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'It's Transformative': Māori Women Talk About Their Sacred Chin Tattoos

Here's what it means to stamp your identity on your face.

by Michelle Duff
28 July 2017, 12:59am

Image by Stephen Langdon.

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For Māori women, the moko kauae, or traditional female chin tattoo, is considered a physical manifestation of their true identity. It is believed every Māori woman wears a moko on the inside, close to their heart; when they are ready, the tattoo artist simply brings it out to the surface. Last month, Nanaia Mahuta became the first member of parliament in the world to wear a moko kauae. The 46-year-old made history not only because of her decision to wear her Māori identity on her face in a political arena, but as part of the resurgence in Māori women receiving the traditional ink.

"There were a number of milestones in my life, and it felt right to mark them in a way that is a positive statement about my identity," Nanaia (below) tells Broadly. "Who I am, where I come from, and the contribution I want to continue to make. When I got it done, I felt incredibly calm. I felt like it had always been there."

Nanaia's moko marked the anniversary of her father's death, and the designs incorporate the traditional carving patterns of her tribe, Ngāti Maniapoto. But she also received the moko to inspire her three-year-old daughter. "As a young Māori woman I want my daughter to know that everything is at her fingertips; she just needs to reach forward and grab it."

Nanaia Mahuta. Photo by Kina Sai

Nanaia's first time in parliament wearing the moko was emotional. "There was a huge amount of pride from other Māori women," she recalls. "It's been an interesting thing. People look at you differently. It's a cultural marker, and it says clearly when I'm sitting round a table that I do represent a certain way of thinking."

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.

Continue reading on BROADLY.

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