BOP councillor racially abused for wearing tā moko

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A tā moko artist wearing a headlamp and blue surgical gloves hunched over Stacey Te Pohue Rose's face, wiping the surplus ink away with a tissue.

Stacey Te Pohue Rose

By Sam Olley of rnz.co.nz

Rose sat up from a padded table, took a deep breath and turned to a long mirror on the wall. He smiled, nodded, and started to cry.

He'd expected a gruelling day - 9.5 hours of needling, embedding dark green lines to form a moko mataora (facial tattoo), a memorial of his tīpuna, and a sign of his mana rangatiratanga, around his nose, mouth, cheeks and jaw.

He hadn't expected immediate insults. But when the 22-year-old tāne, of Kāi Tahu and Kāti Māmoe o Waitaha descent, walked onto the street outside for five minutes of fresh air, a stranger told him his tattoo was "ugly".

They told Rose his moko was "going to ruin chances of getting work" and asked, "Why would you ruin your face like that, you bloody idiot?"

Within days another stranger would do the same.

Tattoo-focused discrimination has become a weekly ordeal for Rose.

"It has made me feel like I can't go out in public," he says, disappointed but matter of fact.

"I've felt worthless."

Stacey Te Pohue Rose was the baby-faced, 19-year-old barber, who stood unopposed for a Tauranga seat on the Bay of Plenty Regional Council in the last local body elections, becoming Aotearoa's youngest regional councillor in recent memory.

This leadership role is part of the reason a kaumātua gave a blessing, before he died, for Rose to receive his moko kanohi in his early twenties.

"I've felt worthless."

—  Stacey Te Pohue Rose

Strangers have told Rose they'll no longer vote for him because of his moko.

"The response I give to that is I'm not even running [again] anyway, so [it's] not my problem. I had to laugh about that."

Rose is also studying te reo Māori and anthropology at the University of Waikato, and works part-time on the checkouts at Kmart - another place strangers spout hateful comments.

"Last week, actually, I had a guy come up to me and say, if I were in his country [in Latin America] 'you would have been shot before it was done anyway'."

Stacey Te Pohue Rose says it's a privilege to represent Māoridom

Rose says "it's just sad" and he has hit "rock-bottom".

"People have this mentality of [sic] because I'm wearing moko on my face, I am a gang member, I am this filthy Māori who doesn't know what he's doing."

Reducing the stigma

Fellow Bay of Plenty regional councillor Matemoana McDonald (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Pukenga, Waitaha, Ngāti Whakaue) wears moko kauae on her chin.

She has never heard racist disapproval of her tā moko, but suspects that's because she got it later in life.

"That's not to say that people didn't think that … But they certainly didn't say it to my face."

But her son wears moko mataora and has been confronted, like Rose.

"And similarly one of my nephews is also a wearer of mataora, and he was turned away from a shop in Auckland."

Younger wāhine Māori have similar experiences.

Last week, Havelock North mother of four Jay Scott (Ngāpuhi) spoke out, after two women said her moko kauae was scaring children at a playground, and she should either wear a mask or leave.

Rose says MPs with moko kanohi in Parliament, like Rawiri Waititi, are helping reduce the stigma.

Rawiri Waititi, Te Pāti Māori co-leader

Waititi (Te Whānau ā Apanui, Ngāti Porou, Tūhoe, Te Arawa) told RNZ he has seen racial slurs about his moko mataora online since becoming an MP.

"I used to get disappointed, but now I've hardened to it."

He has also seen hateful comments about moko kauae worn by female MPs, saying "they have a WINZ barcode on their chin".

"They think they're just talking about the ink on somebody's face, you're actually talking about a whole lot of other things, whakapapa connections. The mana and the tapu that's transferred from tūpuna down to mokopuna."

Representing Māoridom

Would the racism be this bad if Rose lived outside of Tauranga?

After all, this is the city where white supremacist leaflets, including the slogans "it's alright to be white" and "save the white race" were delivered to mailboxes last month, and where a woman was jeered at the Tauranga Ratepayers' Alliance launch last year for welcoming attendees in te reo Māori.

Rose says Tauranga is "really, really bad" for racism, and it is one of the reasons he is thinking of moving away, but he also says racist attitudes can be found nationwide.

While the spoken insults are common, Rose says stares at his tā moko are almost constant, each day.

"Even just going out before to grab a pie, everyone just stared. It was like being stared at by a bunch of bloody wolves.

"There is a lot of learning that needs to be done," he says.

In his role as a councillor, he has seen other ways Māori culture is misunderstood. He'd like to see change, to better incorporate tikanga and inclusion.

For example, he thinks speakers at regional council public forums should be given 10 minutes each, not five, to allow for cultural and historical contexts to be included in their submissions.

When local government has fractured relationships with iwi, he feels uncomfortable seeing mana whenua, who are participating, being cut off.

"We can't keep pushing people away and saying their voice has to be limited."

Some might say Rose is limiting his own voice, stepping away from local body politics for now.

What he is resolute about is that his moko mataora sends a permanent message, everywhere he goes, about who he is and what he stands for.

"I now have the privilege of wearing my tīpuna on my face, I have the privilege of representing Māoridom."