A tattoo artist traces his history—and his future. 

Written by       Photographed by Lottie Hedley

From time to time, Rīhari Warnock looks in the mirror or down at his arm or his leg, and feels like something no longer looks right. So he changes it. Extensive tattoos flow across his body, most of them cover-ups—new work obscuring the old, layer upon layer of ink, applied across years. Almost all of these marks, he’s made with his own hands.

“It’s my identity, that’s what I’d call it. I have autonomy over my body and I don’t have to say any more than that. It’s who I am, it’s who I’ve always been.”

Six years ago, he stopped drinking. Long-distance running helped—so did his art.

“When I decided to become sober, I really needed a space, or something, to help myself heal,” he says. “Tattooing myself allowed this—I could connect with myself in a very personal way, and that was, and is, healing.”

Movement, fluidity and reinvention—or rediscovery—are constants in Warnock’s life. Born Richard Warnock, he grew up in Palmerston North and studied fine art before taking a job at a local tattoo studio, completing up to seven pieces a day, six days a week, across a range of styles according to who walked through the door; an anchor in the morning, a dragon in the afternoon. In 2013, he moved to Tāmaki Makaurau and began to refine his style, working without colour, exploring the natural world and prioritising jobs that fit with his evolving kaupapa.

Themes began to emerge. Native birds, insects, the way wind moves across water, whorls and knots in the bark of a tree, the “peacefully terrifying” forest at night. Warnock’s popularity grew (he has almost 55,000 followers on Instagram), his work was in high demand, and his waitlist stretched years into the future. His focus on intentionality grew too. Tattooing is a sacred process, he says, a shared experience between the practitioner and client. It can’t be rushed.

“It’s important to remember that you’re working with people and that it is actually a ritual. You’re dealing with someone’s emotions. You’re drawing blood from their body. The client is putting in as much, if not more, energy as the artist.”

The art, then, belongs to the wearer.

“Because what is a tattoo? It’s someone’s identity. You can’t own that.”

Around the same time, in a conversation with his nan, Joyce, Warnock learned he had whakapapa Māori, and was a descendant of Te Whareumu, a Ngāti Manu rangatira in the Hokianga. The discovery made intuitive sense; ‘manu’ is reo Māori for ‘bird’, and Warnock’s earliest artistic accomplishment was a painting of a tūī. The hapū tell stories of the kāhu, or swamp harrier, already a frequent motif in Warnock’s work. The revelation created a responsibility and a desire, says Warnock, to reclaim his identity as Māori.

Moving to Wellington, Warnock enrolled at Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University of Wellington to immerse himself in Māori language and culture. He began to go by the name Rīhari and his work shifted from skin to canvas, exploring themes of whakapapa and belonging with pen and brush, drawing inspiration from tohunga reo like Pānia Papa, Timoti Kāretu and Te Wharehuia Milroy. His pieces, which previously carried names like Meditation, became Whētu, Kiwikiwi, Ngā rākau o Waimā.

“When I first found out about my whakapapa, I knew I was going to do things like paint what my maunga [mountain] feels like. It’s precious to be able to have that connection to this whenua, and to know that my tūpuna were here a long time before me. It feels like it was always there.”

It was risky to take a hiatus from his successful tattoo career to pursue his art, but the decision—the metamorphosis—has already borne fruit. In June, Warnock’s work Ngā manu i te pō was highly commended at the Lysaght Watt Trust Art Awards. Another, Moemoeā, was a finalist for this year’s National Contemporary Art Award.

Most personally, Warnock’s work Kohu was a finalist for the 2023 Kiingi Tuheitia Portraiture Award, which calls for Māori artists to produce work that portrays their tūpuna, or ancestors, in their chosen medium. In Kohu, a kāhu representing his whakapapa soars above white koru, reflecting the growth of the forest and of gardens. The contrast and negative space so evident in his tattooing is on show here, as is his attention to minute detail. Through its style and through its story, Kohu is a statement of identity.

“I’m not a naturalist, that’s not how I do my art,” he says. “I want to create the feeling of the forest. I want to create what I think it would be like if I was to wander through the forest at night and see a kiwi rummaging through the leaves; not take a photo of it—just hold on to that feeling and draw it. I want to describe it as like a story or a dream, or like reading old pūrākau of atua and birds, and there’s no way to describe that. It just is.”

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