There has been a bit of a furore this week about the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, having a moko, otherwise known as a facial tattoo. The usual suspects have crawled out of the woodwork and claimed that anyone who doesn’t like this decision is ‘raaacist…’, even though the last minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, was also a Maori and no one batted an eyelid. Not racist then. But what is the problem? Why do people, including me, feel more than a little bit uncomfortable here? And I repeat. Racism is not part of it.

The role of the Minister of Foreign Affairs is to represent New Zealand on the world stage. Sure, this is not a beauty contest, but at the very least, we expect our representatives abroad to look smart and professional. Winston Peters, love him or not, was always a master of the sharp suit. He would step off a plane in 35 degrees heat in the Pacific wearing a suit and tie. No one can argue with that, but Winston always understood that presentation is important in a role which represents our country on the world stage. We are a trading nation, remember; we need to make sure we are taken seriously by our trading partners.

Personally, I do not like tattoos and would never have employed someone with very visible tattoos, particularly on the face or neck. If an employee had tattoos that could be covered up by work clothes, no trouble. My take on the subject was always that, if a client is being given financial and tax advice by a person who is covered in tattoos, they may not feel confident in my employee’s professional skill level. I understand that it is unfair to brand someone in this way, but we all do it, all of the time. Perception is important. Always.

I do understand, however, that certain tattoos have special significance in Maori culture, and Nanaia Mahuta’s moko has special significance in her own particular circle. All power to her. Trouble is, this would be fine if she was still only the minister for local government. I have heard it said that those that worked with her in that role found her good to deal with. Great to hear it. While this discussion is not concerned with her ability to take on the role of foreign minister (we will have to wait and see how well she does in this role), her moko makes it difficult for her almost from Day 1. Mokos may have cultural significance here, but nobody else in the world understands that particular piece of cultural significance, and there are many countries where tattoos are either frowned upon, or actually banned.

Here is a list of countries were tattoos are illegal, or at the very least, restricted:

  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Ukraine
  • France
  • Poland
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Hungary
  • Slovakia
  • Sri Lanka
  • Thailand
  • North & South Korea
  • Iran
  • United Arab Emirates

There’s a fair number of our trading partners on that list, all of whom restrict or disapprove of tattoos for various reasons, often for reasons of cultural sensitivity.

So, for those who point out that a moko should be respected because of its cultural sensitivity to Maori, that is all well and good… so long as those with mokos don’t want to leave the country and go somewhere where cultural sensitivity says no tattoos. Not an ideal situation for a Foreign Minister though, you have to admit.

And here is a list of countries where tattoos are heavily stigmatised:

  • Japan
  • China
  • Cuba
  • Malaysia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Yemen
  • Afghanistan
  • Pakistan

Yes, our good old Muslim friends don’t like tattoos either. In Japan, they are frowned upon because they are associated with membership of gangs (strangely enough, that is true here too) and China is one of our largest trading partners (like it or not). There are a fair few of our trading partners on the second list too. Really, from a diplomatic viewpoint it is a no-brainer to make sure the Foreign Minister does not have visible tattoos, in case it triggers a backlash in one of our trading partners eyes because of cultural sensitivity in their country.

At least, you might think so.

I guess it is time that Maori realised that cultural sensitivity is a two-way street. If they expect to be treated with respect when it comes to their own culture, then it is only reasonable to expect them to show respect when they travel to other countries and observe the local culture. Somehow though, I don’t think it works that way.

Jacinda has made a major blunder here. While we must not prejudge Nanaia Mahuta’s performance as Foreign Minister, she is already handicapped. I cannot see her being welcomed with open arms in China, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka or most Muslim countries. If Jacinda thinks this won’t be an issue, she is naive. If, as I suspect, she never gave the moko a thought when she appointed Mahuta to the role, then she is careless and culturally insensitive to our trading partners, not to mention to Mahuta herself. But it is too late now. Somehow, this seems to me to be a disaster just waiting to happen.

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Cultural Sensitivity Goes Two Ways


Ex-pat from the north of England, living in NZ since the 1980s, I consider myself a Kiwi through and through, but sometimes, particularly at the moment with Brexit, I hear the call from home. I believe...