K Road's wahine tattooists: How they made their mark

Photography / Pati Solomona Tyrell

Making marks

From a lush studio on Karangahape Road, three women practise the art of tattooing.

Pip Hartley’s first tattoo was inked onto her thigh by an Argentinian while she was adventuring around the South Island: it is a rendering of Papatūānuku that she describes as a “fusion style of Māori and Mayan”. She took up tattooing soon afterwards while she was living in an artistic commune in Hokitika. A peripatetic tattoo apprenticeship followed, involving a tour through studios in South America and Europe, and a stint with the Iban tribe in the longhouses of Borneo. There, she noticed that indigenous tattooing was undergoing a renaissance. “They really cared about the practice,” she says. “Being over there and in Europe, it gave me a good gauge of the kind of artist I wanted to be and what inspired me.”

At the age of 14, she discovered she had a marae – Poukura, on the western side of Lake Taupō. Tattooing became a way for Hartley, 33, (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) to investigate her own culture, and bloomed into a great love that has become her full-time occupation. Many moons after her intrepid apprenticeship under the guidance of tohunga and mentor Te Kura Te Wanikau Turoa, Hartley is now the founder and director of Karanga Ink, an all-wāhine tattoo studio specialising in tā moko and tatau in the George Court building on Karangahape Road. Among red velvet settees and with roots reggae coming through the speakers, the studio doubles as an indigenous art gallery, showcasing everything from traditional weaving to a painting of our former prime minister’s head on a plate. Black and gold moko designs frame the doorway representing te ao mārama, the world of light, and the pare above the door embodies protection and the essence of mana wahine toa. Inside, these artists walk a daily tightrope, preaching the virtues of powerful indigenous symbols at the same time as protecting them from insensitive appropriation.

Hartley works here with two other tattoo artists, Tyla Vaeau Ta’ufo’ou, 31, (Sale’a’aumua, Aleipata and Safune, Savai’i) – an Elam graduate from Grey Lynn with a masters in art history focused on contemporary tatau – and Tyler-Jade, 24, (Rereahu, Ngāti Kahu) who prefers to not use her last name, grew up in Manurewa and has channelled her artistic talents into tā moko. “It’s something we’ve talked about for a few years and now it’s real,” says Ta’ufo’ou. “There’s no other studio in the heart of Auckland city owned by a woman and full of indigenous female tattooists.”

On a busy day they can tattoo over 12 people between the three of them. Hartley’s clients are an even mix of Māori and non-Māori, including lots of travellers who want to return home with a permanent piece of Aotearoa.

Tyler-Jade, who first studied under veteran tā moko artist Gordon Toi, has over 14,000 followers on Instagram and a booming client base that is a mixture of young Māori  looking to tell the story of their whakapapa, aunties and uncles and online fans. “I used to get asked by my family all the time to learn how to tattoo when I was younger,” says Tyler-Jade. “They just always wanted that for me, and I’d be like, ‘I don’t want to hurt people – what if I make a mistake!’ But the truth is you grow into it over time.”

Their colleague, Ta’ufo’ou, who has a hand malu (a Samoan tatau especially for women) from master tattooist Su’a Sulu’ape Alaiva’a Petelo, is largely self-taught, but credits the late Roger Ingerton as a guide and mentor. “My first experience of tattooing was Roger letting me do some of the shading on a design I’d come up with for my partner, just like that – straight onto the skin! He was a truly significant artist in every sense.” Ta’ufo’ou recently gave a 50-year-old his first-ever tattoo. “All sorts of people come through those doors,” she says. “Young, old, indigenous, palagi – the lot. There’s the cultural and the non-cultural side of my work; I keep myself open to a range of styles. As a female Samoan artist, whenever I tattoo another Samoan woman, I feel like there’s something greater going on. It makes me think of Taema and Tilafaiga, the conjoined twin goddesses that brought tattooing to Samoa.”

