Inscriptions on my body

My grandmother and I


I am the last of a long line of women and men whose bodies were inscribed in sacred ink, sacred earth, sacred lines and sacred blood. My ancestors are forever connected to my DNA, my body and my everyday environment. The lines carved into my grandmother’s and my mother’s chin and lips will soon fade from memory, never residing in the visual memory of my grandchildren. They may hear stories and they may see similar lines on carvings in our sacred houses and on our marae, but they will never kiss, or breathe in my moko kauae. They will never run their hands over the aged lines on my chin, or their grandfather’s face, and wonder which are the wrinkles of age, and which are the sacred carvings of whakapapa – of geneology.

This white man who wants to take my picture, who wants me to talk to him about my moko kauae – how dare he! I pretend I do not speak English. I host him and his friend with the camera. But I am not interested. It hurts to hear him tell me that I am part of a group that will soon be lost – I hear the karanga, Calling, calling, calling … that voice – she will soon be lost forever. My heart breaks.


The water is cool on my face. The pain eases and I can breathe without tensing my shoulders or my puku. I plunge my head beneath the surface while the sacred incantations fly above my head, my safety preserved. Those prayers will call to my ancestors and tell them that I have been inscribed with the history and aspirations of my mother and her people. My face bears their knowledge, their journeys and their dreams – I am part of them, as much as they are part of me.

But right now my chin feels like Tama-nui-te-ra (the sun) has kissed me. I am ashamed to feel pain. I raise my head and my mother tells me I did well. The tohunga covers my chin and lips with a soothing ointment made from fat and plants. I flinch, and wonder how I will bear the pain that I know will follow for days. This is the price of beauty, of cultural pride, of belonging.

My tears fight to spring free as the karanga and the haka punctuate the air, abruptly drawing me away from the burning kiss of Tama-nui-te-ra. I breathe deeply in the hongi from my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather and my father. I reach in carefully to avoid the bristles of my papa’s beard. The haka and karanga soothe my senses, calming me, stretching me back across the eons; placing me in that line of moko wearers to the teachers of Mataora. Niwareka … you and your family healed through your ancient arts, brought from the spirit world to the physical world.

I am connected to the physical, the spiritual and to my family. I only hear the wairua calling through the lines etched in my skin.

My reflection in the pool of water shimmers – I am beautiful.

She has burst through my chin, as though she was always there.


The tohunga who has been in our family for many years is not allowed to practice anymore. He has been told that he is inciting an uprising. One year after my moko was inscribed he is no longer allowed to do his work, his art, his livelihod. The church has also told us that we are heathens – soulless and uneducated.  I put away my bible, written in my language. I will never read it again. My children will never go to their churches. We are not allowed to practice our art, our medicine, or any part of our culture that challenges their [the white man’s] sense of safety.

My moko kaue my love, my companion, has been reinterpreted by the minds and hearts of those who will never hear the karanga, or the whaikorero, or sit at my table.


I have turned down marriage offers. I am too young. I will be the mother I am meant to be when I am ready. My moko kauae is my lover.


My dear cousin-friend is taking a moko kauae. She is part of a reclamation. She cries to me – she tells me her pain at seeing her language, her land, her people lost to the cities – lost to wars fought in other places. She tells me her dream where the tohunga loses focus and carves a man’s face on her. She cries but could not stop the lines being inscribed on her cheeks. She knows that while tohunga are returning to their crafts, the knowledge of old and new lines has been lost. By this act of reclaming her moko kauae, she hopes to bring back our history and our culture. My children will see this beautiful ceremony and know that they will be part of something sacred and special.


Me: My grandmother died when I was 4. I remember my mother crying when the policeman left. He only stood at the door for a short time and I wondered why that made her cry.

All 6 of us kids we put into the shittiest little car you can think of. Six kids and 2 adults in a Morris Minor! Or some other car – there seemed to be a new one every few years. Each one needed pushing on frosty mornings, while dad yelled at us to run faster. We hated sitting next to each other. But we hated sitting next to our father even more. I would squeeze against my sibling so I did not have to touch him.

My grandmothers tangi was so unforgettable I will never forget it. We were taken past her coffin where she lay on the porch of the small, ornately carved house. I could not take my eyes off the carvings, the woven grass, the tricolour paints of red, white and black. Stories were told in those lines and curves but I could not understand them. I felt nothing – I did not know this woman. I was not to know she was my grandmother until years later.

We were not allowed to go near my grandmother or my mother’s family. We trailed past the carved house while the women in black clothes, wearing crowns of green leaves wailed, their tears falling in streams. I glimpse a photo leaning against the foot of the coffin. She is an old woman with markings on her chin. She looks like a tree, ancient and scarred. My mother disintegrates. I have never seen pain like that before.

Her wailing unsettles me. I want to cry but my father pulls us away and we are put back into the car. My first funeral was spent in car.


