The gift of tā moko

For a week last month, Base Ohakea’s Tūrangawaewae was home to tā moko expert Heemi Te Peeti, who created moko for any personnel who wanted one.

New Zealand Defence Force
4 min readMay 7, 2021


During the week 17 people, defence personnel, and two dependents, took up the opportunity to receive a moko. Doors were also open to those who wanted to support their loved ones and colleagues going through the process. Songs were sung, children played and the calm, welcoming spirit of the building was an ideal venue for the event.

Sergeant (SGT) Nare Whittaker wanted to get a moko to represent his whānau and his whakapapa (genealogy).

“I don’t have any tattoos yet, because I wanted to learn how to speak te reo before I got one. It was important to do it in that order, because when I talk about it I wanted to be able to talk about it in Māori, because that means a lot more to me.”

He wanted it to represent his whānau, but was leaving the final design in the hands of Mr Te Peeti.

Sergeant Nare Whittaker receiving tā moko by Mr Te Peeti.

“Matua Heemi sits down with everyone who is getting a moko and talks about what they want. He’s done it for so long and he understands the person’s story and knows exactly what the design should look like.

“My whānau is from the Far North. My dad’s side is from Ngāpuhi and my mum’s family is from Ngāti Kurī. Matua Heemi has whakapapa that goes back to Ngāpuhi as well, so I’ll be in good hands,” SGT Whittaker said.

His wife and two of his three children stayed by his side throughout the procedure to support him.

Mr Te Peeti is one of the Defence Force’s recognised kaumātua. His craft with tā moko came after a lifetime of carving.

“I’m a traditional carver by trade, but I’ve been doing moko for a very long time too. I like to say they are related to each other. To go into the world of moko, one needs to have a good foundation of carving, in terms of learning design and tribal styles and the stories that go with them,” he said.

“It’s been a good week to share the history and kōrero of one of our many hapu, to talk about moko to the people here at Ohakea. It has helped them understand where this particular gift came from.

“It’s always good to share a gift and have people wear that gift.”

Sergeant Nare Whittaker’s whānau attending his tā moko session.

Flight Sergeant (F/S) Kelly Menary took up the opportunity and received moko on her inner forearms, representing her completing her Maunga Kura Toi (Bachelor of Māori Art degree) through Te Wānaga o Aotearoa.

“I wanted a form of expression to celebrate my success and that’s why I got moko done,” she said.

“The bottom part is the harakeke (flax) leaf. The middle is about the pursuit of knowledge and the top is a manaia (bird) head and it represents guardianship and protection of that knowledge. So it’s about the transformation of harakeke right through my expression, which is weaving.

“Within te ao Māori there is a balance with everything, so I definitely wanted them on both arms, because I weave with both hands.”

Flight Sergeant Kelly Menary and her tā moko.

Some of the harakeke F/S Menary used during her study was from the gardens at the Tūrangawaewae, which she had been tasked to look after.

“Some of the pieces that I’ve woven I’ve gifted back to the Tūrangawaewae because I’ve used the harakeke from here and the kōrero behind those pieces are about the Air Force or the Air Force haka.”

Tūrangawaewae manager Wal Wallace said the art of tā moko was very special to Māori.

“But to get it done under the roof of your own house makes it even more special. A lot of our people are away from their home marae, so this is the only other place they can get it done.”

This year had been about the Tūrangawaewae giving back to our people, he said.

“I don’t just mean our Māori people, I mean our Air Force people. The previous two years have been very activity-based in terms of what other people want to do here. So we wanted this year to be about us establishing and running things here for our people.”

“It’s also an opportunity for other base personnel who have always wondered about maybe getting a moko to come in and feel the experience so they can make a decision later on about whether to get one.”

Meanwhile, after about an hour and a half of work, SGT Whittaker was looking at his new taonga.

“My children are represented and the main image represents Ngāpuhi. I love it. It’s beautiful.”

WO Roy Robati and his new taonga.
WO Roy Robati and his new taonga



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