The paths that lead to receiving moko kauae, the tattooed marks worn on the face by Māori women for centuries, vary from person to person. For one Waikato woman, it was a tribute to her mother.
Words and pictures by Cornell Tukiri. With thanks to Maxine Te Rongomau, her whānau and community.
It is 8am on July 17 at Maxine Te Rongomau’s Hamilton home on a cool, clear morning. The Waikato River flowing behind her house adds to the chill in the air. There’s a sense of nervous excitement from Maxine; she’s in the kitchen making bread to serve to guests later today.
“I love cooking and baking, it’s one of my favourite things to do,” she says.
Maxine is still in her dressing gown as her grown up children greet her on their way out to help set up Ko Aratiatia marae at Fairfield College, about a five minute drive away.
Today, Maxine will receive her moko kauae – tattooed marks worn on the chin by Māori women. The date is significant as it is one year to the day that Maxine’s mother, Tarita, known as Rita, passed away. The one year anniversary is usually reserved for the unveiling of the headstone of the deceased as per tikanga. But for Maxine it wasn’t to be, as a fracture opened up between her and her sisters during the final days and hours of their mum’s life. The knock on effect was the announcement, against Maxine’s will, that the unveiling would take place four weeks before the anniversary of their mother’s passing. Four weeks too early in Maxine’s opinion. Not only that, but it was to go ahead on the day of her mother-in-law’s unveiling, which she says was wrong. Combined with what she feels are other negative factors, Maxine boycotted her own mother’s unveiling.
“At about 2am one morning a few weeks back I woke up and then woke [her husband] Noa up and said: ‘I know how I am going to commemorate mum’s day! I’m getting a moko kauae done!’
And not just for Maxine’s mother, but for all the mums. The day is dedicated to mums, she says. A celebratory cake on the table is emblazoned with the words Mo Nga Mama (For the Mothers).
Maxine Te Rongomau is Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Naho, Ngāti Hine and Australian. “My mum was Māori and my dad was Australian. We grew up without the reo. Mum was a native reo speaker but had it smacked or caned out of her when she went to school.”
It’s a story that many Māori of the generation that was made to stop speaking Māori to ‘get ahead’ in the Pākehā world will recognise.
“For me it is Nanaia [Mahuta, Labour Party MP] that has normalised moko kauae. I’m a school teacher, so if she works for the government and can wear one, then so can I.”
I can’t help but think it seems ridiculous that Māori have to normalise and ‘convince’ some parts of Aotearoa that it’s OK to practise their culture.
The marae at Fairfield College, Ko Aratiatia, is serene and beautiful, carved by Tainui master carver Kereti Rautangata. Maxine is a teacher at the school; she’s 51 now and was a late starter both to the profession and to learning te reo Māori. “I thought I would get my moko kauae when I became fluent in te reo. I’m nearly there but the anniversary of Mum passing supersedes my inability.”
It is school holidays so there are no students at the school. Maxine has told her senior students and fellow staff members that when they come back from break she will have the facial tattoo. “When I told my students and colleagues just about everyone was very positive towards me, bar one or two people. A foreign teacher mentioned to me that it was a permanent thing I was getting! I reassured him that I’m 51, I know what I’m doing.”
Maxine also had to explain to her boss, the school principal Richard Crawford, about her decision – something she was nervous about. “He was very happy for me, beaming a huge smile at me when I told him. I was ready for the worst, if it meant I lost my job, so be it, because this is more important.”
Many friends and whānau are at the marae at Fairfield College to lend support in many different ways. It’s a stark contrast to a ‘routine’ tattooing experience where it’s usually just the tattoo artist and the recipient in a tattoo studio. The beautifully carved wharenui is full of children, mums, dads and kaumātua watching on, chatting, catching up, singing traditional and new waiata and karakia, all adding their support in one form or another.
But one thing that cuts through the noise is the sound of the uhi (traditional tattooing chisel) tap, tap, tap – wood hitting wood that drives the attached albatross bone, shaped into needle-thin points, that penetrate the skin. The uhi creates the lines that tell the story of Maxine’s wairua, tūpuna and whānau, especially her mother, Rita.
The traditional uhi is the instrument that tā moko artist Pip Hartley (Ngāti Tuwharetoa) uses when she applies moko kauae. She sees it as a sacred rite in need of a sacred tool. Pip hails from the Hibiscus Coast, and is the founder of Karanga Ink tattoo studio on Auckland’s Karangahape Road. She began her tā moko journey in 2002 under the expert tutelage of tohunga-tā moko Te Kura Te Wanikau Turoa. “To me making the uhi is part of the art – how you make it defines how you use it,” Pip says. The week before chiseling Maxine’s moko kauae, Pip was in Taupō with her tohunga making brand new uhi from albatross bone. The wing bones are favoured as they are very strong and can be shaped to needle-like sharpness.
“It’s the epitome of tā moko for me [using the traditional uhi], it feels like I’m seeing and working through the tūpuna [of the the recipient]. It slows down the process as well, there’s more feeling and emotion,” Pip says.
“It’s one of the main reasons I sought after Pip,” Maxine says. “The tradition of the uhi and thought of the Waikato river beginning its journey in Taupō and flowing down to me, past my house in Hamilton.”
The uhi gives the tattooing process another dimension. There is no constant buzz of a machine, no real speed. The instrument goes as fast as the user and the receiver, a true partnership and nod to the ancestors.
As supporters come and go throughout the tattooing process many stay for the entire day, watching on, adding laughter and song. Frances Hei (Ngāi Tu Te Auru, Ngāpuhi) and her daughters are present from start to finish. Both Frances and 16-year-old daughter Muriwai have moko kauae, which they had tattooed earlier this year. “Maxine has a special place in my life, she is someone to aspire to. She had been ready for a long time.” Frances says. “This moment in time is even more special for receiving her taonga on her mum’s memorial date.”
Frances mentions that social media has also played a part in the resurgence of all forms of moko kanohi (Māori tattoo on the face). “So many talented people have gone out and learnt the art form of moko from what we would consider the masters and they are so approachable, via the internet, over the phone or face to face.”
Frances also asserts the right of all Māori women to wear it. “As Māori, the honour is bestowed upon you at birth because you are Māori. Moko is your birthright but because of outside influences many of our tikanga, reo and art forms were lost in translation.”
The tapping starts to fade after five hours. The moko kauae is finished. As Maxine starts to get up one of her daughters’ grabs a quick photo on her phone. Her face shows exhaustion and beauty. Whānau and friends rush in to embrace her, tears streaming. Maxine’s thoughts turn to her mum and her tūpuna.
Maxine Te Rongomau’s moko kauae means her story is no longer only held inside, but worn proudly on the outside, for everyone to see.