The Immigration Museum’s new group of exhibits offer visitors a chance to engage with tattoo on a level deeper than skin. Here, stories of culture, tradition and migration speak through embedded ink.
Without personally experiencing a tattoo, it may be hard to understand why somebody would undergo the painful procedure. For example, Joseph Banks, the 18th century naturalist on board Cook’s first voyages, was quite taken aback at the tattooing process of a Samoan girl:
“What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (tho I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it; possibly superstition may have something to do with it, nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom”.
Banks, like so many of his Age, disregarded the ritual as quaint – a primitive custom in need of Enlightenment. Perhaps he had not yet been exposed to Europe’s rich and ancient tattoo history – notwithstanding it was episodic, diffuse and nonlinear in nature. To use Alfred Gell’s term, European tattoo had hitherto floated “unanchored” to any codified and universal meaning, methodology, or vernacular, and was referred to mostly as “scratching” and “pricking”.
Missionaries and colonists thusly sought to discontinue the ‘savage’ practice, all but effacing it from the Islands – not, however, before piquing the interest of sailors. According to Jane Caplan’s edited volume, Written on the Body, upon returning home seamen helped propel the craft into a new level of visibility. Through aesthetic and appellation (the Tahitian word tatau, meaning to mark or strike, was adopted and later translated to tattoo), they inserted it into the collective consciousness of modern Europeans.
Today, divided across three stately levels, Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks, explores the contemporary form of Polynesia’s ancient and embedded tatau alongside the equally potent tattoo tradition of Japanese irezumi. Complimenting the two photography exhibits are four installations – curated by Stanislava Pinchuk – that offer a view of tattoo beyond the limitations of tradition.
Visitors are greeted by her curation of six photographed tattooed bodies featuring the work of Melbourne based tattoo artist, Paul Stillen. Connected Bodies explores the relationship he develops with clients as they collaborate to create tattoos that pay homage to the wearer’s diverse cultural heritage. It is an insight into a creative process that outsiders to the craft may never consider, yet, the exchange between tattooist and client can be one of mutual palpable vulnerability, where the artist strives to materialise what can often be hidden deep within a client’s psyche. Whether consciously or not, Stillen’s botanical tattoos resemble Sydney Parkinson’s water-colour drawings of native Australian plants made during Cook’s first voyage. That symbolic irony pulls into focus the land on which the museum stands, and the devastating effect of immigration on First Peoples.
On the first level Tatau: Marks of Polynesia examines the ancient custom of Samoan pe’a (traditional male tattoo) and malu (traditional female tattoo), providing insight into how they form a complex body of rituals and motifs inextricably linked with transitions to adulthood, culture, and sacredness.
The exhibition explores the emergent contemporary Polynesian style that embodies concepts of both pe’a and malu. Its vibrancy and visibility are due in part to the global migration of Polynesians, outsider appreciation of the style, and, not least, the efforts of the Sulu-ape family, one of Samoa’s oldest and most revered custodians of the sacred practice. The process of attaining a pe’a in a traditional manner lasts up to five consecutive days, the physical and psychological punishment of which cannot be expressed in words, although, a Samoan friend once relayed to me: “it was my PhD.”
Notably, Polynesian tatau – heavy black work and the absence of pictorial iconography – was instrumental to the expansion of tattoo art. The pioneering American publication Tattootime featured the powerful black graphic work in their 1983 issue, New Tribalism. Its publication gave birth to the “tribal” style tattoo and swiftly became dominant amongst tattooists and clients.
Indeed, the third floor is where, arguably, tattoo culture’s most distinct and recognisable style is found, one that helped elevate western tattoo into the artform we see today. Formed through a complex history, Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World explores contemporary Japanese decorative tattooing. Curated by Takahiro Kitamura, the exhibition features the work of seven pioneers and legends, where the intricacies of regional and tutelage differences can be seen in the pores of their work.
As a product of the Edo period, its iconography and symbolism were developed from the popular arts of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). Irezumi peaked in popularity around 1872 but the Meiji Restoration saw Japan’s new government ban the practice. In a bid to present an image concurrent with other modern, industrialised nations, the law only served to increase its mystique by driving it underground, Here, the government has continued –with varying degrees of success – to legislate downward pressure.
While Polynesian and Japanese tattoo are steeped in tradition both aesthetically and in execution, Pinchuk’s own tattoo work represent its antithesis. It is diminutive, delicate, and rudimentary, without codified meaning and administered by someone for whom tattoo is not a primary medium.
The contrast isolates the core of what makes tattoo, in my opinion, so magical, timeless, and powerful: whether in your backyard, home or studio, regardless of who you are, your corporeal artefact can be received, given, and laden with any sentimental, talismanic, social, cultural or political meaning you wish to ascribe it, even amongst the “carnival of signs”, so to speak.
Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks is at once an essential tattoo art exhibition and visual exploration of how culture and meaning can follow the movement of marked bodies across both space and time.
 Banks, ‘Manners and customs of S. Sea Islands’, August 1769, printed in The ‘Endeavour’ Journal of Joseph Banks, ed. J.C. Beaglehole (Sydney, 1963), vol. I, p. 336.
(Abridged version published in The Conversation 03/07/2019) The Immigration Museum’s new exhibit, Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks, explores the contemporary form of Polynesia’s ancient and embedded tatau alongside the equally potent tattoo tradition of Japanese irezumi. Complimenting the two photography exhibits are four installations – curated by Stanislava Pinchuk – that offer a view of tattoo beyond the limitations of tradition.
(Published in VICE 12/06/2019) With the brutal chaos of blackwork tattooist, 3Kreuze, and meticulous manipulation of pioneering body modifier, Yann Brenyak, Feris Tergo sessions are designed to explore the murky and macabre space between what unites tattoo, body modification, and BDSM.
Body modification is more visible and ubiquitous than ever before. Many have traced the Western inception of this phenomenon to the iconoclastic spirit of one individual—Fakir Musafar, and the contributions he made to pioneering extreme body modification in the 1989 publication, The Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and ritual. This article takes a critical look at the problematic elements permeating Musafar's legacy of prescribing "primitiveness" for Western malaise.
(First Published in Skin Deep UK) Why do the media insist on repeatedly asking if tattoos have become uncool or too mainstream? I take a look at two moments in tattoo history that help to shed light on this question: the artification and commodification of tattoo.
(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo) Whether you are a traditionalist or progressivist, Miriam represents the quintessential nature of tattooing today, where a growing number of artists from a huge variety of disciplines are learning the trade to augment their personal oeuvre, while contributing to the field of tattooing in any which way they desire.
(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo) Upon starting, they work independently, a technique reminiscent of surrealist André Breton’s ‘exquisite corpse’, where artists collaborate while completely in the dark of their partner’s progress. They then come together, consult over the fragmented parts, and proceed to evolve the concept and aesthetic of the final fluid mosaic.
(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo) Preceding the Tattoo Renaissance of the 70s and 80s, the political and social climate of activism throughout the 60s in the west facilitated the birth of a new, unabashed client base for tattoos. The skins of counter-culture groups like the black resistance, gay liberationists, and women’s rights advocates were adorned with tattoos embodying their identities of dissent. It is this steadfast spirit of rebelliousness—a vocal discontent with the status quo—that courses through the veins, and ink, of Indomito.
(First published in Forever More: The New Tattoo) 'Tattooing is my best friend and my worst enemy. I used to pride myself on my short and long term memory but now I literally can't remember anything about the film I avidly watched last night, but, I can tell you James' appointment in January 2019 needs extending because he wants to add a tiny dismembered leprechaun to his right arm, just below the elbow… That's fucked up.' Although, she’s quick to add, an incredibly evolutionary state of being when it comes to her tattooing.
(Published in VICE 14/11/2018) With a history purportedly stretching back into the late 1800s, The Number is one of the world's oldest gangs, maintained with an intricately complex hierarchy that spans across three factions—the 26s, 27s, and 28s. Photojournalist Luke Daniels used his friendship with one high-ranking insider to photograph members and their tattoos.
London based tattooist Eli and Polish-born tattooist Adam Curly share their respective heavy blackwork journeys: “I’ll never be same again after this—tattooing solid black is a very spiritual thing, for me anyway. It rips apart from emotions. The pain in some parts is unbelievable and leaves you speechless for days sometimes. You can feel sick, faint, or you can feel happy and blissful. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
(abridged version published in VICE, 19/03/18) JILF, a self-described nihilist and practicing dominatrix, orchestrates painful and subversive acts with her partners with the aim of eliciting trauma and embracing disgust; her partners regularly refrain, “today, I will suffer for your art.”
“One of the things I love the most is I’ll play with my partner and do things to her that evoke disgust. She’ll be covered in filth, her mouth full of tampons and blood, she’s covered in shit and her heads all wrapped up; she’s crying, and she’s distraught, and everything’s so disgusting—everything’s just out. That blows my brain.”
(Published in DAZED & CONFUSED, 13/12/17) MoMA's recent exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern? declared tattoo an influential item among 111 garments and accessories shaping culture and society. I speak to the L.A artist chosen to illustrate tattoo, Roxx, on the paradoxical and multifaceted nature of contemporary tattoo.
