Tattoos. There are a lot of them in Northland.

Is it a geographical thing or a global trend?

Watching a young woman recently I wondered if it was cultural identification or a form of personal permanent tagging? Am I just old school or are the names and places (written in gothic script) just giving too much away? I know who the nearest, dearest and departed of this young girl are without knowing her name. Maybe it’s just a way of locating yourself in an uncertain world. Like the young pakeha blokes coming back from London and Europe with variations of New Zealand maps on their skin. Is it part of pakeha heritage – the anglo love of compass and map or is it so that when they’re abducted by aliens they’ll be able to find their way home?

Tattooing has undergone a vast transformation in New Zealand in just 2 generations. It wasn’t so long ago that it was the koru card for sailors and criminals. Even twenty years ago a woman with a tattoo of any description was considered on the margins of acceptability. It seems in Gen Y you’d now be the exception if you didn’t have one. Even Baby Boomers are not exempt – a friend was impressed/mortified to find her Mum (in her 60’s) had gone berserk, gone off with some bloke and got herself a tramp stamp as some rite of passage as yet to be chronicled by anthropologists.

I’ve heard of some olympically ridiculous tattoos. One of my favourites was done in a NZ correctional facility – which is corporate speak for jail. It was a fairly straight forward home job which read “F*%&# the System!” Fair enough. You could only read it however if you were standing beside him gazing into a mirror to shave. Like in jail. For example. He’d done it himself in the mirror and if he ever sits behind someone in traffic they’ll look into their rear vision mirror and be amazed at his clever socio-political commentary. Or an old uni friend, making an ass of himself in some Thai bar/tattoo parlour, woke up from his drunken stupor with a giant orange carp (he’s a red head) on his arm with some pretty Thai script underneath it. It was some days before he discovered that the tattoo read: “I am a rude foreign bastard. I drink like a fish and make a nuisance of myself.” I am laughing ungraciously because I did something equally stupid. Celebrating the wonderful natural ecology of New Zealand I decided on a bird tattoo that reminded me of this great and gorgeous land, a symbol of my love of New Zealand. On further, belated research I found that the bird in fact was indigenous to Australia – something my Australian friend, hitching round NZ with me, found extremely amusing. She has, over the years, continued to remind me of this whenever I try to be profound or say something meaningful. She doesn’t do this too often however because she had a tattoo of a dolphin leaping over her naval done at exactly the same time. She was only one mushroom zombie tee-shirt away from full-scale boganism and she knows it.

As I head closer to my 5th decade I realise that I may have to make good on my threat made over a quarter of a century ago to have my next tattoo on my fiftieth birthday. Now that the fragile wisp of avian elegance tattooed over 20 years ago is now referred to by the mad Latin as the Haast Eagle, something I wish I found funnier – I wonder what I’d get. Peter Kageyama, author of ‘For the Love of Cities’ who is speaking in Whangarei this weekend, suggests getting one done of your city. “Tattoos are the equivalent of marrying your city. A tattoo, like a marriage is a near permanent commitment and whenever I see people with their city etched into their body I know that person has a special relationship with their place.”

Just as long as they don’t do it themselves – in a mirror I guess.

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