What’s written on the outside and the inside of a person’s skin.
In New Zealand the Maori people have a traditional form of tattoo, Ta Moko. I was taught at school in Auckland that moko was made by carving the face with a thin blade dipped in an ink made from various natural pigments. I have a memory that it was dark blue. For each incision the blade was tapped down into the skin with a little hammer. Over time, men could have their entire faces covered with intricate circular tattoos, women their chins and lower lip. It was not a quick process: for women it could take days, and for men much longer. Each moko was unique to its recipient and the tattoos were marks of great distinction. Every aspect of moko – the tools, the pigment, the artist, the process, the result – held a sacred meaning. I remember as a child looking at Maori wood carvings in a museum – it must have been the Auckland Museum – and thinking how amazing it was that this same type of carving was incised on people’s faces. The carvings were detailed, sophisticated (though I didn’t use that word back then) and beautiful enough for me still to remember them.
With Ta Moko and its equivalent today (I was once told by a very well-known and respected tattooist that she believed Ta Moko was dead, destroyed by missionaries), what is written on the body is also written in the mind. We are not dealing only with decoration but with a representation of self, of being; not only of status in society but, certainly in traditional society, of a connection to the spirit world.
When I was researching The Tattooed Man I went to the local tattoo parlour and had a quill pen tattooed on my rib cage, just so I knew what it felt like in a small way. Thin rivers of pain was my description. If your body was being carved as it is with Ta Moko, the pain would surely be much stronger than that. I read about Samoan tattoos, usually on the lower part of a man’s body, where the skin comes to resemble a beautiful piece of cloth, not unlike traditional Samoan bark-cloth. In the 18th and 19th century passing European sailors would ask for these tattoos to be done on their bodies and some of them would not survive the process of getting it. I read of one Samoan man who was recreating these tattoos with a tattooist using a modern tattooing gun but who still described the pain as extraordinary. ‘Sometimes all that seems to exist,’ he wrote, ‘is me, my tattooist and my pain.’
People often tattoo with a purpose, as a mark of respect. I have heard of a man who has a tattoo of an Australian soldier in commemoration of his father and grandfather. His grandfather had been at Gallipoli and his father in World War II. A tattoo may also be a work of art on the body – there are plenty of examples of elaborate, beautiful and colourful tattoos, like those in the Japanese tradition. Tattoos can mean membership of societies, including criminal ones.
But human bodies also have scars, some neatly stitched and hardly visible, others patched up and all too noticeable. They carry a history, a memory, an experience which shaped the person who carries that mark. If tattoos and scars are written in the mind, there are also internal scars written in there as well, scars which are not visible on the body unless we as individuals put them there. Some people write their interior anguish on their bodies as the only way they have of telling people how they feel. Pain experienced being tattooed is a willed experience, in traditional society and for some individuals today, a rite of passage. Scar tissue pain, whether physical or mental, is something forced on us. We have to deal with it individually, as a violation, and some of us may need help if we are ever going to recover from it.
The breadth of human experience is written on the body in any number of ways. One way is purposefully, as art on the body, whether as a statement of self, or belonging, or with a religious meaning, as a connection to another world. Another way is by whatever fate or chance or circumstance deals to us, as an accident or because of someone else’s violence. Each of these types of marks is a history, a marker of knowledge and experience written at greater depth in the body than the mark itself. So we are our own canvasses and we always have been and whether what’s portrayed is sacred or profane, they are narratives of great complexity and meaning, sometimes of compassion and hope, written on the skin and in the mind.