The morning was cloudy, but as Paddy and I stumbled down the main road of Paihia, curved smooth as a bow around the bay, we wore our hangovers heavy on our shoulders. To our disappointment, the sun broke through those saviors of clouds and beat our weary faces further. We were on a mission to see about a tattoo and had only a vague idea of where we were to go. Heading to the gas station across the street from the supermarket in Waitangi we were to find a man covered in moko, the traditional Maori tattoos that cover the bodies and faces of the native tribes. The moko tell the stories of those who wear them and today I was searching to be read by a Maori and blessed to have my moko forever inked on my eagerly tattooed skin.
For three years I have wanted a tattoo on my left side, twisting from my ribs around my back. I wanted something that would represent me, from where I have come, the never ending struggle for personal growth in my life, and my need to be free from the chains whose burdens our souls heavily bear. Curiously we entered the gas station to inquire about the tattooed stranger. “Oh you mean Damien, eh?” The cashier responded without pause, “well ‘e’s jus gettin’ into that car right there to be on ‘is way, eh? But if it’s the moko you’re after jus’ walk down to that roundabout there, eh? Take a left and find the house with the totem out front and ask after Tracy.”
We thanked the Kiwi clerk with a cheers and made our way to the house with the totem. Not far past the roundabout, just as the helpful clerk described, we came across the house we assumed to be Tracy’s and instantly confirmed that fact as we came up to the driveway and saw the makeshift tattoo parlor set up in the garage. It was either that or a crazy dentist, anyway. I hesitantly knocked on the frosted glass door and a small blonde boy around ten or so peeked his head out and called for his mom. As Tracy came around the corner my eyes were immediately drawn to the moko that wound its way from her lip, around her chin and down to the top of her neck. Her hair was black, her skin the deep sienna of a true blooded Maori, and she wore years of laughter in the lines of her eyes and mouth. She escorted Paddy and me to the garage and we started talking shop.
The moko are sacred to the Maori and Tracy was pleased as Paddy remembered to request permission for the symbolic language to be inked on my foreign body. She granted us both permission and I set up an appointment to return the next afternoon to have my reading done. When Paddy asked how much the tattoo would cost, she jokingly replied’ “five hundred an hour and a bag of oysters” and we left a bit perplexed and still unsure of how much the tattoo was going to cost. Upon returning and excitedly relaying the story to some Kiwis that work at our hostel, we learned that payment for the moko is a gift from the person receiving it, and one is to offer as much as they believe the tattoo is worth. Early as it is in my trip, I was prepared to give her several hundred dollars, the equivalent of what I believed the tattoo would cost in America.
Anxious from the moment I woke, excitement bubbling in my belly, I made the thirty minute walk and arrived early for my one o’clock appointment. Hungover yet again, Tracy invited me to sit on one of the couches in the garage overlooking the bay and offered me a much needed glass of water. She pulled out a stack of photos of her work and we began discussing the meaning behind the animals represented and the flowing lines within each of the tattoos. Each tattoo must have the Manawa, the lines of the heart and blood flowing through it, represented by the negative space created by the ink. If the Manawa cannot flow through the moko, the body is dead. As I flipped through the stack of pictures she handed me, Tracy began to explain the moko on her chin. Her partner had died just over a year ago and she was asked to wear the moko on her face, a sign of respect and something which greatly humbled her, and which she is honored to wear. With her neck lifted up you see the shape of a stingray, and with her face forward the symbolic image turns into the eyes and face of an owl, which represents her fatidic connection to the spirit world. It is here that she tells me her name is no longer Tracy, but that she was given the name Paitangi when she was asked to wear the moko after his death. Knowing the day he was going to die and seeing his spirit still often in her home and the sacred Maori temples of Waitangi, Pai is an honored and respected member of the local Maori community.
