With a little ink, some stinging pain and a helping hand from the ancestors, Mark Kopua can heal a wounded soul.
He is a modern master of an ancient art called ta moko, one of the world’s oldest forms of tattooing and a renewed source of pride for New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people.
To those who know how to read the twists, turns and spirals of the ink lines, they tell a rich history of a person’s accomplishments and ancestry. The centuries-old designs turn the faces and bodies of women and men into testaments to their identity, and offer spiritual healing.
“I learned very quickly that moko was therapy for people,” Kopua said. “If you ail inside, and you get taken to a grandparent for advice, the elders are involved in your healing. This is very similar to that.”
The designs have both fascinated and frightened outsiders for generations. In the 19th century, curiosity seekers traded gunpowder with the Maori for the tattooed heads of their dead warriors. Dozens of the dried heads are in a macabre collection hidden away in New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
The tattoos also brought scorn on the Maori from missionaries and other foreigners who saw them as primitive. Even today, some Maori adorned with moko complain that they suffer discrimination when looking for work, or just a drink at a bar.
But in recent years, as Maori stand up to safeguard their culture, an art that once seemed doomed by the onslaught of Western culture is again a solemn declaration of Maori identity and dignity. Their sacred, serpentine designs now adorn foreign celebrities such as British pop star Robbie Williams and boxer Mike Tyson, and Maori are vigorously defending their claim over motifs that many feel are being exploited by outsiders.
More than 565,000 people, or one in seven New Zealanders, are Maori, according to the most recent census, in 2006. After a steady exodus from the countryside in recent decades, 85% of Maori today live in towns and cities, said Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, who wrote a book on ta moko.
Now members of the urban mainstream here, including Maori police officers, teachers, office workers and businesspeople, are shrugging off any fear of being stared at or shunned by colleagues and are going for full-glory moko.
Some wear their moko where the passing world can’t miss it, such as the simple curved lines on a woman’s chin or the florid tapestries that cover a man’s face and scalp. Others go for more intimate tattoos, like broad spirals that play out across buttocks and thighs.
Many find spiritual solace in the tattoo parlor, where Kopua helps them get in touch with their ancestors.
Serendipity helped convince Oriana McLeod that the time had come for her first tattoo. The 47-year-old Maori woman’s path crossed Kopua’s at a recent world music festival in this west coast town.
Feeling the urge to discover the moko that would announce her spiritual rebirth, she phoned several family members to ask their approval. Her father, a tribal elder, not only gave his blessing, but encouraged her with the news that Kopua, 46, was a distant relative.
“This is my time,” she thought, and took the chair next to Kopua’s worktable.
A bear of a man with a whisper of a voice and large tattoos emblazoned across his face and arms, Kopua picked up his pistol-shaped tattoo gun in a large hand sealed in a black latex glove.
Then, like a painter touching the tip of a fine brush to his palette, Kopua dipped the gun in a small pot of ink and began injecting McLeod’s upper arm, drawing free-form from an encyclopedic memory of traditional designs.
For an hour and a half, McLeod turned her head away, or closed her eyes, wincing as Kopua worked on his creation, which depicted the sea and the tossed net of Te Huki, a venerated ancestor of her tribe who extended his power over a vast area by marrying the daughters of several local chiefs.
Like two sets of roiling waves, the pattern of curves and swirls and what seems a squid-like eye transformed McLeod’s right shoulder into a page of her family history. Called whakapapa, this genealogy is the expansive network of bloodlines and kinship that makes someone Maori.
Moko can also honor an important event in a person’s life, such as graduating from college, getting married or experiencing an epiphany, said Te Awekotuku, a professor of Maori culture at the University of Waikato in Hamilton.
It’s similar to a soldier getting “Mom” tattooed on his arm, or a Latino kid in East Los Angeles declaring his gang affiliation with special symbols and colors on his hand, she said.
“I think what you see in the barrios of L.A. -- the imagery, the sacredness, the assertion of identity and pride -- is actually no different from us,” she said. “Just as in the Maori world, they have recurrent symbols that have particular messages for the wearer, the viewer and the family member.”
Like most other Maori, she wishes tourists and the trendy would respect what the tattoos are saying and not try to warp them into fashion statements.
“Even though it’s expressed through art on the skin, it’s very much about belonging,” she said. “And if you don’t belong, you shouldn’t wear it.”
Even so, Maori tattoos adorn bodies of numerous foreign celebrities. Pop star Williams stirred up a controversy in 2000 when a Maori artist tattooed the singer’s arm in New Zealand. A Maori cultural expert complained that the design had been filched from his tribe.
That same year, 50 artists set up a national forum, called Te Uhi A Mataora, to set design and health standards for Maori tattoo artists and protect traditional motifs against abuse in New Zealand and abroad.
“They’re very, very sacred designs that are being used in very, very insensitive ways,” Kopua said. “For example, some designs that come off people’s faces and heads have been put on cups and plates and all those sorts of things.”
Maori are also offended by the misuse of moko on people’s bodies. Tattoo artists mimicking Maori designs without understanding them draw the patterns upside down, put motifs reserved for women on men or distort the designs in other ways.
“Most of the moko are genealogical,” Kopua said. “So when somebody just snatches a design that represents another person’s ancestors and puts it anywhere they please, that takes it out of its true context. Our reaction to that is very, very strong.”
In 2006, activists complained when a Hollywood costume shop put a “Maori Face” tattoo kit on its shelves. French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier caused a bigger stir last year when men and women modeling his clothes in European editions of Vogue were made up with moko on their faces.
Maori are asserting copyright over their designs at the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency in Geneva that promotes the protection of copyrights and patents They have also created toi iho, a registered trademark for authentic Maori-made arts and crafts.
While they fight for their copyright, Maori are quietly struggling to reclaim the dignity of tribal warriors who fell long ago.
The ta moko artists group is working to track down and reclaim the preserved heads of warriors, which are also being stored in New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa museum in Wellington for proper burial, Kopua said.
Since 1907, the American Museum of Natural History has had 35 Maori heads in its anthropology collection, but they are in storage and out of public view, said Charles McLean, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the New York museum.
The museum has “periodic discussions” concerning requests for their return, McLean said. But “we are not currently in discussions with anyone from New Zealand about the heads,” he added.
Kopua thinks much of the outside interest in ta moko today probably stems from the feeling among many foreigners that they’ve lost contact with their own past, a mistake he urges Maori to avoid by proudly wearing their history on their skin.
“We’re telling our own kids in the next generation: ‘These are our ancestors. They’re worth being proud of.’ We also tell them: ‘These are our struggles, and they’re the same struggles of our ancestors. And we’re fighting for them now.’ ”
When Kopua finished McLeod’s tattoo, she seemed slightly stunned, almost as if she were emerging from a trance. Her arm was sore, but she said her spirit was soaring.
“I’ve had a lot go on in my life,” she said, reluctant to go into details with an outsider. “I’ve just found a calling with my Maori-tanga, my Maoriness. It’s a reawakening.”
With her new tattoo covered in loosely wrapped cellophane to protect against infection, she wrapped her arms around Kopua, squeezing him like a long-lost brother. She whispered something in his ear and smiled.
With his beefy hand and soothing voice, and some guidance from the ancestors, he had set her on the right path.