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Tā Moko – The Fine Art of Surfacing

Literature, Ngā Toi Māori
image Image: Ebony Lamb

By Phil Vine. Images by Matt Calman

Ariana is lying on a stretcher at her cousin’s whare. Face-up. Eyes closed.

“She looks like she’s asleep,” says Matt, later, as we pore over the book, fresh from the publishers.

Two pictures on opposing pages document her motionless state.

The room is full. A daughter, a son, husband, uncle, cousins, friends and whānau, the tohunga tā moko tattoo artist.

Then, Ariana moves.

“There was this kind of strange moment,” says Matt.

“She sat up, stunned. There was this separation where everyone was watching her.”

You were quite emotional, Matt reminds her, and you didn’t quite know what to do.

Her moko kauae had “surfaced”.

Ariana’s chin was freshly adorned with the traditional Māori chin tattoo for wāhine.

“At that point she got up, slowly, moving around the room acknowledging everyone. It was really quite amazing and beautiful,” says Matt.


He uses the word rebirth. Ariana’s not so sure.

“I just felt a lot of pride, having been through that , says Ariana.That is an interesting thought around rebirth, some other tā moko practicioners have talked about that.”

Was it true for her?

“Hard to say. I can’t really answer.”

Ariana laughs to disarm the question.

Kindly circumspect to an intrusive pākeha.

Too much explanation, a surfeit of detail may rob a  moment of its intrinsic power.

This is her story. A story needs words. Words suck the life out of ritual.

Say as much or as little as you are comfortable with, that’s the only reassurance an interviewer can give.

“The feeling in the room, from a bystander’s point of view,” says Matt, “it was palpable, this intense feeling of wairua and aroha – it was a very charged atmosphere.”

He’s the photographer, also Ariana’s husband’s cousin.

Neither had any idea that this was going to be anything more than a private documentation of a sacred moment.

But once they saw the first set of images. Ariana was in left in no doubt. They were too powerful to keep to themselves.

“As soon as Matt’s photos arrived, I saw it as a book, so beautiful,” says Ariana.

And so, Mokorua: Ngā Kōrero Mō Tōku Moko Kauae – My Story Of Moko Kauae came  to life.


The book comprises Matt Calman’s photo essay, (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-tonga, Kāi Tahu)  Ariana Tikao’s words, (Kāi Tahu) translated into te reo Māori by her husband, Ross Calman. (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-tonga, Kāi Tahu)

“Our whānau had reached another milestone in the decolonisation process,” says Ariana , “or rather,  our journey of re-indigenising ourselves, becoming who we always were.”

The way Ariana describes tā moko, it’s almost as if the design was there all along.

“My moko has now surfaced from beneath my skin, and she, Mokorua, has revealed
herself in her green-lined goodness.”

The sequenced photos represent a generous invitation to a family gathering.

A discrete ceremony normally performed behind closed doors made public in the interests of better understanding.

“A documentation of this single experience of moko kauae would educate people around the depth of the process,” says Ariana.

“Rather than just what they see on the street – a pretty design – that Māori thing. Let’s give people an insight into that emotion and reconnection to culture.”

The photos are extraordinary. There is trepidation, there is awe, above all, the pictures are overbrimming with rich complex emotion that carries from page to heart.

“Finding myself and that connection with tīpuna and all the people in the room, to be able to share that with all the people who mean so much to me added a lot of wairua into the space.”

So was Ariana aware of her tīpuna – the ancestors?

“Some people do see their tīpuna,” says Ariana.  “Yeah, I don’t see them in that way.”

“For me its a feeling, an intuition. My connection is through my physical being and the work I do in terms of music and writing. “

Ariana is a singer, composer, a leading light of taonga puoro  – traditional Māori instruments – and a New Zealand Arts Laureate.

Dreaming is a channel Ariana uses to connect with her tīpuna – that’s how this tā moko came to be.

In the book she recounts a dream where two lizards appeared,  a male and female. She puts the pregnant female in an envelope to look after it, and the male lizard crawls onto her chin.

“That’s your moko,” said a friend. And it was.

Christine was the artist who brought her to life. The tohunga tā moko who created the design.

Christine Harvey started in Ōtautahi in the mid 90’s and is now a nationally reknowned proponent of the art.

The exact meaning of Ariana’s tā moko is secret, not something they want publicised.

 Partly because of privacy, partly because of concerns about copying.

“I prefer people to come by knowledge in the right way,” says Ariana.  “I haven’t discussed the designs a lot in the book.”

With the exception of the lizards.

Ariana demonstrates with a finger where their tails curl around the bottom of her chin.

The Tā moko is called Mokorua – two lizards.

Matt shows his photo where Ariana’s tattoing starts, friends and whānau come over, unbidden and lay their hands on her.


Looking at the close-ups of Ariana, she is spookily serene. Not a single wrinkle of pain.

Not that it didn’t hurt. Ariana ranks it somewhere between childbirth and acute toothache.

