HENARE talks his traditional ink
On day one of the G1 Climax, HENARE debuted a unique new look. His Mataora tattoos represented a new break for the United Empire member, as well as millennia long tradition. We talked to HENARE about the impressive appearance, and just what exactly it all means.
–You debuted these Mataora markings to Japanese fans in Hokkaido at the start of the G1, but it’s created a big buzz at home as well as in Japan, correct?
HENARE: It’s been on the news every day for the last three weeks in New Zealand. I’ve had the top breakfast shows and 6PM news asking me to be on there and I’ve had to tell them ‘hey I’m in Japan,…(laughs)’
–You’re the first male pro-athlete to bear that Mataora. What does it mean, and why is it an important step?
HENARE: It literally means ‘living face’. It’s like having your genealogy tattooed on your face. Some women’s rugby players have been showing the facial moko, the female version if you will. But I’m the first male, and being a Māori pro-wrestler is unheard of as well, so it’s like a perfect storm for the media.
—So when you say you have your genealogy on your face, what does that mean exactly?
HENARE: Back in the day you would have a certain pattern that represented your family. Then each line is like, your ancestors.
—Each generation? Of your family?
HENARE: A different person yeah. My ancestors travelled the entire Pacific Ocean, mapping the stars and finding every island in the Pacific Ocean before they settled in New Zealand. What you see on my face is only about half my full line. 60 people out of 120.
—So do you have to get it updated?
HENARE: Yeah, it’s different stages and different parts of your life. So your face does fill up as you go through that journey.
—And people know what each of these markings mean?
HENARE: If people know how it works then they can be strangers and we’ve never spoken before, but they’ll know ‘oh you’re from such and such family in this place’.
—What sets yours apart?
HENARE: Like on the side of my face, you might not know unless I say it, but this is a hammerhead shark, which is a sign of warriors, strength, resilience and fighting spirit. And like I said, my ancestors were the real ones who discovered New Zealand, well before Captain Cook. My seventh great grandfather was one of the chiefs who signed the founding document of New Zealand. So I have a direct line to the birth of my country. That’s why I wanted to do this.
—So I presume once you want to do it, you can’t just go to any tattoo shop, right?
HENARE: Well you’re free to do what you want to your body, but then it’s just a tattoo, not a Mataora. I had to go to the same lineage of people that did these tattoos 180 years ago.
—There’s a big cultural significance to it.
HENARE: That’s what’s important to me. A Mataora is a Māori birthright, but it was subdued for nearly two centuries because of the Tohunga Suppression Act, which suppressed Māori culture and language. This is an important statement against policies that have oppressed people through history, and we still feel the effects of those policies today.
—The first thing I thought seeing the ink was that it had to have been so painful.
HENARE: Yes. No doubt it was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. My Achilles tear (in 2017) would probably be about a 1.5 on the pain scale compared to 9.5 for the tattoo around my lips.
HENARE: But that’s nothing compared to pain my ancestors have felt. The idea is that it’s empowering, not just for me but for other people. Lots of Kiwi fans have gotten more interested and involved with pro-wrestling and NJPW I think because of this.
—A lot of Japanese pop culture is perhaps less multicultural than in other countries, but NJPW events have this real breadth of culture, in the roster and the fandom. Is that representation important to you personally?
HENARE: It is, you know. It’s exposure to a different culture. Our fans get to see cultures they might not have heard about before. I’m sure Japanese people know about the All Blacks in rugby perhaps, but here I am in Japan every single day. NJPW does a real good job of having different people from different places, and United Empire as well. Variety is the spice of life.
HENARE: And nobody gets an easy pass, but on the other hand, coming to Japan and coming through the Dojo, that was the first time in my life I didn’t feel oppressed at all.
—There’s no prejudice in the system, in your opinion.
HENARE: If you do the work in the Dojo, you succeed, no matter who you are. Wherever you’re from, if you’re the strongest, you’ll succeed. That’s liberating for me. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s how I’ve always felt.
—You’ve been in Japan for seven years now. Have you felt your place within Japanese society change over those years?
HENARE: The best part about Japan is the more you put in, the more respect you get from other people. There aren’t a lot of big steps, it’s steady improvement. Kaizen is the Japanese, right? Like progressive improvement?
HENARE: A lot of the western ideal is rush to grab the brass ring, but when you jump up 20 levels at once you’re likely to lose all that just as quickly. But if you go through that progression there’s no going back, you always keep that level of achievement and respect. I’m only going to grow from here.