Art, aesthetics and ethics of tattooing

Analysis of a tattoo business in Hamilton

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2018

255 Pages


Table of Contents



Hamilton, Waikato. New Zealand

List of Photographs



1. Preliminaries
Art and the Aesthetic: Theory and Praxis
Art: Apart from Society?
The Aesthetic: Apart from Society?
Modern Moko’s Historic Roots
The Culture of Moko in Contemporary New Zealand
Tattooing Culture: Research in the USA and Great Britain
Ethics of Tattoo Artists
Summary of Preliminaries

2. Methodology.
My Role as Researcher
Data Analysis: Importance of Grounded Theory
Qualitative Approaches in My Case Study

3. Interviews, Photographs, and Observations
The Tattoo Scene in Hamilton
Artists at the Tattoo Studio
Marc Wymer: Owner and Tattooist at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio
- Francis: Skulls
- Vaughan (and Marc): Kowhai Ridge
Brandon Martin: Tattoo Artist and Apprentice98 - Rhian: First Time Tattooed
Ali: Artist who Tattoos..109 - Tracey: Attention to Detail
Chapters Page
- Justin: Tattoos for Loved Ones
- Robert: First Among Equals
Makkala: Being a Tattooist is a Luxury
- Kylee and Darryn: A Couple in Love with Tattooing
- Lisa: The Crafty Tattoo
- Marc: Tattoos Tell My Story

4. Discussion
Individual Taste: Personal Aesthetic and Art Influenced By Culture
1. Describing and Valuing Tattoo Art
2. Global Cultures Influencing Taste and Tattoo Styles
The Culture of Tattooing and An Individual’s Role in Tattoo Art
1. The Role of the Aesthetic in Tattoo Art at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio
2. Tattoo Art as a Functional Practice
Ethical Practice at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio




Appendix I: Research Questions Table

Appendix II: Reference Chart of Participants’ Tattoos

Appendix III: Brief Descriptions of Discussed Tattoo Styles


Flax Roots Tattoo Studio, a tattoo business in Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand, offers clients different styles of tattooing to choose from, i.e. Moko, Traditional European, Portrait, and Traditional American. Tattoo artists and their clients differ in ethnicity, nationality, religion, sex, occupation, age, hobbies, and so on. Anthropological research and philosophical insight provided the framework texts for my case study. My fieldwork consisted of semi-structured interviews and photographs of artists and clients. By participating in tattooing, these individuals influence the art and the aesthetic tastes of their local culture. Additionally, tattoo artists follow an ethical code that dictates how to run their business, preserve their art, and protect their clients. By choosing Flax Roots Tattoo Studio as my fieldwork site, I was able to answer the questions: 1. How do tattoo artists and their clients engage with and shape tattoo art and its aesthetic at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio? ; and 2. How do these tattoo artists’ ethics influence their relationships with their clients and art?

Keywords: aesthetic, agency, anthropology, art, culture, ethics, ethnography, Gell, Hamilton, Moko, Maori, Iban, Kelabit, tattoo, tattooing, tattoo studio


Many thanks to the artists, Marc Wymer, Makkala Rose, Brandon Martin, and Ali Selliman, for welcoming me into the atmosphere of Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. Along with these artists, I thank the clients who were willing to be photographed and interviewed. Thanks to Gwenda Pennington for helping me navigate my scholarship. Thanks to Dr. Cathy Colborne, Dr. Kirstine Moffat, and the Postgraduate Studies Office for finding me a place at the Anthropology department within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Waikato and offering valuable advice. I also thank Program Administrator for Social Sciences, Francis Douch, for leading me through the graduate funding paperwork. I thank Dr. Raymond Richards for initially paving my way to a successful PhD and his advice throughout the dissertation process. I especially thank my secondary supervisor, Dr. Justine Kingsbury for strongly supporting me while being critical of my work. She provided continual guidance through the dissertation process. My chief supervisor, Dr. Tom Ryan, helped clarify my thoughts and put them in an appropriate context for an anthropological case study.

Outside of my studies, my partner and husband, Ross Curnow, helped by listening to podcasts with me, backpacking with me, and arguing about the little details of most things to help us each become better persons. He is the wonderful reward I did not ask for from my time researching in New Zealand.

I have dearly missed my family and friends in the United States throughout my time in New Zealand. If it was not for their support, I do not think I would have attempted postgraduate study abroad, let alone attempted my earlier degrees. A special thanks to my friend, Carol Christensen, for the guidance on words about art history and providing a place to recuperate in Saratoga Springs. I also thank these family members: Kimberley Shaver, Patrick Shaver, Sherrie Koch, Fred Koch, Smokey, Fitz, Ryan Golden, and Kristin Shaver. Dad and Mom, you worked so hard raising me so that now I am able to think about how I want to be happy and how to do good. Thank you for taking care of my cat, Mom.

To my red-haired and feisty Grandma, Roberta Adams, I thank you for being no one’s fool and helping me be an assertive woman. I am deeply sad I can no longer drive to your house and take you to Denny’s. You were a best friend, second mother, and my most trusted confidante. On many an occasion, I think of how you would look at the situations I am in and what pragmatic words you would speak; in this way, I live in the memory of you. I love you more than you will ever know.

Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(New Zealand Map Blogspot, September 2011)

List of Photographs taken by Author

(p. 68) Photo 1: Organization does not mean that an artist’s taste in decoration is hindered.

(p. 71) Photo 2: Rules and Etiquette at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio.

(p. 73) Photo 3: Marc, left, discusses a tattoo drawing with Ali.

(p. 79) Photo 4: A Neo-European Traditional style tattoo is on Marc’s left arm.

(p. 83) Photo 5: Francis is tattooed by Marc.

(p. 85) Photo 6: Three Tattoos are on Francis’s left arm.

(p. 87) Photo 7: Marc tattooing Vaughan’s left arm.

(p. 89) Photo 8: Vaughan’s, partially completed, Kowhai Ridge Tattoo. In the background, Ali tattoos Justin.

(p. 90) Photo 9: “Live a Full Throttle Life”

(p. 94) Photo 10: Vaughan’s Systematic smile and Holly are glimpsed from his position on the tattoo chair.

(p. 85) Photo 11: Brandon’s station, and artwork, at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio.

(p. 98) Photo 12: Brandon tattooing his client, Rhian, at his tattoo station.

(p. 103) Photo 13: Brandon is tattooing at Ali’s station.

(p. 105) Photo 14: Rhian shows off her bass clef, right arm, and treble clef, left arm.

(p. 109) Photo 15: Ali works in the foreground of his artworks.

(p. 113) Photo 16: Some of Ali’s drawings and painting; his artworks display at multiple locations on Flax Roots Tattoo Studio’s walls.

(p. 116) Photo 17: Ali’s throat is tattooed with an Iban scorpion design.

(p. 119) Photo 18: Ali’s Attenborough face is above a pig.

(p. 121) Photo 19: Tracey is viewing the news, while Ali tattoos Kaonashi on her leg.

(p. 122) Photo 20: A finished TCOB is below an unfinished Kaonashi. Ali’s sketch of Kaonashi lies beside Tracey’s left leg, on the tattoo bed.

(p. 123) Photo 21: Tracey considers Kaonashi the weirdest character she has seen in animation.

(p. 124) Photo 22: Kitri dances on Tracey’s arm.

(p. 125) Photo 23: The tale of the Lantern and Oiwa is reproduced on Tracey’s right, inner arm.

(p. 126) Photo 24: The tale of the Geishas is retold on a right arm tattoo sleeve.

(p. 130) Photo 25: A spider and spider web, which contains dollish people, possibly referring to the movie Coraline (2009), on Tracey’s right leg.

(p. 132) Photo 26: Justin getting ready to be tattooed by Ali.

(p. 137) Photo 27: “First Among Equals” is tattooed on Robert’s upper, left shoulder.

(p. 139) Photo 28: By shaving Robert’s shoulder blade, Ali prepares him for a tattoo session.

(p. 143) Photo 29: Makkala looking over her client schedule for the day.

(p. 146) Photo 30: Two of Makkala’s art pieces that served as models for clients’ tattoos. Brandon, camera right, tattoos a client in the background. Hangout Space and Waiting Area Studio is camera left.

(p. 147) Photo 31: Darryn sits across from Kylee, who is being tattooed by Makkala.

(p. 148) Photo 32: Kylee’s tattoo signifies her connection to family.

(p. 149) Photo 33: Makkala’s artwork is of Kylee’s tattoo; a future customer may purchase the work.

(p. 151) Photo 34: Lisa happily waits for Makkala, who prepares equipment for tattooing. Ali’s artwork is camera upper right. Makkala’s artwork and station is camera center left.

(p. 153) Photo 35: Makkala finishes Lisa’s sewing notion tattoo.

(p. 155) Photo 36: Lisa stands, in my office. Her sewing notions tattoo is on the top of her right foot.

(p. 158) Photo 37: Tattooee enthusiast, Marc, pictured at our interview.

(p. 164) Photo 38: Marc’s most recent tattoo is on his chin was inked by Makkala, the night before our interview.

(p. 218) Photo 39: Refer to p. 71 for another presentation of this picture.


