Once deemed suitable only for sailors and prostitutes, tattoos are now firmly mainstream. Herself the proud wearer of ink, Tess Nichol investigates why.

It never feels good to make your mother cry.

No matter how old you are, the years slip away and suddenly you're 5 again, wishing she wasn't disappointed in you.

But I'm not 5 any more, and my mum is crying because I want to get another tattoo.

It's not like I want the ink on my neck - and even if I did, the point is the pronoun. It's my neck, and I can do what I want with it.


Her intense maternal reaction takes me off-guard, because for someone my age (27), a tattoo is no big deal.

In fact 40 per cent of millennials have at least one tattoo, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Centre.

For Mum, a tattoo permanently associates my body - one she spent a lot of time protecting and caring for - with a distasteful part of society.

She thinks they're tacky and she thinks I'm disrespecting my body by getting them. So does my dad, for the record.

But their views aren't shared by as many people as they used to be.

In 2011, the Herald surveyed 750 people and found nearly one in five had a tattoo.

What's more, less than 10 per cent said they regretted their ink. More than half had had their tattoo for less than 10 years, a timeline that fits with University of Auckland academic Dr Misha Kavka's research.

Kavka, an associate dean in the media and communication department, specialising in pop culture, says tattoos have been well and truly mainstream in New Zealand for about six years.

"The point at which it started to move across different classes was in the mid-90s but the point it went mainstream was the mid-2000s."

By 2010, Kavka says tattooing was no longer the act of rebellion it had been as society embraced the practice as an art form.

"It used to be a backroom thing, you would get a tattoo to show how tough you are," she says.

"It was associated with men and the lower class and gangs. It was not associated with art at all."

Now, most people under 40 will either have a tattoo, or feel indifferent seeing someone who does.

"I think that as long as you have a modest, decent tattoo that you can cover up if needed, there's not a stigma attached," Kavka says.

So how did tattoos go from something only criminals had to an adornment which doesn't seem out of place in an office?

Blame Banksy.

Globally, the rise of street art as an accepted art form by the young and cool goes hand-in-hand with the acceptance of tattooing, Kavka says.

As street artists, imbued with a lot of social capital in the early 2000s, began to embrace tattoos the practice became more recognisable as an art form in itself.

It's a gender thing too, Kavka says.

"The moment more women start to do it, it starts to become more mainstream and more accepted, because women pull [tattooing] away from all those associations of danger and hard masculinity and prison tattoos.

It's like wearing a band T-shirt. It's like saying 'I think this picture's cool'.


"It's pulled it out of all those old associations and it becomes freed up for new associations and those new associations are more artistic, more about beauty."

On my right arm I have a line drawing of a monstera, the tropical green plants you see in so many Grey Lynn gardens, which look like moths have nibbled little holes out of the leaves.

Rendered with delicate precision in a Kingsland tattoo parlour earlier this year, the lines wiggle around my shoulder to create a botanist's sketch on my flesh.

It's beautiful and, when I wear sleeveless dresses, strangers will often touch it, amazed by the detail.

The second one, the one that caused the familial tension, is three banana palm leaves on the back of my left arm.

I can't exactly explain why I wanted them, in part I think it was about committing to something - proving to myself I trusted my own decision-making.

One theory on tattoos' increased popularity crops up repeatedly in articles about their so-called renaissance in the early 2000s.

It argues that celebrities, and the access we have to them now via social media, made tattoos visible and desirable in a way they hadn't been before.

These days it's harder to think of a major pop star without a tattoo than with one, with celebrities like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus covering themselves in tatts as part of a visual transition into adulthood.

Performers such as Miley Cyrus have started covering their body in inked designs. Photo / Getty Images
Performers such as Miley Cyrus have started covering their body in inked designs. Photo / Getty Images

Kavka agrees, saying famous role models with visible tattoos have a huge influence on young people looking for role models.

"Media culture has really been instrumental in this [rise of tattooing]," she says. "Whether it's through television or social media, seeing people who are admired because they have followers or they have a lot of viewers with their tattoos obviously helps make it much more acceptable."

Citing David Beckham and his famous angel back tattoo as an example, Kavka says sports stars have a huge influence on young men in particular.

"Soccer is a place where over the last 15 years there have been more and more tattooed bodies, and that matters to a lot of people.

"That matters to a lot of young men looking to see how they want to mould themselves."

When I met my friend Benjamin Morley, I remember telling him I'd wanted a tattoo for years, but I was still scared at the thought of crossing that extremely permanent threshold.

Well, he said, we're only around for another 50 years or so with this on our skin before we die and our physical selves become stardust for the rest of forever, so in the grand scheme of things it's not as permanent as we think.

Thinking about all the atoms which make up my body breaking away from each other and re-joining the atmosphere after I die put things in perspective somewhat.

Once the relative blink of an eye which makes up my life span is over, which would I want more - to have tried new things or know I'd been kept back by what ifs?

Morley's motivations for his own tattoos weren't quite so philosophical.

"I grew up being told I wasn't allowed to have a tattoo and I've always kind of done the things I was told I couldn't do," he says.

At 24, a friend of his started tattooing in Auckland and in a show of support, Morley had one done. "After that, I didn't care about getting any more."

He's got two arms full of tattoos and one on his leg. At 28, he knows plenty of people covered in ink, and it can be a point of connection.

"It's like we live in this Western world anyway, this world that's very focused on the individual. And community is less of a thing. I think tattoos are good in that respect because they act as a way for people to put their identity on their skin."

Even if there's no meaning to the tattoo?

"It's like wearing a band T-shirt. It's like saying, 'I think this picture's cool'. And someone else comes up to you and says, 'I like that picture too'."

