting our luggage and there was a woman with a moko. I think I was noncommittal about how I felt about this. It didn't enrage me, but as the time went on during the convention in Samoa, I think I became a little miffed that it was seen as a moko. And I sought to address that with this particular person. And she was really gracious. I think we were both gracious when we talked about it, and she said she hadn't intended it for it to be a moko, that she had dreamt and dreamt and dreamt and dreamt, and it just kept coming, this particular design kept coming.

And whilst I believe strongly in cultural and intellectual property rights, I see that a person who has felt quite strongly to have this kind of adornment on their person, and in that particular place, is their own choice. Except we can try to preserve our own cultural and intellectual property rights. I think that if one has a respect for a particular culture, and where the art form comes from, and if one acknowledges that that's where it comes from, and goes through channels of seeking the correct logistics of taking on that kind of adornment, I suppose [it's alright]. [To not acknowledge its origin] I would see as an affront to that particular culture... And I do feel affronted when people just blatantly disregard process. And there are processes. So that's my feeling on that.