Indigenous artists, advocates reviving traditional tattoo art nearly erased by colonization

From Māori in New Zealand to Inuit in Canada, Indigenous people around the world are reviving traditional tattoos and facial markings, after they had been stigmatized by the lasting effects of western-led colonialism.

Tattoo art, like the Māori tā moko or Inuit kakiniit, conveys identity, history and connections to culture

Left: journalist Oriini Kaipara speaks during The Power Of Inclusion Summit 2019 at Aotea Centre on October 03, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. Right: New Zealand MP and Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta talks to media during a news conference at Parliament on April 22, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand. Both have moko kauae, traditional Māori chin markings. (Michael Bradley/Getty Images for New Zealand Film Commission; Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Originally published on April 30, 2022. 

If you turn on the TV in Aotearoa (the Māori language name for New Zealand) today, you're likely to see more people on the screen with Māori skin markings than ever before.

In December, journalist Oriini Kaipara became the first Māori woman with traditional chin markings, called moko kauae, to present primetime TV news in the country.

And in 2020, New Zealand MP Nanaia Mahuta became the first Māori woman appointed to the role of foreign minister — and, therefore, the first to wear a moko kauae on such an international stage.

The moko kauae is a sacred tattoo traditionally worn by Māori women that covers most of the chin and lips. The male equivalent is the mataora, which can cover most of the face.

The increasing visibility of these markings known more widely as tā moko — or just moko — in New Zealand is a dream come true for Julie Paama-Pengelly, a Māori activist and artist who helped lead its resurgence in the 1990s.

"When we started the revival all those years ago, this is what we visualized," she told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. "But I don't think we really realized we'd claim that space again, you know, in such a powerful way."

Julie Paama-Pengelly is a Māori activist and artist who helped lead the resurgence of traditional tattoos and markings called tā moko. (Lars Krutak/Courtesy of Skindigenous 2019)

From Māori in New Zealand to Inuit in Canada, Indigenous people around the world are reviving traditional tattoos and facial markings, after they had been stigmatized by the lasting effects of western-led colonialism.

In Canada, former Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq was the first elected official on Parliament Hill to wear markings on her face and chin. In a 2019 interview, she said she preferred to call the markings "traditionally inspired."

The recent revival of Inuit tattoos — including face markings, called kakiniit — in Canada was led in part by Hovak Johnston, creator of the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project.

Johnston learned the tattoo-making technique called hand poke, after noticing the ancient art was on the verge of being erased completely. She's since travelled to communities across Canada's North to teach the techniques and their historical significance.

Aedan Corey attended an Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project event in their hometown of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut in 2016. Before that, Corey hadn't seen anyone in the community with a traditional Inuit tattoo.

Corey received a small tattoo on the back of their neck at that session. They describe it as an "incredibly special moment."

Julie Paama-Pengelly works on a tā moko in her studio. She was a key figure in helping revive the art in New Zealand in the 1990s. (Lars Krutak)

A few years later, while feeling isolated during a COVID-19 lockdown, Corey sat at a table in their home and began applying V-shaped lines on their forehead — the beginning of their own face tattoo.

"It feels like it's part of me at this point. Like, I look in the mirror and I can't remember a time really when I didn't have them. I mean, it feels like they've always been there," said Corey.

Corey's chin tattoo bears special significance. Their great-great grandmother, whom they were named after, had the same markings.

"It's believed in Inuit culture that the people we are named after, we take on parts of that person. Then I thought it would be very fitting to receive a tattoo that my namesake had also had," said Corey.

But it's not just personal. By reviving the art, said Corey, they're also decolonizing the Indigenous experience in Canada, as it was largely erased from generational memory.

Aedan Corey is an Inuk artist from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and is currently studying at Carleton University in Ottawa. They recently learned the art of Inuit tattoo from the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, which was created by Hovak Johnston. (Submitted by Aedan Corey)

"Through the process of assimilation into Christianity, we essentially as Inuit weren't allowed to practise our tattooing because it was banned. It was thought of as evil by the missionaries and it became somewhat of a hidden practice," Corey explained.

Isaac Murdoch, an Anishinaabe singer and storyteller, has 17 tattoos on his body. Many of them depict adult and baby thunderbirds, which play a central role in a story his father often told him as a child.

In the story, thunderbirds battled serpents, and the baby thunderbirds represent the next generation of life on the planet. He says he only shares the details of the story during ceremonies, to give it the respect and integrity it deserves.

"It was a very, very beautiful story about how our people are going back to the land, and returning back to the old way of life," Murdoch said, likening it to the revival of the tattoo art itself.

Isaac Murdoch is an Anishinaabe singer and storyteller from Serpent River First Nation in Ontario. His tattoos tell a sacred story featuring thunderbirds his father often told him as a child. (Alex Usquiano)

The act of wearing those stories on a more permanent medium like one's own skin makes them a symbol of strength and integrity, he says.

"Because there was such a removal of this knowledge on purpose by the Canadian government, it feels good to actually wear this on our bodies," said Murdoch, who is from Serpent River First Nation in Ontario.

"It's just a beautiful feeling to walk into society, to say: 'Hey, I'm Indigenous. I have Indigenous tattoos. They tell a story. We're still here. We survived. Our story survived.'"

Reversing colonization efforts

Paama-Pengelly said the same erasure happened to the Māori at the hands of colonizing missionaries. The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 banned Māori experts, called tohunga, from all traditional practices, including medicine and art.

For nearly a century, she said, tā moko had effectively gone underground, such as among Māori people in prison. Paama-Pengelly worked alongside politically motivated artists, language and culture experts in the '90s to seed its revival.

Thanks in part to their efforts, the stigma surrounding tā moko in New Zealand has begun to fade — but not entirely.

Corey applies traditional Inuit markings. (Submitted by Aedan Corey)

Shortly after being promoted to New Zealand's foreign minister, Mahuta faced criticism from some public figures, including a social media post that called the tattoos "uncivilized," according to The Guardian.

"I think there is an emerging awareness about the revitalization of Māori culture and that facial moko is a positive aspect of that. We need to move away from moko being linked to gangs, because that is not what moko represent at all," Mahuta said in response at the time.

Appropriation worries

As tā moko has grown from obscurity to popularity, Paama-Pengelly worries that they are slowly becoming appropriated or trivialized.

Some non-Māori people, she says, have chosen to get tattoos in a Māori style. They're often called kirituhi.

"I don't have much tolerance [for] it," Paama-Pengelly said of kirituhi.

"When I started doing moko, you know, I wouldn't do any non-Māori moko because for me, it had to belong with our communities first," she said.

Over the past year, Corey has begun tattooing Inuit friends, helping pass on the tradition they only recently rediscovered.

Corey isn't sure whether they want to see Inuit tattoos, including kakiniit, to become "mainstream." But they hope that by practising hand poke, and perhaps teaching it to others, they can help it to become normalized in Inuit communities and beyond.

"My hope is for future generations to look at these tattoos and say that is normal, that is OK. And maybe even that's something that I want to represent," they said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Kate Adach, Laura Beaulne-Stuebing, Erin Noel, Kim Kaschor and Rosanna Deerchild.