For Te Rangitu, practising Ta Moko [traditional tattooing] carries with it the responsibility of acknowledging his Maori beliefs and educating others in those beliefs too. He feels it is vitally important to respect his culture and its traditions, and to encourage that respect in others as well. When I arrived for our interview, he greeted me with a traditional welcome; he welcomed my ancestors, who were walking with me, and also his ancestors, who were gathering. Even though he is living away from New Zealand, he feels it is important to continue these traditional practices. “You’re away from your culture so it seems a little weird sometimes," he says, "but you make sure you do it.”

Te Rangitu is originally from the Whangarei area, which is the far north east of New Zealand's North Island. He has recently established himself permanently in Colchester, and I asked him what his reason was for relocating. “I met an English girl, basically!" was his diarming reply. "We met and fell in love back home, then had children and got married. She gave me twelve years in New Zealand but was missing England so we moved. It was hard for me because my traditional practice and responsibilities are integrated within our culture. I went to my elders and talked to them about our relationship and our children, and what we could gain from being in England. My elders were a bit apprehensive about letting me go, but they supported me and I’m very lucky.”

Te Rangitu feels his role extends far beyond tattooing. "My job is to educate people. Back home, I would visit different schools, colleges and universities and talk to the youth about the traditions and tattooing. I have also worked with other indeginous cultures, with people who have alcohol problems, and used tattooing to help people on their road to recovery. Often the whole family are involved, even the children, so they understand that it’s a birthing process. We believe that when people are receiving pain they’re at their most heightened state of consciousness. That’s why we create a safe environment for the person to be in; you can’t have negative music or people saying negative things because it can soak into the recipient as a memory. We encourage the family to stand and sing or speak about their lineage. We believe prayers and heredity are being laid into that person.”

I asked Te Rangitu what difficulties he has faced in coming to England. “I guess a hurdle is trying to survive here and do what I do," he tells me, "making sure it’s relevant to be working here and tattooing Maori and non-Maori people. I’ve been back and forth to Europe through my whole career so England isn’t a completely foreign place. But when you’re laying your roots and expecting to stay for a while, it pulls a different way of thinking. The thing that I have noticed that may be needed in Europe is the kind of understanding of our traditional culture that knows we live and breathe it, that it's not just something we wear. I came over to Europe in the first place because we saw magazines and people wearing our work. I remember the meeting in New Zealand; it was a gathering of tattooists, academics and freedom fighters. We talked about what was happening and what we could do about it. We came to the conclusion that someone had to go out there, to show them how we are and what we believe. If we could show them how we are as a people, then the bastardisation of our work would stop. Two of us came over and worked at different shows and shops. We could see there was a positive change happening, but when we returned home the void that was left was filled and it reverted back.” I asked Te Rangitu to explain why Western tattooists shouldn't replicate Maori designs, and why this is seen as offensive. “In our culture it would be shameful to wear something that can’t be read – to wear something that doesn’t belong to you. It's important to understand and live what you’re wearing. In the old times, it was about honour. It’s about who we are, where we come from and who we belong to. We’ve had the struggle to get where we are, to bring about a renaissance with our culture and language. When you’re dealing with that, you want to bring it back as perfectly as possible, because you’ve got to think of the next generations that have to survive from it. Since colonisation we’ve had to deal with fighting against our governments, and even amongst ourselves. I think New Zealand is quite forward thinking in a lot of ways, so we’re lucky; but even in our own culture we have people who just go for the money and cheapen it. It’s nice to see people wearing Maori motifs, but you can tell if it’s done properly. For instance, I’ve seen men wearing designs that belong to women. If they were to go to New Zealand, I honestly don’t think they would be received well. Likewise, I’ve seen tribal patterns that combine two former enemy tribes and unless you’re actually from those tribes and bind those two tribes within your lineage, that isn’t good! We believe in our patterns, we know the history. There are slight differences in the patterns which, if not worn correctly, can be quite insulting - especially which angle certain things are pointing towards, because everything has a meaning and when it’s laid on the body it should be in a certain way. There’s certain ways that it shouldn’t be; it would be bad karma and bad energy to have it that way. It’s not ‘spooky stories’ to us; it’s thousands of years of knowledge that’s been passed on through generations.”