Tattoos don't have to have meaning; a 'why' isn't always necessary he reckons.

"For most tattoos, I've walked into a shop, looked at something on the wall for two seconds, and then did it. It's just fun."

If it's just a bit of fun, then why tattooing in particular? What keeps him coming back?

Morley says it's as much about the getting as it is about the having of a tattoo.

"Toby [my tattoo artist] had this great point about getting tattoos that's kind of stuck with me.

"He said when you're getting a tattoo, it's a significant amount of pain, [so] the ritual of getting a tattoo is kind of like mindfulness or meditation, it's like you're being present.

"I really like that element of it."

Justin Bieber has progressively covered his arms in tattoos as he has aged. Photo / Getty Images
Justin Bieber has progressively covered his arms in tattoos as he has aged. Photo / Getty Images

He says he's heard the sensation of getting tattooed described to doing drugs and can see the similarities.

"I find it exhilarating, I guess, getting a tattoo," he says. "You get the feeling of pain for a while and then you get some awesome shit on your arm."

The idea that what was a bit of fun in his 20s will be with him for decades to come isn't something that concerns him.

"I've never worried about that once, because my attitude towards the whole thing is like, I've got a rule I'll never get a tattoo removed. I think if you want to make the decision to get it you might as well stick with it."

Morley's a musician so a bit of ink is par for the course, but even in more straight laced parts of society he doesn't think tattoos carry the same stigma they once did.

"Tattoos are more mainstream, they're not really an alternative thing."

Tattooing is an ancient form of art and for most non-Western societies its history is one of cultural significance rather than gradual acceptance.

Sina Brown-Davis is the first woman in 120 years in her iwi to wear a ta moko on her chin.

From her home in Te Atatu, the Ngati Whatua O Kaipara activist, mother, wife and daughter says her decision to receive a moko kauae - the name her iwi gives to the chin tattoo - was part of a broader reclamation of her culture.

Moko was a practice that settler colonialism tried to stamp out and wearing a moko is for many Maori a rejection of colonialism and a colonised mindset, Brown-Davis says.

In October 2007, police raided what appeared to be a military style training camps in the remote Urewera forest in Eastern Bay of Plenty.

People were searched and detained, 18 were arrested and of those four faced charges, including Tuhoe stalwart Tame Iti.

Police actions in the raid were later found to be unlawful, unjustifiable and unreasonable by the Independent Police Conduct Authority. It was during a visit to Tuhoe land while Operation Eight was unfolding that Brown-Davis realised ta moko was something she wanted.

She says that after those events, she saw getting ta moko was a symbol of reclaiming of her power as a Maori woman.

"I was surrounded by all these wahine toa and I just thought 'oh my God, I want to be like them'."

The interaction gave her the courage to reclaim this cultural practice, not only for herself but for her whanau.

"I got my moko when my dad was sentenced to prison. He's out now and nine years down the track I really think my moko helped me bear the pain of my father being inside."

Brown-Davis' moko is of a hammerhead shark, which she says represents her genealogy.

"You don't die like a jellyfish you die like a hammerhead shark," Brown-Davis says, meaning you don't go down without a fight.

"And it's pretty! It's really nice to reclaim our own beauty."

Pakeha reaction to her moko was at times hostile, something Brown-Davis has learnt to brush off over time.

She attributes it to a lack of understanding about indigenous culture in New Zealand, but thinks younger generations are less likely to perceive moko negatively.

"It's a generational thing. I'm really excited to see younger Pakeha who are less racist than their parents or grandparents."

This wider acceptance of tattooing in the last few decades has also helped non-Maori become more accepting of ta moko, she thinks.

"Tattoos don't have the same stigmas as they did when I was growing up."

The point where tattoos intersect not just with race but with class and gender reveals more nuance around just how far we've come in accepting tattoos.

"When we're talking about tattooing in New Zealand it's not just about Maori versus Pakeha - we're also talking about class difference," Kavka says.

"Prior to the 1990s tattooing was associated by Pakeha as lower class - into or out of jail, crime, gangs." Some kinds of tattoos, particularly non-cultural face, neck or hand tattoos on working class people, still have that stigma, she says.

Pollyanne Pena says her tattoo is a quirky representation of her personality. Picture / Martin Hunter
Pollyanne Pena says her tattoo is a quirky representation of her personality. Picture / Martin Hunter

Pollyanne Pena is in her early 30s, works for Plunket and lives in Christchurch with her partner and their young children. She has five tattoos and, despite her Filipino and Catholic background, even her parents have been accepting of them.

Pena thinks if her circumstances were different, this wouldn't be the case.

"I'm very middle class and I have a nice job at a nice not-for-profit, so people see 'Feminist Killjoy' tattooed down my back and they think hey that's cool and that's quirky and a representation of your personality," she says.

"If I was browner or poorer, or if I was not visibly feminine enough or something that indicated I fell outside society's normal bounds of what's considered acceptable, then I don't think it would be that easy."

Her first tattoo, which she received five years ago, was part of a limited edition series of cats by a well-known Wellington artist.

For Pena, getting it was partly about reflecting a sense of belonging to a scene she was in at the time, and a few of her friends including her partner have tattoos of other illustrations from the series.

"Me and all of my friends are all the same right, we have young families, we live in the burbs and we have houses, so it's okay for us to have tattoos," she says.

"But I don't think it's [regarded as] okay for everyone.

"You get people are really quick to be like 'oh lol, look at this Walmart tattoo', but that's still really body shame-y and judgemental about something someone has put on their body."

I fall into the same category as Pena, except I'm even less brown.

I guess it's easy to have a "what's the big deal" attitude when it's only your parents who're going to give you a hard time about getting a tattoo.

The NZ International Tattoo & Art Expo runs February 18-19.