Hello, could you please introduce yourself in a few words?

Hello, my name’s Aurélien, I’m 25, I come from Montigny-Le-Bretonneux in Yvelines and I arrived in New Zealand on January 19th, 2018.

I’m passionate about tattoos – I have a few of them all over. So when I came here, to the land of tattoos, I knew I couldn’t return to France without getting a new one. I say “tattoo” because at that time I didn’t know that I was going to get a moko, a Maori tattoo.

Tell us a bit about Maori tattoos!

The first thing you need to know about the moko is that when you get a tattoo, you can’t just turn up with an existing design. It makes a very bad impression, not like for others tattoos in France or elsewhere.
The moko is much more spiritual. It’s a very personal tattoo that requires talking about yourself to the tattoo artist.

I wanted a tattoo that represented my family, my life experiences, but also my trip to New Zealand and what it meant to me. This trip has been a bit like a rebirth for me, a new beginning (even more than I imagined).

How did you find the tattoo parlour where you got your tattoo in New Zealand?

At the beginning, I spent 3 weeks in Auckland and started looking for a tattoo parlour thinking I would get it done later, in winter, so that I could easily swim during the summer.

But then I had an accident in February (I cut my fingers badly with a lawnmower – I talk about it here in more detail for those who want to know more), so since I couldn’t go swimming anyway, I thought it was the right time to get a tattoo.

I did a little research on Google but didn’t find much, so I went on Facebook groups like “Les branleurs en Nouvelle-Zélande” (a very good group by the way) and asked the question to the WHVers there. Those who answered me had got classic tattoos (not Maoris), but I already had my tattoo artist in France for that. I was really hoping to find a Maori tattooist.

I wasn’t in a hurry so I stopped looking and went to Kerikeri to volunteer. That’s where I had my accident.
One day, in Russell, my buddy and I saw a tattooist who was doing flash tattoos. I didn’t really like any of his designs but it made me want to look for a tattoo artist again. I found three tattoo parlours in Whangarei, the largest town in the area, one of which was called Native Inc. It sounded good so I went onto their Facebook page and decided that’s where I’d get the tattoo.

What was your budget for the tattoo?

When I got there, I told him I wanted to get a tattoo on my left leg, from the knee to the ankle. My only problem was the budget. I never usually ask the price because if I really want the tattoo, then I don’t mind what I pay so long as I trust the tattoo artist.

I explained that if it was too expensive, I would only tattoo my calf. He asked me my budget and I said about $600/700. He told me it would be $800 for the whole lower leg. I really wanted the tattoo so I said yes. After all, it was only a little over budget and was something very important that I would keep for the rest of my life.

Tell us about D-Day!

When I arrived, we started talking about me. That’s how it works with Maori tattoos, you talk to the tattoo artist about yourself and then he’ll design something that relates to you based on what you’ve told him. I was, however, a little worried about speaking English as I wanted him to understand me well.

In the end, we had a good chat and, even though my level of English wasn’t great at the time, it went well. I told him about my trip and what it meant to me, about my parents and my two younger brothers. I told him that I loved my family, nature, and animals, then he took out 4 markers and started to draw freehand on my leg. That’s how it’s done and that’s why there are little imperfections if you look closely at my tattoo. It’s not really symmetrical or straight but that’s the beauty of Maori tattoos.

Se faire tatouer en Nouvelle-Zelande - moko

A quick side note: I originally wanted a mallet and bone tattoo, the real traditional Maori tattoo, but my tattoo artist explained that there’s a very big preparation process that goes into these tattoos and it would be very painful. I’d still like to try it though. I think they might be more for Maori people, but he wasn’t at all offended that I’d asked.

So, he started doing the big lines and outlines with a marker, but without any detail. He also did the korus (young fern fronds), which represent birth, rebirth, new beginnings… that’s why I have a lot of them in my tattoo.

Se faire tatouer en Nouvelle-Zelande - moko 7

Once he did that, I realised what was about to happen and that it was going to be really big!
One thing I really liked about this tattoo artist was that he was relaxed and took the time to talk to me. A guy came into the parlour and he sat with him to talk about his tattoo project then came back to me. He took his time. At one point he asked me if I had eaten, which I hadn’t, so he said “come and have lunch with us”. They took me to the back of the parlour and he, his apprentice and I ate homemade butter chicken made by another Maori, a buddy of his who was also missing a phalanx bone… as was my tattoo artist!

When I first came to the parlour to make the appointment, I had my cast on. He asked me what had happened and I told him about my accident and he said, pointing to his finger, “look, I’m fine, you’ll be ok”. That was nice. I wasn’t feeling great at the time so it was a comfort to me. I’m much better now but it’s been difficult…

David Hart - Native Ink

[Editor’s note: At the time of publishing Aurélien’s story, we learned that David Hart, his tattoo artist, had been killed in a car accident on June 18th, 2018. Aurélien was extremely moved by this news as he had a very strong bond with him.]

How did the tattooing process go?

The first session lasted about 4 and a half hours (it was bleeding a lot and so we had to stop after all that time) and the second was a week later, lasting about 1 and a half to 2 hours.