In Te Rangitu’s opinion, technical ability is not the issue; it's the misrepresentation and the exploitation of the art and the patterns. “If things could be done properly, then there would be a lot to learn - but it’s being taken, not given," he says. "Maybe people feel that because they live on the other side of the world it won’t affect the culture itself, but it’s a mentality that affects us all. I know there are tattooists who want to do things right, in a positive way, but there are also a lot of tattooists who know the demand is there and that people are prepared to pay. Some of them stop calling it 'Polynesian' and give it another name with ‘nesian’ at the end and think that justifies it somehow. They make up new patterns and meanings, but what is their legacy? What are they leaving behind? How to disrespect another culture? I’ve had insults at conventions where people have said things to me like: 'Oh, I make a lot of money from you guys' and 'You tattooed Robbie Williams, I’ve made a lot of money from you'."

Our conversation moved on to to the subject of celebrity tattooing, and sports celebrities in particular. Did Te Rangitu feel this was fuelling the demand for 'traditional' tattoos? “Absolutely. I’ve had guys come to me wanting Sonny Bill Williams or The Rock’s work. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re not gonna look like The Rock! Those guys are Samoan, so they have culturally got a right to it. Traditionally, Sonny Bill Williams’s Pe’a [traditional Samoan male tatau] would be worn on the leg, but he has it on his arm so it’s in a modern context. However, it doesn’t mean that those patterns don’t have any meaning or relevance."

“I think it's really down to the tattooist to educate the client properly and say that it might not be appropriate," he continues. "A lot of people think 'Polynesian' is one thing. We’re from Polynesia, but there are many different cultures. We are related through time; some of our cultures are older and some are younger. Those patterns pertain to different islands, lineages and belief structures. But we evolved; in some places, some customs became irrelevant and there were reasons why we chose to change them. I like to respect my ancestors' decisions and not have the meanings between things get muddled up. There is a way of blending them together but you have to know your history and culture very well and it works better when the person has origins and ties to those separate cultures. Unfortunately even some of our own are adding to this mix. You have guys who are mixing the cultures because it’s the trendy thing to do. It looks alright but unless it’s been done to preserve and represent those cultures together for a reason, it’s not correct. In a way, it’s making the marks murky and unseeable.”

I was keen to know whether, as a non-Maori, I would be entitled to wear a traditional Maori tattoo. Te Rangitu's response was that although we are from different cultures we are all human. “All people are connected. The common denominator between humans is Mother Nature. Our patterns come from her and her language. We have seventy two Gods, we have elements and parts of our make-up that we connect to through the Gods, which is our connection to the land. This is our way of writing it. So you can wear them, but there’s an appropriate way of doing so. A lot of traditional tattoo work is not ‘scary traditional’, as some people may think it is. It can teach you about being a good person, about our connection to our environment, and how to approach life with your own ways of thinking and believing in yourself. It doesn’t have to be heavy. In the initial stages of understanding it’s best to make things light. Even though we are a traditional people, it doesn’t mean that everything is set in stone. I think people get that confused about being ‘traditional’; it’s part of our tradition to evolve, to move, and to understand differences. When we’re tattooed we’re not going against society; we’re joining society. There has been a disconnection between ourselves and our lands so it’s about reconnecting ourselves.”

I wondered whether, in an ever-changing world, the language of the traditional patterns had also evolved? “Absolutely," Te Rangitu says. "There are the origins of the pattern and there’s always new designs being made because we’re dealing with a different environment. There are lineage patterns that contain matauranga [knowledge] gifted to us from our ancestors that teach us about certain ways of thinking. Our patterns, depending on even the tribe or where you’re from, may have a similar pattern that has a different name and meanings. If we go to a native meeting it can get quite heated if we’re talking about our ancestors and something that’s happened. One person will stand up and say 'My ancestor went to this place and saw this happen and this is what he reckoned', and someone else will stand and say 'No, that’s not what happened, this happened', etc. The next thing will be four or five people standing up and they’re all disputing the same subject. They’re all right, but each of their ancestors took away a different perspective which they taught that lesson from and that’s what it is to them. There’s always different facets, different ways of looking at the same thing, so you get a clearer picture of what the problem or situation is. It’s the same with our dialects; it may be the same word but it will slightly change because of something. So we do have patterns that have evolved or moved into a more modern way of thinking.”

Maori tattooing is not something you learn from books or by going on a course. Te Rangitu learned his traditions through his family. “I was lucky to be born into a family who were very traditional. My grandmother always talked story and we always had to sit at the feet of my grandfather when he was talking to the elders. At the time, it was torture! But that’s how you were taught. We did our time on marae [our long houses] and during hui [gatherings]. Your whole life was based around your culture. If anybody was to become my apprentice, they would have to live with me, and live and breathe and do everything that I do. I lived with people who I consider leaders; I’d do carving and different arts. As a boy, I lived with Masters and I did whatever they said; whether it was washing the car or doing the garden. It’s a way of life. Otherwise, it just disappears and our elders would die with that knowledge if the right person didn’t come along.”

