Tā moko is the subject of Puaki, an exhibition at Te Kōngahu — Museum of Waitangi, opening this month.
"Puaki started as a simple idea," photographer Michael Bradley, tells Canvas, "to photograph people who wear the tā moko, using the wet plate process from the 1800s and with a digital camera."
Bradley, who has worked as a press and freelance photographer for 20 years, had "dabbled" with 1850s wet plate photography as a side project and discovered through research that when photos were taken of people with tattoos, some tattoos would fade, or even disappear in the prints.
"I had hoped this would prove true when I shot people with tā moko on wet plate, but I wouldn't know for certain until I developed my first portrait.
"I'd looked at old portraits at Auckland Museum and seen that there'd been efforts to make tā moko visible on photos but in most cases it was crayon or ink added to prints afterwards. I thought it was fascinating that the technology of the 1800s effectively erased a cultural marker, and that we now live in a time when the tā moko is having a resurgence."
Taking on a project like this was extremely exciting, but daunting, he says. "Tā moko has a very important place in Māori culture and very early on I realised I needed to do justice to a subject with such cultural significance, and to make sure it was handled in the correct manner."
The first person he approached for the project was Rangi McLean. "Once I had shot Rangi it appeared that his tā moko had not shown up on the plate, but it wasn't until later that night when I had the chance to scan it in that I could really see the full details of this portrait and how his tā moko appeared to be erased. I remember turning to my wife and saying, 'It worked, it really worked!'"
He then started the long process of contacting people and explaining what he was trying to achieve and "asking them to build their trust in a Pākehā boy from Hamilton".
Portrait sessions were shot in a variety of places, including an old historic wine barrel store, a marae kitchen and his parents' garage in Rotorua.
"Each sitting took around four hours, as each plate takes about 20 minutes to shoot, then the digital images were shot and finally we sat down for the video interview, where we talked about to tā moko and their own personal journey.
"To say these sittings were emotional would be an understatement and I will be forever grateful that each of the people involved shared their stories."
It took two years to shoot the 23 subjects. "There is no Photoshop or tricks — just a very old photographic technique, combined with a modern digital camera to create images and tell a uniquely New Zealand story.
"It feels amazing that the exhibition will premiere at Te Kōngahu — Museum of Waitangi. I hope that others can learn about something that's such an important part of Māori culture, New Zealand's culture. Tā moko set us apart from the rest of the world and should be embraced and celebrated as such.
Pouroto Nicholas Hamilton Ngaropo (Ngāti Awa, Te Tawera, Tainui, Te Arawa, Takitimu, Ngatokimatawhaorua) Pouroto Ngaropo saw his first tā moko worn by a kuia at his grandmother's tangi. From that point, he wanted a tā moko to carry on what was at the time a dying art form. While studying Māori art as a teenager at Hato Petera College, Ngaropo was taken to see the Goldie paintings. "I said, 'Man, I want to be like them and part of an exhibition so that future generations can see tā moko. I want to carry it on my face so that it will continue on.' That's why I wanted to be part of the exhibition."
Ngaropo was nervous when he went to be photographed, because he wanted the photographs to reflect with integrity who he is and who he represents. "I've been waiting to be part of a journey that can empower transformative change. It's a beautiful art form. I want New Zealanders to be proud of the tā moko."
Bradley hopes that the exhibition will inspire others to learn something about "such an important part of Māori culture, New Zealand's culture".
"Tā moko sets us apart from the rest of the world and should be embraced and celebrated as such."
• PUAKI is at Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi, May 26-September 2. Free with entry to museum.