Sued and screwed and tattooed

“We don’t have tattoos,” says Mr Tea.

We’re standing in the middle of the children’s playground at Leanyer Water Park. There are many things to take in: an enormous bucket of water that empties out with such force that it knocks small children to the ground, a man walking around with a parole bracelet strapped to his ankle, sporadic water cannon fire from sadistic six year olds, and the fact that our son isn’t really enjoying his second birthday party. But no, our lack of tattoos, this is the realisation that hits us both hardest and simultaneously.

My best friend’s Darwin-inked tattoo – this is Phoenix (Jean Grey) from X-Men. An ass kicking lady, that’s for sure. Both of them.

“Just have a look around us,” Mr Tea says. “Can you actually see another person here who doesn’t have a tatt?”

I can’t.

It’s a hot Sunday morning at Darwin’s premier waterslide destination, and all available flesh is on display. Biceps, pecs, and backs; ankles, thighs, and calves; even the odd breast peeking out of a bikini cup. And all of them are inked (well, most of them).

These tattoos are the product of both great thought and pure whim. Some are art; some are…not. There are full sleeves and delicate little flowers, motifs that run the gauntlet from Maori to Celtic. Cartoon characters, scrolls, and lettering in alphabets that range from Arabic to Sanskrit; philosophies both profound and insipid. There are the standard rose, snake, and dagger types. Constellations, maps, machines, rock bands. Children’s names and dates. Their faces. The occasional back of neck bar code.

Sometimes the tatts take responsibility; sometimes they shed it. They chronicle lost loves and found ones. Drunken nights and misdemeanours. Mistakes, adventures, successes, regrets. Tours of duty, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sometimes, the Berrimah Hilton.

There’s something honest about it; about these reclaimed bodies and their markings, something very Northern Territory.

…Well, I’ve been sued and screwed and tattooed

But I’m standing right here in front of you…*

This is another good friend, one of Mr Tea’s favourite sea-faring companions. I think this is an incredible piece of body art.

And here we are, too. Mr Tea and I, the only cleanskins in this tattoo parlour. Admittedly the water park is more of an exhibition hall than a studio, and, while there’s face painting on offer at some of the eleventy children’s birthday parties concurrently taking place, I don’t see anyone bearing a needle.

But there’s no accounting for geography when it comes to personal epiphanies. And in this moment, it becomes clear. We are missing a crucial part of Darwin’s no-bullshit uniform from our bodies. Does this make our Territory Visas—granted (by nobody) for over a decade of permanent residency—void?

Another tattoo I’ve always liked, this time on the back of one of my first Darwin friends, J. The tree of life.

I did come close to getting a tattoo once, more than a decade ago now. I was living in Tonga. At the time, my mind was expanding at an exponential rate, soaking up a new culture and language. My life had changed, and it would never go back to the way it was. I was ready, then, to print that on my body.

Tattoos were standard fare in Tonga, though not traditional in the way they are in Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and other parts of the Pacific. I was working at a youth centre, and the boys scrawled on their bodies the way I might have on my pencil case at school. They used Stanley knives and permanent markers, ball point pens hooked up to car radios. They drew spiders and pythons, embroidered full back gangsta tags, illustrated homages to Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. They recorded their detentions and deportations, wrote love and hate on their knuckles, and inscribed the names of their unrequited teenage loves in the delicate cursive taught at all the church schools.

I wasn’t so sure about the local equipment, but I was definitely interested in the concept. Like the geek that I am, I started by collecting books on traditional tattooing around the Pacific. Then I began poring over compendiums of other tatts – mostly rockabilly influenced – pin-up girls and the kind of bicep inscriptions you might have found on people who appeared as extras in the musical South Pacific. I browsed my friends’ efforts. I asked the kinds of questions that cool people do not ask. Where, why? How big is the needle? Does it hurt?

Before too long, I had a definite tattoo in mind for myself. Two diamonds on my lower back, drawn and decorated like the Tongan tapa, a traditional paper bark cloth made from mulberry trees and used for anything from wrapping bodies at funerals to decorating feast tables and school halls. I planned to get my proposed design inked as soon as I returned home.

I spent just over a year living in Nuku’alofa. I was 23. In Tonga, I fell in love, ate mutton flaps, and kissed corpses. I served kava, danced tau’olunga style, had my heart broken. I watched political protests, dabbled in church services ranging from Methodist to Mormon, kayaked between islands, attended weddings, and hitched rides to beaches in the middle of nowhere. I marched in parades, watched beauty contests, entered rap competitions, and wound up on national television. My sheltered mind was blown wide open.

