Totemism is a religio-social institution, which is alien to our
present feelings; it has long been abandoned and replaced by new forms.
In the religions, morals and customs of the civilised races of today
it has left only slight traces and even in those races where it is
still retained it has had to undergo great changes.
Sigmund Freud, Totem & Taboo, 1927
Jim began collecting tattoos in his early teens. His first tattoos were hand
made with a needle and Indian Ink, and the resulting lines were fairly thick.
He began doodling as much out of boredom as design. He concentrated on his forearms
and hands creating blue spider webs and marking names. The son of a merchant
mariner, he'd always been warned against ever getting a tattoo. Previously, Jim
explains, tattoos had always been either for soldiers or sailors, while in the
seventies it was gaining popularity amongst the young and rebellious, becoming
firmly entrenched as part of the biker lifestyle. Getting a tattoo could be viewed
as breaking a social taboo set by `civilised' society, hence the appeal of tattooing
as method of asserting one's own individuality and gaining autonomy. In Jim's
case the act was classically Oedipal -- in defiance of the father he engraved "Mum" into
Digs, one of Christchurch's most prominent tattooists, also taught himself his
art by experimenting with home tattooing as a teenager. He used a needle and
cotton. Unfortunately for the skin anthropologists, he has covered over most
of these early tats with fresh `wallpaper'. The results of home tattooing he
says, could be fine. " It's all matter of pointillism, however, the pressure
used is quite different." In classic old school style he too was drawn to
marking important names including "Mum and Dad" on his right knee.
This practice of creating badges of important family members continued with a
recent addition of his son's portrait in an extremely fine black tone piece on
his chest. In making the child a badge, he becomes a totemic symbol and is therefore
accorded a variety of taboo protections. One of the primary aims of the taboo
system is, after all, the protection of young children. The tattoo has gained
a psychic mana beyond its own existence that serves the purpose of guardianship.
Digs has made his body a tribal totem created through hereditary and personal
At fifteen Jim and his best friend Neil both got their first professional work
done at McSweeny's, Christchurch's only tattoo parlour in the early seventies.
They had been drinking for a couple of hours and picked design off the wall for
a laugh. The tattoos were more affordable then, Jim paid just two dollars for
his boxing chicken. Neil remembers McSweeny as an old alcoholic peering through
a cloud of smoke. "He got about halfway then he realised `fuck I'm using
the wrong needle'", Neil jests. The colour needle gave Neil's knife, his
second tat, a fat outline. The vegetable ink colours have stayed surprisingly
vivid in comparison to results I've seen from today's colour inks. Jim also got
a knife at the same time. No doubt the committed psychoanalyst would peg this
as a declaration of (tribal or subcultural) fraternity.
Digs also got his first professional work from McSweeny. Underage, he
hired a friend's birth certificate, which cost him more than the tattoo.
the way McSweeny just called "next" and kept on using the same equipment
he'd used all day. "Hygiene was non-existent. He just kept filling up the
same well -- you could almost see the red in it. Needles are only good for a
very short amount of time. The colours deteriorate, the needle becomes barbed
and you get really bad scabbing. The more scabbing the more ink you lose." Digs
notes though that the basic gun design he settled on has barely changed since
S. F. Reilly invented it in 1891.
Jim continued to collect tattoos till both arms were sleeved top to bottom. He
has work by many of the shops established after McSweeny -- Terry of Terry Tattoo,
early work by Steve Johnston (probably Christchurch's most awarded tattooist)
of Tattoos Down Under, and Johnny Man. It was Johnny Man who produced Jim's final
piece, an incomplete Chinese dragon that took three sessions under the needle.
Johnny had a reputation as a bit of a cowboy who operated from a shop on Oxford
Terrace but spent most of his time at the boozer. He was usually out of it when
he worked. For Jim there was usually no more reason for getting tattooed than
having a bit of spare cash. Ultimately it was the rising price that put him off
further work. It made it less of a cheap laugh.
Neil's last tat was created as a momento of his brief stint as a guest of her
majesty in the early eighties. He had another prisoner draw on the design, a
compilation of images from Easyrider magazines. The design was topped
off by the classic biker motto F.T.W. (fuck the world). The classic phrase serves
a totem of disaffection with "civilisation", as he put it, "cause
I was very fucked off". He then had to wait his turn. He was ushered into
a room where there was a lookout on the door watching for screws. Tattooing was
and still is against prison regulations. Hygiene consisted of a match under the
needle. The needle used on Neil's arm was extra long by about 2cm, dragging the
outline he described as "a bit nippy". The blood was pouring down from
the top, whereas a professional would have worked his way up. The design started
to get washed off by the blood and he had to have it redrawn. Neil was not happy
at the tattooist taking some artistic license, adding an upside down anarchy "A" to
the design. The full job cost one joint. His arm was yellow and bruised for a
week. The machine was scratch built from a toothbrush with the bristles removed
attached to a tapedeck motor and wired into the light socket. Everyone knew when
it was in use "cause it interfered with the telly". Improvised machine
designs are highly varied -- Digs showed me a bangy number assembled from a toy
stock car motor. According to Pene, a gladwrap tube of six D batteries is normally
the best way of getting a steady power supply that does not surge or vary the
Pene, currently "vacationing in the South Island courtesy of the government" is
a painter and master carver having exhibited in Dunedin and Christchurch, as
well as producing commissions for the government. He was also a professional
tattooist. His most noticeable tattoo is the superb 3D black ink Chinese dragon
boldly staring out from his neck, done in Mount Eden in the eighties. While a
lookout was posted for the bosses, a piece was created that is indistinguishable
from a professional job. The subject is a Taniwha, a symbol of Pene's iwi's mountain.
