Eye of the Beholder: Ta Moko

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Etched into the faces of the Maori tribes on New Zealand’s southern island is an elaborate visual language that  tells the story of its wearer and pays homage to his or her whakapapa, or genealogy. Ta moko is a faded Polynesian tradition of marking and scarring the skin, now a symbol to reclaim lost heritage amid changing times for the tribe and their homeland.

Meant to mark rites of passage and status within society, the more visible the design, the more powerful the statement. There is no place more sacred than the head to declare identity and belonging. The most important men in the tribal hierarchy in times past often had their entire heads covered in the art.

Unlike the tattoo, which does not alter the skin’s texture, ta moko in its original form literally carved its significance into the body, leaving grooves and ruts of ancestry traceable to a trained eye. Moko artists called tohunga used chisels made of albatross bone and pigment that was a mixture of burnt timber and animal fat. A painful (and bloody) process, the tradition fell from prominence during the 1900s.

The tradition designs are reappearing though, now done with needles, mostly on the chins of brave and wise Maori women. Many of them remember their grandmothers as proud wearers and idolized their beauty. As a group, they feel compelled to reclaim their cultural distinction. As individuals, they are regular people who feel humbled and sometimes intimidated by the profound honor of being “chosen” for moko. It can be the community elders or one’s own inner voice that determines the moment of readiness. Some say that in essence, the moko is always there, it is simply revealed one day to the wearer. From that day, there is no turning back.

An indelible responsibility of living up to the honor of family and tribe accompanies the esteem of being called to wear one’s story. One must be a role model and live in a state of purity – no drugs, no alcohol, no smoking, no vice. Humility and community reign. And in exchange, the moko is a kind of guardian, a spirit that guides its wearer as the Maori say, walking backward into the future.

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