I remarked that Western tattooists striving for authenticity don't seem to research Polynesian tattooing in the way that they would research Japanese tattooing, for example. “It's not really the same," Te Rangitu explains. We don’t write books for the information to be out there, so I don’t think there’s much they can research. If there was, it would be like giving a knife to a child and telling them to run around with it. My job is to preserve the lineage and integrity of my traditions. I’m not too sure with Western tattooists if that’s their intention or motivation. As Polynesians, tattooing is part of our religious make-up. It’s strange how Westerners are looking at how our tattooing is now influencing our younger generations at home in New Zealand. I lived in an area which had its negative sides, like a lot of rural areas in New Zealand, and I could see the influences of the European way of thinking and the bastardisation of our culture and how that’s affecting the youth. What they’re seeing in magazines and online is a lot of disrespect. People complain about how the world is, but they don’t even fix their own backyard; they’re already in someone else’s. Capitalism and even what’s happened with our people with colonisation is still happening today. If you take something you’d want to give back, but that doesn’t really happen.”

For Te Rangitu, traditional tattooing isn’t about earning a living. “We don’t do it because we’re going get paid at the end of the day," he tells me. "We do it because we love our culture. It’s our passion and just being able to be there is the honour. I don’t know if people really understand that. If you can give something with passion, that should be enough. Money isn’t everything! My house is filled with taonga [treasures] that have been given to me. And that’s something else, because it comes with a story and it comes with so much more, that we call mana. It’s rich and special for me and I love that my kids have been brought up with these things. A lot of the indigenous worlds that we work with in America and Canada, and the Aboriginal cultures of Australia, we’re all the same and we all learn from each other and support each other. I like to think that we’re getting stronger and stronger every year. I love that we all just give and we don’t expect anything in return.”

Te Rangitu is from a non-boastful culture, where it is not customary to talk about oneself. With this in mind, I asked him about the pressure and requirement for social media. “It’s hard having to be on social media. I find it difficult to talk about myself so I always refer to my people. I am known mostly through traditional ways so, for example, I will work on four generations of the same family. That’s a great honour for me because the grandparents have trusted me with not only their kids, but their grandchildren as well. There is a huge responsibility that comes with that; you have to make sure that you pull your head in and police yourself. You can’t just go out and be drunk and do things that are negative because it reflects on everybody that you’ve worked on. If I was to suddenly take up drugs or get arrested, that would insult the whole of the people that I’ve tattooed. But I love it; I love the fact that I represent. I want my daughters to hear stories of me, the same way that I heard stories of my father and grandfather.”

Whilst living in New Zealand, Te Rangitu successfully reintroduced hand tools to his area. In addition, he also put forward plans for the future to build traditional tattoo houses, instead of studios, where the tattooing could be performed. I asked him to tell me more about this. “I’ve been dedicated to it now for the last ten years. I originally started studying the traditional tools under a friend of mine, Keone Nunes, who is from Hawaii. It’s a long story, but simply put, around twenty years ago, in my area, there was nobody who was using hand tools. One part of my tribe approached the Samoan tatau master, Paulo Sulu’ape and asked whether he would consider helping bring the hand tools back for our people. There was a ceremony that was made where Paulo gave the tools, not to our people, but to the church. The church was to give them back to our people, as a gesture (as the church was the one who took them away). A Maori/Samoan catholic priest, Father Tony Brown, who wore the Pe’a, returned the tools back to a relation of mine, Vern Rosieur, who then received the Pe’a from Paulo Suluape. Vern was the first of our people from our area to be taught. I have known Keone for many years; he was taught by Paulo also. I remember seeing Keone years later and talking to him about it and thinking that although Paulo was a good friend of mine and I had spent many times with him and around his work, I’d missed out on learning from him due to his untimely death and so Keone offered to teach me over in Hawaii. I lived there for about three months before moving back to New Zealand and travelling back and forth to learn as much as I could. I’m still learning and I will always be his friend and student.”

Te Rangitu went on to explain the differences between hand tools and machines. “The customs and traditions only pertain to the hand tools. There are a lot of things in the building and the collecting of the pieces and parts which are completely different to a machine. I think the patterns and messages slowly get lost with machines but it’s different with the hand tools. They meld really well to our patterns. In fact, the machine has really changed the way that moko used to look like. You can tell a machine what to do because it’s man-made. The hand tools, however, will tell you what to do.”