Although tattoos in the West are becoming increasingly mainstream, the pain accompanying a session usually remains something to be tolerated at best, or completely mollified through the consumption of analgesics at worst. So when people began actively seeking out the painful ritual of a Brutal Black tattoo session, I contacted them to find out more about why they chose to engage with amplified tattoo pain.
"Modern-day passion, tangible tradition, and striking creativity: trace how tattooing continues to evolve in the follow up to Forever." Read extracts from my articles featured in FOREVER MORE: The New Tattoo, including interviews with Kelly Violet, Miriam Frank, Indomito, the Brutal Black Project and Expanded Eye. Purchase discounted copies of Forever More here.
(First published in VICE 06/07/17) Respectively raised in the suburbs of the Gold Coast and Perth, the couple longed for something with more danger and glamour, so, naturally, after meeting one another they combined their hearts and skills to saturate the world with their idiosyncratic aesthetic of "demented sparkling" performance art.
(First published in INKED, issue 45) When forensic inquiry is applied to tattoos, it can assist in the identification or capture of criminals or missing persons. The Forensic Analysis of Tattoos and Ink is a pioneering work detailing the methodology of this process. This is an interview with the book's author, Dr Michelle Miranda.
Love Shakthi Om, to be launched in the first week of May, will produce limited works of art to be sold with profits donated to charity. "We strongly believe this life is about karma, sharing love, traditions, and cultures. For us, this is largely based in art."
(VICE online 25/04/17) This is one of the most brutal experiences one can imagine in the field of tattooing, where wills are either broken or solidified. This is the Brutal Black Project, and they’ll “ruin your life”.
In this second installment of the 'Interview with the Editor' series, where editors of some of the most influential tattoo publications share their two-cents, Alice Snape, editor of Things&Ink, talks about her journey as an independent publisher of a female friendly tattoo culture publication.
"I bought a load of tattoo magazines for inspiration. Needless to say none of them appealed to me, they were very much aimed at men and none of them featured tattoos that I like or would suit me and my tastes. They were also all very much geared towards men, with half naked women legs apart with barely any tattoos on the cover."
(Abridged version first published in DAZED & CONFUSED magazine, 03/03/17) Touka Voodoo has actively used body art and modification to transcend the notion of binaries.
In this first installment of the Interview with an Editor series, head honcho of Skin Deep, Sion Smith, offers advice for writers, photographers, and tattooists looking get published, while discussing life at the helm of the UK's best selling tattoo magazine.
"For writers, be original, spell things correctly (I have better things to do than watch your back), be on time, be nice to work with and don’t be a dick."
Milo's comments embracing the positives of a legal, consenting relationship between a teenage boy and older man were labelled pedophilia. So I ask three male friends to share their teenage sexual encounters with older men.
(First published in Skin Deep, issue 275. Republished in INKED, issue 45) Ahead of VICELAND’s 2017 series, Needles and Pins, Grace talks about her experiences in front of the lens, riding around LA on quad bikes with Venice Bad Boys, and what it’s like to be an ambassador for contemporary tattoo culture.
(First published in INKED, issue 45) Currently in her third permutation of a body suit, New Zealand based artist Jak Nola talks about her psychedelic erotic art, tattoos, and what an orgasm can do for the mind.
(Abridged version first Published in The Guardian, 23/11/16) Lying in a satin-lined coffin or wearing a bondage hood may help you face up to your inevitable demise. I attend the inaugural Sydney Death and Dying Festival to get a taste of what's to come.
(Published in INKED issue 42) “That was Ricky’s right above Pinky’s. That’s because Pinky’s had a hepatitis scare and the American navy had banned them from going there, so he just opened upstairs and called it Ricky’s. It was two shops but it was the same. They just liked names that had that “icky” sound and I just happened to be there at the right time.”
(VICE online, 27/09/16) "Isaac Comer was heavily tattooed including on his cock. Henry Findlay was tattooed on his chest, arms, hands, fingers, calves and from his knees to his groin 'after the Burmese manner’. Henry was a soldier, court-martialled in Burma, so presumably he got some pretty wild tatts during service." Discover a rich history of colonial stick & poke tattoos and wild convict stories with Simon Barnard, author of the new book Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia.
(INKED magazine, issue 39) On February 26th, I presented an exhibition of tattooed silicone hands and sheets at Melbourne's Neon Parlour. All profits from the sale of these works went to SafeSteps and WIRE, two Melbourne based organisations dedicated to providing support to women and children experiencing domestic violence.
(INKED magazine, issue 35) 'Tattooing in the Islamic Republic (dictatorship) of Iran' is the culmination of furtive correspondence with four brave Iranian tattooists who risk imprisonment and torture on a daily basis all for the sake of their art.