“It is painful,” she says, “but you go through different stages of intensity depending on the location of needle and how sensitive the area is. The awhi, the embrace of the people in the room, that helps.”

Would it be the same, does she think,  if there was no pain?

“That’s definitely part of it. In some cultures you have initiation –  there’s that aspect of it – even fairy tales involve going on some kind of challenge to reach a new level of your experience on earth. So I think the pain aspect is part of that.”

As an observer Matt is in no doubt, there was a change wrought in Ariana.

“She’s the same”, he says, “but transformed.”

It’s hard to pinpoint. Matt and his wife saw Ariana at the Word Christchurch Festival playing at a number of events and “just like that, even her voice seemed different.”

 “I don’t know, there’s something about,  just overall, she just seems more grounded in her identity. Like she’s stepping into her power.”

Does Ariana feel changed?

“I’m not sure if I feel that different,” she says. “It’s more how other people perceive me.”

What about the morning after, when she looked in the mirror?

“Interesting, I suppose it was kind of like meeting a new me (laughs) and just curiosity in terms of how I would look from now on.  Quite a strange sensation.”

Ariana’s moko kauae stakes a strong visual claim on her ancestry.

“The way I look I could be any number of cultural backgrounds I suppose, so it’s a real commitment to outwardly being Māori and celebrating that.

What’s it like passing other wāhine in the street with moko kauae.

“Sometimes you give each other a little smile or say kia ora,  occasionally there’ll be a real recognition and a hongi will happen. “

There are still, of course, the haters.

Conversation turns towards Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta and newsreader Oriini Kaipara and the minority backlash when their moko kauae appeared on the nation’s television sets.

“I think it must be their own prejudice. They don’t want the world to change, they’re used to this pakeha-dominated world, so moko kauae and mataora – full-face tattoo for men, – that challenges their world, it shouldn’t but it does,” says Ariana.

“Hopefully those people will come to terms with the fact that we  are not going to go back as a nation, we have to keep moving forward.”

Matt thinks it might be fear: “People say: ‘you’re forcing things on me’, perhaps they’re people who are a little bit weak in themselves,  frightened by strength in others. Moko kauae is strength in identity.”

Ariana can’t recall any outwardly negative comments in the street but huband, Ross, chips in, describing what he calls ‘studious ignorers’ who make a strong point of not looking at Ariana’s face.

“Some people say to Ariana I really love your moko,” says Ross, “but there are other people who don’t know what to say and just get awkward.”

“It’s more relating to where they’re at and their understanding,” says Ariana.  “If they don’t know much or had much experience of te ao Māori, it brings in their insecurity.”

Ariana doesn’t seem to be someone who wears tā moko as a political badge.

“She’s very polite,” says Ross. “She doesn’t antagonise people, she doesn’t go around wanting to pick fights or have political discussions with strangers.

If there was any political motivation, explains Ariana, it came from a “safety in numbers” standpoint.

She recalls an article about a woman with moko kauae who was asked to leave a playground with her child because the other mothers said they felt threatened.

“It made me feel a lot of hurt for her. It made me feel if more of us take on this kaupapa and this taonga, then individuals can’t get singled out.”

“Its not a trivial decision,” says Matt. “It’s not ‘I felt like having a tattoo ‘cause I think they’re cool’ – It’s a marker of your identity and that’s deep, that stuff,”

He says his  last minute whanaunga invitation to document the ceremony came completely out of the blue.

They’d all been together for the launch of Ross’s  own work, a very well-received publication on the life and times of one of his most  famous ancestors –  He Pukapuka Tātaku i Ngā Mahi a Te Rauaraha Nui – A record of the life of the Great Te Rauparaha.

“What are you doing tomorrow?”  Ariana asked Matt at Wellington airport.

They were both flying down to Ōtautahi.

Matt going home, Ariana heading there for the unveiling of her parents’ headstones at Rāpaki.

She’d grown up in the pākeha world of Christchurch in the 70s and 80s. She and Ross live in the capital.

While the whānau was gathered down south, Ariana and her daughter were going to get tā moko done.

She wondered, casually, if Matt would take some snaps.

“I felt like everyone’s uncle who has a camera, says Matt.

He’s been taking photos since he was 15, his highschool darkroom days. He used to be a journalist at the Dominion Post. Gave it up to stay home and raise his daughters.

“But then it was different because those guys are special. I was never going to miss that.”


Ariana had been been mulling over tā moko for a number of years – it was her daughter Matahana who provided the impetus.

She wanted to get one for her 21st. Christine tattoed them both in the same ceremony.

“Matahana has hers on her wrist and hand. It relates to whakapapa from both islands. Ross has whakapapa up here in Kapiti area,” says Ariana.

Some of the most poignant of Matt’s shots are the revealing exchanges between mother and daughter.

“Lots of the strength lies in these little glances  these looks and expressions, the way people were feeling and that’s where the book lives.”

A living record that captures the resurfacing of a sacred Māori artform, like te reo, suppressed but never lost.



Writer Matt Calman on what inspires him and the creative process.

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