Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Yesterday afternoon we took off at 3:45 from Fiji en route to Brisbane. I always enjoy that flight, it’s often a cross-section of the types of clouds seen at different temperatures. Interestingly, we flew right over the course that we had just sailed. So having just seen the weather from the surface, I now got to fly over the exact same area. There were a number of thunderstorms.
I’ve discussed before the many often un-noticed ways that thunderstorms cool the surface. One of them is that thunderstorms often form in the late afternoon, and as a result their vertical towers shade huge areas of the ocean from the sun This cooling mechanism is clearly visible in the photo.
Mike and I rolled out this morning to go hang out with a friend of his named Tu, who is a well-known Maori tattoo artist. It turned into a most interesting day. Now you may recall I’d said before going to sea, I have a tattoo, viz:
As a result of several hasty decisions, back in the eighties I’d ended up in the Solomon Islands north of Australia, where I got involved with people from the island of Bellona. This is a version of one of their traditional tattoos. The top fish is a “gupo” fish, which is their sacred mythical fish. The top row shows more gupo fish. The middle row is frigate birds, and the bottom row is sharks’ teeth. A Bellonese policeman who was a friend of mine gave me the tattoo using three sewing needles wrapped in thread and india ink … but obviously, it pales in the light of Mike’s tattoo. So I’m happy to meet Tu, but I’m not sure how this will all end. I’ll let you know how this part of life’s rich pageant turns out. Here’s Tu’s web page to consider in the interim.
So, today we went to Tu’s home in the hills above Brisbane. He and his good lady Ify live there with their two young boys. Ify is an excellent tattoo artist as well, and they do the tattooing in a dedicated room in the house. Now, I didn’t know if Tu was going to have time to do a tattoo, or would want to do a tattoo. So I just set that whole question aside and we sat down to the seafood-and-chips-for-four that Mike had bought on the way in. It was delicious fare. I played peek-a-boo with one of the little boys.
Afterwards, we went out an talked on the porch for an hour or so.
`We talked about nations and about tribes. Tu said that the New Zealand government had sponsored him to go on an artistic interchange program touring the US. He’d visited with the Nez Perce and a number of other tribes. He was giving talks about the Mauri tattooing art, which is called “ta moko”. A couple of
mynah birds magpies listened to the discussion, their necks brilliant white in the sunshine.
At some point I asked if he would be willing to work on my tattoo. He said, let me see your tattoo. I showed him, and explained the story. He said he had time and would do it. So then the talk turned back to more interesting matters. He talked about the history of the Maori, and of his own lineage. He said he’d been trained by one of the men responsible for reanimating the nearly lost art and knowledge of the traditional Maori tattoos. He talked about a little-known piece of history, which was the attempt of the New Zealand Government to stamp out the traditional practices of the Maori.
After while, the discussion moved inside to his tattoo room. In response to my question, he explained that traditionally the face and body tattoos told the story of the person. It identified them by tribe, and by rank or status within the tribe, and their occupation, and the like. He has a picture on the wall of his grandma in her sixties, with her traditional chin tattoo.
He had examples of his work on the wall, powerful art, and a whole raft of books. You gotta know the man is a serious artist when he has Michelango’s Complete Works and Leonardo’s Sketchbook mixed in with the Tianzuntang Tattoos of Shanghai, China …
Now, I still wasn’t sure what I would ask him to do with my tattoo. After much reflection I said “OK, I’ve figured out what I want”. I said “I want you to refine and inspire the existing tattoo, and I leave it up to you how to do that.” He thought about that, and said “OK, refine and inspire”. He asked me how old my ink was. I said thirty years. And with that he put the new sterile disposable sheet on the tattoo table. I lay down, and he started to sketch on my shoulder. It took him about an hour to do the sketch, and the discussion rolled on. Mike sat in the corner.
I noted a curious thing during his sketching. I’ll have to back up a little to explain it. When I was a kid, I really wanted to be an artist … but I was horrible at it. Whatever I drew, it didn’t look like what I’d imagined, and I’d get all tense and concerned about making it look perfect, and nothing went right.
But when I was about twenty-five, I was once again trying to draw something when I suddenly realized that I’d been going at it totally backwards my whole life. I’d been concerned about how the finished product looked. I realized that was the wrong goal, and what I really should be concerned with was how my hand and my arm and my body felt while doing the drawing. That day I was sitting in the sun attempting to draw a large aloe plant. I took a new sheet of paper and started my drawing over, but this time with long, sensuous sweeps of my arm, reveling in the raw feeling of the pencil sliding over the paper and the stretch and flex of my hand. When I was done, I looked at my drawing of the cactus and I was overjoyed. For the first time in my life, I had finally drawn something that I really liked the look of. I can’t tell you how elated I was, I’d finally broken the code that had frustrated me since I was a kid with crayons. On that day I finally understood that art was about how I felt creating the art, and not about the finished product. I realized that when I draw with joy and abandon, the finished product takes care of itself.
But it wasn’t until today that I ever considered what the piece of paper felt like when I drew on it all tensed up, or what the paper felt like when when I drew on it as form of pleasure. Today, I could feel Tu’s hands through my skin as he drew line after line after line, and it was clear how much he enjoyed the physical work of doing his art.
Eventually, the sketch was done. I looked at it. I thought I liked it, although I couldn’t really imagine how it would look when it was completed. Some things were crossed out in red and others drawn in. I was going to ask but upon reflection I figured, trust the talent. Tu made a pot of coffee, and we all had a cup. The day grew older. I went back in, and laid down again. He opened the package of a new sterile tattoo needle, and assembled it onto his tattoo machine. He gave me a heads-up, and he started tattooing.