And then I came back to Australia, very reluctantly. Reverse culture shock was a bitch. I was paralysed by choice in the supermarket: seventy different kinds of biscuits, all within expiry date. Traffic lights. Globalised fast food. The rat race. Postmodernism seemed a lot more abstract than it had when I left university the first time around. I missed my Tongan boyfriend (unfortunately, he missed me a lot less). I planned to return as soon as study and work and finances allowed.

But gradually I got used to life back on the island continent, and as the years went by, my tattoo (and Pacific) dreams faded. I discovered new skies, new roads to travel, new people to love. And now I was wary of putting those labels on my body, more aware that they faded, changed, evolved.

But I still have those books of tattoos. I still love looking at tatts on other people. I like to know the circumstances behind them, the relationship between the process and the symbol itself. An old friend lost her best mate and had his name printed up her arm in the biggest, blackest letters she could find. A few days later, she lifted that limb to show me the tattoo with a grim kind of satisfaction. It was her heart on her sleeve, literally. That raw, blistered skin.

I get it. Of course, I also don’t get it, and for that I am lucky. But there are people in my life whose loss I could barely stand, if I could stand it at all. Like Auden, for them I would put out the stars, pack up the moon, dismantle the sun. And I can imagine carving those names along my inside wrist, my spine, across my ribs. The letters embossed on the most tender pieces of my flesh. Wherever it would hurt the most.

I still have some things printed on my body. More and more, as the years pass. In my teens, it was a nasty bike accident that cost me my front tooth. A broken nose from a highly foreseeable basketball to the face. Later, some burns from careless hot oven management, a failed nose piercing in my early twenties. Weight loss and weight gain. Scratches from various outdoor adventures that have never fully faded. The scars of the mosquito bites that gave me a nasty case of dengue fever. More recently, pregnancy. Child birth.

Other things are more invisible. Years of chronic illness. A legacy of sexual harassment that dates back to childhood. The ashes I’ve scattered, sometimes swallowed. The ones I haven’t. The people I still miss. My flirtations with suicide. A miscarriage. The worry lines of depression and anxiety that still crowd my brain, when they want to.

Perhaps they would all be better out in the sunlight, inked onto my naked flesh, and flushed clean down the waterslides at Leanyer Water Park.

*with thanks to Jerry Jeff Walker

Advertisements

A love letter to the Nightcliff Foreshore

Every town has its promenade: a scene, the place to be seen. In Darwin, for my money at least, that’s the Nightcliff Foreshore.

70 odd years ago it was the boon docks, the site of military camps during the War. You can still see the metallic left overs—engines, axels, and the odd bullet—melted onto the rocks around the Nightcliff pool. And if you know where to look at low tide, there are remnants of a plane carcass, a B-25 bomber that crashed killing five servicemen. Wendy James, a long-long-long-time Darwin resident, once told me that she and her brother used to roam the abandoned army camps in the late ‘40s, skipping school to play with left over ammunition. Wendy’s favourite trick was putting cordite into her dad’s cigarettes. Those were the days….

Now, the Nightcliff Foreshore is home to swing dancing on a Sunday and family reunions with lamb on a spit. Kids fossick in the mangroves. Long grassers and new arrivals gather around the BBQs.

On the jetty, adolescent boys take it in turns to jump, somersault and hurdle the barrier into the salty water below.

IMG_4070

IMG_4071

IMG_4072

Tourists in sneakers and socks clatter out of hire cars to get the ultimate sunset shot.

Fishing fanatics drop a line at the jetty and off the rocks. They flick, hope and repeat.

This craggy coastline is where the young things park on a Sunday night. They show off their souped up cars and discreetly pair off under the moonlit sky.

There are random acts of urine and impromptu games of badminton.

There are passing dolphins and the occasional fight.

And from Sunset Park to the Beachfront Hotel, there are all kinds of drinkers: can crushers, sun downers, champagne sippers, cask wine wielders and punters who have been kicked out of the pub and drink on, regardless.

This is the Nightcliff Foreshore: a microcosm of Greater Darwin, all in three or four beautiful kilometres that stretch from the high rise units crammed into the coast line along Progress Drive, right up to where Trower Road crosses Rapid Creek.

IMG_0737

It’s definitely my favourite spot for people watching.

There’s a Timorese guy who rides his bike with a pet cockatoo on the handlebars and a boom box on the back. Sunday evening is his favourite night for tunes and cruising.

Most nights, there’s an older Sikh gentleman in a turban who holds hands with his granddaughter while she pulls her scooter along the path. I say hello and he occasionally gives me a reluctant, grave nod.