“With hand tools it definitely is a different way of receiving a tattoo," Te Rangitu continues. "For instance, you have more than one person working on a client, whereas with a machine you have only one and it is an egotistical thing. Everybody massages that ego so it’s very much 'look what I can do'. With the hand tools, the client, the person who is stretching, the environment... everything is inclusive. If I hadn’t worked with the person who is stretching before, it takes a long time to start flowing. So you have to spend time together and you’re as important as each other because one person is stretching the skin, whilst the other has to move. They have to know where you’re going to go before you even move, so they have to know how you move and they have to know how to stretch properly to make the job easier for me and the client; the stretcher is stretching for them, not me.”

I asked Te Rangitu whether there was a stronger relationship with the hand tools? “When you’re building a hand tool it actually forms a character and they often form names. So they have temperaments and it’s all to do with yourself as well; if you’re not feeling right in the head then they’re not going to work with you. They’ll tell me off or what I’m doing wrong - they actually tell me what to do more than I tell them what to do! The tools will tell me where I can go, based on things like muscle structure, etc. For example, you could put three of the same designs on three people’s chins and each one could look completely different because of the structure of the face. However, the machine will allow me to do those things. When we used to make machines it was a process that taught me a lot. I still love working with my machines. I love all kinds of marking the skin; I find it fascinating. Maybe they represent two sides of me: my practitioner side keeping a tradition going and my artist side. The machine allows me to be an artist and create and push boundaries.” We moved on to discuss the consultation process. Understandably, when getting a traditional tattoo, this process takes longer and is more in-depth than regular, custom tattooing. “Getting to know my clients is the main thing," Te Rangitu tells me. "It’s not as easy as just coming in and choosing a picture, because they want something that is unique to them. The first part is getting to know the customer as a person, which is sometimes difficult because people don’t like talking about their personal lives. So trying to draw it out is the hardest part and takes as long as it takes - there is no time limit. We talk over the information, and as they’re talking it over I’ll come up with ideas and we’ll start forming the design. I’ll then work on it some more and think about it. Sometimes it can come to me in a dream and it’s a go-ahead. But if things aren’t feeling right, then I won’t do it. So it does all depend on whether things are right and whether they fall into place. That’s a part of the artform that people don’t talk about so much; if something feels wrong, you need to be able to figure it out, in terms of the design, person or subject. It’s internalised a lot and because you’re dealing with something so sacred and a person’s body, you have to go through the consultation process slowly. We then look at the build of the person, the muscle structure and how it sits, as well as the reasons why it would be on that part of the body. There are reasons as to why you would have something on your right or left as there are female sides and male sides. It’s got to make sense - so if my elders were to read it, they would be able to make sense of it. So I’m always thinking, 'Does this part of the story fit there?', as well as considering the wearer’s job and how they use their body.”

As our conversation started to draw to a close, I asked Te Rangitu about his future plans. “If there is something I would like to achieve, it is possibly to inspire and help people in Europe to regain more of their own original traditions in a way that is inclusive of other cultures, in the same way that we as indigenous cultures are coming together to help each other do the same. I’d love to travel and be able to tattoo elsewhere, such as outdoors with nature. It would be great to say that I’ve been to and tattooed in sacred spaces. I think it takes that type of thinking to reignite our worlds. I also hope that my daughters can continue the legacy of looking after our people and the integrity of the culture.”

Finally, I asked Te Rangitu if he had a message for those who were considering Maori tattooing. “I guess it would be nice if our culture was left for us, because we have the lineage and the things that have been given to us," is his heartfelt reply. "We were born and brought up with it and so much has been taken from our people. These are the things that we are using to heal our people and the wounds that were caused by colonialism. We were told at one time that we weren’t even human. My grandfather was very traditional. My grandfathers before that were beaten and my father was partially paralysed in his arm for speaking our language. The effects of these things are still happening today. So if I could say something to my friends who are out there tattooing, who are saying that they have some kind of connection to Maori, it would be to leave it alone, let us deal with our culture, otherwise it’s not helping anybody. I have no problems with people wanting to understand and know things and if people ask me I will tell them. But I don’t expect them to then move down the road and start tattooing. I didn’t mean to come over here and get into arguments [laughs] but it is political for us. It’s not as easy as ‘just being a tattooist’ because we represent a people. I’m one that’s here but I need to say something, as a lot of people in our culture feel like this. So I have to challenge people and I have to stand up and say 'I don’t think this is a good thing'."

terangitunetanatamoko@gmail.com
http://terangitu.com/