My research details a variety of tattoo fine art styles and the associated aesthetic attitudes regarding tattoo artworks. My aim is to cover a broad range of tattooed work while noting the differences and similarities of its tattooed people. In my research, I explore the aesthetic attitudes of artists and clients at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio in Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand. I chose Flax Roots because many tattoo styles are done, by artists there, on different types of clients. By choosing Flax Roots Tattoo Studio as my fieldwork site, I was able to answer specifically within my case study the questions: 1. How do tattoo artists and their clients engage with and shape tattoo art and its aesthetic at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio? ; and 2. How do these tattoo artists’ ethics influence their relationships with their clients and art?

As an anthropologist doing fieldwork, it is also ethically important that I understand how my fieldwork is intertwined with peoples, artists, and clients associated with tattooing at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. In regards to doing an ethnography, anthropologist Nicholas Thomas (2006) writes that “it seems that artistic engagement with an ‘other’ is pernicious, except when it is not” (p.178). Thomas comments eloquently on how the field of anthropology is embedded with questions concerning the self and other; this place and that place; tradition and modernization. An ethnographer walks on the delicate edge of cultural inquiry; one stumble off the endeavor to interpret a multitude of viewpoints and she tumbles into a single viewpoint that misses a milieu of human relationships. Additionally, an ethnographer who embarks on writing about the tattooed body may conjure up thoughts of eroticism and charges of voyeurism, no matter her intent (pp.178-179).

Let us turn now to my own experience in graduate school as an illumination of “pseudo-representations” (Thomas, 2006, p.179) of tattooed people. When I first proposed this research at another department that was not of an anthropological mindset, I was asked questions by an administrator that conveyed she thought all tattooed people, who do not come from a traditional tattooing culture, have a connection to heavy metal music and are of a low-to-middle social-economic class. Not only was I lucky to find my way into another department and connect back to my anthropological roots, but also I avoided doing fieldwork in a department which saw tattooed people as all the same, fitting into a traditional category of blurred identities without acknowledged differences or a non-traditional category of devotees stereotyped as a ‘white head bangers’. Although I proposed an examination of tattooing as an art form, she could not think past the view that tattooed people in New Zealand fit into neat categories that should be recorded in one long diary entry written to convey how I feel about myself as a tattooed woman with the ethnic identity of American living in New Zealand. The only plausible option, she believed, was for me to write an auto-ethnography! This discussion moves on now to consider how an ethnographer pursue fieldwork without insulting the people she interviews, photographs, and spends hours with over the course of months.

In order to understand the ethnographer’s role in anthropological research in the modern world, Thomas (2006) discusses the history of archiving artistic descriptions of tattooed bodies, many within the Pacific region, as well as how ethnographers’ descriptions of the tattooed body have changed based upon who the tattooed bodies were and who interpreted them. Europeans began using the word ‘tattoo’ in the 1770s when Captain Cook engaged with Tahitians during his explorations in the South Pacific. A Tahitian, named Mahine, who travelled with Cook, explained that the word ‘tattoo’ comes from Tahiti, where it describes the act of inscribing designs and text on human skin. This explanation of the term ‘tattoo’ is described within Captain Cook’s journals; an example of an outsider seeking information from an insider about the meaning of tattoos. In 1826, a Maori warrior, Te Pehi Kupe, visited Liverpool intending to trade with Europeans for firearms. Because Captain Cook had sparked interest among some Europeans, Te Pehi Kupe noticed the English interpretation of Moko lacked accurate cultural translation. Therefore, Te Pehi Kupe went to the task to complete detailed drawings of his Moko and other Moko from memory with commentary Europeans could understand in their culture (pp.179-181). For a contemporary example, ethnographer Michael Rees (2016) documented how people from Western cultures are interested in non-Western tattoo practices and often seek out a meaning for their tattoos. As demonstrated from this discussion, tattooed people have acted as cultural interpreters of their own and others’ tattoos in tandem with cultural researchers or ethnographers for some time.

After discussing the history of images of tattooed bodies, Thomas (2006) discusses how the modern ethnographer will likely exist within a cross-cultural environment. Thomas’s research on how artists are documenting their tattooing process in Auckland, New Zealand relates to my fieldwork in the city of Hamilton, which is approximately 170 kilometers from Auckland. Both Thomas and I document the creative milieux in which artists we photograph and interview exist. While doing our ethnographic works, we realize these artists produce and converse about their art within their local communities, while also sharing their artworks in a globalized context. Thomas’s (2006) discussion of tattoo environments in New Zealand, highlighting the university-trained anthropologist Mark Adams’s photographs of tattooed people, makes evident the cross-cultural issues embedded in the atmosphere of contemporary Auckland. Adams’s photographs are in black-and-white and display Polynesian tattooed bodies in urbanized scenes or against a back-drop with a focus on the posed tattooed body. In addition to Adams’s photographs, his participants have taken their own sets of self-portraits (pp.183-186). Notably, Greg Semu sought “to recover his cultural identity” (p. 186) through the self-documentation of his tattoos. In Semu’s photographs, Adams believes Semu positions his body:

…close to the camera…to the extent that the viewer of the prints experiences an illusion of three dimensionality: not only does the body stand before the backdrop but the stain stands before the skin. The hand across the penis is not only an expression of modesty but also an expression of the artist’s controlled and limited self-representation, and a sort of stipulation that the viewer’s regard ought to be framed by cross-cultural awe rather than sexualized curiosity. There is, of course, a marked residual eroticism in these images… that could be seen to renegotiate the stereotypic image of Polynesia as a site of license and voluptuousness (pp.185- 186).

Thomas concludes that Adams’s and Semu’s images presented “[t]attooing…not as mute eroticism, but as an activity that [deals] knowingly with cultural difference” (p.189). In the modern landscape of ethnographies about art in New Zealand, the artist and the writer are represented as working together to understand the tattooed praxis. This observation is important because I will later argue that prominent anthropologist of art Alfred Gell’s (1993; 1998) theory of an art object’s agency is enhanced by arguments within Thomas’s (2006) research, which imply that being tattooed is a representation of ethnic or cultural personhood exhibited in the tattoo art (p.182).

Seeking to establish myself as an anthropologist like Nicolas Thomas, I construct the blueprint of my dissertation in this Introduction in order to demonstrate the way I worked in my research to answer specific questions about tattooing at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. I photographed and interviewed participants in order to understand their interpretation of their tattoo art as well as identify how their tattoo art played a role in their social lives. I was careful to examine the cultural roles tattoos and tattooing have in their lives, while I also did my best to photograph participants’ tattoos in a respectful manner.

Along with my considerations of the participants in my fieldwork, this dissertation is constructed to address the factors of art, the aesthetic, and ethics in this tattooed community. In order to examine these variables, I describe the work of and investigate the ideas of several social scientists, some of whom focus on philosophy of art and the aesthetic in my Chapter 1 Preliminaries. I discuss anthropologists who focus on the anthropology of art to assist me in comprehending my interviews with tattooists and their clients, or tattooees. The main anthropologist I discuss is Alfred Gell (1993; 1998), who urged fellow anthropologists to engage in the anthropology of art. Gell also wrote about the artistic practice of Polynesian tattooing. I utilize anthropologist Karel Arnaut’s review article (2001) of Gell (1998) as an intellectual springboard to critique Gell’s art theory. Also, I include in this critique other anthropological fieldworkers’ research about art. These anthropologists include Linda Chua’s and Mark Elliot’s (2013) seminal collection of essays on anthropology of art, in which I have extracted important areas where my fieldwork makes an original contribution to understanding the role that culture plays in art and the aesthetic in diverse social systems.

To address the aesthetic as well as continue my discussion about tattoo art and its ties to culture, I discuss philosopher Stephen Davies (2006; 2012), who likewise writes about the aesthetic and art. I also discuss philosopher Immanuel Kant (1790), who developed a universal theory of art. I connect these authors by comparing their ideas about art and the aesthetic with each another. I also detail in my discussion how other researchers have contributed to the understanding of art and the aesthetic in regards to tattooing through the method of interviews and photographs. I summarize the book, Mau Moko: The World of the Maori Tattoo (2007), by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Linda Waimarie Nikora, to write more accurately about the tattoo style, Moko, which is indigenous to New Zealand. I also discuss the sociologist ethnographer, Clinton R. Sanders (2008), who interviewed tattooed people in the United States of America. To comprehend and better utilize the conclusions Sanders derives from his fieldwork, I engage with the fieldwork of Michael Rees (2016), who analyzed four factors that contributed to the growing legitimacy of tattooing in Great Britain and in social media. At the end of Chapter 1 Preliminaries and Chapter 4 Discussion, I discuss the ethics and etiquette of tattooists in response to what I observed in the client and tattooist relationship at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio.

In Chapter 2 Methodology, I discuss the reasoning behind my semi-structured interviews and photographs, my role as a researcher, and my choice of the location of Hamilton. I planned and designed my research with the help of the book Practical Research: Planning and Design (2010) by P.D. Leedy and J. Ormond. Throughout my research, I consistently checked my biases so as to draw as accurate a picture as possible of the tattooing culture at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. My research is guided by one question: how do tattoo artists and their clients engage with and shape tattoo art and its aesthetic? Although many anthropologists have contributed, and continue to contribute, to tattooing research through evidence-based fieldwork in different cultures, a limited amount of quality in-depth research exists from an anthropological perspective about tattooing. I add my research to the growing body of the anthropology of art about tattooing.

