A New Zealand woman's face tattoo sparked a furious backlash this week because of her lack of Māori heritage.

Life coach Sally Anderson was pictured on her website sporting the traditional tā moko facial tattoo on her chin.

But Anderson, who is Pākehā, was accused of culturally appropriating the revered marks for commercial gain.

According to the life coach herself, she says her tattoo is symbolic of her turning a corner in her life after surviving a gang rape as a teenager in the 1980s.

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Anderson was defended by her Māori husband, Roger Te Tai, who called her a 'pure soul'. Photo / Facebook
Anderson was defended by her Māori husband, Roger Te Tai, who called her a 'pure soul'. Photo / Facebook

Anderson had her tattoo done several years ago by artist Inia Taylor, who said he had "strong reservations" about carrying out the work.

"But after many calls and discussions I realised that the only reason to deny her would be that of race."

However, Taylor publicly apologised for doing the work after Anderson received heavy criticism and called out Anderson to stop using the tā moko for commercial gain.

The therapist then removed all references to the markings on her website - although several pictures of her with her moko still remain visible.

Her husband Roger Te Tai, a Māori man who also has a facial moko, came out in defence of his wife in an interview with TVNZ after the criticism arguing that she was a "pure soul" who was deserving of the traditional markings.

"It took me two-and-a-half years to actually accept for her to have it done," he said.

"She's more Māori than you'll ever be because her heart is pure, always has been, her soul is a pure soul."

Life coach Sally Anderson has been accused of using the traditional Māori marks for commercial gain after writing about them on her life coaching website. Photo / Facebook
Life coach Sally Anderson has been accused of using the traditional Māori marks for commercial gain after writing about them on her life coaching website. Photo / Facebook

Associate Professor Te Kahautu Maxwell at the University of Waikato told the BBC that the tā moko had become an important symbol in Māori culture in the 20th century.

"It's the Māori deciding to reclaim their heritage and identity," says Maxwell.

"We have to protect the last bastions that we have as Maori to make us different."

While Mera Lee-Penehira, associate professor at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, explained: "Moko kauae is the sole right of Māori women.

"Not only is it 'okay' to make a race-based decision in applying moko kauae, but it is a 'requirement'. In my view, the gifting of moko kauae to Pākehā is not the right of any Māori - be they wāhine or tāne - irrespective of what has gone before."

Lee-Penehira isn't the only one speaking out against Anderson.

Associate Professor Leonie Pihama says the idea of Pākehā wanting to be allowed to wear moko kauae "smacks of white privilege" and says "Māori women have been struggling to reclaim this taonga for generations".