Tattoos about land were very important to Pene as a teenage inmate, as tattoos,
unlike land, can never be taken from you. His New Zealand plaque on his foot
forms a heraldic badge flanked by a biker-style helmeted skull and swastika flag.
The tats' lines are wide and the ink grey. Pene explained that a lot of the time
in jail real ink (Indian or biro) is impossible to come by. Inmates substitute "boob
ink" manufactured from squeezing black shoe polish through cloth; if hard
pressed then paint products are used. These inks are particularly prone to fading.
Co-incidentally, Digs said that the plaque is becoming less popular as a way
of claim location or identities. New Zealand is usually represented by symbols
like the Silver Fern or Kiwi-made logo. Such images are legitimised by the likes
of Olympic swimmers getting tattooed to commemorate the event.
Tattoos in jail tend to be muscular images such as Doberman dogs, or the number
thirteen for its `evil' symbolism. All the gangs and jails have different symbols.
Rock College (Mt. Eden) is the dove; Waikeria is an inmate modelled off the cartoon Clutch
Cargo. Other jails have their specific symbols: black panthers, ball and
chain connected to a dog, sharks, ace of spades with bars and prisoners' hands
inside... Tattooing for prisoners, Pene declared, was like tagging is now for
teenagers, "When I see an old guy reveal his tattoos I know his history,
where he's been. "It's like a map of a life". What Pene witnessed as
a map of life is a compilation of symbolic names. J. Pikler, who influenced Freud,
saw that totems were in fact an act of permanent naming. He wrote "totemism
arises not from a religious, but a prosaic everyday need of mankind". Prison
tattoos provide a personal language for prisoners to create individual identities,
differentiate groups and preserve what is valued. This is an innate necessity
of the human psyche.
Prison houses those who have broken society's prohibitions, so it seems logical
for the inmates to breach the taboos of that repressive society. Prisoners reject
the outside world by tattooing those exposed areas considered taboo for marking
by conservative white society, specifically the hands, neck and face. The act
of wearing boob gloves inherently means the individual has disassociated his/herself
from one society and accepted a new one with its associated totems and taboos.
Pene stopped short of getting a moko, and now says he regrets his ink work.
Realistically, tats are forever, as current removal practices only create
of the work Digs and his crew take on are cover-ups. "We make people feel
better about themselves", Digs told me. "Lots of work we see is badly
executed. A good tattoo is art, a bad one's just embarrassing". There are
limits to what can be covered up, depending on how dark the original was put
in. The cover up is not a new phenomenon at all, some of Jim's best old school
work, like the flower on his hand, covers over old girlfriends' names. I'd have
a couple of girlfriends' names then I'd get a new root. The next morning she'd
ask, well who's this then? I guess I was pretty lucky they were small enough
to go over!"
Louise, a flash artist (tattoo designer), trades her pictures for tattoos. She
is currently collecting a large piece on her back referring to what Louise defines
as the three aspects of women: youth/nature/fertility, the warrior, and old age/death.
These are drawn from Celtic mythology and Louise's proud Danish heritage. The
first section is a warrior maiden in black tones by S. S. of the Maggogs (hardcore
bikers from Taranaki) with further background by Ross of Skinshow. The tattoo
is currently evolving to include aspects of Louise's new role as a mother and
to reaffirm her interests in nature. In choosing a tattoo that relates both to
the meaning of her name and the symbolism of an ancient tribal heritage, Louise
identifies with spiritual traditions such as palmistry, tarot and divination
that fall outside the traditions of modern patriarchal society.
Much of Louise's flash work is aimed at feminine pieces, such as flowers,
and fish. "Women", she says "have always tended to get the leftovers,
as far as designs on the wall go". She sees people tending to stereotype
women with tattoos with a biker mole tag or as an old boy at the rest home where
Louise works once said "In my day only the ladies of night had those".
Attitudes to tattoos are changing though, Louise believes, especially with
people's interest in spirituality on the rise. Louise's designs include
gods, Celtic heritage pieces and tarot designs. "Skulls and demons appeal
to a pretty limited crowd these days". These designs could be perceived
as an attempt to retrace heritages. Indeed, tattooing has never been more popular.
Digs is constantly looking for fresh talent. He is, however, highly critical
of the popularity of neo-tribalist designs (modern tribal tattoos from no distinct
tradition). He believes the designs will date and simply finds black boring to
work with. "For a tattooist there's little skill in it." But he is
interested in the common, almost universal shapes of tribal tattoos. He notes
that the Celts, Maori and Japanese all use very similar repeating spiral iconography
and precise linear detail.
MacLennan, a nineteenth century anthropologist, believed tattooing was
the origin of all totemism. Contemporary tattoo is surely about elements
of totemism being
reabsorbed back into our "civilised" society. Or perhaps they never
Cheers to Louise, Pene, Neil, Jim, Digs and Kerry.
Photograph by Dan Arps