Wear­ing their grand­mother’s ink


Push­ing ink into the skin by hand is sur­pris­ingly gen­tle, the tat­tooist says.

It would have been a thorn that made the tiny cuts decades ago but these days a nee­dle is at­tached to the bam­boo skewers, Ju­lia Mage’au Gray said.

‘‘I know how deep to push it be­cause I’ve tat­tooed my­self,’’ she laughed.

‘‘It’s cer­tainly less painful than the tap method or the elec­tric nee­dles and it heals faster be­cause the skin is less dam­aged.’’

Gray and mem­bers of Tep Tok Tatu are tat­too­ing women - and the oc­ca­sional man - who want to re­con­nect with the marks their grand­moth­ers once wore.

Coloni­sa­tion and the ar­rival of mis­sion­ar­ies nearly wiped out tra­di­tional fe­male tatu [tat­too] in the vil­lages of Pa­pua New Guinea, she said.

‘‘They told the women it was ugly and they shouldn’t wear it any­more.’’

Once strictly the realm of women Gray would tat­too men as a nod to the chang­ing times of mod­ern so­ci­ety.

‘‘We’re re­claim­ing it then gift­ing it to men. They don’t get to just take it any­more like they do so many other things.’’

Me­lane­sian women wore the marks as a way to com­mu­ni­cate sta­tus, fam­ily and vil­lage ties with the face be­ing the last part of their body to be tat­tooed.

‘‘Tra­di­tion­ally the marks on their bod­ies showed their strength which was im­por­tant when the men of their vil­lages were away.

‘‘Women were - and should be - the strong­est. With­out them ev­ery­thing fell apart.’’

It was im­por­tant to place the marks on the body so the per­son who wore them would feel ‘‘bal­anced in the world.’’

The women of Tep Tok Tatu trav­elled to parts of the Pacific, in­clud­ing Fiji, to re­search the an­cient prac­tice of fe­male tat­too­ing.

‘‘You could see the old women still wear­ing the marks...the mis­sion­ar­ies took ev­ery­thing else.’’

On Wed­nes­day, Gem Wilder was be­ing tat­tooed in Porirua to con­nect with her Fi­jian her­itage.

‘‘It’s ac­tu­ally not at all painful com­pared to the other ones I have.’’


Gem Wilder says the tra­di­tional ‘‘hand poke’’ method is gen­tler than the elec­tric gun usu­ally used for tat­too­ing.

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