With such a diverse curriculum vitae, it's no surprise that his activism has taken on creative and controversial dimensions. His legendary protests include a childhood rejection of the principal's dictum that only English be spoken on school grounds (his belief that "if you didn't speak Maori, you weren't a Maori" earned him countless trips to the blackboard to write "I will not speak Maori") and an incident where he threw his body in the path of a speeding jetboat to protest races down a sacred river. One famous demonstration in the 1970s feels more like conceptual art than civil disobedience: Iti constructed a Tuhoe Embassy on the Parliament grounds—a borrowed tent pitched under the statue of Prime Minister Dick Seddon—to raise awareness of his people's cause. When confronted by police, he announced that he was the new Maori ambassador from Tuhoe, for which he was jailed overnight. But Iti's tactics don't always involve the extra-legal: on January 15, Iti and other Maori leaders went to court, continuing a process begun in the '70s to gain back ancestral lands occupied by Maori for 1,000 years.
"Thirty or 40 years ago they were reckoning we're a dying people, a dying culture, a dying language. But we proved them wrong."
New Zealand's most visible activist, Iti admits the 10 or so hours spent in the tattoo artist's chair were extremely painful. But it was worth it to literally—and indelibly—embody values he aims to see survive and thrive. Today, once-rare mokos are common on the streets of Wellington and Auckland, and Maori is now the official second language of Aotearoa (the indigenous name for the country dubbed New Zealand by the Dutch). Tame Iti insists that the marking indicates a cultural renaissance that's anything but skin-deep. "Thirty or 40 years ago they were reckoning we're a dying people, a dying culture, a dying language," he says, "but we proved them wrong."
A writer's cut of a piece I wrote for the current print edition of the excellent Dutch magazine Ode.