In Chapter 3 Interviews, Photographs, and Observations, I address my research question directly by presenting the interviews, observations, and photographs of clients and tattooists from Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. Chapter 3 is a detailed case study informing the entirety of my research dissertation. Tattoo artists and tattooed clients willingly spoke to me during interviews. In return, I have striven to write clearly and carefully with intent to inform my readership. Each interviewee is paired with one or more photographs of their tattoos, so that I connect what they say with how their tattoos look.

Chapter 4 Discussion is about how my Chapter 3 fieldwork informs and builds upon my preliminary investigation in Chapter1, and then leads into a Conclusion. In Chapter 4, I discuss the questions I asked during interviews, which are found in Appendix I, near the end of my dissertation. I start with the interviews of tattooists, then the interviews of their clients. The respondents’ conversations are analyzed through my questions, which are aimed at understanding the aesthetic and art of tattooing. There I draw on my Chapter 1 Preliminaries in order to convey what I found in my research that ties these authors’ ideas to my fieldwork. Because I found out that ethics and etiquette are important in the business operations of Flax Roots Tattoo Studio, I devote paragraphs to discussing ethics and how it relates to this tattoo business.

In the Conclusion, I take into account the full scope of my fieldwork and its implications. After addressing the importance of ethics in tattooist and client relationships, I conclude that my research is significant because I described how tattoo artists and their clients engaged with and shaped tattoo art and the aesthetic in Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. Most important, I identify the significance of my case study, which fills a gap in the anthropology of art literature by demonstrating that art and the aesthetic cannot be separated from culture as in Gell’s (1993) theory of what roles art objects play in societies. The first gap I am filling is adding to the literature about art and the aesthetic in tattooed communities, in line with much of Gell’s (1993; 1998) understanding of tattoo art. The second gap I am filling is providing an entrance into a deeper discussion about the role of ethics in tattoo art.

This Introduction demonstrated that the phenomenon of tattooing is a rich area for ethnographic study. It is now necessary in the chapters following to engage with the literature discussed in this Introduction, my methodology for understanding art, the aesthetic, and ethics, and my subsequent process of fieldwork. It includes a discussion of how my fieldwork relates to the literature. And finally, I explain how tattoo artists and their clients engage with and shape tattoo art and its aesthetic at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio, as well as how these tattoo artists’ ethics influence their relationships with their clients and art.

Chapter 1 Preliminaries

Art and the Aesthetic: Theory and Praxis

How do tattoo artists and their clients engage with and shape tattoo art and its aesthetic at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio? How do these tattoo artists’ ethics influence their relationships with their clients? Before I answered those questions, I needed to understand what art and the aesthetic meant in regards to tattooing. During my fieldwork, when I discovered that ethics in the tattooed community needed to be mentioned, I better acquainted myself with ethical discussions involving personhood and autonomy. The findings about ethics among tattoo artists were interesting, though I debated with myself whether to remain focused on art and the aesthetic in regards to tattooing. Upon reflection and consultations, findings about the ethics of the tattoo artists are worth mentioning in the Chapter 4 Discussion. I have included a discussion about ethics at the end of this chapter in preparation for the longer discussion in Chapter 4.

Thus, I primarily engage with the works of researchers who illuminate art and the aesthetic of tattooing in this chapter. I begin with a discussion of art and the aesthetic. Then, I detail how tattoo communities shape their art and engage with the aesthetic. A tattooist and a tattooee are in a dynamic relationship with art and the aesthetic; and in a dynamic relationship in their community. I cannot discuss the nomenclatures of art and the aesthetic in an abstract way because the researchers I have selected force me to concretely address these terms interacting in tattooed communities.

In the pursuit of the aim of offering a picture of art and the aesthetic in relation to tattooing in New Zealand, I rely on an anthropologist’s work on cultural art. This anthropologist is Alfred Gell and the first book of his I discuss is Art and Agency (1998). Gell wrote this book quickly, during a period of three weeks, before his death; it was a response to the diagnosis of terminal cancer. This last book is not a finished text. Gell offers no solid conclusion. However, Art and Agency is an embarkation towards the goal of developing an anthropological theory of art (p. vii) for the purpose of understanding cultural interactions with art and art’s interactions with culture.

Art and Agency is Gell’s attempt to understand art’s role in social behavior. Because I am an anthropologist whose fieldwork is centered on a person or group’s interaction with art, Gell’s research is important to me because he is one of the few anthropologists of art who systematically, and in detail, discusses the reasons behind his theory of art. I simplify the wording of Gell’s theory in order to draw attention to his important contribution to the examination of art objects and their agency. I consider his proposal for an anthropological theory of art useful and necessary for specific cultural contexts:

The aim of anthropological theory is to make sense of behavior in the context of social relations. Correspondingly, the objective of the anthropological theory of art is to account for the production and circulation of art objects as a function of this relational context (p.11).

His theory captures the intricacies of particular social exchanges about art in a situated environment. His theory embraces the idea of qualitatively observing the use of art within a certain social situation.

Gell’s art theory is tied to philosopher Charles Peirce’s semiotic writings. Although Gell does not claim visual art is like language, he borrows Peirce’s term ‘index’ to explain art and social agency. He defines the visual index as a sign from which a person can make a causal inference from observing another person; Gell applies the term index to what he calls an ‘art-like situation’. Gell distinguishes an art-like situation as “…the material ‘index’ (the visible, physical, ‘thing’)” that initiates “…the abduction of agency” (p.13). ‘Abduction of agency’ refers to the meaning of a social interaction. In a simpler way, ‘abduction of agency’ means describing the social interactions involving an art object. Gell believes that the art object, or index, is the result of social agency (pp.14-16). According to Gell, anthropologists of art mainly concern themselves with indexes. Some of these indexes are artefacts, manufactured objects designed by their makers. Anthropologists can classify artefacts by their description and then make a guess as to the artists’ original intent. Yet, with the passing of time, the original use of an artefact can be lost or concealed by its present usage or interpretation (p.23).

Gell offers a categorization of the relationships between artefact and social agency, so as to help an anthropologist better understand the usage of an art object. The art object contains four types of social relations to an art object:

1. Indexes: [art objects] which motivate [social agency]…;
2. Artists (or other ‘originators’): to whom are ascribed, by [social agency], causal responsibility for the existence and the characteristics of the index;
3. Recipients: those in relation [to the] indexes…considered to exert [social] agency via the index;
4. Prototypes: [social agency]…represented in the [art object], often by virtue of visual resemblance, but not necessarily (p.27).

I provide the example of a common art object, in order to show how Gell meant an anthropologist to examine it. I’ll choose the art object of a nephew’s red sweater with a green Christmas tree on it knitted by a short-sighted great Aunt. The index is the Christmas tree sweater. The artist is the Great Aunt. The recipient is the nephew. The prototype is gift making and giving of an elder family member to a younger family member. The event is a Christmas holiday celebrated by these family members. Interestingly, Gell does not mention the aesthetic of the art object in terms of taste, so I cannot comment on the tackiness of an ugly sweater as a gift in Gell’s model. Anyhow, these four types of relations are not meant to be “…offering law-like generalizations…” (p.28). Gell employs these relations more like a classification system for understanding the art-like situation (p.28). Additionally, Gell creates a notational system for art object relations, where letters represent four variables of agency. A letter is used for each of the two statuses: agent and patient, or person looking at the index. Arrows demonstrate an action a variable has on another variable (pp.27-35). Although I think a notation could be helpful for large sets of data, I do not use this notation system in this thesis because I focus on one case study about art. More appropriately, I use interviews to describe the relationship between social agency and index in an art-like situation.

Gell’s (1998) uses his concept of indexes in an art-like situation to describe Pacific art, including Maori tattoos. His four-type classification system is a method to find an index, or guess at an art object’s original use. This system of classification was developed for the purpose of understanding not only the expansive group of indigenous Pacific art but also forms of art labelled as Western. For example, archaeologist Chris Gosden (2013) demonstrates he can apply Gell’s (1998) classification system to the artefacts he found from the Bronze and Iron Age in Great Britain. Because one of the foci of my case study is Maori tattoo art, I will focus on Maori tattoo art in my case study. I focus on Non-western art and its social context for the remainder of this discussion. Non-western art worlds exist in a closed context (Arnaut, 2001, p.10). For example, the Maori tattooist understands the meaning of the design made on the tattooee’s skin; the tattooee understands the meaning of his tattoo. The Maori tattooist (agent/artist) is slicing the tattooee’s skin (recipient) in order to produce a design (index) which refers to a supernatural entity and social rank (prototypes). These non-western indexes contain prototypes that are spiritual entities said to be held within an art object (Gell, 1998; pp.101-121). Also, these indexes contain the social investment of the artist and the recipient (pp.153-154; pp.232). Gosden (2013) states that Art and Agency concerns three key questions addressed to all art social worlds yet focused on art from the Pacific world: “how are artefacts ordered through evolving styles, how do such styles link to the broader ordering of cultures, [and] in what ways do both the ordering of material things and of culture” provide a foundation for understanding a social context? (p.39). Gell (1998) believes “that there is a linkage between the concept of [art]…and the concept of culture” (p.156). Art objects shape culture (Gosden, 2013, p.39).