Using indigenous designs on people who may not be fully aware of their significance can be tricky cultural territory to navigate. Some suggest Pākehā shouldn’t even be able to have them. But the women of Karanga Ink are philosophical. Ta’ufo’ou can only recall a handful of times she’s tattooed non-Pacific people with traditional tatau. “I’m very selective,” she says, “but part of this journey is about educating people and guiding clients towards what’s appropriate. Part of why it’s a great fit here is that we don’t infringe on each other’s practice. If I have a fusion work with both tatau and moko designs I’ll call on the girls and vice versa. We develop each other and share knowledge, it’s a constant learning process.” The other bonus of an all-woman studio? “We’re all mums so we understand if each other’s kids are sick,” says Ta’ufo’ou.

Hartley says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to giving cultural tattoos to people not of that culture, and prefers to approach things on a case-by-case basis. “The people who come here have a real admiration for our art forms. People who aren’t Māori want moko because it tells their story, and they really admire the art form. Kirituhi is the Māori name given to contemporary tattoos that are inspired by Māori and sometimes Pacific designs. It’s a debatable subject but the reality is, everybody’s got a different story so every piece is unique to that person. When I’m tattooing someone, their story is coming through me in different patterns and symbols.” In saying that, Hartley recalls a recent would-be customer who asked for an exact replica of Dwayne Johnson’s shoulder tattoo. “It was just like, nah!,” she laughs. “With those kinds of people, what they’re asking for is really superficial – we do our best to deepen their awareness.” Says Ta’ufo’ou: “I’m much more interested in cultural exchange than cultural appropriation. You can’t control what other people do, but it really affects me seeing the markings of my people used without respect.” 

The process is an exchange that involves a lot of trust. A client will describe his or her desires and background, and the women of Karanga Ink will translate that story into permanent markings. “As the client is talking about their family history, I can start drawing straight onto the skin because I can see the symbols and what they represent,” says Tyler-Jade. “The whole tattoo comes together in my head based on my knowledge of tā moko.”

Tyler-Jade’s most powerful experience as a tattooist came when she marked her own mother. “I was eight years old when Mum got bottled by one of my auntie’s partners at a party. I remember running to the phone and ringing everyone – the ambulance, my grandparents, everyone. I was never able to get over it, the vision of seeing Mum in the kitchen with her head split open. Growing up, Mum had a deep scar on her forehead, and when I finally had the knowledge, I tattooed a moko over that scar and for me, it was healing, letting go of that trauma from the past.”

Hartley introduces me to an American soldier who is getting his first-ever tā moko on his left leg. He has European ancestry but says he’s always admired indigenous Pacific tattoos and that getting one is “the best way to experience the culture”. His first two tattoos were to commemorate friends that fell in battle, but Hartley’s creation is an ode to his personal journey. She keeps her eyes on the uhi (Māori tattooing tool) as she taps the pigment into his skin, curving lines that represent new beginnings.

On the next table, Ta’ufo’ou is incising a fusion Tongan and Samoan design onto the inner forearm of another first-time client, but this woman has Pacific ancestry and wanted a tattoo to mark the strong bond she has with her parents. “These symbols represent my mixed heritage, using ancient patterns from the ngatu [Tongan tapa cloth] and malu. I’m not gonna lie, it really hurts! But it’s worth it.”

For Hartley, Tyler-Jade and Ta’ufo’ou, the sense of purpose they feel about their work isn’t just skin-deep: this is more of a calling than a career choice. “It’s sacred work that transcends time and space. Moko connects clients to their ancestors, their tupuna, and the generations to come,” says Tyler-Jade. “It’s an awesome rongoa to help uplift our people.”

Thanks to Hartley’s global connections, the group travelled to Spain in May for the Traditional Tattoo and World Cultural Festival, taking the opportunity to develop new networks and to share their knowledge of tā moko and tatau. It was the first time the studio travelled together overseas. For Hartley, this is just the beginning of realising her ambitions for Karanga Ink and her practice as a tā moko artist. “I look back on my life and I see how all these different opportunities and experiences have just been stepping stones preparing me for a greater vision. I wanted to create a space that could empower women. The seeds of Karanga were planted years ago, deep in that wāhine vibe.