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Moko; or Maori Tattooing

Chapter VI — Operators or Artists

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Chapter VI
Operators or Artists

The operators in moko were generally professional artists who worked for hire, and their different degrees of excellence were as well known as that of painters among the moderns; and they were in fact regarded by their less able countrymen as men of great talent and repute. Skill, of course, came with practice; but even the early efforts of a beginner were in the minds of some Maoris better than no moko at all; and budding artists acquired their craft by practice on those who could not afford to pay for the skilled hand. Variety of excellence naturally showed itself; and the expert was a person held in high esteem. To secure the services of a distinguished operator who was not itinerant, men would go considerable distances. If the operator suspected that he would not be properly remunerated, his work became careless; and there is little doubt that some of the coarser specimens of moko were due to some such cause. On the other hand, presents and payments flowed into the coffers of the man of talent from all quarters, according to the means page 99 and ability of the givers. Double-barrelled guns, canoes, clothes, and even slaves have been presented to these distinguished persons as marks of esteem in which their talents were held.

A certain Aranghie was one of the most famous of all artists in moko. There is a portrait of him, drawn by Mr. Earle, who was draughtsman to H.M. surveying ship Beagle in 1827. Mr. Earle's remarks on this distinguished artist must be quoted:
Fig. 111.—Aranghie; a portrait after Earle.

Fig. 111.—Aranghie; a portrait after Earle.

“This professor was considered by his countrymen a perfect master in the art of tattooing, and men of the highest rank and importance were in the habit of travelling long journeys in order to put their skins under his skilful hands. Indeed, so highly were his works esteemed that I have seen many of his drawings exhibited even after his death. A neighbour of mine very lately killed a chief who had been tattooed by Aranghie, and appreciating the artist's work so highly, he skinned the page 100 chieftain's thighs, and covered his cartouch-box with it. I was astonished to see with what boldness and precision Aranghie drew his designs on the skin and what beautiful ornaments he produced. No rule and compasses could be more exact than the lines and circles he formed. So unrivalled was he in his profession that a highly finished face of a chief from the hands of this artist is as greatly prized in New Zealand as a head from the hands of Sir Thomas Lawrence is amongst us. It was most gratifying to behold the respect these savages pay to the fine arts. This professor was merely a kooky or slave, but by skill and industry he raised himself to an equality with the greatest men of the country, and as every chief who employed him always made him some handsome present he soon became a man of wealth and was constantly surrounded by important personages…… My friend Shulitea (King George) sent him every day the choicest things from his own table. Though thus basking in the full sunshine of court favour, Aranghie, like a true genius, was not puffed up with pride by his success, for he condescended to come and take tea with me almost every evening. He was delighted with my drawings, particularly with a portrait I made of him. He copied so well, and seemed to enter with such interest into the few lessons of painting I gave him, that if I were returning from here direct to England I should certainly bring him with me, as I look upon him as a great natural genius.”

And there is yet another sketch by a competent observer of the life of another artist in moko, who was kept in constant and profitable employment. Mr. E. J. Wakefield, in his Adventure in New Zealand, 1839–44, describes one in the train of a chief who came page 101 from the country near East Cape: “Everybody, from the renowned warrior to the girl of twelve years old, crowded to be ornamented by his skilful chisel; shirts, mats, axes, and other articles accumulated in the carver's kit. He was a superior man in many respects. He used to beat everybody at draughts, and had a store of old legends of amuse his audience.”