Gell’s (1998) detailed classification system is interesting and progressive in its call to systematize anthropological observations about the creative processes of art which affect and is affected by its social world. However, his theory does not fully explain why it is necessary to categorize art in a four-type classification system in order to understand an artefact’s relation to a person in a group and to that group in the world. His book makes no attempt to posit an argument for anthropologists. It seems possible that if Gell considered and addressed possible objections to his theory, his argument for his conceptualization of art and agency would be regarded as sturdier. After carefully parsing through Gell’s tables, equations, and details about this classification system, I must admit I am not convinced of its reliability as a method for understanding social art. Therefore, I am also skeptical of Gell’s system because of potential problems of applicability. Other anthropologists have doubts about Gell’s system too. Nevertheless, these scholars recognize the importance of examining Gell’s writings for the purpose of elaborating upon his ideas of art and agency.

Anthropologist Karel Arnaut’s review article (2001) about Gell’s anthropological theory of art both praises and condemns Gell’s classification system of the art-like situation:

Art and Agency: it goes theoretically too far and methodologically not far enough. It goes too far, I argue, in trying to devise a proper anthropological theory of material culture. Like other high theories in anthropology (Preuss, Mauss, Lévi-Strauss) this is above all a theory of difference and otherness. In this case, it proposes to exclude certain analytic practices (the iconographic and the aesthetic approach) as non-anthropological, and demarcate a preferred, allegedly ‘anthropological’, empirical field consisting of objects with coherent biographies (because of intra-group production-and-consumption or because they are produced by one artist). This ultimately makes for a highly consistent and powerful theory which reviewers have not failed to appreciate as the index of a powerful intellect. Nevertheless, the analytic and empirical limitations weigh heavily on the potential appeal of this theory (p.1).

Like Arnaut, I wonder how useful Gell’s approach is for observing contemporary art, where boundaries between production and social use are blurred across cultures (p.2). Arnaut (as cited in Chua & Elliot, 2013) describes Art and Agency as a book divided into two parts. Gell’s discussion of object and agency appears to be disconnected from the second section concerning the creative process and personhood situated within this creative process. Many researchers of anthropology of art have challenged Gell’s theory of art and social relations on the grounds that his writing is disjointed and the second half does not follow the first half of his book (p.4). One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether the claim about the disjointedness of Art and Agency is true. Other researchers suggest that Gell’s classification system of art objects offers insights into the social processes interacting with these materials in a dialectic manner rather than simply the art object or art creator enacting on one or the other in linear fashion.

To be precise, Linda Chua and Mark Elliot (2013) argue that Art and Agency is a multifaceted book and some of those facets offer insights into social action and art. Despite its thorny language, the book could provide insight into how persons relate to one another in relationship with art objects in specific cultural settings. Persons become material objects when they wear and share art (pp. 4-5), to be more precise persons become part of the art they are creating and the art becomes part of the social agency of these persons. Chua and Elliot (2013) advocate that Chapter 8 of Art and Agency is the most developed explanation of the possibility for art objects to act on each other and persons within a social context. Agency is embedded in the human relations and material relations in a creative process that is continuous and actively changing (p.9). Gell (1998) describes this process as a connection between materials, persons, and their world (p.141). Therefore artworks are described as “a macro-object, or temporal object, which evolves over time” (p.233). A person’s agency is not defined only by their physiology. Instead, their biological material is united with other persons and objects bound together in a place in time (p.222). Still, Chua and Elliot (2013) ponder on whether Gell would have altered his theory of art and agency if he had lived longer to further consider the role of the aesthetic response in social situations (pp.12-13).

Another reason anthropologists of art do not consider Gell’s (1998) anthropological theory of art complete is that he excludes analyses offered by philosophers of the aesthetic. Unlike Gell, they believe that an anthropologist of art can have a close relationship to aesthetic philosophy (Chua & Elliot, 2013). The philosophy of aesthetics is about people’s responses to art and what makes something art. Gell seems to omit any discussion of aesthetics in analyzing art-like situations because of his limited understanding of the range of aesthetic ideas about art. For example, Gell (1998) describes the aesthetic theories of art as:

…predicated on the idea that artists are exclusively aesthetic agents, who produce works of art which manifest their aesthetic intentions, and that those intentions are communicated to the public who views their works in the light of approximately the same set of aesthetic intentions, vicariously entertained (p.66).

Gell’s skepticism of aesthetic theories of art would be warranted if all philosophers of the aesthetic were trying to understand an artist’s initial aesthetic intentions. Unlike Gell, I have reason to believe, based on the evidence of quality scholarly work done on the subject, philosophers of the aesthetic can be a valuable source for a researcher’s understanding of art in part because philosophers doubt aesthetic attitudes are as simple as Gell believe them to be.

Philosopher Stephen Davies, in The Philosophy of Art (2006), offers insights into art and the aesthetic that encourage skepticism about the expressive theory of art and what Gell (1998) believes is the foundation for all theories of the aesthetic. Davies’s main objection to the expressive theory is the desire of those people, who follow it, to preserve the idea that artists can embody their feelings into visual art (p.241). Davies does not mean that an audience member at a gallery opening cannot infer what an artist’s emotional state was when the art object was produced. But to suppose that an audience member can feel the artist’s emotional state, and understand her intentions, is to assume too much without evidence. In regards to the practice of body modification, could a stranger, seeing a woman with a floral design tattooed on her arm, know the emotional state of the artist who tattooed it? Instead of using only an expressive theory of art to explain its use in culture, Davies (2006) discusses an expressive theory of art as a component of two views regarding the concept of art. The first position is a biological, or evolutionary, basis for art. The second position is a cultural basis for art (p.1). Davies believes that most of the art theorists who are sympathetic to one or the other of these categories, either biological or cultural, are in fact not on opposite ends of a false dichotomy of nature versus nurture.

I discuss Davies’s account of these views of art in order to illuminate Gell’s theoretical distance from the academic schemes of strong biological determinism (i.e. deterministic genetic social construction) versus strong cultural relativism (i.e. human systems are composed of local opinions). Gell’s (1998) art theory falls somewhere in the grey area between these two positions. A biological basis for art does not necessarily contradict Gell’s theory of art and agency. Nor does a cultural basis for art necessarily contradict his theory of art and agency.

Davies (2006) creates one story about each theoretical position on art, in order to compare the two theories. An evolutionary theorist may describe the biological basis of art in this manner:

Art is universal.…Art is also ancient in its originsAs well, art is a source of pleasure and value….These three features- universality, historical age, and intrinsic pleasure or value- are indicative of the biological adaptiveness of the behaviors of which they were associated. In other words, these characteristics are symptomatic of underlying genetic dispositions passed from generation to generation because they enhance the reproductive success of the people who have them. The behaviors in question are universal because they reflect a genetic inheritance that is common to humankind. They are old because humans reached their current biological form some 20,000 years ago….And they are a source of pleasure (like food, sex, and healthy exercise) in order to motivate people to pursue them and thereby pass their genes to future generations who will be successful breeders in their turn (pp.2-3).

A biologist can choose from three accounts about the connection to the creation of art. The first account is that the tendency to create art is a biological adaptation. The first account seems to fail to appreciate the significance the culture plays in creating art. Theorists proclaiming an evolutionary basis for art may neglect to describe the social roles of the artist, the art object, and the observer of art. Both biology and culture play a role in human evolution of art (p.2).

The second account is that art (Davies, 2006), as its function as a by-product of evolution, works to ensure reproductive success by enriching social lives. Davies objects to this second account because it does not distinguish the by-product of art from, let’s say, other by-products like language and sport (p.3). A social scientist, like Gell, might believe art is the product of a particular culture instead of biology. The third account is that art helps establish a community that flourishes, so adult members support the upbringing of children who then raise children of their own (pp.3-4). Davies considers the third account the most credible because it recognizes the social importance of art. In spite of this, Davies thinks that the last biological account could be faulty on the grounds that it fails to account for an evolved human, without children to raise, who engages in making art on a regular basis during leisure time (p.4).

Art: Apart from Society?

In western societies, the arts being separated from daily activity into the realm of leisure time is culturally new for a great number of working members of society. This conception of art as not work and transcending daily life, is relatively modern and was captured by the writings of Immanuel Kant. I include Kant’s discussion of art and craft because it assists me in distinguishing tattoos by skilled artists from tattoos by someone without much experience in Chapter 4 Discussion. Kant (1790, 2000) defines “…art in general” as “…a skill of human beings…distinguished from science [and] theory” (pp. 182-183). Kant’s third defining factor of art is “…it[s] [difference] from handicraft. [Art is]…an occupation that is agreeable in itself; [handicraft] is regarded as labor, i.e. an occupation that is disagreeable (burdensome) in itself and is attractive only because of its effect…” (p.183). Kant determines art can only be art if it exists in a state of play without form and function; an object not produced to satisfy the simple likings of its audience. Kant incorporates Plato’s notion of pure form and Aristotle’s idea of art as social function to create a separate category of skillful art differing from nature yet ordered by the work of its artists, whom Kant calls geniuses:

Genius can only provide rich material for products of art; its elaboration and form require a talent that has been academically trained, in order to make a use of it that can stand up to the power of judgment (p.189).

