Which brings us to tools. The electric needle is an essential tool in the modern-day tattoo shop, but traditional moko was and is done with a chisel. Scarification is part of the end result, along with the application of pigment. “In photographs from the late 19th century,” says Kramer Russell, “moko was very three-dimensional and people had these textural ridges.” As for inks, Kramer Russell’s research shows the ink was vegetal organics — dried caterpillars. “I was also reading recently that human oil was quoted as being a source of ink,” she continues. “I don’t know what that is, but the caterpillars are mostly in the literature.” Says Neleman: “It’s ink mixed with feces — the cut would be made and then infected, so the design would be as 3-D as possible.”
Captain James Cook was fascinated by the widespread practice of tattooing during his journeys in the Pacific, but by the mid-19th century, moko and other tribal and cultural traditions were viewed with a less benign attitude. From 1907 to 1962, New Zealand was under the Tohunga Suppression Act, which prohibited traditional Maori leaders and tohungas — experts at any craft or skill, ranging from spiritual or religious activities — from practicing their art, including moko.
“This was partly an attempt to Westernize or modernize Maori,” says Kramer Russell. “Women wore their mokokauae (chin tattoo, which they receive at child-bearing age) as a mark of beauty. This fascinated Western colonists, but eventually it was too visible to the colonists who were trying to take over the land. So from 1907 to 1962, when the act was repealed, there were less and less people wearing moko. It never went extinct, but it was happening less and less frequently.”
In the 1970s, however, a few communities revitalized moko. Doing so gave the Maori “access to their visual expression, as well as access to their lands, language, customs, and belief,” says Kramer Russell. “As in the past, Maori today have adopted moko as an expression of personal pride and history, tribal identity, and ancestry.”
“When I was first there, there were maybe a few hundred facial tattoos [in the entire country],” says Neleman. “At that first hui, there were a few tattoo artists there. We had to explain what the book was about, and they were insulted at first, because at that time some French fashion designer [Thierry Mugler] had made up his models on the runway to have the marks on the face, and it’s not about fashion at all.”
Neleman’s initial subjects were the urban gangs who restarted using facial moko and made it their own. “The very symbols that were so illegal and suppressed were now in your face, so for urban gangs it was also a marker of group identity,” says Kramer Russell. Some 80 percent of the 400,000 Maori in New Zealand today, she says, are urban.
But a rural group was also reclaiming moko and sacrosanct designs, says Kramer Russell. Whereas urban gangs were co-opting the designs, this group was saying, “We want to take these sacrosanct images as they are and reclaim them.”