Ta Moko: The Tattoos of a Culture

Ta Moko: The Tattoos of a Culture

Arriving at the Moana Moko studio, I spied my friend Alan lying peacefully on a bed, as tohunga ta moko (tattooist) Stu McDonald worked steadily on Alan’s ta moko (Māori tattoo). The Moray Place studio was spacious and high-ceilinged, with wooden floors and pleasant roots music playing. I immediately felt relaxed.

Taking some photos, I felt privileged to be welcomed into the space of someone receiving their moko - Alan has spent eight years planning to get his done. His grandfather had been banned from speaking te reo at school, and never passed down that knowledge to Alan’s mother, which has caused a sense of disconnect with the language for Alan. The ta moko is part of a healing process; allowing Alan to reconnect with his heritage, and today is the final session on the piece.

“With Stu, I’ve just told him my story, and he’s taken from different parts of that. On my first day in the studio, I had no idea what was gonna be on my arm until Stu showed me, which is a lot different from mainstream tattooing where you show them a picture and they tattoo it on you. Whereas this, you just put full trust in the artist and know they’re gonna do an amazing job of it,” Alan explained.

My subsequent interview with Stu highlighted his spirituality and the cultural pride of this process, and shed a lot of light on the practice of ta moko for me.

Me: Did you decide to become a ta moko artist for any particular reason?

Stu: I’d say it chose me, I don’t know if I had anything to do with it, really. I was always the kid in the class drawing on my book instead of writing in it (laughs). At heart I’m an artist, so that’s where I feel safest, that’s where I feel comfortable. I love it. Growing up in a Māori boarding school, always doing kapa haka, [I was] always being fascinated with them. In the mid ‘90s when Mana magazine first came out, it was [Victoria University Vice Chancellor, Professor] Piri Sciascia on the front cover and he had just gotten his puhoro [legs and buttocks] done, and that was a big part of it for me; seeing it in mainstream media, a traditional mark, y’know? That really switched the light on for me.


Me: What do you think are the most important qualities that a ta moko artist should have?

Stu: Storytelling - being able to choose the right markings to tell the person’s story. I think the explosion in globalisation of tattooing and accessibility within the industry sort of changed a lot of that. I see a lot of younger artists coming through; they can apply them, they can draw them, but they’re not storytelling anymore; they’re mass producing the same patterns, and you’ll see it a lot. That’s why I’m liking it down south at the moment; it hasn’t been saturated with moko; seems a bit more appreciation that it’s not that easy or simple.


Me: Would you give ta moko to a non-Māori? Or is it something that really just belongs to Māori?

Stu: Around the end of the ‘90s there was a big debate in Māoridom about that, so I just sat at length with my grandmother, she guided me a lot, and she just said to me, “you’ve got a gift, and gifts are made to be given away, [...] but make sure you create a process, or what we call a tikanga [custom], that enables you to make a good and right choice about who you’re giving your gift to”. My own thought on it is that I don’t care where you come from in the world, if you engage in the process and the process allows you to obtain the mark, then you’re all good to go. I could never duplicate this [he gestures towards his work on Alan’s arm] on anyone else, ‘cause it’s Alan’s story, and Alan’s alone. And it’s therapy, really - our people have been doing it for thousands of years. For a lot of Māori in this day and age, it’s about reclaiming their identity - certain things have happened in history, and urban drift, and leaving your homeland. Like Alan, reclaiming who he is, and being proud enough to mark that. For him, there’s a healing in this, and now he’s got the strength to go out there and find more stories about himself, so he can come back and mark that. I always honour that part of the journey, you know, I think I’m lucky to be part of it, to help do that [...] I find a real privilege in that. There’s an old Māori saying, he hoa mate mou, which means ‘a friend in death’, so you can take all my worldly possessions but the one thing I’ll take with me to the other side are my tattoos. So for me as an artist being the one that gives it to them, I cherish that connection that they allow me to make with them.


Me: Have you worked on marae and in people’s homes, or are you just in the studio?

Stu: I own my own studio up in Tauranga but I don’t work in it; I work from home, that’s where I’m more comfortable. Māori people that live all over the world now. I’ll do it in their houses, in Singapore, London, you name it. Although that’s highly illegal in some countries, it’s just how we’ve always done it. In the old times, people would call for the tattooist, and they were the only people that could cross boundaries, back in the old days, without getting into trouble. So that’s how it’s always been. And part of me thinks it should stay that way, you know, you get that intimacy, and time with the person you’re tattooing [...] people bring a different sort of spirit when they come into your home, whereas at a studio, there’s still that element of consumerism, you know?


Me: How do you feel about non-Māori tattooists using Māori designs?

Stu: If it’s under ignorance, I’m not into it. If you’re making an effort to go around and learn about it, I’m [still] not cool with it, but at least the effort is being made. I don’t think you can stop those sorts of things, and I think that as a Māori and a Māori artist, my job is to just go out there and try to help them understand that there’s a certain way that it’s done. Once the internet came about, it was over - it’s so accessible now. As Māori people and custodians of the ancient art, we’ve just gotta find ways around it, try and educate people, take every opportunity you can really.


Me: Do you feel that the culture has had to open up a lot and become more inclusive with respect to ta moko?

Stu: Definitely, and if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have survived, I don’t think. Because it sort of put a bomb under everyone about reclaiming things like facial markings and stuff like that. Cos really, this [he gestures towards Alan’s arm] isn’t Māori. The sleeve has been adopted from Japanese culture - we’ve just adapted our patterns to that placement of the body. But traditionally, we just did our legs and buttocks and our faces, really. And for me as an artist, one day, maybe in my lifetime, that’s where we’ll go [...] that’s my goal - to normalise our markings again. And just to remove a lot of those stigmas. I think that’s sort of my job as a wearer now - to remove the stigma of the full face, so it’s more accessible for the ones that are coming behind me, the younger ones.


