16 Oct 2015

Volunteers bare all for tattoo art project

6:19 pm on 16 October 2015

Two Samoan artists have collaborated on a project which asked Avondale community members to volunteer their bodies as part of a live tattoo art exhibition.

Tattoo artist Chris Amosa

Tattoo artist Chris Amosa at work with a volunteer in Avondale. Photo: RNZI

Graphic artist Vaimaila Urale used computer keyboard symbols to create Polynesian-inspired artworks, which were then tattooed onto participants by tattoo artist Chris Amosa as part of the Whau Arts Festival.

When creating the designs for the 'Typeface' live tattoo session, Ms Urale restricted herself to using just the 'v', '>', '<','/' and '\' symbols.

Artist Vaimaila Urale

Artist Vaimaila Urale said the project was a different way to experience art. Photo: RNZI

She said the project reflected her Samoan heritage, but also the fact that she has grown up in a very Western, contemporary and digital society.

"In Samoan, the 'v' symbol is called 'fa'avae tuli'. It's based on a bird footprint of the tuli bird, so the footprint that it leaves in the sand. The forward and backslash lines in Samoan, the name for it is 'tusi lili'i', which basically just translates to small lines."

Designs for the 'Typeface' live tattoo session, created by Vaimaila Urale, as part of the Avondale Whau Arts Festival.

Designs for the 'Typeface' live tattoo session, created by Vaimaila Urale. Photo: RNZI

Ms Urale previously did a live tattoo session in San Francisco in 2013, and jumped at the idea of doing it again in Avondale, especially as the neighbourhood has such a huge Pacific community.

"What's been interesting in this process is things that I've picked up from Chris [Amosa], because I can come up with whatever designs I want, but obviously I have to pass all the designs through Chris, to see if they make sense with how they will all sit on the body."

Artists Chris Amosa and Vaimaila Urale prep tattoo volunteer Allan Haeweng for their 'Typeface' live tattoo session.

Chris Amosa and Vaimaila Urale prep tattoo volunteer Allan Haeweng for his live tattoo session. Photo: RNZI

Mr Amosa said when he opened Cain Tattoo Studio in Avondale, he wanted to be involved with the local community, which was why he gravitated towards this project.

He said when he tattoos, people often bring along three or four people for support, so doing his work in front of an audience was nothing new.

But he made sure first-timers were well prepared with this advice, "Make sure you haven't come here on an empty stomach, make sure your sugars are up, and you're well hydrated I guess because that's kind of why you pass out. You feel a bit of pain, and then, blood rushes away from your brain, sugar levels drop, and then... on the floor."

Volunteer Kate Todd is tattooed by artist Chris Amosa.

Volunteer Kate Todd is tattooed by artist Chris Amosa. Photo: RNZI

One of those first-timers is Avondale resident Kate Todd, 55, who came to the tattoo studio prepared, with a glass of wine and some pain relief already in her system.

"I remember when I was in my late 20s everyone started getting tattoos and I lived in Sydney, and I remember thinking, 'Wow, I wanna do that', and I just never did. I guess then, it became such a rage, I thought, 'I wanna be the exception when I'm an old lady, the one without tattoos'. But when I saw this, I just thought, what a cool idea, and if I get chosen, how amazing would that be?"

She specifically requested a wrist tattoo, and jokes that she must have been chosen because she's a novelty, "like, oh my God, 55, Pakeha, never had a tattoo", and she's been doing her research online on how to cope with the pain, "I think getting your willy tattooed is the most painful, so I should be OK."

Allan Haeweng, a student from New Caledonia, is also getting a tattoo for the first time, and contemplates the meaning behind his chosen pattern, moments before it will be tattooed on the back of his hand.

"The patterns allude to the lines that are formed by weaving and lashing. I like this, it reminds me that we're from Oceania and we have those relationships where we are a people that are very intertwined culturally."

Tattoo artist Chris Amosa preparing to tattoo a design by Vaimaila Urale as part of the 'Typeface' live tattoo session for the Avondale Whau Arts Festival.

The patterns are made using only the 'v', '>', ' Photo: RNZI

Reina Sutton is from the Solomon Islands and the art chosen for her will be tattooed on and around her sternum.

She said she was proud to be able to have a piece of Ms Urale's art on her body, and saw similarities in the Polynesian design with her Melanesian culture.

"The women from my father's island, they have tattoos placed on that part of their body as well. I thought that was a great way to connect that way, and also in a very contemporary way as well. There's quite a few layers involved with this project, for me personally."

Volunteer Reina Sutton, after being tattooed on her sternum.

Volunteer Reina Sutton, after being tattooed on her sternum. Photo: RNZI

Ms Urale said she was really into how viewers or the audience can engage with art in innovative ways, and this project was a very different way to experience art, especially for volunteers.

While none of the participants passed out, as Allan Haeweng had his fingers and knuckles tattooed, with a firm grip on Reina Sutton's hand, and through gritted teeth, he described the feeling as, "like somebody is peeling my skin off."

And Kate Todd, midway through her wrist tattoo said it felt "kind of like, a very well disciplined swarm of wasps".

The Whau Arts Festival was opened on 15 October and ends 19 October.

Finished hand tattoo, designed by Vaimaila Urale, tattooed by Chris Amosa.

Finished hand tattoo, designed by Vaimaila Urale, tattooed by Chris Amosa. Photo: RNZI