Tattoo artist and teacher Stu McDonald is convinced taa moko [traditional Māori tattoo] can play a role in healing emotional pain.
In 2015, he and his wife Marama lost their teenage son Kereopa to bone cancer.
"With the grief that I’ve been through with losing a child... I actually realise the true mana of [taa moko] and what it can do if we put ourselves in that headspace again.”
"'Moko kirihaehae' is the old name for moko associated with tangihanga – that whole physical balancing act of emotional pain and spiritual pain."
Stu and some other artists from his Tauranga taa moko collective Moana Moko are setting up their own wānanga (learning space) at Stu's home in Tauranga.
It's a full-circle moment for an artist who started doing moko while studying at Waikato University in the mid-1990s.
“It was a way to get a feed ... It was different, it wasn’t commercialised back then the way it is now. If you would have asked me 20 years ago if I would travel around the world and make a living doing tattoos I would have thought you were crazy.”
Stu grew up in Tauranga and has whakapapa links to Ngāti Rehua, Te Moutere o Aotea (Great Barrier Island) and Ngāti Maika.
He grew up in a creative household, using paper but also the walls of his family home and his own body as his canvas.
He laughs recalling the ‘tutu’ days of taking black ink from the art class to dabble in tattoo design.
After leaving Waikato University, Stu moved to Tauranga and was a founding member of Moana Moko in 2010.
At that time, the collective set up a small studio which has since been closed.
“When I had a shop we were getting caught up with leases, marketing and promos… I’ve come home because I want to do [taa moko] justice in my own home.”
Today Stu works as a tattoo artist and teaches at Te Wharekura o Mauao.
A conversation with an Otago kuia concerned about the lack of taa moko artists in the region led to Stu setting up a Moana Moko studio in Dunedin two years ago.
Moko runs in the family.
Stu tattooed his grandmother – the late Rangiwhakaehu Walker – who received her kauae at the age of 83, as well as his own mother Matemoana McDonald.
Matemoana says that her tupuna were wearers of the kauae.
“My mother was the youngest child of Titihuia and the only one in her generation that wore the moko, albeit later in life and I wanted to carry the tradition of my father’s side and my mother’s side into a contemporary time wearing the moko so we maintain that tradition.”
Over the past two decades, Stu has travelled the world with the aim of teaching foreign tattoo artists about the tikanga (philosophy) of moko.
He says he's seen the art form misappropriated on many occasions.
“The issues that have come with globalisation and commercialisation with the tāonga are huge, you know, and it would actually be hard to undo that stuff.”
“You’ll get a Norwegian [tattooist] who can do Asian, Tahitian, Samoan and Māori because it’s all on the internet. These guys are awesome artists, they can paint anything and draw anything… I’ll see them at conventions and ask them 'Do you know what you’re doing?'”
Stu doesn’t travel the globe as much these days and is in the throes of building Ahipoutu – a taa moko studio and learning space due for completion by the end of this year.
His own mataora (facial tattoo) is a work in progress that was started ten years ago.
Stu says getting it done wasn't a hard decision for him, but it was harder for his family.
He had an in-depth conversation with his late grandmother beforehand.
"We'd have rich debates my grandmother and I. I actually miss her for it. Whether it was about te tikanga or te reo or the survival of a tāonga.
"And those were the questions we ultimately had to unpack while were trying to encourage or raise her belief system in the moko.
"When I meet people that are psychologically struggling to lie down and get it done I can walk them through the journey."
Tania Cotter sees her work within Moana Moko as helping to balance out the male energy.
Her portrait was painted on a large wall in Auckland
“The perception around taa moko is that it is male-dominated. That’s not the case at all.
"I think that’s’ a big reason behind the reclamation of moko kauae. The passion that I have around taa moko is to reclaim, revitalise and reinvent the art form of moko kauae.”