Se faire tatouer en Nouvelle-Zelande - moko 2

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The first session was intense. I already have tattoos and some are in quite sensitive areas like the ribs (although there are worse places). I was surprised by how sensitive it was, it really hurt. As soon as it started, I thought to myself “oh, this is going to take a long time” and yet I love getting tattoos.

He gave me something that looked like a bone as big as my fist so I could squeeze it if it hurt. It was some type of ancient resin. I ended up squeezing it so hard that my hand nearly hurt more than my leg. It was tough.
And then I couldn’t walk very well at first. Legs swell up a lot after a tattoo. I was worried that it was infected but actually it’s normal, especially considering the size of the tattoo.

Could you tell us about your tattoo and what it represents?

My tattoo represents me and my family. I originally wanted it to represent my past, my hardships, and my experiences. The tattoo artist told me a lot about the moko and that he was doing it to represent me, but not in the past. It’s always about moving forward; it represents your future, who you are and who you’re going to be. It’s even more profound than a tattoo to represent what you’ve gone through in the past.

There was a definition of moko in the parlour:

You may lose your most valuable property through misfortune in various ways, your house, your weaponry, your spouse, and other treasures.
You may be robbed of all that you cherish.
But of your moko, you cannot be deprived, except by death.
It will be your ornament and your companion until your final day.

I have a line along my shin which is my lifeline and it divides my tattoo in half. There’s a male side (right) and a female side (left).

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It’s important to understand that in mokos, it’s not the ornaments (the black) which represent things, it’s the void that you have to look at.
In my moko, there are my parents (they form the “heart” in the photo – it’s not a heart but I’ve been told several times that it looks like one) …

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… the 4 elements, my brothers, and different forms of protectors (the heads of hammerhead sharks, stingray tail…), I think it’s really beautiful.

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And on the back, these are my grandparents.

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There are also a lot of elements that don’t come from me, that I didn’t ask for, but I still really like them. They’re related to animals and nature, for example the whale tail (top left in the picture), I love it!

Se faire tatouer en Nouvelle-Zelande - moko 5

A moko is really aligned with nature. You protect nature and you are protected by it, I don’t know how to explain it.

This part represents the ocean (bottom left of the photo) …

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I really like it, it’s something that fascinates me but also scares me. I’m glad he put it there because I often sit with my legs crossed so I see it a lot.

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If you look closely at my tattoo, you can see that it’s not symmetrical. It represents different things and I think that’s great. There are similarities but the two sides are totally different. Anyway, the more I look at it, the more I like it.

Did you get the impression that your tattoo artist thought it was good that you wanted a Maori tattoo or did he see it as a joke?

I asked myself the same question seeing as it’s not my culture and I’m white. I once met a Maori who believed that mokos were just for Maoris. But he was young and drunk and I know that most Maoris don’t think that. Besides, apart from him, all the Maoris I’ve met have loved my moko. It’s created a bond between us.

And so going back to my tattoo artist, when he saw me coming, he saw that I was already tattooed and that I was really interested in the moko.

I told him “I want a real Maori tattoo, you have free rein”.

You’re very interested in Maori culture, could you tell us a little more about it?

Yes, it’s something that has underlined my time here in New Zealand. Little by little, by meeting people and going to sacred places, I learned more and more about it. Take Cape Reinga for example – it was a really profound experience but I didn’t expect it to be.

When you’re stood at the tip of the peninsula, you can see two oceans colliding with the waves going in both directions which represents the union of man and woman and the creation of life. When the sun is low enough, like it was when I was there, it’s just magical. You’re at the end of the world, it’s a pretty mystical place.

The Maori culture is very spiritual and it really moves me, more than I thought it would.

I had an interest in it before but didn’t realise just how much. Now it’s almost become a part of me. I’ve had meaningful encounters with Maoris, even those which didn’t last long. I was recently picked up by a Maori who explained some aspects of his culture and exchanged a hongi with me. You place your forehead and nose against the other person’s forehead and nose and breathe in, it’s powerful. The first person who did that to me was my tattoo artist. Later on, another Maori did it to me in a hostel where I was staying.

The hongi is the traditional Maori greeting. Two people stand facing one other and place their foreheads and noses against each other’s then exchange and mix their “ha” (breath of life). When a Maori exchanges a hongi with someone, it means that he or she no longer sees that person as a visitor, but as a tangata whenua, a member of the Maori people. With this greeting come responsibilities, such as leaving no trace of one’s time on the island and respecting its natural beauty.

The hongi is mainly performed during official ceremonies. If a Maori greets you in this way, it’s a very strong gesture.

Were people intrigued by your tattoo? Did you meet people because of it?

Yes, it’s really different compared to France. There, people don’t usually question other people’s tattoos – even those who have tattoos themselves. But here in the land of tattoos, many people have them and ask you questions directly. They don’t ask me about the meaning of my moko, they know it’s something powerful and important to me. They usually tell me that it’s beautiful and ask where I had it done.

I’ve had Maoris tell me they think it’s great that I’ve had a moko. That really touched me, it was very sincere.

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