If Kant lived in the 21st century western society, he possibly would not consider what is called art by this culture to be art. Or maybe he would. On p.189, if I substitute “professionally trained” for “academically trained” then movies, T.V., music, and tattoos could be considered art in the global world, not merely craft.

Kant wrote in the time of the Enlightenment when an increasing number of people had the purchasing power, although not as diverse and as many people as in the 21st century, to buy art. Importantly, the Enlightenment period artists began to produce art objects without a specific buyer who commissioned them. Carol Christenson (“Personal Correspondence”), an artist and art historian, writes “[b]efore [the Enlightenment] there was a lot of art around, but it was generally public art, commissioned by churches, and its function was to illustrate a religious story for those who could not read (January 5, 2016). She describes how art continued to be created for a pragmatic purpose during the Enlightenment, although not necessarily for religious purposes. Christenson writes that “[i]n 17th century Holland, paintings were produced for the first time without being commissioned by a specific patron, and they were sold in galleries or markets to whomever came by” (January 5, 2016). These paintings were not made to serve a dual use, for leisure and for work. However, these art objects could be thought of as indications of an owner’s financial wealth and social class. Thus, the phenomenon of the art world is fairly recent. Until modern times, art was not separated from craft and work; art became a separate sphere in the late Enlightenment period (Davies, 2006, p.6) A growing middle class obtained purchasing power to buy art, and they used that art to signal their identification with a highly valued art world; what took place was a recognition of art as something to be valued personally and socially. Still, the social capital of art cannot completely explain its older origins associated closely with traditional crafts (pp.7-9).

Rather than the use of Kant’s definition of art or the either/or option of a biological or social concept of art, I adopt Davies’s view of art; “I am inclined to the conviction that art is old and universal in ways that suggest no single culture or period can claim exclusive ownership of the concept’” (p.12). Later on in my dissertation, I do not attempt to answer what tattoo art is for all cultures. But, I answer what tattoo art is understood to be by some tattooed people, of different cultural backgrounds, in Hamilton, New Zealand.

The Aesthetic: Apart from Society?

A conversation about art often includes a conversation about the aesthetic. Immanuel Kant (1790, 2000) shares his view on the aesthetic as well. When he wrote that the aesthetic feeling was not mere pleasure upon viewing an art object, Kant set up a judgment-based critique of aesthetic beauty. Beautiful art, according to Kant, is created by the feeling of freedom to play within a concept of possibility: “…that is beautiful which pleases in the mere judging (neither in sensation nor through a concept)” (p.185). This beautiful, free art is aesthetically pleasing because of its imaginative portrayal of the natural object it is representing; however, it does not depend on whether an object is aesthetically pleasing in nature. For example, Kant describes war and disease as harmful events that can be portrayed aesthetically in art. A genius artist portrays war and disease in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, although war and disease are usually not considered aesthetically pleasing outside of art (pp. 189-190). What would Kant say about Apollo and Daphne (1794-1795) by Andrea Appiani, a painting considered to be aesthetically pleasing in the Enlightenment period and considered to be aesthetically pleasing by many people in contemporary times? Since the raping of Daphne by Apollo is ugly in its portrayal of rape culture in Ancient Greece, then the imaginative portrayal of this myth mixed with the darker side of human nature is why it is beautiful. Would Apollo and Daphne be aesthetically pleasing tattooed on some one’s arm? Could a tattoo artist describe war and disease on the flesh in an aesthetically pleasing way? Kant might say so, if the tattoo artist was a genius portraying these dire circumstances aesthetically.

What is aesthetic taste in art? Reflecting on an individual’s subjective taste in art among his contemporaries, Kant proposes an antinomy, or two incompatible laws regarding taste:

1. Thesis. The judgment of taste is not based on concepts, for otherwise, it would be possible to dispute about it (decide by means of proofs).
2. Antithesis. The judgment of taste is based on concepts, for otherwise, despite its variety, it would not even be possible to argue about it (to lay claim to the necessary assent of others to this judgment) (p.215).

Kant details how these laws are not in conflict. He postulates that the judgment of taste is based on an indeterminate concept. A concept of universal beauty exists; it is the basis of judgment of taste (pp. 216-217).

In another book, The Artful Species… (2012), Stephen Davies explores the concept of the aesthetic, in addition to art, as an essential part of human experience. In order to understand how human agency views artistic objects, an operational definition of ‘the aesthetic’ and ‘the aesthetic experience’ is necessary. Davies defines the contemporary aesthetic as a “…wide range of properties…often… viewed as subspecies of the beautiful, the sublime, or their opposites” (p.230). Examples of the sublime could be the sky darkening in warning of an approaching thunderstorm or the roar of a tiger as it approaches a day-dreaming monkey. When compared to the beautiful, which is safe and elegant, the sublime conveys a sense of surprising wonder. Observers may engage in an “…awareness and appreciation of [art’s] aesthetic properties” (p.9) which invokes the beautiful or the sublime. This contemporary idea of the aesthetic conflicts with how it was understood at its birth in early modern philosophy in the Enlightenment period of defining art from craft. Therefore, Davies disagrees with Kant’s theory that aesthetic judgments of art outside nature are free from its tie to concepts. Davies reasons that people’s aesthetic judgments are influenced by evolution and governed by differentiations of sociocultural as well as psychological kinds and classes. Conceivably, Kant’s notion of free beauty may apply to an aesthetic judgment made of a certain object (pp. 89-91). For example, a person may find the inside of a hadron collider pleasing to the visual sense, although that person does not know how a hadron collider works. But in most cases, Davies concludes, aesthetic judgments are most likely based upon an artwork’s functional beauty. Functionality is defined in a broader sense than its usefulness as a material object in daily living. Functionality includes an art piece’s representation of an object as well as an art piece’s more abstract social representations:

Aesthetic judgments of functional beauty take as their objects items appropriately identified in terms of the primary purposes that make them what they are. These judgments do not merely consider if those functions are satisfied but also take account of the manner in which aesthetic properties of the item in question shape how it addresses and achieves this function.…It shows how art might have primary functions that are practical and not self-regarding, and thereby lends plausibility to the idea that art is found beyond the confines of the world of high Western art (pp. 101-102).

Functional beauty, Davies continues, as a model for aesthetic judgments is not supportive of either the free beauty argument or the dependent beauty argument, whereby art has an intrinsic purpose regardless of its location in praxis. Functional beauty takes into account how artworks are valued for their own sakes. And, at the same time, how artworks are being used within a cultural context (pp. 99-100).

In small, pre-industrial societies, most of the art that is produced is utilitarian. According to the ethnologist Ellen Dissanayake (1988), art is a brand of “making special” that has adaptive value, in that it enhances the reproductive success of individuals by forging and solidifying cooperation, group cohesiveness, and a rewarding sense of social belonging (p.100). Recall, too, that Alfred Gell (1998) describes an artwork as functional and calls for an anthropological study of art focusing on analyzing human social behaviors in a relational context with art objects (pp.10-11). Art thus serves as an end to its functional use within social agency. In my view, Gell’s Art and Agency succeeds in its methodological attempt to understand how an art object can be contextually understood. Keeping in mind the social functionality of art and questions brought up by the readings of Kant and Davies, how does art and the aesthetic interplay with a social community? Specifically, how does a New Zealand community interact with tattoo art and how does this community form an aesthetic appreciation of tattoo art?

Modern Moko’s Historic Roots

None other than anthropologist Alfred Gell writes about the practice of tattooing among indigenous peoples of the Pacific Island region, which includes the Maori peoples of Aoteara New Zealand. Gell offers a compelling anthropological introduction to the players, setting, and themes of these tattooed people, specifically in Wrapping in Images… (Gell, 1993). His book’s late-twentieth-century critical attempt at detailing the dynamics of Maori tattoo culture is limited by Gell’s geographic distance from New Zealand. He lived in Great Britain when it was written. However, do not toss Gell aside! As comfortable as he may have been in the armchair, he was thinking seriously about the importance of tattooing culture in the South Pacific region.

Gell’s assessment of the social world of tattooing relies significantly on historical and anthropological documents. If one is looking at current practices of tattooing in the Pacific Island region, Gell’s texts are not entirely accurate for research purposes. However, I use Gell’s textual inquiry into tattooing because his research is valuable for understanding his concept of the social functionality of art. Traditional Maori society, in particular, consisted of many people who had tattoos and who did tattooing. Being part of Maori society, it meant it was socially acceptable to be tattooed. Therefore, there were frequent interactions occurring between the Maori tattooed individual and others of the Maori social world (pp.237-238). Gell suggests that the interaction between tattooed bodies, both in groups and as individuals, “…produce a certain mind-set, a certain frame of social classification, a certain notion of person, self-hood, and empowerment, which was an enabling factor in the reproduction of the specific types of social and political regimes” (p.8). In order to understand how tattoos functioned culturally in traditional Maori societies, the socio-political environment must be understood. According to Gell, Moko kuri were tattoos consisting of three, non-curvilinear lines. During the time of the Moko kuri, wood-carving was not practiced as a functional art form. Later, the recognition and assimilation of wood-carving designs into tattooing practice produced what Gell calls Classic Moko which exhibited a new, elaborate style. This Moko application of a curvilinear design was possibly of 19th century origin (pp.249-250).

