Kirituhi is a Māori style tattoo either made by a non-Māori tattooer, or made for a non-Māori wearer. Kirituhi has mana of it’s own and is a design telling the unique story of the wearer in the visual language of Māori art and design. Kiri means ‘skin’, and tuhi means ‘to write, draw, record, adorn or decorate with painting’.
Kirituhi is not restricted to only Māori people, and it is a way for Māori to share our cultural arts with people from around the world in a respectful manner, and for non-Māori artists to enjoy our beautiful art form as well. I happily do kirituhi for my clients around the world and it is a privilege to do such work for them.
Kirituhi is no lesser an artform than moko, however it is different and I believe these differences must be acknowledged and respected, so that the integrity of our taonga Māori – moko, is maintained around the world.
Moko is uniquely Māori and it is strictly reserved to be done by Māori, for Māori.
If either the recipient or tattooer do not have Māori whakapapa, then the resulting design is a Māori Style tattoo or kirituhi, NOT moko. The word moko originated from the Māori atua (god) of volcanic activity and earthquakes, Rūaumoko – therefore the origin of tā moko is divine and sacred – to me this is no small thing, nor should it be dismissed.
The word moko also means blueprint. It is a blueprint of whakapapa and culture. Without the whakapapa and culture component, in my view, it would not make sense to call it moko.
The first moko was created by Rūaumoko who was still a baby in the womb of his mother Papatūānuku – the earth. With his movement inside of her womb (volcanic activity and earthquakes) he created cracks, indentations and lines on her skin (the crust of the earth) and that was indeed the first moko.
After this (in the tradition I learned as an apprentice - there are other versions of this narrative) came the famous Māori tūpuna (ancestors), Mataora and Niwareka, who made a long and arduos journey to Rarohenga (the realm of Rūaumoko) and back, bringing with them this taonga tuku iho, the art of tā moko, taught to Mataora by Niwareka’s father, Uetonga. It is these cultural narratives, our unique tikanga Māori (proper protocol) and the whakapapa of the art back to Rūaumoko, that seperates Māori tā moko from other forms of tattooing.
Moko is born of Māori culture. If a completed tattoo design is not born of, attached to and expressing that Māori culture, then it can not be correctly termed moko. It can safely be called kirituhi or a Māori style tattoo. For cultural tattoo (and that is what moko is) to remain cultural tattoo, it must be part of and attached to culture. There are many non-Māori tattooers around the world that make some lovely tattoo designs (and some not so lovely) inspired by Māori art, and the correct name for such work is kirituhi. To call this work ‘moko’ is incorrect. This is the school of thought that I was trained in.
If you are in the business of using Māori art and design in your work, and you do not have any Māori whakapapa, it is your duty and responsibility to learn properly (directly from a Māori expert, not a book, the internet or another non-Māori artist) and know well what you are doing, and show the proper respect and acknowledgement to the culture that the designs you are using belong to – Māori culture.
Words and names are important and it is important to get the terminology correct, as a non-Māori tattooer using Māori imagery. It is a matter of simple integrity and respect to Māori culture that you do your due diligence and learn the difference between kirituhi and moko. Otherwise just stick to skulls and roses, or art from your own culture, and leave the Māori art and design up to the numerous skilled and capable Māori practitioners out there.
There are numerous non-Māori artists nowadays all over the world that are drawing on Māori art and design as inspiration, and using traditional Māori patterns in their artwork and tattoos. This is indeed a telling sign of how attractive, beautiful and magnetic Māori art truly is, with a global appeal. However, in my opinion these non-Māori artists need to call a spade a spade and not pretend that what they are doing is ‘moko’, as it is not, and in saying so it shows just how little they truly know about such matters, how disconnected from Māori culture they are, and what little regard they have for tikanga Māori.
If it becomes an accepted and unquestioned norm in the international tattoo industry, for non-Māori tattooers, far removed from Māori culture, to claim they have the right and ability to create authentic moko, it would degrade, dilute and undermine our Māori cultural art form and remove the important cultural component from it all together, reducing it to art alone.
If non-Māori artists that use Māori designs, do not heed the guidance of Māori artists and cultural practitioners, and choose not to respect tikanga Māori and proper protocol around Māori cultural art, then all they are doing is copying, ripping off, appropriating, using and abusing a treasure that belongs to someone else’s culture. They are not honoring or doing justice to the art form, or the culture to which it belongs.
Integrity and truth must be maintained across all cultural art forms, around the world, now more than ever before.
It is not the role of non-Māori tattooers to define what is ‘kirituhi’ and what is ‘moko’, these are Māori words and concepts, and it is the role of Māori to define such terms. If non-Māori artists wish to participate in Māori art forms and use Māori patterns and designs in their work, then it is their role to listen and learn from Māori people, art, culture and tradition.
It is one thing to be a non-Māori artist overseas claiming to know about Māori art or tattoo, where no one else knows any better or has the knowledge to correct you, where you are surrounded by other non-Māori people that wish to buy into what you are selling them. It is entirely another thing to be an actual Māori artist with cultural values, tikanga, knowledge and integrity, answerable and accountable to your own people and culture.
As my mentor once told me, ‘moko is about 99% culture, and 1% tattoo’.
NOTE: This article is written from my own personal perspective, based on my own whakaaro, my experience, and the teachings I received. I wrote it in response to a non-Māori tattooer in Europe referring publicly to his work as 'moko'.