Tā moko has played a key part in the revitalisation of traditional Māori art and continues to grow. Some also choose it as a therapy.
Moko is the name for the lizard or gecko, which sheds its skin and is a symbol of rejuvenation and new life. Some say tā moko or Māori tattoo can play a similar role in giving someone a fresh start.
Inia Taylor, who is a renowned moko artist, has travelled the world with his art, but he looks right at home at his Moko Ink studio he and his wife, Aileen, opened near Muriwai beach on Auckland’s west coast about 16 years ago.
Taylor has tattooed many people who are dealing with the loss of someone to suicide. He's has lost people close to him and has witnessed the impact of their deaths on the friends and families.
After a friend of his passed, he tattooed the son with a similar moko he had given to his father. “If he can put something there that’s never going to leave him, as much of the loss of his dad is never going to leave him, it somehow transposes or lightens it.”
Moko can also empower, he said. “If it makes them feel better about themselves – then it does actually help them with their attitudes towards themselves, with their feelings of depression or feeling of wanting to hurt themselves.”
To a moko artist, that’s a person coming and looking for something and they trust and I can provide them with that, you don’t actually think the work you are doing at that time is suicidal support.
A Ministry of Health report it shows suicide rates for Māori are 1.8 times higher compared to non-Māori, for rangatahi it was 2.4 times higher. That trend has remained consistent since data was collected in 1996.
Mark Kopua grew up in a small community by Tolaga Bay called Mangatuna and is of Ngāti Ira, Te Aitanga ā Hauiti and Ngāti Porou descent. He worked as a carver for about 25 years, and he then delved into moko in the 1980s. He now works in his studio in Titahi Bay in Wellington.
He said, as a very rough estimate, he sees about one to two people a month who want to cover up scars from self-harm, are dealing with grief after losing someone to suicide or are dealing with depression.
A lot of people that come to him are trying to find some deeper meaning and deeper connection with their heritage and within themselves, he said. “So, in a way, when you look at that and you also have a bit of a look at suicide and the reasons behind it - you can see those things connect.”
He found a lot of people that came to him were dealing with suicide and sharing their stories of grief and pain. He said it doesn’t quite register with moko artist at first. “To a moko artist, that’s a person coming and looking for something and they trust and I can provide them with that, you don’t actually think the work you are doing at that time is suicidal support.”
Kopua’s partner, Dr Diana Rangihuna, is a psychiatrist and upon learning how many people went to him with their issues around suicide she said to him “you guys have more people going to see you about this than I do”.
He believes that’s because there is a stigma about seeing a “shrink” whereas with going to see a moko artist there is a level of protection from stigma and it gives them the control.
READ about youth workers in Rotorua working to turnaround suicide statistics by connecting rangatahi with their heritage.
Then he realised fellow artists were noticing the same things he was and now they are looking at ways to help them better support them on their clients’ journey to heal. That might mean holding wānanga with artists, having a public campaign, or just making sure networks and resources are in place for artists who want to know more about the kaupapa.
He said the main goal is to get the conversation going, and getting rid of the stigma that surrounds suicide.
If you need to have a kōrero with someone about how you are feeling, these services are available if you need some tautoko/support, if it’s an emergency call 111.
Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
Healthline - 0800 611 116
Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Video shot and edited by Radio New Zealand's Kim Baker Wilson.