Now, when I got my first tattoo, it was almost totally painless. Jimmy wielded his three thread-wrapped needles by hand, slowly and carefully applying the tattoo. There was little discomfort, he was good. The tattoo machine, on the other hand, makes a curious sensation.
If you run away from the feeling of the tattoo machine and tense up against it, the sensation could easily be pain … and since it could be, it is. But I’d learned a while ago to lean into pain. I learned that you can transform pain back into sensation if you actively intend it rather than running from it. When I did that, it wasn’t so much a pain as a curious sensation that was kind of a mild electric shock combined with a vibration of the skin. Not pleasant, but not really painful either. I mentioned this to Tu, and he said “Yes, you have to make friends with the needle”. I grinned at the image, and the discussion flowed. I asked more about his history. The tattoo machine kept humming. Mike sat in the corner. Tu laughed that Mike liked to watch, and Mike said it meant he wasn’t under the needle, so everything was fine with him.
The machine hummed. I leaned into the sensation. Tu said the man he studied with started out as a master carver, and in his later life he was instrumental in bringing the art and knowledge of ta moko back from the time of the governmental ban. “Hang on”, I said, “the government banned tattooing?” He explained the history. The New Zealand government was trying to suppress the “tohunga”, who were the traditional Maori medicine men/healers/tattoo artists. I asked him to spell “tohunga”, and when he did I asked if that was the same as what the Hawaiians call the “kahuna”. He said yes, they were just different dialects of Polynesian but they meant the same thing.
He told us what had happened. In 1907, the New Zealand Parliament passed what was called the “Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907”. I laughed when I heard the name, and said “Well, at least the Kiwis were honest about it”. Tu asked what I meant. I said if Americans had done it, we’d have called it something like the “Maori Cultural Improvement Act of 1907”. We all laughed. The shadows lengthened. The machine hummed. He said that the Act made it illegal to be a practicing tohunga. I looked it up this evening. It was very short:
“Every person who gathers Maoris around him by practising on their superstition or credulity, or who misleads or attempts to mislead any Maori by professing or pretending to possess supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of any disease, or in the foretelling of future events, or otherwise”
Dang … not pretty. However, he said that the government wasn’t the main means of suppression of tattooing. That was the Church. The Church authorities, following the lead of the government, decreed that someone deciding to get tattooed was giving in to superstition and idolatry and they would be banned from the Church. In a religious population such as the Maori were at the time, this was a heavy punishment.
However, there were some people who had kept parts of the ancient knowledge and practices alive. These practices were a mixture of healing methods using traditional herbs, spiritual or shamanistic healing, esoteric practices, and tattooing. And in modern times, while much of the old knowledge has sadly been lost, there has been a renewal of interest and study of the ways of the tohunga. And Tu is the beneficiary of that knowledge. He is working with Maori people to renew interest in the traditional ways, as we well as continuing his cultural exchange work, such as his work with the local Indigenous Australian population.
The tattoo machine hummed and the afternoon waned, and Mike went in the living room and was reading Moby Dick out loud to a six-year-old. Moby Dick? Go figure. Mike has a raft of kids and grandkids, children flock to him. Me, I listened to Tu and realized that although there was perhaps some trace of resentment of the loss of the old knowledge, he was not telling another story of the bad things done by melanin-deficient folks. Yes, he spoke of those things, but his focus was unerringly forward. He looked ahead at further knowledge and renewal, not backwards at loss and sorrow. Mike continued to read Moby Dick. I said to Tu “Well, the good news is you don’t have to worry about my skin stretching and ruining the tattoo when I get old … that sucker is pre-stretched” … he laughed and switched to a skinny needle and started the fine line and shading work. I said “Yowch” and leaned hard in the direction of the sensation, letting it wash over me as the conversation ebbed and flowed.
And after what I would testify was no more than six days of tattooing compressed into one afternoon, Tu finally said I was done. I looked in the mirror, and I was a happy man. Tu had both refined and inspired my tattoo, just as I had asked.
The gupo fish had multiplied, I have three instead of one. The frigate birds have gone up in the sky where they belong. The sharks’ teeth are still at the bottom, with a groove down the middle like some shark teeth have. I asked about the thin lines in the background. He said they are called “navigator lines”. When a person was learning to navigate they would first learn the marks and depths and signs of the ocean, all the courses and paths and currents in the area from the shore out to the visible horizon. That’s the first line. Then when those were learned, they would go to the first horizon and learn the ocean’s ways and mysteries from there out to the next visible horizon.
So the navigator’s lines are the horizon lines of our successive steps in learning to navigate the shoals and seas of this marvelous world of ours. Works for me …
And that was my day. My great thanks to Tu and Ify for warmly welcoming me into their lives. It was heartwarming to hang out with them and the kids, talking story and listening to their tales of old things made new again, of dreams and plans, of tattooed grandmothers and fallen chiefs and ancient wars … my hat is off to them, seriously good folks and fine artists, I wish them the best.
On the other hand, the first thing Mike said when he saw my tattoo was “So when you come back to Oz, you’re going to get the other shoulder done, right?”
I declined to answer, perhaps impolitely, on the grounds that it might lead me to utter bad words and traduce his ancestors … he called me a name which was far from politically correct implying a lack of manliness on my part … what are mates for?
My best regards to all, what an amazing world we live in.