Tattooing prospered in times of intensive exploitation of the local wildlife and fauna which led to competition between chiefs, or ariki. Because ariki were responsible for the livelihood of their sub-tribe (hapu) or tribe (iwi), male sons were prized among the higher social ranks (pp. 239-240). These men were tattooed in recognition of their privileged status. Ariki, and future ariki, began being tattooed early in life. Facial tattooing was common among Maori men. Other important and common anatomical areas were the buttocks and thighs. Only facial tattooing was traditionally done with a small chisel. Female chin tattoos, and the thighs and buttocks of males, were done with a comb (pp.246-247). Black ink played an important sacred role in Classic Moko. Moko black ink was made from soot which:

…was secured by burning resinous wood in a flue, made by tunneling a shaft inside a low cliff, so that the smoke from the fire at the bottom emerged to the top. The soot was collected by packing the flue with flower-heads of the toetoe tree. Once collected, the soot would be mixed with sap, kneaded into balls, and then, wrapped in bird-skins, would be kept buried in the earth for many years. There was a practical reason for burying tattoo-black, in that it apparently produced a deeper shade if it was not allowed to dry out. But it is notable that the means of producing soot by ‘digesting’ wood in a shaft, and burying it subsequently in the earth (like corpses and feces) motivate a symbolic convergence between the tattooing pigment and excrement (p.248).

Both males and females were tattooed with black ink. However, the meaning of their Moko differed depending on social rank and sex.

Unlike Maori men, Maori women of lower-status were often tattooed in their youth. An important distinction was that women of high-status were often not tattooed, unlike the males of high-status and females of lower-status. “The ‘ideal’ destiny for young women of exceptionally high rank (i.e. girls who were first-born daughters of the unbroken male line of the hapu founder) was not to get married at all…” (p.241). Unlike girls and women of lower status, many of these ariki first-born daughters were not tattooed before marriage. If one of these high-ranked women wanted to get a tattoo before beginning a sexual relationship or marrying, then a tattooist could refuse her request (p.265). If the first daughter did marry, she could possibly cause political conflict as well. Young, highly-ranked women who married lesser ranked men were not given a dowry. The absence of dowries, or marital gift, contributed to a hierarchal structure across classic Maori societies. By not engaging in ceremonial exchange for a highly ranked woman, reciprocity conflict in each hapu unit ensued. Gifts were given for political accrual but not for marriage. Gift exchange, or lack thereof, exemplified the belief of tattoos connection with the gods (p. 242). In this environment, tattoos functioned as images of the supernatural in Maori society.

Tattooing…is…a reproductive device in the imaginary or artefactual mode….It can sometimes be the case that the multiplication of this throng of familiar spirits and fantasized ‘companions’ inscribed within the skin can actually be a surrogate for reproduction in the more mundane (physiological) sense, so the tattooed person is ipso facto a reproducer, vicariously, if not in reality (p.8).

Gell here argues that tattooing was understood, by its participants, as a permanent linking of humans to ancestors and gods.

Classic (historical) Moko is embedded with designs that recognize social rank and sex difference. These socially functional designs rely on narratives about the supernatural. Central to Maori culture’s appreciation of Classic Moko was its founding myth, the tale of Mataroa’s facial tattoos. Mataroa had been banished to the underworld because he beat his wife, Niwareka. His face paintings were removed by Uetonga, a tattooist in the underworld. Uetonga, then, painstakingly tattooed Mataroa’s face. Eventually, forgiven, Mataroa, wearing his tattoos, returned to the living world (pp. 244-255). His tattoos marked his journey into and out of the supernatural domain.

In Classic Maori society, men and gods occupied this supernatural space. Moko was a sign of recognition of rank and proximity to the gods. Privileged and specific designs were given to the chiefly members of a hapu or iwi. Specific Moko designs marked specific, individual chiefs. A Moko marked a certain chief and this marking could serve as his signature. It was a signature that could not be stolen as it was written in the skin (p.245).

The Culture of Moko in Contemporary New Zealand

What is the contemporary culture of tattoo art in New Zealand? As I have discussed, tattooing in the Pacific Islands region, which includes New Zealand, has existed for millenia. It is believed that the practice of tattooing came from Southeast Asia with the first migrants into then remote Oceania and Polynesia over 3,000 years ago. I have summarized and clarified Alfred Gell’s anthropological inquiry into the classical tattoo social world of the Maori. From here, we move forward into contemporary tattooing in New Zealand. We embark on this modern journey by delving into Mau Moko: The World of the Maori Tattoo (2007) by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Linda Waimarie Nikora.

In order to understand the specific tattoo culture of Aotearoa, one must understand the basic current-day concepts of Maori tattoo art, Moko. I focus on the above-cited book Chapters Four and Five (pp.106-209) because of these sections’ content about Moko artists and tattoo wearers in contemporary New Zealand. Moko, or “permanent markings on the skin” (p.235), were traditionally done by a narrow blade cutting the skin (p.20). Sometimes, today, Maori tattooists, or Ta Moko artists, continue to mark the skin in this manner. The way Maori artists do a tattoo is influenced by the “…conflicting opinions, beliefs, and values about the meaning of Moko…” (p.110); these differences of view affect the application of Moko. An artist’s training impacts his or her ideological practices regarding Moko. Te Awekotuku and Nikora interviewed some artists who had tertiary-level training in fine arts. Other artists learned the art of Moko at workshops. Additionally, some artists received cultural training from family and friends. A number of artists learned how to carve wood first, whakairo, before testing carving skills on the body (p.118). Ta Moko artist, Te Rangikaihoro, explains:

… [W]e learned where Moko patterns were placed and why they were placed and the different names for parts of the body, so you are learning two different skill sets - whakairo and ta moko - simultaneously. You are also learning how to unlock the secrets of patterning, what works and what doesn’t (p.120).

Many artists consider the design linked to well-practiced technique (p.125). Artist Rikirangi describes his carving competence as preparation, although not a technique substitution, for doing Moko:

I also like weaving patterns, taniko patterns, rather than carving images, because carving images are for wood….As a carver, I recognize the fluid lines of Moko on the skin….If you want to do carving, get some wood!...Whereas graphic line…(like weaving patterns)…has more respect for the body. It flows into and comes out of the muscles beneath (p.126).

A Moko practitioner balances knowledge of traditional art forms and knowledge of appropriate design application for a client. Once a potential tattoo artist begins grasping patterns, she surrounds herself with other practitioners. At a shop or home, she is mentored by an experienced tattooist (p.124). Maori designs are linked to whakapapa (genealogy). Christine Harvey, one of the few well-known Maori female tattoo artists, explains:

Whakapapa is so important to me as a designer because often it is the first piece in the puzzle: I am expected to know designs relevant to the person who comes in…I will create a piece for you alone, it will be unique, drawn straight onto your skin, and not stuck on with a stencil, or copied from a book (p.125).

Another important linkage from Moko to tradition, according to tattooists, is karakia, which is defined as “… [an]…incantation; particularly in the ancient rites proper to every important matter in the life of the Maori” (p.129). Modern Maori artists often refer to the importance of reciting karakia. When a pattern is being inscribed on skin, they believe these chants offer protection and safety for a client. Christine Harvey relies upon karakia to prepare herself to create a Moko. “If the client want karakia, it is between the person and me, and every situation is different, so I allow for that, and go with the flow” (p.130). Many clients believe recitation of a karakia is proof of a truly skilled artist (p.130). Moko is a demonstration of pride in Maori culture. Aneta, a client, talks about her Moko as being “…a lost taonga… [(treasure)]…that was taken away through the process of colonization, almost to extinction. It is my external way of showing that I’m proud to be a Maori” (p.152).

In the mid-twentieth century, many young Maori children and teenagers, in an attempt to repossess their traditions and communities, inscribed their skin through self-infliction; some of these people became well-known and respected by their peers. By marking their skins, Maori connect back to their whanau, or family, support system. Other Maori do their own tattoos on themselves; sometimes these tattoos are gang symbols and prison motifs. As a result, traditional Ta Moko and contemporary Neo-Moko emerged as features from this cultural revival. The reactions to Moko are mixed amongst New Zealanders. Some Maori and non-Maori may falsely infer that a person’s facial tattoo is a symbol of a gang membership, despite that person having no such affiliation. A wearing of Moko, in numerous circumstances, can be seen as a political statement against the marginalization of Maori culture (pp.161-165). A wearer of Moko can also create a story, from the fabric of Maori heritage, which comments on the aesthetic and art. A recipient, Ayson describes the tupuna, or ancestry, of his design:

The puhoro [(design on the thigh)] is a thing of beauty - it enhances the body, it is an adornment. It is about who I am, a Maori belonging to a certain iwi [(tribe)]. There is no whakapapa or actual tipuna depicted except for my name Wharepakau, which comes from the Ngati Whare side of Te Whaiti. I remember one of my uncles telling me that Wharepakau was a kaitiaki [(guardian)] depicted as a great big bird with his wings outstretched protecting his people. That is what is depicted on my back, its head at the top and its wings extending over my waist. The eagle’s talons extend down into the taurape [(buttocks)] (p.176).

