Glimpsing a photo in the New Zealand Herald in 1972 led to Harry Sangl's decades-long obsession for painting kuia with moko.

On his 95th birthday, the Czech Republic-born artist visited the Gottfried Lindauer exhibition The Maori Portraits at Auckland Art Gallery with his daughter Michaela.

Viewing the exhibition was a revisiting of the passion that began when he first saw the photo of the elderly Maori woman with the traditional chin and lip tattoo.

Sangl was so captivated that he took off in his caravan that day in 1972 for Ruatoki in the foothills of the Urewera ranges.


Sangl told the Herald the image struck him straight away.

"I wanted to find an interesting face, and I found the most interesting face. It was something that is out of this world."

Sangl asked people in the town if they recognised the face, taking the photo cut out of the Herald door-to-door.

Finally he managed to track the woman down and asked permission to paint her himself.

He soon amassed a collection of 34 oil on canvas portraits over a span of three years.

Sangl said his subjects were always pleased with the results.

"One of them kept saying 'ka pai, ka pai, ka pai'."

His daughter Michaela said her father immensely enjoyed the Lindauer exhibition, and noted he is now the same age as the women he painted decades ago.

"We couldn't drag him away. He is quite envious of the opportunities that Lindauer and Goldie had."

She said the eyes were a key part of her father's process when painting portraits of kuia with moko.

"He felt if he got the eyes right then that would capture their essence and their personality.

"There's a different energy in the paintings that Dad did. He built up a mutual respect [with subjects].

"He's always been totally fascinated by portraiture, especially elderly faces. The eyes tell a story."

Sangl was eventually featured in the Herald for painting portraits of kuia with moko in 1973.

His collection was published as a book called The Blue Privilege: The Last Tattooed Maori Women.

In the book, Sangl said: "For the present and future generations I painted these old faces from life, to produce a record, not only of their appearance but also to show their confidence, calm and dignity, and the authority they had achieved by taking on the blue privilege of the moko."

His paintings are now in storage, and Michaela said she hoped they would one day be brought out for the public to enjoy.