Maori Chief on Facial Tattoos and Tribal Pride

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The moko is our signature…It is what our ancestors signed their documents with. They used their facial moko when they first traded with the Europeans—the British. Historically, we say that moko comes from the underworld.

The gods associated with the tattooing gave it to the people to bring up to the surface. It is a beautiful metaphor for the revival, because we say that it was underground when it was abolished and there was persecution. We have brought it back up to the surface again like they did in the ancient times…It is not a static art form. It is a breathing, living, growing art form.

The practitioners of today are doing a fantastic job of creating a moko for the twenty-first century that is relevant to our needs and our aspirations of now and our lifestyle. For example, we are using modern technology in the creation of moko. We are using sterilizing machines and rubber gloves and electric needles. We say this is a very traditional practice to use the best things available to you to create your story.

I think our ancestors would be proud of us for adopting this approach of utilizing the best to maintain our standard, to lessen the likelihood of degeneration of the art form…I know that in the [next generation's] time, the moko will be an exciting art form. It will be something that will reflect their times.

We're not really interested in photocopying the past…But we combine things with the things that we hold dear from our ancestors' notions of having the mandate of your group, of being accountable, of attainment, of mana, prestige—through doing good things and sharing and providing for each other. Those things are timeless and they're always going to be like that for us Maori people. If we don't do those things, then we can't call ourselves Maori anymore.

Elements of moko have been adopted by certain parts of Western popular culture. I'm curious what you would say to a young American teenager who has a tattoo with elements of the moko in it. What would you want him or her to know?

Young people…are going to seek something that's exciting and intoxicating like moko and the connotations that go with it. They're also going to look for some form of identity and something that makes them distinctive in the global morass…This has been a subject of long and bitter discussion at home amongst the peoples, where people have advocated that we shut the door and don't allow people access to our moko…

The practitioners are saying quite the opposite. They're saying we must go and engage and we must take our art form to the world because then at least we have a say in the quality of the art form and we are present when the questions are asked, so we get the first opportunity to explain the moko firsthand as opposed to somebody interpreting the moko on our behalf, who may not necessarily be correct or be qualified to say those things.

How would you respond to non-natives who wear some of the designs that are similar to the moko?

If you don't live the things that go with it, then it's only a design. It's not a moko. First and foremost, it comes from your lineage. It defines who your parents and grandparents [were] from the beginning of time. That's number one.

Number two is that the moko is reinforced and validated by your commitment to the group. And the group owns you. You are the group and the group is you. If you don't have those things, then it's not a moko.

Is there anything else we haven't talked about that you might want to mention quickly?

If I could say anything to people here, I would say to go and hang out with some native peoples. There's many, many nations here in this big, beautiful land. Go and seek them out.

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