Arekatera “Katz” Maihi can vividly recall the sickening stench of smoke and harrowing echo of family members’ cries as his tribal house in Auckland, New Zealand, went up in flames in the middle of the night.
“I was 15 and woken up with the rest of the village to our house burning down,” the 44-year-old artist, carver and musician says. “I stood behind with a hose from our garden trying to put it out. Even now, I can recall the blackness of the sky, the old aunties wailing and the smell of smoke.”
Having grown up watching his uncles build the house, known as a marae, and becoming fascinated with the way they would etch traditional carvings onto the structure, the disaster left a heartbreaking but pivotal impact on the teen. Today, the marae stands rebuilt — “and now tells another story of our history as a tribe” — while its story is also inked onto Maihi’s face in his ta moko, a tattoo art form traditionally worn by New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people.
Maihi has made a career for himself as a successful moko (meaning “tattoo”) artist, who now inks people’s own stories and histories onto their bodies. Having tattooed high-profile New Zealanders, including activist Tame Iti, and befriended Hollywood stars like ex–Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa, he’s now preparing to share his skills and the art of ta moko with Los Angeles as part of "Tuku Iho: A Living Legacy."
The cultural exhibition celebrates Maori culture and kicks off with Poi on the Pier, a free public event featuring traditional Maori kapa haka dancing, which will shut down part of Santa Monica Pier on Sunday, Oct. 22. An 11-day exhibit of Maori art — including stone, bone and wood carvings, weaving and bronze works — will follow at Venice Beach’s Rose Room, where performers will display traditional dance and waiata (songs), while Maihi and fellow tattoo artist Jacob Tautari do ta moko demonstrations on volunteers.
Maihi, who got his first tattoo at 19 and has now lost count of how many he has, hopes the unique personal meaning and process behind each moko will attract Los Angeles locals.
“The image we construe on people’s skin is not just drawings from the wall or from a book,” he says. “We create a dialogue with the person and hear their stories, then we translate that conversation into the visual language of ta moko on their skin. Every piece is unique to an individual. When we complete the moko, we explain what the different parts of the design mean, and usually they’re blown away. They can feel the uniqueness and specialness about the piece.”
Growing up, Maihi's grandfather had a bookshelf packed with 200 encyclopedias, yet it was the one Maori carving book that caught his eye when he was just 5. Developing a passion for drawing, he eventually became a student at Te Puia’s Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island, and says it was a natural progression from carving designs onto wood to inking them into skin.
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Now head of schools at the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, Maihi remains an artist on the side. He says ta moko (which is traditionally done using chisels instead of needles, leaving the skin with grooves) has experienced a resurgence in recent years, helped by Maori and Pacific Island athletes wearing their tattoos with pride and gaining exposure on a world stage. Actors like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson also proudly sport cultural tattoos, while a growing number of celebrities are getting moko while visiting New Zealand.
Rihanna made headlines after being filmed getting the traditional tattoo while touring New Zealand in 2013, while boxer Mike Tyson and singers Robbie Williams and Ben Harper also have Maori-inspired designs.
Maihi sees increasing global interest as an opportunity and “educational tool” to share Maori culture and bridge cultural gaps during a time of increased global unrest.
“Tattooing non-Maori people is a great opportunity for people to get a better understanding of our culture and why we do what we do. We are a caring and giving nation, we love to share, laugh and have fun, and we are fiercely loyal to each other," Maihi says. "We’re just here to share and I think the world needs that right now. With the demand for ta moko growing, we find it our responsibility to go out into the world and educate people about the art and our culture correctly.”
Tuku Iho: Living Legacy, the Rose Room, 6 Rose Ave., Venice; Oct. 23-Nov. 2. nzmaci.com/projects/tuku-iho.