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