Ayson’s tattoo took many sessions. Often, he consulted friends, his artist, and a local librarian about what arrangement of narrative he should get for his tupuna Moko. Intending clients may ask permission from elders and friends to get a certain tattoo. Usually, though, when likely clients talk about getting a tattoo, they want a trusted individual’s support (p.176).

Though the Maori community supports Moko, a tattoo wearer may opt out of getting a traditional design because of perceived unworthiness. A person may feel unfit to get a kauae, or facial tattoo, because it is regarded as honorable. To obtain that honor, according to client Olivia, one should: “…have… [an ability to speak the Maori language]…fluently…. [Y]ou should not drink, smoke, swear, or take drugs because it’s about being pure” (p.176). Other Moko wearers feel that any individual Maori has a cultural right to a facial tattoo. Many wearers, as interviewed by Te Awekotuku and Nikora, believe they face hostility in society because they are Maori. For example, by confidently displaying facial tattoos of Moko, they assert that they are not apologizing for being Maori (pp.177-179). Raymond, an interviewee, explains that “[T]he warrior part [of Ta Moko], in today’s society, is about breaking out of the mental slavery” (p. 180). Despite an individual’s reason for choosing to adorn Moko, he cannot control his community’s understanding of why he does so. Another interviewee, Rau, confides that “[Some Maori people]…suddenly talk to me in Maori. They say, “Oh, but you have Moko!” and I say, “Yeah, but I didn’t take Moko for that reason, for te reo, I took it as a tohu [(symbol)] to remember my parents and family”’ (p.182). Maori who seek Moko often choose designs to connect them to their culture. After deciding to get a specific Moko, the next step is selecting an artist to mark it on their skin. When considering artists, according to Te Awekotuku and Nikora, Moko seekers base their decisions on an artist’s knowledge of Maori culture, proficiency of work, tribal kinship, hygienic practices, reputation, and ethics. Although some Moko seekers impulsively choose an artist, many carefully consider their artists. An amiable relationship between artist and client is essential before doing a Moko (p.182).

The environment, also, varies as to where a client receives a Moko. Many artists and clients prefer a studio environment where relationship rules are professional. Some clients get work done at festivals. Other clients adhere to a more traditional setting; they have their Moko done at home or on a marae (ceremonial place). Whanau members can witness the application of Moko at a marae; Ta Moko is celebrated there. Background sounds, such as the chatting of friends, provide solace to a Maori person getting a tattoo. Music is a popular choice for artists and clients. Te Awekotuku and Nikora report many clients talking about how music helped them manage the pain of the needle. At home, customary music is often sung by family and friends. In the studio, music is varied. Genres range from reggae to classical, traditional to relaxation. Some clients ask for no music, instead preferring the silence (p.189).

Although some clients prefer an anesthetic to help numb distressing sensations, many wearers remember the pain as integral to their Ta Moko experience (p.190). Pouroto believes that enduring pain, by the blade, is atonement for the behavior of some Maori men:

Generally, Maori men are not confident enough to confront the issue about the way we mistreat our women….I’m one of those too that have been colonized by society in terms of devaluing women. I wanted to see this as a way to come to terms within myself, being empowered by my own tribal knowledge, our history, and my own responsibilities. Like having a balanced view, both respecting the male and female, in terms of the marae and the roles that we have. There has been a huge power imbalance for us as men, and how we’ve mistreated women. Because it is very painful, getting puhoro [(Moko design on thighs)] was one way to honor our women, and recognize the things that we’ve done wrong in the past (pp.193-194).

Pouroto remembers agonizing soreness and awareness of sex roles when he thinks of Moko. Other wearers consider identity, society, tradition, kinship, responsibility, the designs, accomplishment, and acoustic associations when attaining a Moko (pp.208-209). Maori communicate the history, present, and future of tattooing in Aotearoa by wearing Moko. Moko, one of many tattoo art styles practiced in New Zealand, is considered one of the most aesthetically pleasing, if done by a skilled artist and worn by a proud recipient.

Tattooing Culture: Research in the USA and Great Britain

Aesthetic taste influences how a tattooed person identifies oneself and other tattooed people within a situated environment. The tattooed body is a social site in which to ponder about an individual’s relationship to art. Human scarification, in particular tattooing, exists in a social-cultural environment where a range aesthetic tastes are exhibited within a population. Like many other forms of art, tattoos identify individuals as belonging to a group. Anthropologist Donald E. Brown (1991) lists 67 cultural universals unique to humans; many universals concern elements of art and the aesthetic. The tattooing praxis is included in the categories of bodily adornment, decorative art, propitiation of supernatural beings, religious ritual, residence rules, puberty customs, soul concepts, status differentiation, tool-making, and sexual restrictions. In order to examine a range of styles that exist at fine art studios in New Zealand, I turn to an American sociologist, Clinton R. Sanders, who writes about the art and culture of contemporary tattooing in the United States. Because modern-day New Zealand’s tattoo culture, like the United States, is influenced by many artistic styles and appreciated by people with an array of aesthetic attitudes, I include Sanders’s research about tattooing practices in this dissertation.

Unless a studio specifies that its artists will only do Moko, New Zealand tattoo studios often do more than one tattoo style. Sanders extensively studied United States tattooing practices, at the studio, through interviews and ethnography. For a tattoo researcher, his work is informative and lends insight into New Zealand tattoo culture. The revised and expanded 1989 version Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing (2008) explores the popularity of tattooing in American culture. An important change from his 1998 version is that tattooing is no longer considered deviant; it has become a part of mainstream Americana (vii-viii). This dominant cultural aesthetic attitude began shifting in the 1960s, from one that saw tattoos as simple designs done without much skill to one that appreciated tattoos as art, because the tattooists changed. The primary motivator of most early Western Style tattooists was monetary gain; the primary motivator of these new tattooists was art. Tattoo artists, in the United States, continue to apprentice at studios. Yet, more than likely, these tattoo artists have also attended art schools. Their artworks are displayed in museums, on postcards, and high-paying customer bodies (pp.18-19).

In the United States of America, tattoos can mark one’s economic status and social associations. Over the course of years visiting tattoo studios, Sanders noted a rabbit breeder who got a rabbit tattoo, zodiac signs to represent birth dates, matching bluebirds that represented friendship, military insignia, gang insignia, and an English literature major’s recognition of their degree by a medieval castle (pp.46-47). Other tattoo wearers, as in the following interview, were keenly aware of the aesthetic criteria they wanted their art to fulfill:

(I didn’t get this tattoo) because of being bad or cool or anything like that. It’s like a picture. You see a picture you like and you put it in your room or your house or something like that. It’s just a piece of work that you like. I like the artwork they do here. I like the color (on my tattoo). It really brings it out- the orange and the green. I like that- the colors (p.47).

Tattoos may make a person feel special because their artwork is perceived as making them unique. A tattoo artist compares a person’s tattoo to a customized car:

Tattooing is just a form of personal adornment. Why does someone get a new car and get all the paint stripped off of it and paint it candy-apple red? Why spend $10,000 on a car and then spend another $20,000 to make it look different from the car you bought? I associate it with ownership. Your body is one of the things you indisputably own. There is a tendency to adorn things that you own to make them especially yours (pp.51-52).

Although reactions to tattoos are generally positive, this rather permanent adornment comes with some social costs. Strangers may identify a tattooed person wrongly. For example, a man holding a skull could be mistaken for a gang symbol instead of Hamlet. Oftentimes, a family member, co-worker, or friend may react negatively to a person’s tattoo. One woman recalls how a tattoo affected her husband: “He…almost threw up. It grossed him out” (p.55). If tattoos are met with negative responses, then a tattoo wearer may try to hide a tattoo. Positive responses, by contrast, may encourage a wearer to display a tattoo to mark affiliation with groups and specific interests (p.57).

Through a shared interest in making art, fine-art graduates often begin apprenticing under an experienced tattooist. Many of these fine artists realize the limited career options and low chance of monetary success in the elite fine-art world. By doing tattoo art, these fine artists satisfy their aesthetic need to produce beautiful art and make enough money to live financially well (p.63). The machines and inks needed are not cheap, so are not often available to new tattoo artists. Therefore, the appeal of apprenticing is valued also for the use of tattoo equipment (p.69). However, an apprenticeship can be monetarily costly. Experienced tattooists may charge new tattooists thousands of dollars to learn from them. Most apprentices learn gradually on the job. When they are not observing tattoos being done and learning their art style, they clean the studio and prepare the machines. “Tattooist initiates commonly spend considerable time soldering needles to the needle bars used in the tattoo machines, cutting…stencils [of] designs, mixing pigment, [and] helping during the application process…” (p.72). New tattooists commonly practice on their own bodies, and bodies of friends, before doing art on clients (p.73).

