Melanie Huata-Lucas - who last year became the first representative of the Royal New Zealand Navy to have a moko kauae - says she hopes to encourage other wahine Māori sailors to be confident in their identity.
The 32-year-old received her moko kauae after 13 years of service with the Navy as a sailor and events co-ordinator. She is now transitioning into a new role as marae events and protocol manager for the Navy.
Huata-Lucas (Ngāti Kahungungu, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāi Tahu) joined the Navy at the age of 17 and says it was her sister who inspired her to one day receive her moko.
A moko kauae is an ancestral marking or tatau (tattoo) that wahine Māori wear on their chins, traditionally acquired on the basis of their mana and whakapapa.
She also followed in the footsteps of Navy colleague Rawiri Barriball, the first tane (male) representative of the Navy to have a mataora (Māori moko for men).
Barriball at the time served 20 years as a chief petty officer seaman combat specialist before receiving his markings, and was the first in the Navy to get clearance for his moko.
"He broke that barrier for us," Huata-Lucas told the Herald.
The New Zealand Defence Force allows cultural tattoos as long as they are "appropriate for a military environment and are complementary to the NZDF's values and image", however each Defence service has its own guidelines.
"I didn't follow Defence procedure," Huata-Lucas admits, "but having some of the Navy present during my special evening showed me that the future of unity is strong."
The ceremony was conducted in Te Taua Moana, the Navy base marae, with Chief of Navy Rear Admiral David Proctor present, alongside the support of her whānau, including those who had passed on.
"I can understand now why we have support people by our side, holding our hands and grounding us by our feet.
"When you are spiritually heightened, it is very difficult to want to come back to reality and having to say goodbye to our loved ones who have passed on."
Despite the sacred ceremony and the special significance of moko kauae, she said, wahine Māori often received backlash, not just from a racist aspect but from those who claim that you must be able to speak te reo Māori before receiving the moko kauae.
"The stigma around when you should receive your moko kauae is far over-analysed.
"My advice to all would be to first and foremost do it for yourself. No one knows the true essence of what these sacred markings on your skin mean to you, but you.
"We have to remember te reo Māori was their [ancestors] first language so in my opinion, this has never been a part of the criteria.
"We are trying to reclaim our culture. This doesn't mean we shouldn't learn our reo, but I can't see why you couldn't receive your moko kauae and be on that journey at the same time."
Huata-Lucas says often Māori with moko become a target for negative connotations, but she hopes to encourage wahine Māori in the Navy to be confident in their identity with and without a moko.
"Your moko kauae does not define your end but instead it ignites your beginning."