Leroy Roberts is flanked by other Māia Ink artists Kimball Roberts and Rose Breedon. Photo / supplied
By Alka Prasad, Te Rito journalism cadet, Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
The back wall shows a mural with towering figures. The woman painted in the centre wears a moko kauae. Before the needle starts buzzing, he asks, “Ready?”
Māia Ink’s warm atmosphere offsets the sharp, persistent sting that pierces customers’ skin.
On this day, members of the Papakura community have lined up for Māia Ink’s annual social initiative. In return for a donated bag of groceries for families in need, the donor will be given a tattoo.
The studio has an impressive clientele that includes chart-topping artist Jason Derulo but founder Leroy Roberts is keeping the business grounded within the community he serves.
Once a year, Papakura residents get a chance to be inked by Roberts, one of Aotearoa’s biggest tattoo artists, for the cost of a bag of groceries.
He says it gives community members a chance to get small pieces of art that mean something to them without having to meet the studio’s minimum fee.
“We try to give back to our community as best we can, and that’s through tattoo.”
Each bag of groceries goes to Kura Cares, a grassroots support group for local families.
Roberts’ crew add that they work with him to elevate their community through tattoo.
“It’s how he heals people,” says one of his staff.
Leroy Roberts: “The word Māia means to be bold and courageous, strong and resilient. The name came from the people I started out tattooing.” Credit: Māia Ink Instagram.
Roberts started his business in his garage to help friends and whānau cope with challenges and loss.
“The word Māia means to be bold and courageous, strong and resilient through those tribulations. The name came from the people I started out tattooing. They embody what it means to be Māia Ink.”
As people lined up for this year’s event, crew members welcomed the crowd, checking designs and getting everyone excited about the day ahead.
They wear an array of art on their body and ask the crowd about their own designs.
Roberts says the event is a good way to connect with the community.
“We’ve all been on the receiving end of help throughout our lives, so we’re here to make it easier for people and show them that the support’s there,” Roberts says.
He also runs courses for rangatahi because he says there are no official support systems for people learning the art of tattooing.
“People rely on places like YouTube or Google to teach them how to tattoo. We would get people coming in with really bad tattoos … or they would be scarred, infected, or just really poor quality.
At the end of a tattoo session, after getting a drink and checking out their new design, customers are ushered back out to the studio foyer by the Māia Ink crew. They ask about the experience and awhi (care for) customers, adding to the endorphin kick from the tattoo itself.
“We like people who have positive energy,” they say, referring to the ‘Good Vibes Only’ sign at the entrance.
Roberts’ whānau runs the cafe next door Exit 458, created as a space “the community can call their own.” The title refers to the exit number for Papakura off State Highway 1.
“Growing up in Papakura, we were always proud of Exit 458. We would say that to each other growing up, and now it’s turned into something a bit more than that.”