When I left university, the first time, I was lucky enough to receive an overseas internship. It was incredibly exciting – and tremendously scary. I lived and worked in San Francisco for around six months and just before I left to return home, grateful to have survived, I decided to mark the experience with my first and currently only tattoo.
My friends and I had drawn tat ideas in our maths books all through high school – and I always thought that, when I eventually got one, I’d think long and hard. Maybe I’d draw it up on a piece of paper and put it on my wall for (gosh) five years. Instead, I got it on a whim. I’d been listening to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel recently, and decided to get the line Sail on silver girl etched on my lower right rib. The lyric came from Bridge Over Troubled Water and continued …sail on by, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way. It was perfect. I sought out an awesome lesbian-owned tattoo parlour and got it done.
Technically I have 16 tattoos, if you count out the individual letters. In reality, I have one. And every now and again, when I look at it, I wonder if it’s cheesy. Then I remember what it represents, and I smile. For me, it represents survival, independence, bravery, and optimism. Given the context of how I got it, it would represent those things for me if it was a picture of a sausage.
Aotearoa has a long and storied history of tattooing, and while many a Pākehā boomer might still consider tattoos ‘low class’, in Māori culture it was always the opposite. According to this essay by Emily Poelina-Hunter, “the tattooing of the lips and chin of the first-born daughter of a chief was extremely tapu… and people without tattoos were papatea (unmarked, and thus of lower status)… To be tattooed was a sign of attractiveness and high status in the community.”
It must be painfully ironic to see how tattoos adorn the masses these days, given that Tā Moko was outlawed in 1907 with the Tohunga Suppression Act. These bans were repealed in 1962, with the Māori Welfare Act, and yet a Māori man was denied a job at Air New Zealand for wearing moko and Samoan tātau as recently as the year of our lord 2019. This despite Air New Zealand aggressively using the koru in their branding and touting an environment of ‘diverse perspectives, experiences, cultures, sexual orientation, genders and age.’
I’m Pākehā and can’t speak on the cultural power of Tā Moko, but I can say this: I find having a tattoo, and dreaming up tattoos, majorly empowering.
In a world that wants to control and contort our relationships with our bodies, there’s power in getting a massive Rainer Maria Rilke quote on your bicep a la Lady Gaga. In a world that profits of our loathing every piece of fat on our stomachs, every hair on our legs, every pimple on our faces, there’s power in getting a tattoo of an egg a la local comedian Alice Snedden.
In that world, this world, there’s power in thinking of my body as a potential canvas for lyrics and poetry and sketches and my lover’s name. There’s joy – and healing – in dreaming up (and getting) tattoos. Just ask the people who have beautifully covered up self-harm scars, or the sexual assault survivors who’ve tattooed their skin as a means to symbolically reclaim their bodies.
Tattoos aren’t for everybody, and some will prefer to reclaim their body, or exert bodily autonomy, with a radical new haircut (which I have also been known to do). And there’s also power in not getting any tattoos because, as always, the power is in the choice.
As for me, I’ve been dreaming up my next tattoo (another quote) for a while. I’ll likely get it done some time soon. Unless, who knows, I change my mind in the tattoo shop and opt for a pineapple. Either way – when it comes to my body, I decide.Support Villainesse