'Absolute Responsibility': A Young Māori Tattooist on the Ancient Tradition of Tā Moko

Moko Smith uses traditional tools handcrafted from pig tusks to create tattoos from Aotearoa's pre-European past.
March 24, 2017, 12:56am

(Top image: Moko Smith at He Tāonga Maori, the Maori Court at Auckland Museum. Images by the author.)

Moko Smith, a young moko artist from West Auckland, has returned to his mother's hometown to tattoo his cousin Kara Beckford. Moko uses traditional tools handcrafted from pig tusks and draws inspiration from Aotearoa's pre-European past, when tattooing symbolised much more than body decoration. Moko is on a journey to revitalise the art in its original form. "I try to make things that guide people in the future," he says.

VICE took Moko to the Māori collection at Auckland Museum where—surrounded by historic carvings and early paintings of Māori elders etched with full facial tattoos—we talked about where tā moko comes from, and where it's heading.

VICE: Hi Moko. I've got to ask, is your name really Moko? Moko Smith: It's Mokonui-a-rangi—so Great tattoo in the sky—which is a name from down Gisborne, East Coast way. Moko is the abbreviation. I get people asking all the time. Is that your real name? Is that your title? It's just what my parents planted in me. They set me up for it in a way.

How long have you been doing moko? Two years. It's still early days. Doing the apprenticeship thing. There is still a lot to learn in the studio and out of the studio. It's not just tattoo. There's the act of putting tattoo into the skin. Then there is the whole rest of what makes moko more than tattoo.

Does that mean looking to the past? Yes, it means going back home and being with the old people. Moko artist, weavers, carvers. You have the stories of the patterns. The stories of mythology. Knowledge of how and when to use it and it's context within our history. A lot of it has been lost but lots of it is still there. There are still questions. How our ancestors did certain things or tattooed certain body parts is just mind blowing.

Moko checking out some albatross bone tattoo chisels on display at Auckland Museum.

You use traditional tools. Can you tell me about the technique you use?
It's a tapping method which is found all throughout Polynesia and Asia. The technique has been passed down through the Samoans. There was a master who used to live here called Su'a Sulu'ape Paulo. He was wanting to share the knowledge that Samoans had. He chose certain people and they taught their version of it to help build a bridge for us to connect what they had, what we had and try to find a way to go forward with that information. The technique has come down through the Samoan line to Inia Taylor and he's been on that journey to make the technique Māori. Then it's come down to me. It's only the first steps of the journey.

There was a ceremonial aspect to Kara's work in the documentary. Is there always that sense of ceremony to what you do?
That was even more so because we're at the marae. At the studio we still sit down and discuss what goes into the moko. Then we do the karakia and we do the practice. Then we do karakia to close. There is that strict sense of protocol and process.

How does you feel when you're doing moko?
I love it. For me it feels totally natural. When I first had the tools I felt, this is what I'm meant to do. On another level the act of putting ink into skin, the tools, is only a small part of the process. You're not just sitting there tapping into the person. There's a responsibility in making something that does them justice. Does you justice. I try to make things that guide people in the future. It goes beyond patterns. It goes into setting an intent or representing something within their life. So to make the work honest for the person, it's another process in itself.

Clues to how Maori would have worn moko are preserved in carvings like these on a pataka (storehouse) at Auckland Museum.

How widespread was tā moko among Māori pre-European times?
As far as I know it was everywhere. I've never heard of an iwi that was unmarked.
People who were important were marked. People who had a role in the community were marked. Marked to represent what they did in the community. And marked to beautify themselves. Our people are all about decorating their world. Everything they did was decorated. Even the pou. The digging implement was highly decorated. Now we go to Bunnings and buy a $12 piece of crap. You'd never pass it down to you grandson. Their world was decorated and they were part of that world. It was all about making things more valuable. Acknowledging the value and raising them up to a level that brings more mana for the people.

What type of pigments would they use?
There is different write ups on that and that's a point of controversy. There's talk about kauri gum being used. That's an accepted idea. There is another one with the anuhe, caterpillar that is burnt. There's some talk about dog shit, and gunpowder. Even kerosene soot became the easiest for a while. But kerosene is terrible for your kidneys. The Samoans found that out. They got heavily done with kerosene and some of them ended up with kidney failure. The inks were really precious. What's interesting about those inks is different regions had different inks. We don't know if the ink was do with the scarification on the face. Whether there is something in it that helps with that healing process.

This episode of NEEDLES & PINS is called 'The Resurgence of Tā Moko'. How are Māori reclaiming the art form?
That started out in the 70s and 80s with people like Derek Lardelli and Mark Kopua, Inia Taylor. The resurgence has been happening for a long time but I think it's gone from people who really identified with the culture, who were really involved with the culture, to mainstream people who haven't grown up in the culture but still want to wear it as a point of pride. They want to have the reminder for the world and themselves that they have Māori heritage somewhere. Or maybe they aren't Māori at all but they want to have that connection.

How do you approach that?
That's a whole other topic. But we'll get there.

How is wider society's attitude changing towards tattoo, and tā moko in particular?
It's not the rebellion that it used to be. It doesn't come with the punk, bikie gang, alternative culture thing. It comes with a sense of my culture. A reclaiming of identity.

You talk in the documentary about wanting to see more moko on chins? Is that about bringing back tradition?
I want it to go so many places. I want the future to be one where our leaders are wearing moko on the face as it used to be done. At the moment it's a really hard thing to come by. No one's really got it down like our ancestors did.

Is it an incredible skill?
It's the height of tattoo, full stop. All over the world.

What's so difficult about it?
You're making curved lines on a face with so many angles, so many sensitivities. It's the ultimate representation of the person is the face. There is no mucking around.

Goldie, Charles F. (1907) Touched by the Hand of Time [Te Hei, Ngāti Raukawa] . Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PD-1951-1-4.

Let's check out these portraits of Māori painted in the 1800s by C.F. Goldie. What strikes you about the people in these?
These fellas had the most incredible moko. Just totally untouchable. The difficulty of getting that regularity of lines and then the spirals on the nose. Any tattooist around the world looks at that, and the mind boggles. And just their sense of style. They lived in a stone age and yet they could achieve a wicked sense of refinement in their art, and then put it on the most difficult part of the body and take it to the level where it is etched, grooved. There are so many steps of evolution in an art form that they took and just pushed and pushed it, and wore it and took the risks on their own body. It's just insane.

There is quite a strong reflection of their world. They weren't just randomly clutching for aesthetic. Their aesthetic came from the world that surrounded them. So they blended in with the trees and the plants and with their natural environment to the point of camouflage. It's a much wider scope of looking at where you fit in your life. Rather than, "I want a Spongebob on my arm." That comes out of pure spur-of-the-moment indulgence. There is no indulging in that moko. It comes with absolute responsibility, because you acknowledge really who you are and what you represent for yourself and the community.

Do you find forms that you use in your art in the old carvings?
In modern day tā moko, you can use anything when you're using a [tattoo] machine. There are all sorts of new references that people are working into moko with the machine that traditional tools just can't do. Now people use the manaia [a mythological creature with the head of a bird and body of a man], wheku [carved representation of a human face], all sorts of beautiful figures. Whereas I look for things I can achieve with my tools—the way the spirals come together, different details, the little taratara, triangular ridges, the body placement on a carving.

We're still on the same mission today, of modifying the world around us and expressing our world view and make it as far reaching as possible. We can tell our stories, tell new ones, or embellish old ones.