the Word Made Flesh

Mokomae is the name of an ancestral warrior of the Ure or Mokomae clan which used to live in the area of Poike.  It is from the Araki tribe. One of their descendants is the Chilean – Rapanui Luis “Tito” Hormazábal Araki, today a Tohunga ta Moko, an expert in traditional Rapanui tattoo.

Seeking to reaffirm his maternal blood and culture, Tito Hormazábal calls himself Mokomae. “I was born on the Island.  I’m a half-breed who loves both cultures.  From my mother I inherited the pride of being Rapanui, their spirituality and the ancestral customs.  Although I don’t speak fluently, I like the language and continue to learn it.  From my father, who arrived on the Island to work with the company which was building the airport, I learned discipline and respect for the family.  In all of my 34 years, I have never heard him even raise his voice to my mother.  We are five siblings and all very protective of each other.”  Mokomae remembers the teaching of Tricia Allen, an anthropologist expert in Polynesian tattoo who visited the Island in 1992, when the Kevin Kostner film, “Rapa Nui”, was being shot.  “She began to invite me and Andrés “Panda” Pakarati to conventions of tattoo in Tahiti, so that today we have the technology and access to modern equipment.  Now there is a strong interest among the young people to tattoo themselves, both men and women, principally for the aesthetic aspects, but also to reaffirm their Rapanui identity.  Some come to me because it’s fashionable.  Others come because they are drunk and afterward they are sorry.  I simply don’t accept to work on those,” Mokomae confesses.
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He can show files of a wide variety of  tattoos.  “I’ve done over 5,000 tattoos in the 18 years that I’ve been working.  I do a fusion of Polynesian and Rapanui tattoo, since each island of Polynesia has its own particular way of drawing their symbols.  Tattoo on the body is a painful operation, but the pain is manageable.   The most important aspect is the hygiene.  The care taken in the entire process is as important as the intensive hydration that must follow in, at least, a week after tattooing.  We are in the middle of an ocean.  Thousands of people come through here.  We have to take care of ourselves.“

Before the Europeans arrived, the Polynesian languages were not written.  They were just oral, but reinforced by tattoo and body painting.  The symbolic designs of tattoo served to express identity and personality.  They indicated social rank, sexual maturity and geneaology.  Tattoo was considered sacred, to be practiced in secret and only in special places for the pertinent ceremonies.   In the past, everyone from the onset of puberty was tattooed.  Tattoo usually began around 8 years of age and was completed step by step.  With the passing of the years, the human body would become a true work of art, with designs meant to last for eternity, as the word made flesh.

Soon after the arrival of the European missionaries, this practice was strictly forbidden.  It’s just recently, at the beginning of the 1980s, that the art of tattoo has been reborn.  Polynesians are renewing their relationship with their cultural heritage and are now proud of their identity.  Mokomae spots a pregnant woman.  “I think that I should leave a descendant who can do tattoo here on the Island.  With the continual cultural mixing, this art could be lost…”

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