Meet The Australian Artist Looking To Put The Culture Back Into Getting A Tattoo
She doesn't do frangipanis.
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Tattoos have a rich cultural history, dating back about 5,000 years. As a person with only three easily-hideable tattoos and who has lived through very few of those 5,000 years, I’ve anecdotally noticed a recent attitudinal shift around tattoo culture.
It seems as though more people — in more varied circles — are getting tattoos, and with considerably less attention paid to the significance of symbols. They aren’t just counterculture now; chances are that if your workplace has a dress-code it has stance on visible tattoos, and it probably isn’t as conservative as you think. Matching stag-do tribal tattoos which most probably represent a rich history that those bearing them know nothing about: they often don’t even hold enough power to raise an eyelid. Punctuating a night out with an impromptu Minnie Mouse tattoo is lovingly teased, but tattoos like these are commonplace. Tattoos are often briefly planned and thoughtlessly executed, with the experience swiftly forgotten. Worse though, is that many with tattoos have a horror story, either of a design gone terribly wrong (or spelled incorrectly), or a bully of a tattooist.
If people want to get a stupid, or culturally appropriative, or meaningless, or even offensive tattoo, that’s their prerogative. There is a time and place for commercial tattooing. I have previously felt forced into a design that wasn’t what I expected by a ‘professional’ who wouldn’t riff on my idea, but rather told me flat out that it wouldn’t work and that I should do it his way. And now it is on my ankle. Forever.
One artist in Melbourne is seeking to challenge our expectations of the tattoo experience — both the getting and the having — and imbue meaning and ritual back into the artform. Ad Hoc is a visual artist who deals primarily in conceptual art, design, and events. She was the brains and muscle behind 2014’s inaugural Found Festival, a nine-day event showcasing visual artworks by female-identified artists held in the Abbotsford Convent’s Magdalen Laundry, formerly a home for wayward girls.
Hoc maintains the festival’s social media pages as online communities in support of what she calls “power babes”: anyone who pushes gendered boundaries in the arts and wider worlds. The initiative highlights the work of power babes (mostly artists) whose work or lives illustrate a systemic problem that’s getting some airtime, but not quite enough as far as Hoc is concerned. Female-identifying artists struggle to achieve commercial success at the same rate as men and even when they do, the experience of being a female (or queer-identifying) artist is harder.
As a supplement to her arts practice, Hoc has tattooed people in various spaces for the past eight years, but never in a tattoo studio. Hoc wants to create a tattoo space that’s safer and more enjoyable for women: “Over the years I’ve tattooed, so many women have come to me really distraught, talking about how badly they’d been treated in shops. The guy had laughed at their idea, didn’t do what they’d ask for in the first place, or talked them into something else. Pretty much every girl I’ve tattooed has had at least one story like that.”
Hoc wants to create a space where this kind of bad experience doesn’t happen, especially for women and queer people, because that’s primarily who she’s heard the stories from. Unlike shop tattooists, she is also very specific what she will tattoo, as well as who. “My focus is on creating and sharing an artistic-spiritual experience that is meaningful AND also beautiful,” she writes on the Found Facebook page. “I’m an artist, not your personal decorator. From now on I’ll also only be tattooing women or queer identified folk. I’m interested in giving women back a pride in ‘women’s work,’ by preferencing our own rich history of symbols. This is both a ‘job’ and a performative arts project, so if you know women who this idea would interest, please pass the message on.”
In life and in tattooing, one should know exactly what one’s going to get. In the same post, Hoc was clear that she primarily trades in specific artworks, including crochet rope and lace, knots, and traditional female folk art patterns, with a few other concepts thrown in as ideas. When I asked her about the symbolism of those images versus that of tribal tattoos, for example, she said: “honestly, I can see why white people want tribal tattoos. You just want something cultural that’s really important, and that symbolises something that other people understand. We [white people] don’t have anything like that. These patterns have a lot of symbolic meaning to women that look at them. They are passed down, amazing symbols.”
Most importantly, though, she seeks out meaningful collaborations, not tattoos for the sake of a tattoo (unless she finds the idea hilarious, like the saxophone playing a saxophone that my sister’s boyfriend has; she loved that idea). Tattooing, for Hoc, is not a money-making affair — she asks that people only pay what they can, or what they like — but an extension of her art practice. She doesn’t want to trace images; she wants to be one part of two people creating meaningful performance art in the form of body modification. “I always felt uncomfortable asking for money. It cheapens the experience for me. I tend not to like a monetary exchange. I’d prefer to do a skill share or something like that.”
My sister was visiting from California for a week and we decided to get tattoos by Hoc together. An artist herself, my sister was also interested in art for art’s sake that’s influenced by meaningful symbolism. We opted for big pieces of lace on our shoulders. Before arriving, my sister and I picked up some Melbourne-made cider to bring over as a gift (one of which I drank while she tattooed me, something I could not have done in a studio). We sat and drank tea in Hoc’s living room as we all flipped through books of lace images. Finally settled on a design, we all chatted politics and current affairs while Hoc prepared.
Over the course of the four hours it took for our shoulders to be repeatedly pin-pricked into gorgeousness, we had a significant chin-wag about music, relationships, Julie Gillard’s misogyny speech, travel, the expat experience, feminist isolation, and art. All of us — all powerbabes in our own worlds — expressed concern that we offend people with our ideas and gratitude for connections with people like each other. When we needed breaks, she stopped while we laughed, and she talked about her own experience being tattooed. Hoc told us that she wanted to create a space where those she tattoos feel like they can have an opinion and be experts in their own body art, and we did.
We talked about the spiritual history of tattoos and people getting matching tattoos as a bonding ritual. “Rituals only have meaning because we say that have meaning,” Hoc said. Unlike my previous tattoo experiences (and my sister’s), this exchange did feel spiritual and ritualistic; it was the personal as the political. I emailed the writer Clementine Ford, who Hoc has tattooed several times, to ask about her experience. She described what she likes about being tattooed by Hoc:
“Ad Hoc’s politics are intrinsically linked with her art, and for me it symbolises a perfect expression of what tattooing should be about. I love that she’s made this public declaration of intent in world that still heaps scorn on the idea of women only spaces and notions of traditional women’s art. Plus, her work rules.”
Her work does rule. I love my tattoo. It is exactly what I want to use my body to represent, in my own form of performance art. And bonus: it looks so good. “You can’t be a passive observer of culture and expect it to change,” Hoc mused of Found and her tattoo practice, seemingly without even realizing what a profound and powerful thought that is. Honestly, I wish that every service I ever need to access would spawn an anti-establishment progressive offshoot. Sometimes I want a dentist who will do mainstream dental care, and sometimes I want one with whom I can talk about oppressive beauty standards. Doesn’t everyone?
In the meantime, I’m glad Ad Hoc and her pop-up tattoo studio exist, and I will spend most days convincing myself not to cover myself in her art…until I give in and go back.
Phylisa Wisdom lives and works in Melbourne, but hails from San Diego, California. She writes about pop culture, gender, politics, and various overly personal experiences for various sites and tweets from @phylisajoy.