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Māori Artist Samuel Mangakahia creates Moko art to inspire

Last week, we at Kulture Hub were lucky to exchange with Māori artist, entrepreneur, and Moko art extraordinaire Samuel Mangakahia, originally from Queensland, Australia.

Now living on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, Sam shared his experience creating his unique business Hamiora, as he continues to take his fascination for Moko art to new dimensions.

Entry into the world of Moko art

Kulture Hub: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into creating Moko art?

Samuel Mangakahia: From the age of 15, I was fascinated by Tā Moko which is the art of Māori Tattoo. Coming from an artist family where we all love to create, that fascination led me to carving Moko patterns onto ukuleles and guitars.

In 2016, I moved to Hawaii to study graphic design, painting, and entrepreneurship at BYU-Hawaii. In 2019, I did an internship with a well-known Māori artist, Rangi Kipa, in New Plymouth, Taranaki. That was a big turning point for me in understanding who I am and what my purpose is, especially with my art. I came to realize that my strong interest in Moko wasn’t just in the beauty of design, but in the process of learning people’s stories and sharing them through these indigenous designs.

With Hamiora, I wanted to create a platform and brand where people would connect to culture through beautiful and innovative art. Today, what started as a hobby, has become as thriving business: I take your story and turn it into living art on an instrument. In my culture, this is what we have done for centuries to preserve our history.

Instrumental canvases for creation

KH: Your canvas is very unique with your use of ukuleles and guitars. What is it about these instruments that inspires your work?

SM: On a particular day of summer break in December, back when I was 15 and we had just moved to Melbourne in Australia, I was home alone so I picked up my dad’s Mahalo Ukulele and started to play. Then I thought to myself, “hmm this would pretty cool if it had some designs on it.” So I went to the kitchen and grabbed a bread knife… I remember this moment as if it was yesterday.

Two hours later, I had etched in a design that, to me, represented my Maori culture. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I brought it to school and soon enough I had kids asking me if I could do it to their ukulele. The rest is history. From that point up until today I have sold 385 Ukulele and about 11 guitars. Although my canvas began as ukuleles and guitars, I love sharing my art and sharing a story on anything that would look cool. 

More behind Mangakahia’s Moko art creations

KH: What are some of your favourite pieces that you’ve been commissioned to create so far ?

SM: I have been blessed to share my art with figures in leadership, successful business owners and a few well known Hawaiian and New Zealand musicians. One of my favourite pieces I created was for a Hawaiian Musician, who goes by Kolohe Kai.

The story begins with where his mother and father are from and ends with a segment on the back of the instrument that represents one of his close mentors who passed away recently. He was so moved that I included that in the story, he told me “every time I perform with this guitar, he’s with me and I’m with him” in reference to his mentor.

KH: How are you able to incorporate people’s stories into these indigenous designs?

SM: Maori was never a written language, which makes the art an essential form of communication and preservation for it. Symbols inspired from nature are used to depict stories. They can represent individuals, families and generations.

When I create a piece, I usually ask the client what is important to them. Family is usually at the center of what matters, so I often focus the design around those family members and then branch out to other things. What makes this process so fascinating to me is learning about the details in people’s lives and allowing what truly matters to them to come to the surface.

Māori culture

KH: Have you always been very connected to your heritage and culture or did this art help you to dive deeper?

SM: My dad is a cultural teacher and performer. And ever since I can remember, I have seen my family perform and share our culture. However, the importance of it never really hit me until I began to carve, tell stories and sell my art. That’s when it became even more meaningful to me.

Over the years, my desire to dive deeper into all areas of Te ao Maori (World of Maori) has strengthened and grown stronger with every piece I create. There is so much to learn and I feel like I have just scratched the surface (no pun intended).

First customers

KH: How did you get your first customers? What led you to be able to work with established musicians and clients?

SM: My very first client was actually a friend of mine in high school. Not long after carving my very first bright red Mahalo Ukulele and bringing it to school, I had my first few orders.

Over the years, I just never gave up. I continued to improve my skills in design, in carving, as well as in my understanding of business. It’s only in the last few years that I started to reach out to artists who I look up to and admire.

Kolohe Kai was probably the first “famous” artist who I did work for. I was at the carver’s hut one day working, when, out of nowhere, Kolohe Kai (Roman) showed up. I thought “crap how am I going to do this.” But as soon as it looked like he was ready to leave, I said “Hey bro just a second, I gotta show you some of my work.”

