Before we had words, we had stories – Indelible: Tattoo Tales: WORD Christchurch 2022

On the 3rd of September, a small number of us had the pleasure of attending the first ever WORD event held in a tattoo studio; Indelible: Tattoo Tales, and there we listened and watched our host Mike Moroney, the Unlikely Librarian, and a stunning line up of Rebecca Nash (Wilbur’s Walk), Arielle Kauaeroa Monk [Muaūpoko, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, Celtic, English, Sentient Roma), Whiti Hereaka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Tūhourangi, Ngāti Tumatawera, Tainui, Pākehā, Kurangaituku), Wayne Youle (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whakaeke, Pākehā) and Philip Armstrong led us through their tattoo tales.

Dreamed up by the heavily tattooed Mike, Indelible: Tattoo Tales as an event came from his discovery of Anthropodermic bibliopegy - the practice of book binding using human skin, rather than animal hides. Reflecting on his own choices and reasons for getting tattoos over his life, Mike concluded we as humans are simply a collection of stories, bound in human skin. He also thought it would make a pretty great addition to the WORD Christchurch Festival line up, and got in touch with programme director Nic Low (Ngāi Tahu) to have a brainstorm.

We had the pleasure of attending the event in the Absolution Tattoo parlour and gallery, a small and intimate space tucked in the Boys High building of the Christchurch Arts Centre. The space only added to the feelings of camaraderie and storytelling, which many felt had similarities with the vibrant connections and conversations people find themselves having with their artist as they are tattooed.  The intimacy of the space was reflected in the event, as our 5 writers took us into their confidence and trust for 1.5 hours, exploring their skin, and letting us know the stories they chose to give permanence.

Rebecca Nash started us off to a hilarious beginning, and had everyone laughing at a very charming display of panic as she realised her outfit choices were about to make giving us a tour of her tattoos a difficult task. However, she quickly had us enthralled with the details of her tattoos. One tattoo was a paw print of her dog, an inclusion she’d made to her life after a period of grief. The joy of this new life to embrace while simultaneously dealing with her pain had a marked impact on how Rebecca saw her own personhood, making it feel natural she made that mark permanent, and visible on her skin. To a casual observer, it’s simply a paw print. To Rebecca, that paw print is a stamp of her story. A large number of Rebecca's tattoos had also been tattooed by Naith, the owner of Absolution, or by Juju, another well-loved New Zealand tattoo artist. Those ties to Absolution for Rebecca echoed for many of us in the crowd, who could relate to her feeling of comfort and reciprocity when she visits Absolution, a feeling of receiving an intense pain but also intense connection and friendship that grows as those relationships between an artist and their client continue through the years.

Arielle Kauaeroa Monk spoke to us next, bringing a feeling of gravitas and strength to the room as she spoke about her struggles with an ADHD diagnosis coinciding with motherhood. With joy and confusion rampant in her brain, something was calling her to find a peace that anchored her. This anchoring manifested for her through dreams she experienced over and over again; lines, running down her chin. A moko kauae was gently tapping into her brain, calling her to make the trip back to her marae and undertake the process of revealing the moko kauae.

Arielle spoke of making the decision to permanently embrace being a wahine Māori, and letting out what she described as “A primal scream of release and return…” upon its completion. The journey to her moko kauae was a journey back home, but it was also a journey back through the past, to whakapapa, to heritage, and to a cultural tradition that embraces and upholds wahine for their strength, their mana.

Mike spoke for the audience when he thanked her for sharing her story, and for the steady beat of charisma she brought us as she spoke to the crowd, drawing us in before releasing us to sit with her story for a moment, and reflect on listening to oneself even in times of conflict and confusion.

Whiti Hereaka was our third speaker for the evening, and spoke to us about her intense journey with tattoos. From getting her first piece at age 40, Whiti then went on to have her second tattoo - a beautiful and large chest piece of flowers and the skulls of a Huia and a Tui, completed by a Pekapeka dangling on her midriff. The design is stunning and very detailed, so Whiti shocked the crowd when she told us she’d had the piece tattooed over 8 hours and it was completed within the day.

For anyone familiar with tattooing or the process of getting a tattoo, for this piece to be completed in an 8 hour session is illustrative of how much strength Whiti has, and the determination she clearly possesses to power through and achieve what she has set out to do, be that in life or the act of getting a tattoo. Her story of her getting this piece told me so much about Whiti’s personality and her capabilities, as well as the tattoo itself illustrating the manu (Huia and Tui) that are important to her as a taonga of Aotearoa, and also act as a quiet shadow of her Ockham's award-winning book, Kurangaituku, her striking retelling of the classic Māori tale of the birdwoman. Whiti also spoke to us about the process of revealing her ta moko and the way she found it slowly unfolding naturally into place on her forearm, and the peace of completion she felt when her artist let her know the ta moko had finished showing itself, and knowing she had come full circle with her journey to find it.

Kurangaituku

When Wayne Youle was introduced to the stage, he spoke to us with an infectious and irreverent energy, laughing at former choices of tattoos and infusing his more serious pieces with his laughter. One tattoo, a small ghost, was a replica of a small ghost Wayne had been drawing on paper since the age of 9. “Blue ink on white paper became black ink on my skin, and that’s now part of my greater story of who I am.” Wayne also spoke about the ta moko that runs down his arms and onto his hands, and the painful yet precious feeling of having his skin reflect all the facets of himself to the world.

Wayne also spoke to us about the connections that occur between a tattoo artist and their “canvas”, describing the way his relationship with Naith had grown and evolved over the years to become a friendship. In this lens we can see that relationship as very reciprocal and symbiotic, growing and learning together and becoming a part of each other’s stories through the process. Wayne made us laugh for a final time when he reminded us of the best part about collecting tattoos; “It’s easier than collecting stamps! Can’t lose them without effort, that’s for sure.”

Our last speaker was Philip Armstrong, who spoke to us about the experiences he had gone through that eventually led him to get a large tattoo of a sperm whale on his forearm. “Moby Dick was written by Herman Melville in 1851. When I was 42, it was midlife crisis time.” This midlife crisis seems to have been handled wonderfully by Philip, who made the decision to engage in therapy, and to make greater efforts in trying to take better care of himself mentally. Moby Dick is Philips' favourite novel, and this period of growth for him got him thinking about the role of the whale versus Captain Ahab, and man versus nature in the novel. At the end of the novel the whale defeats Ahab, and the ship is sunk. This reflection on Moby Dick, and on his own struggles and evolving mindset of mindful wellness marked a shift for Philip, and he chose to have the eponymous creature of Moby Dick tattooed where he could see it, to remind him of the themes Melville warns us about in his famous novel - not only the dangers of colonial capitalism and the resulting destruction of nature, but also the reminder to “Be the whale, not the boat, and always dive deep.” His succinct and introspective tale finished us off for the evening.

The first iteration of Indelible: Tattoo Tales was a roaring success, and the audience left flushed and warm after being invited into so many personal stories from our writers.  It felt very special to be allowed behind the scenes of what makes up the parts of a person, and how they illustrate that through their embellishments. The serious and the silly, the honouring of culture and rejection of tradition, no matter the subject of the tattoos we were told about that evening, they all stacked up to create a wider picture of how we find ourselves through connection and language as well as through art and imagery. As Mike concluded, at the end of the day, we are all books bound in skin, and as we share those stories with one another we are able to become part of our greater tapestry of connection.

Poppia
Tūranga

More tattoo tales

You can hear Mike talk to Poppia in an interview about Indelible: Tattoo Tales

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