'It's Transformative': Māori Women Talk About Their Sacred Chin Tattoos | Broadly
When New Zealand was colonized in the 1800s, the ancient Māori practice of moko kauae—or sacred female facial tattooing—began to fade away. Now the art form is having a resurgence. Here's what it means to stamp your identity on your face. September 2016.

Māori facial and body tattooing is known as Tā moko. An ancient art form, its origin lies in West Polynesia. The intricate designs were chiseled into the skin using a tool called an uhi; ink was then smudged into the carved lines. Tā moko represents the wearer’s family heritage and social status—it is believed that the receiver visits a spiritual realm where they encounter their ancestors, returning as a new person.

For Māori women, as historian Michael King notes in his seminal book Moko, the moko was a rite of passage, marking the passage between girl and adulthood.

But from 1840, with the influx of English settlers, Māori were pushed from their lands and assimilation began. Colonial laws were passed banning what are known as tohunga, or Māori experts, and children were caned for speaking Māori at school. By the 1970s, the moko had all but died out. Only a few female elders carried it, and elsewhere facial tattoos had negative connotations; adopted by disaffected urban Māori, they became associated with gangs and crime.

Things started to change in the 1980s, with a push to revive Māori language and culture, and in recent years there has been a revival in the ancient practice among both elders and young Māori women. Tā moko artist Pip Hartley, 33, is one of a new generation of Māori who are carrying the art form forward. When she was 18 she started traveling to remote regions of the country to learn the ancient art, before opening her Auckland tattoo studio, Karanga Ink, this year.

The moko process is intensely personal, Pip tells Broadly. “I prefer to draw straight onto the person, because it’s an exchange of wairua, or energy. It’s working with the contours of their body and translating their story, and for a lot of people it’s a transformative experience. Every time they see it, it’s a reminder of what they’ve achieved, and that their tupuna [ancestors] have their back.”

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