Moko Me

Brett and the lovely Hiromi (and one truly can’t mention Hiromi without an implied Grrrrrrrowl) directed a littel love my way by mentioning me here.

Brett and the delicious Hiromi (and one truly can’t mention Hiromi without an implied Grrrrrrrowl) sent a little love my way by mentioning me here.

More importantly though, they sent me on to a really interesting article about moko-wearer Harawira Craig Pearless:

 Magazine 2002 Nov Images Harawira Moko1

In short, Ta Moko is the New Zealand Maori tradition of facial tattooing; others have done a better job detailing it’s history and traditions, so for background, look at, and a quick google will tell you more.

Ta Moko has fascinated me for years. The designs themselves are spectacular; the Maori themselves (And that’s ‘Mau-ree’, not “May-ori”, people) have pretty much the most sophisticated design sense of any ploynesian people. Not just the tattoos, but the art, the carving, the clothing. In a great tradition of polynesian art, they stand at the peak. I have several Maori-inspired tattoos and will almost certainly wind up with more.

But also, there’s the facial tattoo issue. As a heavily tattooed person, a person who intends to be mostly covered some day, I still have certain lines. The hands, at one point, now crossed. The neck. The scalp. And then, the highest level of tattoo statement, the face.

There’s a reason some tribes tattoo the face. There’s a reason gangs tattoo the face. There’s something so fundamental about a permanent mark there. It changes who we are, not just how we look.

Would I tattoo my face? I don’t know. I am, from time to time, sorely tempted. If I were Maori, I’d wear the Moko, without question. There’s a cultural reason to do so. But I’m a white man of euro-celtic origin. The closest I can get to Polynesian is vague possibility of a trace of Cherokee blood somewhere back up the family tree; and while that makes an entertaining story, it doesn’t justify me wearing a feathered headdress, and it certainly doesn’t justify the moko.

But there are many things I could do. And there’s where it gets tempting. Chin tattoos speak to me. Tattoos around the eyes. I doubt I’ll ever do it; the neck is about as far as I’m likely to go. But damn, now and then, it sure calls to me.

Hiromi also raises a very interesting point. She says:

     “It’s disrespectful to take the identifying marker of another culture with a long history.

That’s a question I’ve struggled with. By that logic, I should have rights to anglo-saxon imagery. French, Dutch, German; with a little stretch, Norse symbols, maybe as far south as Rome and as far east as Byzantium. As some point it blurs. But I should not wear african symbols; I’m a white man. I should not wear asian symbols; no Chinese dragons, no Japanese water, or flowers. I should not wear the symbols of polynesian cultures. On the other hand, I’m an american. So maybe I only have rights to American symbols. But what the hell are american symbols?

In fact, my left arm is mostly Japanese. My right, a mixture of vaguely Borneo/Tribal and Polynesian (Marquesan, Maori). My chest and legs bear a mixture; classic American tattoo flash, Hawaiian, abstract Tribal.

The question is this — by wearing your culture’s symbols, so I steal? Do I co-opt? Or do I show my respect, by putting your treasured symbols under my skin? These things are part of me, in a way dress or jewelry, language or music or culture can never be. My body now bears permanent marks of many cultures not my own.

It’s a not question I can answer. I’ve met Samoans and Hawaiians who love my tattoos. I’ve met same who look at me with stinkeye, clearly disapproving of this middle-class white boy wearing their cultural symbols, though I’ve never had a conversation with these guys folks. I’d like to, to see if I can get across the fact of my respect.

The bottom line, for me, is that it’s not about the symbol; it’s about how you wear it and who you are. If you understand the meaning, respect the tradition, and do not steal a specific person’s image or mark, there’s no cultural crime committed by wearing the marks of someone else’s culture. This is why the only person who’s made polynesian marks on my body is a person who knows the culture, and is accepted into that culture. A person who knows what’s ok, and what’s not.

Each wearer must decide. And which way you chose does not matter to me, only that you stop and think before committing any mark upon your skin. Tattoos are more than art, more than decoration, they’re part of your body, and always, should be considered and taken seriously.

4 thoughts on “Moko Me”

  1. Karl, I’ve imposed upon you a very important deed. Can you respond to my Book Tag?

    I’d be very interested in your responses.



  2. Ever read Moby Dick? I have a theory that it’s one of the earliest pieces of Post Colonial literature. The melting pot is very distinct but so is always referencing the encylopedias from England, Rome etc… the FIRST WORLD when we weren’t it!

    The saddest story I’ve heard recently was my piercer. He’s a modern primative Art… oh I forget his last name but in SD he owns Church Of Steel. He recently disowned all his ink. This man was covered. I saw him stroll by and thought oh Art did his face… that was a while back. Nick who I see knows him better. He was on a nudist beach here as the woman with him (African American) pointed to this stranger and said “That black man is blue!” Nicks known Art for some time. Seems his ink was so much history- the only way to claim back his skin was to fill in all the canvas.

    This makes me do summersaults in my head theorizing that you can’t erase… you know they are there. Ink can’t be covered like that.

    Sorry. I’ve known of this for about a month and still can’t make heads or tails of it. I think your safe recognizing your Japaneese arm and your Borneo one. Call it reverence in a global economy.

  3. Not sure my Moby Dick reference made sense to anyone but me. On the boat the characters were of all cultures and yet they were all American- even the African and South Pacific Natives with Borneo tats.

    Not sure thats any better… but I tried.

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