This is a picture taken around 1893. It’s my great-great-grandmother, Rahui Te Kiri, with Ngapeka, the daughter of her first marriage, to Te Roa. My great-grandfather, Kiri Tenetahi Brown (Paraone) was a child of her second marriage, to Tenetahi.
In 1893 Rahui was probably in her 60s. She died in 1930, outliving Tenetahi and two of her sons, including my great-grandfather. I was looking at her will the other day and saw my grandmother’s name listed there, Hene Te Kiri Paraone. Grandma was in her late 20s when Rahui died, and already married to my grandfather. I wish I’d asked them more questions.
Rahui’s will is signed with her mark, a shaky X. It’s hard to see in the photograph above, but Rahui had a signature of a different kind, the moko (tattoo) on her face. The grooves in her skin were made with various plain and serrated chisels, either made of bone or metal.
My great-grandmother, Grace Tihoi Amos, didn’t have a moko; neither did my grandmother or any of her sisters. For them, its visual language no longer held the same currency. My grandmother, Jane (Hene), and her sisters Bella (Pera), Tottie (Rihi Paea), Roto (Rotorua) and Grace (Kerehi) attended school in Pakiri and learned how to write their names in English.
The only tattoo I saw I up close when I was a child belonged to my grandfather, Alf. He had a bird on his forearm: a sea bird, I think, blue and not very detailed. When I was small I liked to look at it and trace my fingers across it, but he was shy about it; maybe he didn’t want to give me any ideas.
I’m not keen on contemporary moko that turns what was a language, a precise series of signals about status and kinship and particular skills, into decorative gibberish. But then, I never thought I’d get a tattoo at all.
This month I got three tattoos – blue dots, made with a needle rather than a chisel. (“You’ll feel a sharp scratch,” the radiographer said, because this is now the medical euphemism for something piercing and painful.) These dots are there to guide the green lines beaming down onto what one of my friends calls the sun bed. It’s like Braille for a machine, I guess, a language of a different kind.
My three dots seem so pathetic compared with the marks on Rahui’s chin, something that implied great pride and great pain. She had a moko; I have an ellipsis. Every morning I go to Weston Park Hospital for the machine to read the dots, and to zap between the lines. (I’m using top medical terminology here; after all, I AM a doctor.) Unlike a moko, my dots can be hidden away; they’re a secret that thousands of us carry around, written on the body, along with a strange rectangle of tan. Though this must go on all over the world, it feels like a peculiarly British thing to me at the moment – the polite tattoo, discreet and easily hidden, whispering its coded language every morning on a hard table, in a cold room.
When the radiotherapy ends at the end of February, I get to keep the three dots. Hopefully, unlike Cheryl Cole, I won’t become addicted to the “sharp scratch” and decide to add a few dozen roses. I hope I’ll never come to think of tattoo as decoration. I hope that the three dots will be my only souvenir.