Melz Huata Lucas closed her eyes.

Ahakoa ka noho ā tinana, ka haere kē a wairua.

She was in Auckland, at the Navy’s Te Taua Moana marae, but now she was at another place entirely. She could see the walls of her wharenui at Kohupatiki Marae in Waipureku (Clive, Hawkes Bay). She could see the photos on the walls. She saw people, family and loved ones she hadn’t seen for a long time. She was home. When the tattoo gun began to touch her chin, there was no pain at all.

Melz, a Navy civilian and former sailor, is the first woman in the employ of the Royal New Zealand Navy to wear moko kauae (a facial moko worn on the chin). She received hers in October 2019, and her journey has now inspired other women to follow.

She had never had any kind of tattoo before, even though tattoos among sailors was popular. “Growing up, I was told that if you got tattoos, you were a criminal, you’re going to jail.  I was brought up not to ‘ruin’ my body, and none of my siblings have them. Yet. My grandfather had a lot of ‘bad boy’ tattoos and he was ashamed of them. When I was 19, serving in HMNZS TE KAHA, I was keen, and when we went ashore in Singapore my mates got tattoos, but I thought, what would Nan say?”

She was inspired by a female Army officer who wore moko kauae, and she acknowledges her ‘Navy brother’, Chief Petty Officer Seamanship Combat Specialist Rawiri Barriball, who got permission to wear Mataora (Male full face Moko) in 2017, the first person in the Royal New Zealand Navy to do so. He encouraged her to take the step.

She was determined, but scared as well. “To put something on your face…you start doubting yourself. You wonder, are people going to judge me? Am I going to be able to get a job?”

Her mother wasn’t keen on the idea. “You’re perfect as you are,” she said. “Not all of my family were in favour, but they supported me regardless, and they knew I wasn’t asking for permission.” Today, her mother walks proudly with her on this journey and understands in her own way the significance behind her choice.

Her stance was that ta moko was not a tattoo. “This is completely different. A moko is your whakapapa, your genealogy. It’s not a cosmetic thing. It is the pride of our culture being the first sight you see, without explanation or judgement. This isn’t taken lightly, but it felt right to do this, first and foremost for me, secondly for my children and family. I’m the first in my family to wear moko kauae and the first in the Royal New Zealand Navy to open this door for our Maori women. It was important for me to normalise this beautiful taonga so that others may be able to follow their hearts without fear.”

A week before she was due to have her moko, she asked the Chief of Navy, Rear Admiral David Proctor, for a moment. “I said, ‘sir, can I speak to you about this?’ And he said, ‘what’s going on?’ I said, next weekend, I’m receiving my moko kauae. He hugged me. I said, I want people to see that this is normal. If you’re around, we are doing it at the marae. I would be honoured if you came.”

Around 200 people came to the Wharenui at Te Taua Moana Marae that night. A friend came up to Melz and said, “hey, there’s some guy in the kitchen roaming around, making a cup of tea.” Melz looked across and saw the Chief of Navy in civilian clothing. “It was him. He came. Having him there, acknowledging the step I was taking, and showing up as himself. It meant a lot to me and my family.”

Melz had fasted and prayed for 24 hours in preparation for receiving her ta moko. “When you fast, you reach these higher levels. I was prepared for pain – I’ve given birth to three boys and I thought, nothing can be more painful than that. But as the kaitāmoko, Cody Hollis, started to delineate my moko on to my chin, I became relaxed. I was nervous, but ready. I had no idea what I was in for.”

She remembers closing her eyes. “Seriously, I didn’t feel anything when that gun touched my face. My spirit had just gone. I know it sounds cuckoo, but if you fast, it puts you in a state of hallucination. The spiritual world – te taha wairua - takes over the physical. I thought there were heaps of people in the room with me, but the photos don’t show that many people. When he was drawing on my face, I could see all four grandparents, smiling and happy. I wasn’t really scared of the approval (or not) of those that were here. But I was scared of the disapproval of those who were not with us. Right up to that moment I was still second-guessing, but when I saw my grandparents, I knew I had made the right decision. When you are greeted by loved ones whom you long to see and be with – really, in this moment, nothing can hurt you.”

Her most precious highlight was having her children there. “I could hear them in the distance and they kept my wairua calm – ko ratou taku ao.”

She says it was very difficult to come back to reality. “You are surrounded by so much aroha, from your loved ones near and far, who have been part of your journey. I understand why there are support people holding our hands and grounding us because you are so spiritually heightened. It was so hard to say goodbye to loved ones.” When she came up, she involuntarily shed one tear, a moment captured on camera by her brother.

Her advice to other women is do it for yourself. “Do your own research, you may surprise yourself with what you discover in your rangahau (research), and how young wāhine māori were when they received theirs. To my Navy sisters, by me taking this step, I only hope it encourages you to be confident in your identity as Maori and as a proud mana wahine – with or without your moko kauae.”

The age aspect counters the idea that a person should have “the reo” and be a kuia, an elder, before wearing moko kauae, she says. “I strongly agree we should go out and learn our reo but I can’t see why you shouldn’t receive your moko kauae and be on that journey at the same time. Your moko kauae does not define your end, but ignites your beginning – your beginning to becoming a woman, to discover your calling, to create life – and beginning to revive our culture in all aspects, including our beautiful language. If you wait until you are a kuia you’ve got a short time left. If you are thinking about wearing the markings of your tupuna, why wait until tomorrow when you could share the beauty of it throughout the rest of your life, today?”

She says she has received more positive responses then negative. “There will always be people who have their opinions but if you base your feelings of who you are on other’s perceptions, this will always deter you from what and where you are destined to be. Assuming the worst can be the one thing that holds you back. When you are walking, speaking, breathing in your authentic self, there are no limitations to what you can achieve”. Melz is no stranger to the team at Te Taua Moana Marae and last year has established her role as the Marae Events and Protocol Manager for the Navy.

“I started not on a new journey, but revealed what has always been within, taku hoa – my friend, my moko kauae.”

Published in Navy Today - Issue 252(external link)

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