I was so nervous… but, anyways, long story short, about 6 months later, I was finishing his instrument. That lead to Josh Tatofi’s piece and now I’m doing Stan Walker’s guitar. In the next year, I hope to reach out to a few artists like Teeks, Matiu Walters (the lead singer of the band six60), and Keith Urban. Keith was born and grew up near my family in New Zealand, Whangarei.

Entrance into entrepreneurship

KH: What have you learned about the business side of selling your art? How have you grown as an entrepreneur?

SM: Everything I know about business I’ve learned through two things: selling shoes on eBay, and this art business. The biggest lesson I have learned by selling my art is the importance of perseverance and never giving up.

I was blessed to find something that I weirdly love doing. There hasn’t been a day where I was like “I’m over this.” The drive to constantly improve and become is what really keeps me going. I have tried and still try many new things. For example, right now I wake up at 3 AM every day to “day trade.” I invest in cryptocurrency, and in the near future, I want to partner with a good friend of mine to create Hawaiian-styled moulds for storefronts and buildings.

I also started to run another business called; I love art but I also love entrepreneurship. Creating a well-functioning business is fascinating to me! Just the thought of making money without having to be present is incredible. I will admit, one thing that does make me anxious is working for someone… it makes me feel like I’m a bird in a cage just waiting to die.

At the same time, being an entrepreneur takes so much energy and focus, it’s amazing that I’m still alive. Sometimes, I’m up for about 26 hours straight just trying to get everything done. I have also realized that only 20% of my efforts results in returns. So overall, I’ve understood that what matters to me the most as an entrepreneur is to know I’m helping people and becoming the best person I can be on a daily basis. 

Dream canvases

KH: You’ve worked with many different mediums from shoes to cars and surfboards. What would your dream canvas be?

SM: My dream canvas is the one right in front of me. Although, I will say that I would LOVE to max out a Lamborghini. I’ve always had a fascination for that car and to work one would be epic. I would also love to do a Martin & Co guitar for Ed Sheehan.

I know he loves to collect art and paintings, so I think it would be awesome to tell his story through indigenous art on something he jams with. Really, I could be here all day talking about what mediums excite me.

Everlasting inspirations in Moko art

KH: Who are some Polynesian artists that inspire you?

SM: I’ve been a fan of Stan Walker for the longest time. I remember when he first appeared on the Australian Idol back in the day, that’s when I really began to follow his journey. What inspires me about him is the content of his music which reflects his character. One of his recent singles he put out, called “Give” inspired me. This line in particular:

“How are you ever gonna change the world, If you can’t change yourself?”

Stan Walker on “Give”

It really helped me to first look within myself to see how I could improve and change, and in doing so, the value and help I can provide to others is now so much greater. Another figure I look up to is my great great Grandmother, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia.

She was the first Maori lady in the Maori Parliament who opened the way for women all across the globe to have the right to vote. Although I haven’t met her, based on the stories I’ve heard and the recordings of her, I find courage in my own life to achieve difficult things. Her blood runs in mine.

Inspiring the next generation

KH: What’s your advice to the kids out there who are inspired by your art and not only want to pursue their passion but turn it into a business?

SM: I love this question. I’m hustling so hard to prove to people that you can develop your talents and used them to benefit your life as well as the people around you. I believe that we are most happy and fulfilled when doing things that satisfy our inner divine potential. Finding what your gifts are is essential in the quest to living a happy and full life.

Sometimes finding those things comes quick, and sometimes it takes a lifetime, but what matters is that you are spending time searching, developing and becoming. One day, you will be able to look back and see the impact for good that you have had. However, money is still crucial in this equation. And it will come when you need it, if your focus is on the people around you and staying true to who you are.

A saying in Maori that I love, asks the question: “What is the most important thing in life?” The answer goes: “He tangata He tangata He tangata.” In English, “The people The people The people.

I would like to finish with an invitation to spend time discovering your “why” so that all your “how”s will be answered. My “why” is still developing, however right now it is the following: “I exist to inspire connection, culture, and innovation through indigenous art and creation.” Kia Ora for taking the time to hear my story. It’s a privilege to share my thoughts with Kulture Hub. Big shout out to Jaime Kailani who made this possible.

For Moko art, inspiration in entrepreneurship and life, tap in with Samuel Mangakahia below

We thank the brilliant Samuel Mangakahia for his time and knowledge sharing his love for Moko art and Māori culture.

You can discover Sam’s unique work on Hamiora. And follow him on Instagram & Tiktok.