For the next four hours Pai and I bared guts to one another. Being as unapologetically open as I, the story of my life, and in turn hers, poured from our mouths dancing easily between us. I told her of my family’s past, of the distance and alienation felt between my brother and sisters, the lack of any real parental connection between myself and my father and mother, and the independence I had defiantly willed from them in turn. We talked about spirituality and our mutual distaste for organized religion. We talked about booze and drugs and vices and addictions (one of the rare things we do not share) and of the unraveling I felt in the last year that brought me here to her. But more than anything else, we talked about love. Incapable of anything but unconditional love, and willing to give it completely freely, we found a true bond. Her husband was a proud man, a distant man, and a hard man to know. And while she was willing to give him everything of herself, she found hurt again and again. Always falling in love with damaged goods, we are. Thinking through the countless times I have loved those unable to reciprocate the love in return, I told Pai that perhaps people like us are always meant to love those that can never return it. Our hearts are simultaneously too soft and strong, endlessly willing to give, no matter what blows are struck against us. Perhaps we are the only ones able to take on these closed doors, these projects of loves. And though it may be hard at times, when the next love comes along our hearts are no worse for the wear. I felt a bit better as we laughed in resigned agreement for our collective fate.
The four hours passed without pause and by the time her fourteen year old son returned from school, I needed to get to work and we made an appointment for the inking in the early afternoon of St. Paddy’s Day. When the morning finally came, the excitement emanated from my eager face. I made the thirty minute walk with music in my ears and a lilting stride. We took our time easy when I arrived and chatted over a cup of tea. After an hour, it was time to begin. Stripping down to my bikini top I climbed into the deranged dentist’s chair and laid on my side for her to draw the tattoo I had yet to see. The pen ran smooth from my ribs down to my hips in curls and tips as the anticipation to see the creation boiled stronger inside of me. When she finished the outline I jumped from the chair to gaze for the first time at what would adorn my body until I die.
It was perfect. I smoked one final cigarette, and laid back on my side, preparing myself for the excruciating pain I knew was to come. As the hard buzzing of the needle began I closed my eyes tightly and Pai reminded me to breathe. The first piercing vibration penetrated my tender skin and my eyes winced tightly shut as I forced myself to take oxygen into my tensed body. The breaths in wavered through the pain and then exhaled in miniscule relief. After the twenty seconds of tension, she lifted the needle, my muscles relaxed, and I opened my eyes onto the sage-toned waters of the bay. And in just two sweet, deep breaths, the needle was tearing into my skin again. With each successive torture and release I could never prepare for the pain that was to follow again. At times it ate my nerves for breakfast, chewed them tense and down to pulp. Others grinded and carved my bones, sure they bore the same pattern as my sore, swollen skin. And in each relief of breath as the needle paused its relentless assault I again opened my eyes to the pale Kiwi sky and remembered that the pain I was enduring was not for naught. This symbol, this moko, this ink was the same as all of the pain we endure in life, and I would be the better for it in the end. With each tortured, tenuous breath I fought the urge to squirm and retract from the needle, and was occasionally blessed with a simply irritating vibration in place of the grating pain. My private prayers to no one for the tattoo to be finished were granted after only an hour and a half. Beyond relief, I peeled my sore, sweaty side from the leather of the chair and hopped excitedly to the mirror. I was stunned.
We stood in the mirror as I admired the work and Pai described the various symbols that married themselves to my ribs that afternoon. The Huruhuru, the Maori word for feather, swept itself down the soft indent of my waist, barely peeking out onto my back. Simultaneously representative of my windblown soul and the ancient writer’s quill, it was the perfect symbol. Knowing the freedom of my spirit would be blown wherever Tawhiri, the guardian of the wind, wanted to take me, Pai etched my Maori guardian in the negative space along the Huruhuru. The three seed pods of the Kapé that curled up my ribcage represented my three brothers and sisters and the seed we share. The tiny curling point that offsets the negative space of the Manawa line, the Te Ao Hurihuri, is symbolic of the ever turning world and the constant change for which we search as we spin. Three curly cues lie sleeping like peas along the lower ridge, forever reminding me of the three most influential people of my life: my three best friends. I gave Pai three hundred dollars, for my three siblings, for my three best friends, for the three times I have truly been in love in my life, and a firm and honest hug to boot. Pai will forever be in my memory, her art will forever be on my body, and she assured me I was not one to be forgotten either. Walking back to the hostel with a furtive, knowing smile that couldn’t be beaten from my face the only thing left to ponder was where my next tattoo will land and on what continent will it be done.