Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

So many want to make their mark, it's hard to be original

By Janet McAllister

Tattooing, in spite of its rebellious image, is nothing if not customary.
Photo / Thinkstock
Tattooing, in spite of its rebellious image, is nothing if not customary. Photo / Thinkstock

The Auckland Tattoo Convention last weekend followed, well, tattoo convention. There was murky lighting, a bar and loads of people in black T-shirts.

More interestingly, women with Fanta-orange and glace-cherry hair wandered around in strappy polka-dot dresses with gladwrapped arms, keeping their latest inkings under cover. They'd had their bright locks big-curled and bandana'd at the Teaser Lounge caravan, and their Sailor-Jerry-style tattoos gave them a pretty-but-tough look. (Not that the air of invincible is always truthful - see Amy Winehouse with her arms full of pin-up ladies.)

But even that hard-edge glam is almost pure 1950s Americana - it's fun and sassy old-school counterculture. Tattooing, in spite of its rebellious image, is nothing if not customary.

In the tattoo-creating South Pacific, we have a grandstand view of the different strands of history. On one hand, there were tattoo demonstrations of original Samoan pe'a using traditional instruments, linking back to centuries of culture and family.

On the other hand, for the West, the place of origin means tattooing has exactly the opposite meaning: it is traditionally a sign of adventuring, instead of a tie back to the homeland. In the late 1800s, sailors got an anchor tattoo when they'd crossed the Atlantic, a turtle after crossing the equator and a dragon if they'd served in China.

Working within, and between, various traditions is one way of coming up with original creations. Juse1, who was up for the convention as part of the Toupou Tatau crew from Wellington, draws on his experience as a hip-hop graffiti artist to design tattoos. Tattooing "is about taking my art off the walls and putting it on to the skin", he says. But it's also more than that; as he is Samoan, graffiti tattoo designs are a way for him to reconnect with his family's culture in contemporary urban style. "Tattooing is in our blood."

Surveys suggest a quarter of all British adults, and even more Americans, have gone under the ink needle at least once, and given Aotearoa's Polynesian cultures, we probably leave them way behind. It is still surprising that in these fast disposal times, when we're regularly changing jobs, houses and spouses, more people are making a lifetime commitment and saying "I do" to a tattoo.

As artworks go, tattoos are rather fleeting, guaranteed not to last more than a few decades. Which means that after 19th-century missionaries put a stop to the "permanent" adornment of the Cook Islanders (who, until then, had been described as "heavily tattooed"), nearly all knowledge of the art was lost, once those who'd been tattooed had died. The Cook Island tattoo revival over the last 20 years is charted in Therese Mangos and John Utanga's new book, Patterns of the Past.

In the West, food tattoos were in a couple of years ago. And Craigy Lee of London, in the vest, tie and twirled moustache of a 19th-century dandy, says that script is fashionable, particularly English and Arabic. "People always want 'only God can judge me', and they think they're so original, but they're not."

If you want original, maybe even cutting edge, maybe even something non-pictorial, you can always DIY the design. Think outside the walls of the tattoo studio box - and create your own tradition.

- NZ Herald

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