Her first was a fantail, tail feathers open, just below the collarbone. “It wasn’t anything significant. I was 19 and my boyfriend won a voucher for a tattoo studio. But it was a difficult time and I wanted something that was permanent and that was mine – something pretty rather than deep and meaningful.”
Now, from the tiny unicorn behind her left ear to the Frida Kahlo portrait on her shoulder, Christchurch tattoo artist Julia Croucher is one of the 18% of New Zealanders using their skin as canvas, memorial, identity card, love note.
According to a 2011 Herald-DigiPoll, almost one in five New Zealanders has a tattoo. For the under-thirties, one in three is marked up. Women are more likely than men to have a tattoo, less likely to regret the decision and, according to Croucher, better at dealing with the pain (akin, she says, to a cat scratch on sunburn).
It wasn’t always this way. Although early European sailors and explorers went home adorned with tattoos, ta moko, a traditional marker of cultural heritage and identity, was in steep decline by the early 20th century as a result of missionary zeal, the trade in tattooed heads and an increasing association with criminality.
“Sailor culture, prison culture, gang culture – tattooing became the pastime of the underworld,” says master carver and ta moko artist Mark Kopua in Poririua’s Titahi Bay.
Kopua, a member of Te Uhi a Mataroa, a national collective of ta moko artists working to preserve and develop the art form, attributes the resurgence of ta moko to several factors – the women who continued the tradition of moko kauae on the lips and chin, the Maori cultural renaissance beginning in the 1970s and the influx of Pacific peoples arriving in New Zealand with a full tatau (tattoo).
Prejudices persist – earlier this year Air New Zealand rejected job applicant Claire Nathan because of her ta moko. But increasingly, people of all ages and ethnicities are paying $80 to several hundred dollars to be inscribed by needle or chisel with a motif, an image or a name or simply to cover up the botch job done at school (note: removal is usually more expensive than the original tattoo).
For some, it is simply fashion – George Clooney’s criminal character in the 1996 film From Dusk till Dawn inspired a rash of so-called tribal tattoos. For others, it communicates belonging – to a nation, tribe, group or team. For others again, it marks a significant event, be it the birth of a child or the death of a loved one.
For Croucher, a fine arts graduate, tattoo is a vehicle for contemporary abstract and performance art. As a student, she presented a work in which attendees were invited to tattoo her. It had to be in black with only one needle size and on an allocated portion of her skin. The resulting images are strangely tentative – initials, a small anchor, “stay wierd” (sic).
“My tattoos are really about collecting other people’s artwork. Just as people collect paintings, I go to people and let them do what they want.”
Risky? “It is and it isn’t. There is massive importance placed on beauty – I don’t think it matters what you look like and tattoos can remind me of that. People who already have a tattoo realise it’s not the big deal everyone makes it out to be.”
She draws the line (or doesn’t draw the line) at ta moko – “I’m not Maori, I don’t have the right” – and overly aggressive designs. She told one young man wanting “FTP” on his arm to “go home and think about it”.
Kopua says there is a need still for more education, on health and safety and the “who, what and when is appropriate” in the art of ta moko. But generally, he says, the growing number of people working with a tattoo artist to select a customised design “want something for themselves that has deep meaning, something to connect them to their heritage and to enable them to feel proud about themselves”