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.

But in recent years, as Maori have stood up to safeguard their culture, an art that once seemed doomed by Western culture has again become a declaration of Maori identity and dignity. Their sacred designs adorn foreign celebrities such as British pop star Robbie Williams and boxer Mike Tyson, and Maori vigorously are defending their claim to motifs that many feel are being exploited by outsiders.

Culture revived

More than 565,000 people, or 1 in 7 New Zealanders, are Maori, according to the 2006 census. After a steady exodus from the countryside in recent decades, 85 per cent 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, including Maori police officers, teachers and business professionals, are shrugging off fear of being stared 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, such as broad spirals that play out across buttocks and thighs.

Many find spiritual solace in the tattoo parlour, 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 music festival in the west coast town New Plymouth.

Feeling the urge to discover the moko that would announce her spiritual rebirth, she phoned family members to ask their approval. Her father, a tribal elder, gave his blessing and encouraged her with the news that Kopua, 46, was a distant relative.

“This is my time,'' she thought, and she 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.

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 local chiefs.

Like two sets of roiling waves, the pattern of curves and swirls 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 also can honour an important event in a person's life, said Te Awekotuku, a professor of Maori culture at the University of Waikato in Hamilton.

Tradition not trend

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 is expressed through art on the skin, it is very much about belonging,'' she said. “And if you don't belong, you shouldn't wear it.''

In an attempt to set design and health standards for Maori tattoo artists and protect traditional motifs against abuse in New Zealand and abroad, 50 artists set up a national forum, called Te Uhi A Mataora, 2000. “They're very sacred designs that are being used in very insensitive ways,'' Kopua said. “For example, some designs that come off people's faces and heads have been put on cups and plates.''

Tattoo artists mimicking Maori designs without understanding them draw the patterns upside down, put motifs for women on men or distort them 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 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 stir last year when men and women modelling 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 Organisation. They also have created toi iho, a registered trademark for authentic Maori-made arts and crafts. Kopua thinks the outside interest in ta moko today stems from the feeling among many foreigners that they have lost contact with their own past, a mistake he urges Maori to avoid by wearing their history on their skin.

“We're telling our kids: ‘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 emerging from a trance. Her arm was sore, but she said her spirit was soaring.
With his beefy hand and soothing voice, and some guidance from the ancestors, Kopua had set her on the right path.