A group of Tainui women took the hint of their beloved Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu and began a movement to revive the art of moko in their tribe, with themselves as the first candidates.

Te Aroha Tai-Rakena has no trouble getting her 70-year-old niece over to her house to talk about their inked chins, tattooed with moko kauae in 2007 as a mark of love for two Kingitanga leaders.

When Mrs Tai-Rakena, 75, known by most as Aunty Roha, calls she's a hard woman to refuse. She cajoles in a gentle way, although she's clearly a woman who gets things done.

She laughs when asked if she thinks she's a bit bossy. She is the boss, she reckons.

The pair are Kingitanga women through and through, loyal to a movement which has shaped their lives. They were also part of the vanguard of 16 Waikato-Tainui women who were at the forefront of the resurgence of moko in the tribe.


There are now more than 50 women with dark green-black chins and darkened lips who stand out at traditional gatherings in a way that hasn't been visible for decades in the region.

Aunty Roha was central to the change.

Those close to her say she was in Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu's inner circle during the monarch's 40-year reign. Her tangi in 2006 was the largest in modern times, 100,000 attending over the mourning period.

A year later the grief was still felt keenly by those who'd served Dame Te Ata.

The Ngaruawahia grandmother remembers having coffee with a group of friends, including moko expert Dr Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. They were talking about how they were all missing the woman many knew affectionately as The Lady.

"We were all wondering what we could do to remember her. I spoke up about her musings around why Tainui women weren't getting the moko like other women - that was about 10 years before, but it stayed with me."

It was a typically subtle way to get women thinking about the disappearance of female facial tattoos from their iwi, and a nudge to think about getting it done themselves, Mrs Tai-Rakena believes.

"[The queen] had a magic way of getting people around to the way she thinks. This was her dream. She speaks in riddles sometimes but at the end of the day, you know what she wants."

Mrs Tai-Rakena and another niece, Hera White, approached King Tuheitia to ask if he'd consent to some women taking a moko in memory of both his mother and his own succession.

"We explained to him that especially from the women's point of view we wanted to mark her life in some special way. We just had a little conversation with him rather than a big karakia or a big stand-up mihi - he nodded his head and that was that.

"The women who came forward were Kingitanga people who really loved and worked for Dame Te Ata for many years."

The group of women had a practice, where they drew on each other's chins before a two-day ta moko session in the whare Parewaikato on Turangawaewae Marae in June 2007.

Three male artists with connections to Te Aitanga a Hauiti and Ngati Tuwharetoa worked on the women. Accompanying their work were the voices of 50 women, many with moko themselves, who sang as the skin work occurred. The singers had travelled with ta moko exponent Mark Kopua to support the occasion.

Mrs Tai-Rakena was the first to be tattooed.

"I was the first one who went through all the pain, and it was painful, but we never uttered a sound. Not one of us.

"All that beautiful singing, it absolutely lifted everything listening to it ... We had all these people with us, we had [local] schoolchildren from Bernard Fergusson, we had our kaumatuas and so hell, you couldn't make a fuss. You had to be strong for the others."

The artist took her design from a precious picture of her paternal grandmother, Nanny Tiahuia, who'd died long before her granddaughter was a flutter of a thought.

Her mother didn't have one, like so many of that generation. It's meant decades have passed with no strong line of marked Waikato women, and practitioners have also passed on.

Because of that gap, for a while it felt a little radical to have one, Mrs Tai-Rakena says. Five years on, although the moko is perfect on her face, she still catches herself in the mirror. "I look at my moko every morning and greet it 'Oh, kia ora' because it's an addition, something special. It's powerful, a thing of beauty.

"Most important it was done out of aroha for our queen, and for our king."

Te Awhina Naera, 67

The former kohanga reo nanny's whanau had no idea she was going to be one of the first Kingitanga women in generations to have her chins inked.

"I told them before and they thought I was just joking ... One of the ladies saw my husband and said 'hey, you better come up - your wife is getting herself done. Come up to Parewaikato'.

"She put my husband up there and I was really thrilled that he came. He was quite amazed with all of the ladies but the East Coast ladies who came - they were young and they all had their kauaes done and they looked beautiful.

"The nice thing about it was being at Parewaikato and being surrounded by all the photos. I was thinking 'Gee, will it hurt?' But you know I never felt nothing ... you never had time to worry about the pain."

Ataarangi Poutapu, 62

There's a special dance that Waikato Tainui women are known for. It's not particular to them solely but they are exponents of the kopikopi, and Ataarangi Poutapu is one of the best.

Hip thrusting is usually accompanied by huge smiles and loud laughter from crowds at hui. It's a mood lightener and it's what her moko reflects.

"It's cheeky, funny humour. I was taught to do the kopikopi at the age of eight. When we were entertaining in the old Kimiora dining room the old kuia, for their koha, they would put their money on the ground and call out to me 'Kia kaha, Te Ataarangi - kopikopi!' The old people had seen my mother do it and she was well known for it, too.

"It was about fun, our old people had style and passion. They weren't always serious people, they were always happy-go-lucky. There was never a dull moment."

It's also something the late queen loved.

"People would say, 'oh Ata, don't go in front of Te Arikinui [when she performed]' and I didn't listen because I used to look at her and she'd use her eyes to tell me to go to the front."

Rejuvenating one tradition, moko kauae, also helped to send a message about upholding other cultural practices just as central to tribal identity - entertaining. "There's a time for karakia, there's a time for tapu and there's a time for noa [the ordinary] - there's also a time for happiness," she said.

Rangiawatea Tahapeehi, 70

Layers of happy childhood memories are captured in Rangiawatea's moko. She was born during World War II, and her family were river people, living on the banks of the Waikato below Turangawaewae Marae. In 1951, her family moved into a home adjacent to the marae which is the formal seat of the Kingitanga movement.

It was a happy house. During the annual Coronation celebrations out-of-towners - those from Huntly and Tuakau - would fill the family's home, shed and garden; in some cases sleeping under trees so that they'd be close to the marae.

Marae fundraisers also drew a crowd. "We used to have all the rangatiras from all over the country from Tuwharetoa, Ngapuhi and people like that at our house."

King Koroki, King Tuheitia's grandfather, was also a frequent visitor.

"In our house we had a photo of my grand aunt, that's [Princess] Te Puia's older sister Hera. So he used to tell me ... E Rangi, e noho koe ki [Rangi you sit] at the bottom of her photo and I'd be brassed off sitting there and they'd be talking about her life and things like that and they'd say I was the one that looked like her."

When it came to the moko kauae there was no question of what she wanted.
"I thought about her, I thought 'I'm going to have a moko like her'."

Artist Mark Kopua
What does moko kauae (chin moko) represent?
It reflects [a woman's] achievement or acquired authority. The women who take a leadership role in your family, the recognition for that is that your whanau follow.

How did the practice develop?
It became part of our tradition, chin moko, only after we arrived here in Aotearoa.

Are more women choosing moko kauae?
It's coming back to life. Definitely women are the stronger in terms of taking on moko not just on the chin, but everywhere. In urban areas moko activity is a little bit slower, there's a little bit of catching up to do. But there are smaller areas or communities that are very, very strong and it's part of their everyday existence as a community.
The idea that it was the preserve of older women came about because this generation of kuia may have only seen [it on] their grandmothers. Many in the old days we see in pictures actually received their moko when they were young.

What are the difficulties in applying the moko?
The edges of the lips and the lips themselves are the most painful place to work. It's only because the texture of the skin is thinner, it's far more sensitive.