Taryn Beri: Breaking Ground as a Tā Moko Artist

Taryn Beri, Tā moko artist
One of approximately 20 female tā moko artists in the world, Taryn Beri talks to The Big Idea about how she found her feet in this field.


When Taryn Beri was first introduced to the art of tā moko by chance at a Māori Market in 2007, she didn’t realise this career path was open to women. At the time she was working as a graphic designer for a Māori health organization in Wellington, but she was completely captivated by the artform and started asking questions about how she could enter this unique field.

Won over, at age 22, Taryn packed up her life in Wellington and moved to Gisborne to study at Toihoukura School of Māori Art and Visual Design.  Gaining a  highly sought after apprenticeship with her mentor in Tologa Bay, Taryn moved to Tologa Bay and said she practiced moko “all day, every day” for the next three years. Her training included study around culture, language, karakia and songs, “there is so much knowledge inside the songs.”

Taryn is now one of approximately 20 female tā moko artists in the world. She has taken on her own apprentice and is also mentoring three other female tā moko artists.

Where tattoos were previously associated with gang culture, there is much less stigma attached to tattoo art these days. “It seems like everyone wears moko now, including Pākeha.” Taryn said 50% of her clients are foreigners. In tattooing non-Māori with Māori designs, Taryn said she views this as a positive cultural exchange, a practice of manaakitanga (hospitality). “We know we have a history of tattooing the early settlers and whalers. Our ancestors tattooed foreigners, so I’m okay with that. I just don’t like it when it is removed from our culture and non Māori tattooers are using traditional Māori designs. It’s our taonga to give.”

In mainstream tattoo practice a design is generally drawn up on paper first for consultation with the client. In Taryn’s practice, after conversation with the client to understand their motivation for getting a moko and what story they would like to tell with it, she draws directly on to the skin. “There’s a lot of trust in the process.”

Taryn has worked from her private appointment only studio in Porirua, has had guest spots at tattoo studios and galleries both here in New Zealand and around the world, as well as given live demonstrations within art exhibitions, but she said by far the marae is her favourite place to work from. “The whole process is so much easier. You feel supported by the carvings there, and the connection to the history and ancestors feels so much stronger for me there, making everything easier.”

Taryn said she doesn’t often enjoy the feel inside many mainstream tattoo studios – “especially the loud aggressive music and some arrogant attitudes.”  She described tā moko as a family based tradition, and said she strives to create environments that can accommodate the client’s whānau – commenting that this is common practice for people to bring their family along for support.

Taryn has been practicing tā moko now for nine years and she said the healing aspect of tā moko is something she has noticed more and more over the years. “The process of receiving a moko can be a healing experience whether consciously intended or not. There are so many reasons people get tattooed – and they are all emotional, personal, and deep.” She said common motivations for getting a moko are processing grief of some kind, marking a transformation period (from a negative to a positive state for example), and identity. “Moko is a way to connect with who they are and where they come from.”

She commented on the pain aspect of receiving a moko, and the endurance and strength required to see it through. “Some people cry during the process. You can tell when it’s a response to physical pain, but there can also be a lot of emotional and spiritual release going on too.”

Early on in her career Taryn said she had some tough times, especially money worries with no regular income, which challenged her self-belief and will to continue. “It’s hard, but you need that determination to not give up when things are hard and just keep going. Work hard and make it happen, we can’t let fear restrict us as artists.” She said she hates the word ‘can’t’ – “it’s so limiting, as soon as you say you can’t do something, it becomes a truth. Don’t make it just a dream.” This week Taryn is about to embark on a world tour with her partner and her three year old daughter. Many people are telling her how lucky she is to be doing this, but she said quite definitively, “it’s not luck, it’s hard work.”

She plans to grow her new online gallery, Toitangata, while she travels, and is also organising several specialist Māori art salons at different locations around the world, with the first one being in Amsterdam this May. Developing other aspects of her artistry is also on her agenda for the next couple of years when she is travelling, and she aims to become more of a ‘multi-dimensional’ artist rather than just strictly a ‘moko’ artist alone. Taryn is currently exploring poetry, writing, specialist book publishing, and running her own workshops.

Also a painter, Taryn hopes to explore this side of her art a lot more on this trip. She has previously had one of her paintings included in an exhibition at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris in 2014, which Taryn describes as a big career highlight. Travelling to Paris with her five month old daughter at the time was a big challenge but she said “a lot of the things I do are like jumping off the cliff into the dark and hoping my wings are going to grow on the way.”

To see more of Taryn’s work visit www.tarynberi.com


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