I like seeing the twins: identical ladies in their forties who dress alike, sometimes in polka dots and sometimes in cut off jean shorts. They are inseparable: always arms linked and whispering conspiratorially.

Then there are the countrymen who hold court in a rotunda and sleep on the crumbling dunes. Sometimes they sing in the stingrays or fish with handlines under Rapid Creek footbridge. Once I was picnicking with friends and an older lady presented us with a magpie goose, fresh, ready for butchering. She borrowed our bread knife and my friend Alice tried to help, but drew the line at squeezing out the entrails.

Further along the Foreshore are the exercisers. A leathery man who runs topless in the same pair of short white shorts every day. A Greek woman with her hair piled up high in the tightest bun I’ve ever seen. Her arms pump in perfect rhythm as she gossips with a friend. An older lady walks a dog that wears sunglasses. There are cyclists, skateboarders, paddle boarders; surfers in the cyclone season.

In true Darwin style, not everyone’s body is a temple. One bloke’s running singlet reads, “Hey Princess! Go and get me a beer”.

I’m better at people watching than I am at bird watching, but the birds are out here too. Whistling kites circle the palm trees and masked lapwings bustle about like the busy bodies they are, picking through the best fish and chip left overs near the jetty. Sometimes the curlews startle me with that distinctive scream. I like seeing the occasional kingfisher, surveying the scene from the fence line above the beach.

But my favourites are the red-tailed black-cockatoos that swarm in like drag queens, brighten up the joint for a bit, and then leave.

IMG_1377

A couple of times I’ve watched a huge swag of ocean birds circle around in a perfect frenzy. They become a moving patch of black that zips from one end of the beach to the jetty and back around. Is there a word for that? A collective noun for birds that flash mob at sunset and then leave? They are spectacular, especially in those minutes after sunset when the last of the sun bleeds into the ocean then the ground, and all three become the same misty shade of purple.

IMG_2987

I’ve got an especially soft spot for the Foreshore. It’s where I first landed in Darwin, the site of my first home: a bottom floor unit in a crumbling block of ‘80s flats with musty carpet and communal bins crawling with maggots. It was a five-minute sweaty cycle to Rapid Creek markets. It was 100 metres from the beach and even closer to the local pub, which in days gone by used to lock rowdy patrons in a cage. Because you can’t actually swim at the beach (stingers, crocs), I could just afford to live there on my own.

And now, eight years on, I live here again.

But just recently, the Foreshore has become groovy. You can’t walk down the bike path these days without falling over a coffee caravan or a pop up Italian restaurant, replete with red checked tablecloths, fairy lights and a humming wood fire pizza oven.

IMG_4354

It’s slightly shocking and also thrilling to me. Provincial Darwin embracing big city ways. Once someone’s out there with a stand selling green juice in jars with bamboo straws, we really will have arrived. I can’t imagine what the men in wife-beater singlets at Hidden Valley Tavern think, but I guess if they can have TOT (Tits Out Tuesday), it’s OK for me to dine occasionally on home made pasta alfresco.

When my sister Pip comes to town, I take her down to the Foreshore for pop up coffee by the sea.

Pip buys a latte and we run into my friend Jade and her kids. This part of the Foreshore has become a mecca for the CMC (Cool Mum Crowd). The kids run in circles and take it in turns to be a tiger, while Darwin’s fashionable young matriarchs fortify themselves with caffeine and confidences.

While we’re sitting on our milk crates, another groovy mum turns up, rocking full sleeve tattoos and four kids. She’s cooler than a cucumber.

The kids suddenly gather around one of the trees and a collective cry goes up.

“Owls, owls, look, it’s an owl!”

Groovy mum turns around and looks into the branches to spy a pair of birds camouflaging into the scrubby bark.

“Tawny Frogmouths, kids”, she yells out. “Tawny Frogmouths. They’re not owls.”

She turns to us. “It’s important to tell kids the correct names”.

Groovy, tattooed Mum turns back to her coffee and the baby fussing on her lap.

As an aspiring bird-nerd, I grab Pip and head over to check it out.

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

“They’re not owls”, Jade’s daughter Mem tells me.

I want to give these ornithological protégés a moment to shine.

Do you know what they are?

The other group spokesman, a four year old with long dark hair and a cotton summer dress, steps up.

“They’re…..ummm….they’re….birds. They’re birds.”

On that decisive note, our young twitchers scatter like the flash-mobbing flock on the horizon. They get back to the many tasks at hand: pretending to be a tiger, keeping a look out for crocs and humbugging for ice cream.

The Tawny Frogmouths don’t move. The mums stay perched on their milk crates.

There’s space on the Foreshore for us all.