Me: How would you best explain ta moko to someone who had no knowledge of the culture at all? What does it mean to you and how would you like people to understand it?

Stu: I think one of the biggest misunderstood things is that it’s just like pictures, [but] it’s like an alphabet, it’s one of our earliest forms of literacy, it’s where we held all the stories, all the intricacy of our society, and of the individual. It’s something that connected you to your past, your present and your future. So it’s more than something that’s just aesthetically pleasing; it was more about recording stuff, which enabled you to live a better life; so you’d learn something and then you’d get that tattooed. You’d do it for your whole life; that’s how we ended up with that groove so deep on the faces of our ancestors - they didn’t get it in one cut, they went over and over it [...] it was more than just artwork, it was the stuff that was hidden inside the artform that really matters the most for our ancestors and our people. So I suppose that’d be a big thing I’d really like to get out there. Because I think more people would engage with it, and seek it out.


Me: Have you ever had a ta moko experience that’s been particularly difficult, or special?

Stu: Oh yeah, heaps - I’ve got clients, they’ll come and lie down, not [just] for the purpose of getting some ink done, it’s more so they can go on that other side and meditate and sort out any issues. But that part of it I think, more than ever, is coming around at the moment. Especially for a lot of Māori men; there’s a lot now that open up, not realising in themselves that it’s a spiritual thing that’s happening to them. So I try to give them understanding behind that [...] it’s part of their journey. Couple of years now, there’s been part of me trying to push this back into the health sector of society for our people. There’s just something about endorphins in your brain when you confront pain, you know? Straight away all your survival mechanisms go off, and that’s when you’re closest to God, man [chuckles] [...] any negative or pakaru [broken] mindset behind this [gestures to Alan’s tattoo], because his koro [grandfather] didn’t get to teach his mother, that’s what we’re healing today, so that Alan’s mokopuna [descendants] don’t need to carry around their great grandfather’s taumaha [heaviness].


Me: With the Samoan tau tau process, if you don’t get yours completed, it’s like a mark of shame - is there anything like that with ta moko?

Stu: There’s definitely always that shame that’s associated to it, some of it’s self-inflicted! A lot of the Samoan guys that were told “this is your time,” and not being ready, I suppose [there are] anxieties they’re taking away from those experiences, ‘cause of that happening and them not agreeing with the whole process. [But] I have utmost respect for them because they’ve managed to keep it alive. In NZ, for us Māori, straight after the Treaty and the abolishment of tohunga [artist] and all our men were sent to build roads and railway tracks and [having] contact with the crown in society [...] We got the ridicule and shame of ‘not being able to provide’. So the men stopped wearing the moko. But our great-grandmothers, they were still able to wear the moko, because they were hidden in the safety of the kainga [home]. So our women never stopped wearing it, but our men have, and that’s why I take my hat off to the Samoans, because they have never stopped what they were doing.


Me: Do they still use the chisel?

Stu: There’s still a lot of them doing chisel work, but it’s the same as us - they’re so busy, and they’ve gotta keep up, so it’s much quicker with the machine [laughs]. One of my mates, who did Sonny Bill Williams, he’s a chisel artist but he’s just on the machine hard out all the time now, because he just can’t keep up with demand. It takes so long to make the chisel, resharpen it. My friends and I have had turns at tapping, but time doesn’t allow it. Accessing the albatross bone is virtually impossible.


Me: Have you ever had the Thai style? With the long needle?

Stu: I haven’t got any, but I spent a week with them at a convention in Singapore. [I] became quite close with one of the Japanese artists and one of the Thai monks. We had ideas of swapping ink at the end of the week, but we were just all so booked up [laughs]. But the old Thai monk wanted a tattoo machine, so I gave him one of my machines and he gave me his tools. There’s that shared culture too, I see them pray while they do it, and how they bless people. They saw me praying one day, and that’s what closed the barrier between us [...] they could see everything else about me was modern and contemporary, but then when they saw me praying one day they came over and asked who I was praying to, so I shared Atua stories, and made a connection through that.


Me: With [Labour MP] Nania Mahuta having her moko kauae [chin tattoo] - I think this is great because having moko in government can let Māori feel free to have facial moko, instead of feeling like they’ve got to have it somewhere they have to hide.

Stu: Oh it’s amazing. But like, I’ll be discriminated in NZ, but in other places, it’s a true reverence, because they don’t know anything else about it; they just see the culture in it, rather than crossing the street to avoid you.


Me: Do you get really obvious negativity from people often?

Stu: Oh yeah, I knew what I was getting into, though; I was tattooing other people’s faces before I got mine done. But I think that was part of my drive too, that I wanted to be a person that people could just walk up to and I could demystify it in a second for them, you know? I’m a dad, I’m a teacher, I’m a business owner, I’m a leader, I’m a mentor, I’m everything BUT a gang member! And I wake up every morning and take my kids to school, just like 95% of New Zealanders. If people come up and talk, and find out that the person behind the mark is actually a good dude [...] that’s the picture I want to portray. It’s something that my grandmother really drummed into me before I got one.

But if you had told me 10-15 years ago that I’d be travelling the world and owning tattoo studios, I’d have thought you were crazy, you know? But it’s just amazing how it’s gone, I freak out on it some days, like, who would have thought?

This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2017.
Posted 12:17pm Sunday 8th October 2017 by Chelle Fitzgerald.