While still a rare sight in national politics, face moco is increasingly common in contemporary New Zealand society. Tattoos often hold great cultural significance for the wearer, as they tell a visual story that connects the indigenous people to their ancestors.
A member of the Maori group Tainui Waka Alliance at Te Papa Museum in Wellington in 2012, the museum received 20 mummified tattooed heads that were transported to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. credit: Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images
For Te Kahautu Maxwell, an associate professor at the University of Waikato (and great-grandson of a Mokuo artist), getting face tattoos about 10 years ago was about “restoring” his heritage.
“It is about my heritage and my place in society as a historian, academic, preacher or spokesperson for my people,” he said in a telephone interview. “It brings me a sense of pride and my people a sense of pride.
He added, “It also tells the history of my life.” “It is sacred and precious to me.”
Steeped in tradition
The practice of tattooing – known as Ta Moku – is believed to take its name from Rūaumoko, the Maori god of earthquakes and volcanoes. A common origin story includes a legendary character, Maturo, who falls in love with and marries New York, the daughter of the ruler of the underworld.
After striking her in a fit of rage, Maturo follows his wife to the underworld to ask for forgiveness. While there, New York’s father taught him the art of ta moku, confessed his return to the “upper” world, and put tattoos on him as a reminder to avoid future acts of evil.
A woman with lip and chin markings, known as Mokuo Kawai, at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 2014. credit: Tobias Schwartz / AFP via Getty Images
Historically, Moco ceremonies were surrounded by customs and rituals. It often took place in makeshift outside shelters, where the person being sniffed was only allowed to eat through a sculpted funnel, which also helped reduce the likelihood of infection. The recipient is expected to abstain from sexual contact or washing during recovery.
Traditionally, men have had marks on their faces, buttocks, and thighs, while women usually have them on the lips and chin.
Although tattooing has been practiced in Polynesian societies for centuries, Maori groups have developed their own techniques and tools. Organic dyes – made by burning resin from curry trees, and mixing soot with oil or other liquids – will be etched under the top layers of skin using tools forged from bird bones, usually those of albatrosses. (At the turn of the twentieth century, the use of needles became more common, while today modern tattoo machines are also in use.)
The prevalence of moco-faced decreased after the arrival of Europeans – not least because the preserved heads of tattooed Maori warriors became highly coveted among the colonists. The association of tattoos on the face with gangs or criminality in other cultures may also have contributed to its decline.
Kenji Tawerua, the eldest late Ngabuhi, gave a speech at TT Marai in Waitangi, New Zealand, in 2012. credit: Kenny Rodger / Getty Images
But with the renewed interest in traditional Maori art forms such as woodcarving, and the increasing acceptance of tattoos in the wider New Zealand society, Ta Moku art has seen something of a resurgence in recent decades. Maxwell, 54, said traditional New Zealand tattoo “normalization” began in the 1990s and 2000s, after earlier generations distanced themselves from the practice.
“There was a lot of negativity, not only from non-Maori societies but also from ours, because our fathers and grandfathers believed that the Mokuo should be left in the past.
“But we, the younger generation at the time, were not prepared to let the art form turn into a memory, (so we chose) to return it as a living art form and announce to the world that we are Maori.”
However, there is also a growing number of prominent figures with facial markings in New Zealand society, such as journalist Orieni Kaibara, who last year became the first woman with Moko Kwai to present news on a major television station.
Journalist Orieni Kaibara speaks at the Inclusion Power Summit 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. credit: Michael Bradley / Getty Images
As the incidence increased, cases of alleged cultural appropriation emerged. Mike Tyson, Rihanna and British pop star Robbie Williams have been criticized for adopting Maori-style tattoos in recent years. Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier also stirred controversy in 2007, when he applied moco-inspired designs to the faces of Caucasian supermodels on a fashion campaign.
However, Maxwell welcomes the interest of other cultures and sees it as an opportunity to educate people about Maori traditions. He described Mahota’s recent appointment as one of these opportunities, and called it a “significant moment” for Indigenous communities.
“It will take the Mokuo to places it never was before – to consulates, embassies and government offices around the world,” he said.
Nanaya Mahuta, the first female MP to wear moko kauae, pictured in February 2020. credit: Mark Tantrum / Getty Images
Meanwhile, Rockaway Tepene-Allen, a political journalist for Maori TV who wears the face of Mokuo, said the appointment “shows that our culture has a place on the international stage”.
“The first face people see internationally is someone who talks and looks and looks like a Maori,” she told CNN earlier this week, adding, “Wearing the signs of her ancestors shows people that there are no limits to Maori and where they can go.”