Moko Kauae - A Treasured Taonga

July 15, 2022, 7:40 p.m.



The timing of receiving moko kauae is a delicate discussion for the wearer. The tohu for Maikio McGrath (Ngāpuhi) came when she had a series of dreams where  she could see herself in profile position wearing moko kauae vividly. This commenced her hīkoi to becoming a proud moko kauae wearer which she received from her husband, Raniera McGrath, a tā moko artist and owner of Moko Kauri.

Another wahine Māori who wears her moko with pride is Keryn Bristow (Ngāi Takoto, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kahu). Bristow spoke to Te Hiku Media's Haukāinga team in 2018 about her experience in receiving moko and how she determined the time was right for her;

"My mother told me, do not wait for a specific time to get your moko. You get your moko kauae so you can grow old together."

Women typically wear moko on their chin and lips, called moko kauae. Facial tattoos for indigenous cultures act as a spiritual connection to their ancestors. Pigment is added to incisions on the skin in designs that reflect and honour one’s culture, social status, one’s role and leadership within the community, and other aspects about the individual. Moko is a personal depiction of one’s journey and will differ to the next person. 



Men wear a face moko which can wrap around the nose, over the face, the chin and forehead. On the buttocks it is called raperape and on the thighs it is called puhoro. 

Māori Erstich (Ngāi Takoto, Te Aupōuri) received his full face moko in 2021. Anikaaro Harawira was the artist behind Erstich’s moko and it took approximately 8 hours from start to completion.

"When it comes to design, for moko kanohi for me, it’s not something you go into thinking I want this here and this there, it’s dictated by your whakapapa and the kind of person you are" said Erstich.




Ophir Cassidy was the first Maori judge to be sworn into District Court wearing moko kauae and the first Maori news presenter to wear moko kauae was Oriini Kaipara. Kaipara told My Modern Met that;

“I'm very much aware that I'm the first [with moko kauae] to anchor a six o'clock primetime news bulletin,” Kaipara explains. 

“That is always at the back of my mind, that every step I make is like breaking through a glass ceiling. It's breaking new ground for us as Māori, but also for people of colour. Whether you've got a moko kauae or not.” 




Normalising the practice and creating awareness around moko is done in many ways. The positive shift has come with some resistance for some. 

McGrath, kaiako, wife and mother of five, was enjoying time with her family when she was denied entry to Retro's Fortitude Valley in Brisbane last Friday the 8th of July 2022, because she wore moko kauae. 

The incident rocked her to her core, not out of embarrassment, but in disappointment and sadness, that racism is still happening today and that systematic racism can filter through businesses like this. The incident was heartbreaking for McGrath.

"I am the first person in my whānau to wear moko kanohi out of four generations, at least. Reclaiming this taonga for my own tamariki. My daughters would see it and it would be normal, and my sons would see it too. I got it done so that my tamariki can feel proud about their culture and of who they are. Give them confidence in their identity. As a kaiako, I want my students at kura to be able to relate to it and so they can identify that they can do it too when they are older, so it will become a generational thing for them” said McGrath.

Unfortunately, this incident can’t be isolated to it happening to just McGrath. Another incident, here in Aotearoa, includes a mother of four being asked to leave a playground if she didn’t cover her moko kauae in Havelock North this year. She was told by another parent that her moko kauae scared her children.




Moko is a tapu practice. Over time, as colonisation diluted Māori culture, there were less moko worn. From the late 20th century, moko kauae have been revived among Māori women as part of a reassertion of Māori female identity. There is a shift, a gradual revitalisation of the practice of moko, both, giving and receiving.

Margaret Ngaropo-Hati (Te Rarawa) was Raniera McGrath’s very first moko kauae recipient in June 2014. Tautīnei spoke to her about her experience as a wearer of moko kauae,

“I haven't had many bad experiences, maybe only one, which I don't even really count now, though it made me angry at the time, I had to leave my work space to gather my thoughts. It was an elderly pākeha co-worker I use to work with at Auckland City Library, she made an ignorant comment literally the day after I had returned to mahi after receiving my moko kauae, but I took that as an opportunity to educate her about how incredibly racist her remark was and the fact she didn't see why it was, made it even more satisfying for me. She apologised and saw the error in her comment soon after” said Ngaropo-Hati.

When Tautīnei spoke to Margaret's first cousin, Mereana Pawa (Te Rarawa), who got her moko kauae right after her, Tautīnei asked whether she felt that wearing moko required a certain type of mindset to filter out negative comments, Pawa replied;

“We were some of the first to wear mau moko. Margaret and I. We have worked to change the perspective of our people and when preparing my daughters, we go into wananga that prepare them for racist comments.” 




Pawa doesn't feel the effects of racism, although she is well aware that it exists. The environment in which moko kauae is worn can effect how people may perceive something different to what they are used to. Creating an environment, outside of your iwi or hapū where wearing mau moko is normalised, is a work in progress, although many are already doing a great job in raising awareness across Aotearoa. International diversity may take some time.

"Moko is as normal as drinking water for us" said Pawa.

McGrath, a registered teacher and kaiako in Te Hiku knows about education and feels that those who make ignorant comments require education around why moko kauae is taonga.

When Tautīnei asked McGrath what message she wanted to leave our rangatahi of the future with, she spoke about the importance of our rangatahi knowing who they are. She enforced the idea that as long as they know who they are, deep down in their core, then they should always be able to wear their moko kanohi with pride, with character and be resilient.

“Even though this incident has happened to me, it will never change my whakaaro on whether or not, getting moko kanohi was, or was not, the right idea, it will always be the right decision for me. It’s more about educating people about the importance and absolute beauty of this taonga” said McGrath.



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