Strength and identity in Ta Moko

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When Ta Moko artist Julie Paama-Pengelly (Ngaiterangi) was training as a secondary art teacher in the early 1990s, traditional Māori visual and performance arts, and Te Reo, were experiencing a delicate revival.

For a long time, society’s lack of concern for these taonga had left Māori without a voice or medium of communication, and, as Julie says, a feeling of “not being grounded in their world anymore”.

As her people gradually reclaimed their customs and traditions Julie began to understand the place traditional Māori visual arts, like Ta Moko (traditional Māori tattooing), carving and weaving occupied in the Māori world and how essential these were in terms of contributing to Māori wellbeing. She realised she wanted to be part of this reawakening and to help Māori reconnect with their culture.

“Taia o moko, hai hoa matenga hou”

Of your moko you cannot be deprived, even in death

Taking Ta Moko to the people

Before settling in Tauranga and opening her Mt Maunganui studio Art + Body in 2012, Julie’s work involved bringing Ta Moko to the community. With her tools she would visit marae and health centres and use the traditional art as a way to reinforce messages about Māori standing tall and having a positive self-image, and of health and family wellbeing. Encouraging Māori to give up smoking was also a big part of these messages.

“People would come to the Marae and we would talk to them about Ta Moko and healthy lifestyles, and about seeing tattooing in a positive way,” she says. “We showed them how this was a positive representation of being healthy, where smoking and other adverse behaviours, weren’t.

“Our message was that you can be proud of being Māori, that tattooing was what we did as Māori, so let’s celebrate it, let’s wear it, let’s see it. Many people were moved to give up drugs or stop smoking as part of this journey, and when we see women walking around with moko on their chins, that’s a positive message to Māori about valuing who they are as a people.”

As Māori embraced the revival of their language and traditional arts, so too did society’s attitudes change. Particularly noticeable over the last 25 years has been our attitudes around tattooing. Where once it was seen as the stereotype of bikies, sailors, or the criminal underworld, tattooing in mainstream society has now become much more widely accepted and Ta moko is constantly in demand. As a result, there are now more than 100 traditional artists working around the country – evidence to Julie of how it has become a healthy part of our culture.

“The interesting thing is that Polynesian and Māori revival has influenced mainstream tattooing. Now, many non-Māori don’t just want a picture, they want something that tells their story. Even if it has no Māori design, they’ve thought about the story and they want to personalise it.”

Ta moko tells a story

Ta moko first sparked her interest when she studied fine arts in the 80s, but it was her growing awareness during the period of Māori visual art revival while she was teaching training, that prompted her to begin learning the traditional art. Māori mentors helped develop her design knowledge, and tattoo skills and knowledge were both self-taught and learned from a wide range of artist experts. Compared to the traditional stereotypes, Māori tattoo practice sits in a very different space, she says.

“Through my immersion in Māori visual arts I understood way more about where it originated, from a Māori perspective. It’s centred on our identity and our means of communication, the symbols are carried everywhere across different art forms, such as carving. Moko marks important events and membership – it tells a story. It’s vastly different [from what people commonly think of as tattooing].”

Design is particularly important, she says, and students have to dig deeply to gain the knowledge that ancestors have gifted, especially around different tribal styles. Māori carvers who have studied the art forms can easily transpose some of that knowledge across to become Ta Moko practitioners however, she acknowledges, this is never the entire story.

Julie threw herself into teaching art, mostly in an all-Māori secondary school and later tertiary education environments. She also continued to study and practise Ta Moko, and in 1995 returned to university to study Māori Visual Arts and Māori language. All up she has five degrees, including a Masters in Third World Development and is often sought out for her high level of specialist skills in both Māori arts and Māori education. She began placing priority in her work as a Ta Moko artist from the early 2000s and is widely considered to be one of those at the forefront of the revival of this art form.

Empowerment through identity

As well as the renaissance of traditional art forms, Julie sees other trends influencing the rising popularity of tattooing, among young and old alike.

“A tattoo is something permanent in a rapidly changing world. People often feel they have little control over their lives; that everything feels quite overwhelming, and a tattoo is a way of regaining some control over their identity. Their symbols or narratives are constant reminders of that empowerment.”

And even when everything is constantly in transition, when fashions change in a heartbeat, and when wise souls say a tattoo today will be regretted later in life, Julie says it’s just not how young people think these days.

“The experiential view is that ‘it’s all part of me’, even if the person does come to regret it 20 years later. Young people are not concerned by wondering what they might feel down the track, and, if they change their mind, the removal adds to the narrative, or gets covered by a new design. They are much more willing to see that as part of their story.”

Art + Body comprises a collective of artists offering complementary creative styles that encourage clients to “Wear Your Journey”. In addition to tattoo, customers can choose henna tattooing, massage, piercing, hair styling and makeup services.

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