My friend stole a bottle of Indian ink from the art class. Luscious and dark, the colour in the bottle is impenetrable until I hold it up to the sun. I see edges of green and blue – the memories swirl in my mind, grasping at images that refuse to fire. Someone teaches me how to wrap cotton around the tip of the needle which we then dip into the ink. Choosing a place on my leg that can’t be seen, I start to prick my skin so that the ink is pushed into the tiny holes.  It is crude, and I know that if my father saw what I did, he would skin me – I knew that because he told me and my brothers to stay away from tattoos.

My first act of rebellion.

Six months later I am suspended from school.


With my first pay packet I head down to Gypsy’s tattoo parlour. He’s a grumpy prick and although his art is good, I’m glad to get out of there. I know my father will kill me for getting a tattoo but I don’t care. I love the swallow dancing around an impossible flower. I ignore the fact that dad has swallows on his arms.


There is a tattoo reclamation of sorts in our small town. All the bikers are getting Māori designs of the sun with long, curling rays that wrap lovingly around arms, shoulders and hands. I have seen these designs before – a distant memory of sun-kissed pain forms, laughs, then disappears. The machine he uses is a simple, battery-operated thing that pulls the needle up and down, tapping ink into the skin.  The tohunga is so beautiful and gentle, but my boyfriend, jealous that I might run away with him scares him off.

He leaves a part of himself in the design. It is unavoidable.


I had to introduce my boyfriend to my father, or maybe it was an accidental meeting at McDonalds … either way my tattoo came too. My father flinches when he sees my arm. I never will hide tattoos from him again.

I am pregnant too. Another unconcious act of rebellion.

This daughter and the one to come will be the force behind learning to speak Māori. They are schooled in te reo. I pay a Pākehā institution to teach me. It is the start of learning that I am not Māori enough.


Tāmoko artists and tohunga are everywhere. Some do rubbish designs and wreck the bodies they are placed on. I save my brother from getting a backward facing waka inscribed on his leg. The manu design he has settled on fills him with pride. The manu is his companion forever. My father’s attempt to erase our Māoriness has failed.

It’s time to cover the impossible flower and the graceful swallow. I have moved profoundly from Gypsy’s art-off-the-wall, drunken sailor, stoner pride.

I describe to the tohunga my moemoea and my dreams for a better, healthier world, and how I love my family, and my blended family. One day I will have mokopuna and I want to represent them in my design. My shoulder bears the tāmoko. This new friend travels the world with me. She has been to Europe, North Africa, Scandinavia, Asia, Australia and the Pacific. My friends give me strength. When I sit with white privilege, or with bossy, petty Māori, I rest my hand on my companion. The impossible flower shows through the koru and the mangopare designs.


My son started school today. I had a manu design that he drew tattooed on my arm. I was heartbroken. When I look at the tiny little bird on my arm drawn with so much concentration, I smile.

Karanga mai, karanga mai.

The calling for a moko kauae has started. I can’t name a day that I heard the first whisper of possibilty. I remember the doubt though. Not Māori enough…not deserving enough. In reality I didn’t know enough.

I was also too scared.

I thought I could celebrate finishing my PhD with a moko kauae but my time at University has been a constant challenge to my identity. I will not give my mana to that institution. I also think that no-one will care how many degrees I have.

I am scared of being rejected by society.

That I won’t be able to get a job.

I dismiss the dream of joining my ancestors as quick as flicking a switch. Deep down I do not hear a muffled, soulful wail. I miss the memory of ancient lines, of trees inscribed with stories of love, laughter, beauty and history. Tri-fold colours of red, black and white merge with garlands of green kawakawa leaves that massage tears and loss.


My friend messaged me to say that she is taking a moko kauae – karanga mai, karanga mai … haere mai, haere mai … My heart skips a beat.

I search for images of moko kauae without knowing that deep within me the lines have started to swirl.

The fronds curl and unfurl, each line swirling to take it’s place below my skin.

I know it is time like I know the sun will rise in the morning.

My moko kauae is because I wish to be part of the reclamation of an ancient tradition and art.

I don’t have to conform to western standards of beauty.

The karanga stretches across the school yard – a place of learning. Haere mai rā.

We are called to sit with the homepeople, to share our connections, our dreams. Four of us will take the moko kauae today. My dear friend – she cried to me this week as she shared her fears. Tears come and go. She is here to join her ancestors and to inspire a generation.

Today, in front of my family, friends and strangers Tama-nui-te-rā kisses my chin. This line a memory of my mother trying desperately to reclaim her language. This curl a link to my grandmother’s moko kauae – and her grandmother before her. This line a political statement – a sign that I have chosen a different path.

This curl a link from my ancestors to my descendants.

The end of 1970

In the future, I will have a granddaughter – the only one in her family to have a Māori name – the name of an ocean. She will learn her language and her children will learn their language. Her sister will follow. Nau mai te ao, nau mai te pō. Her sun-kissed face will bear the lines of her heritage, her whakapapa. Her lines are my lines.

We are not lost.


2 thoughts on “Inscriptions on my body

  1. This is your heart speaking ….it is a safe place …you will always find your truth there. So proud of you my friend xxxx


  2. A very powerful and moving story that brings the past to life in the present and for future generations. It is an awakening journey to travel alongside you. Arohanui.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s