In a garage in Tolaga Bay the buzz of a tattooing needle starts up. Mark Kopua cuts the history of Hohepa Hei’s family into his face and the gentle singing of that family fills the garage and spills out onto the street. A number of them wipe away tears. Hohepa’s wife Frances clutches his hand while their five-year-old daughter Muriwai sits on her knee, comforting her.
Over the next six hours Kopua will etch intricate, swirling designs into Hei’s face. The lines will follow the contours of his features and map the paths of his genealogy—the tribes of Whakatohea and Te Whanau a Apanui in the eastern Bay of Plenty, down through Ngati Porou along the East Coast and south to Te Aitanga a Mahaki near Gisborne.
Hei’s family have shared in the journey in more ways than one: his brother Robert had his thighs tattooed the previous day; his sister-in-law Kellie had a design scribed across her back; his cousin Michelle had her shoulder emblazoned with a design referencing her Te Whanau a Apanui and Tuwharetoa history. Cousin Robert already has a facial moko and Aunty Essie wears a moko kauae on her chin.
Though the process is physically painful and takes the best part of a whole day, the emotional and spiritual journey is much longer, for both artist and subject.
During the process Mark will pause occasionally, quietly asking Hohepa questions about his family history. The answers are applied to Hohepa’s face in cryptic insignia as Mark draws on an extensive storehouse of knowledge built up over two decades working as a carver.
This is not simply a decorative art or bodily adornment for its own sake. Mark’s designs are like a library of an individual’s journey, from the ancient times to the present. And neither is he merely a tattooist, although he is certainly a tattooist of the highest order, but also a tohunga, an expert in tribal history and the designs that carry those stories.
For Hohepa, this is a turning point in his life. His pride in his Maori identity meant that taking on a moko was a logical expression. Although he will wear the moko for the rest of his days, the decision was made in consultation with his extended family.
After having the broad outline of the design drawn on with a marker pen, Hohepa puts himself in Mark’s large hands for the permanent version to be etched on. During a pause of acknowledgement, the atmosphere is charged. There is a surge of emotion as Mark starts working with the tattoo gun down Hohepa’s jaw-line, one of the most painful areas because of its closeness to the bone. The family sings.
Journalistic detachment goes out the garage door along with the sound of the singing. Ngati Porou kinship and family ties notwithstanding, it is impossible for a photographer not to be caught up in the moment–one of those great events of life like marriage, childbirth or death. But here I was also witnessing the rekindling of an intimate and ancient cultural process that traditionally marked such events. It was a privilege to be part of.