Most tattooists Sanders interviews want to do great art. And those tattooists whose main goal is to make money or gain fame acknowledge that doing great art is their second motivation. Most artists will only do custom work and will not do flash, or frequently reproduced art. A custom design, marked on a client’s skin, displays creative, artistic mastery (p.87). “As tattooing has begun to enjoy a modest level of legitimacy in the larger art world, tattooists’ positive self-definitions as creative artists…have been bolstered and enhanced. In turn, the technical and artistic quality of the tattoos being produced has risen significantly” (p.108). Because tattooists appreciate their art, they have an ethical attitude which relies on an elevated, aesthetic judgment:

One fine art tattooist with an established reputation presented his decisions to refuse certain client requests in political as well as aesthetic terms. I refuse to put down company imagery. To me it’s the most repulsive shit in the world…. [People] want me to do Playboy bunnies. Now what does Playboy Magazine have to do with being a man in our culture? Nothing! It just manufactures this phony fucking concept about life. What does the Rolling Stones tongue have to do with your life? It’s a marketing image…If you want an icon, let’s search for one that has some meaning for you. So I don’t do company logos. I don’t do anarchist slogans like “fuck the world”…I won’t tattoo someone, regardless of the choice of the tattoo, if I feel that person has totally unrealistic expectations…I know when a fragile person walks through the door…I explain all the ramifications there are, that people will reject you as a result of the tattoo, people will consider you to be a certain kind of person….Then I’ll say to them, “If you really want the tattoo come back in about three or four days.” They never come back (pp.84-84).

Visible fine art tattoos are recognized on tattooed people, whether they are Maori or not, and that affects their different self-identities and varied social interactions. One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether the appreciation of tattoo art and tattoo people would differ in a New Zealand context compared to that of United States of America.

Another insightful exploration of tattooing is an article born out of anthropologist Michael Rees’s research in Great Britain. Rees’s (2016) ethnographic data is based on a mixed-method approach of semi-structured interviews, media analysis, and participant observation. He analyzed his data through a grounded theory approach (p.158). Using Rees’s article as a starting point, I will discuss what he discovered about tattooed communities in Great Britain before I mention what could be similar and different about tattooing among a community of people in New Zealand. Rees believes that tattooing has changed from a practice done by people outside mainstream society to a practice done inside mainstream society. Therefore, tattoos signal insider-status and acceptable fashion to mainstream society if done in agreement with Western cultural beauty standards (pp.159-160). In his Abstract, he:

…proposes that four inter-related developments contributed to the redefinition of tattooing: the increasing importance of the body as a site for constructing identity; processes of cultural diversity and globalization; the increased visibility of the practice in popular culture; and attempts to legitimize the practice as an acceptable art form (p. 157).

Rees’s first claim is that the body has become a fundamental object for identity formation. In Rees’s fieldwork, his participants seem to support his belief that the process of becoming more and more tattooed is an attempt to construct individual identity. Some of his interview participants see their tattoos in relation to hobbies, sexuality, body art goals, and social image. Other participants view their tattoos as evidence that they are rebelling against social norms and choosing a more moral beauty standard by rejecting body modifications such as breast implants and liposuction. In either case, individuals believe they are choosing their identities through being tattooed (pp.158-161).

In order to support that tattoos are increasingly signaling insider-status, in the next section of his essay Rees describes how celebrities are often seen in popular media as tattooed. The worldwide football celebrity David Beckham is used as an example of a highly publicized figure who is heavily tattooed (p.162) and seen by many as role model; though this could be for a variety of factors such as his good looks, his fame, or his family. Another place that tattoos are glamourized into the high fashions celebrities often wear is in reality TV shows. In particular, Rees draws the reader’s attention to the franchise Ink (pp.162-163) . An interview respondent named Damien states “[that] now you get celebrity artists with TV shows like Miami Ink, London Ink etc. it does put [tattooing] out there and make it more seen and more mainstream” (p.163). High profile tattoo artists are becoming famous because they are associated with high status people, so their tattoos become recognized among insider groups (p.163).

Celebrity endorsements of tattoo artists are linked to the increased glamorization of tattooing in a globalized world; Rees’s third claim in support of his belief that tattooing is increasingly given insider-status over outsider-status. Not only are famous persons’ tattoos glamorized, specific types of cultural tattoos are also known and held in esteem throughout the world. Maori tattoos are one of these celebrated tattoo cultures and classed in the category of ‘tribal’ defined by Rees “as a catch-all phrase for all non-Western cultures” (p.166). Rees comments on how the categorization of all tattoos that are not viewed as coming from Western cultures is problematic because of the cultural appropriation and stereotypes, but he also points out that tattooed individuals see these tattoos are representative of their choice to have tattooed pieces different from their own cultures in order to establish their affinity with cultures dissimilar from the one they reside in. Additionally, the individual may display a tattoo piece derived from a non-Western culture because of the in-group belief of cultural acceptance and tolerance in many Western countries (pp.166-167). Rees believes that individuals are “…learn[ing] to become more tolerant of other cultures’ body practices...” (p.167). But, I am not convinced of the conclusion that tattooed people are becoming more tolerant of cultural body practices and even if tolerance is a good end goal to aspire to. More case studies about tattooing should be analyzed and quantitative data should be cited or done before conclusions are made about Western tattooed peoples’ beliefs about non-Western tattooed peoples. Nevertheless, Rees’s interviews are important to consider because the participants’ statements demonstrate how tattooing is a global phenomenon. Rees’s final claim connects the globalized practice of tattooing to its place in the art world.

Rees’s interviewees discuss how many tattoo artists make a decent living doing tattoos and are held in high esteem by scholars and the media. However, Rees cautions the reader that tattooing has not been accepted by all as art, yet as tattoos become openly worn and conversed about, tattooing is further solidified as an art form. Based upon Sanders (2008), Rees emphasizes that a substantial number of university trained artists entered the tattoo world in the 1970s and many more continue to become tattoo artists today (p.167). I discussed Sanders (2008) in the previous section, so I think it is helpful to point out the Sanders’s interviews of tattooed people in the USA and Rees’s interviews of tattooed people in Great Britain create a detailed and fuller picture of the Western tattoo art world. Rees believes that tattoo art is becoming more accepted by contemporary Western society than in previous eras and this acceptance is in part because tattoo artworks are increasingly being displayed at museums, conventions, art studio displays, and in books. In Rees’s discussion of how tattooing work is being seen as tattoo art, he makes many references to Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing (2008) in support of the four factors he identifies as moving tattooed people from outsider to insider status. Like Sanders, Rees believes that tattooing is being legitimized in the art world though it is not fully legitimized (p.169-172). Some of the ways that tattooists seek legitimacy is their continual engagement with other art practices in addition to doing their tattoo artworks (p.168). Sometimes it is not legitimacy that encourages tattoo artists to engage with other art forms; it is their status as an artist that has established a market for their other aesthetic endeavors (p.169). Notably, Rees concludes his article by a statement from one of his interviewees that likely holds true in Western cultures: “tattooing has lost is outsider status” (p.172). Has tattooing lost its outsider status in non-Western cultures?

Are tattooing art, tattoo artists, and tattooed people becoming a part of mainstream culture in New Zealand as in the Great Britain of Rees (2016) the United States of America in Sanders (2008)? Or was tattooing culture, especially from its thousands of years of history in the South Pacific region, already an integral part of what it is New Zealand culture? The research of Te Awekotuku and Nikora (2007) demonstrate the historical and contemporary importance of Moko. Perhaps unlike North America and Europe, tattooing culture is not simply becoming mainstream in New Zealand. Instead, tattooing culture was prevalent in Aotearoa or New Zealand because of its place in the traditions of the Maori peoples. Only within the 19th and 20th centuries was tattooing not regarded as part of New Zealand culture by some of the more recent immigrants to New Zealand. Now in the 21st century, in part because of the Maori cultural revival, tattooing is once again becoming part of New Zealand culture. The main question I ask from my research at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio, after reading Sanders (2008), Rees (2016), and Te Awekotuku and Nikora (2007), is this: is tattooing already part of the mainstream among some peoples in New Zealand culture so that New Zealand’s acceptance and display of tattooing differ significantly from its acceptance and display in The United States of America and Great Britain? As was pointed out earlier in the Introduction and within this chapter, researchers have touched upon the relationship of tattoo artists and their clients. Many consumers of the tattoo industry are knowledgeable about different tattoo styles, are familiar with popular tattoo artists, and seek out well-known studios. Anthropologists, Alfred Gell and Michael Rees among them, have written about tattooing. Why, then, do I research tattooing when there is already a literature on the subject? Because, I believe more questions should be asked how art and the aesthetic is understood by the people involved within tattooed communities, especially in understanding the role of ethics within a tattooed community.

Ethics of Tattoo Artists

In the previous discussion, I discussed Sanders’s (2008) cultural observations of the United States tattooing scene yet again. A common narrative in his observations is that tattooists value being ethical before, during, and after the tattooing process. In order to address how tattooists’ ethics will be analyzed in my Chapter 4 Discussion, some discussion of tattooists’ ethics in New Zealand is needed in my preliminary discussion. To start, the first ethics focus in New Zealand is on the paternalist efforts from outside organizations, outside the tattoo studio and within New Zealand that is, that regulate specific tattooing practices. Gerald Dworkin (1972) defines paternalism “…as the use of coercion to achieve a good which is not recognized as such by those persons for whom the good is intended” (p.68). Tattoo industries are regulated paternalistically through restrictions on age and sanitation standards.

New Zealand does not have a national law that requires a person to be of a certain age for getting tattooed. Yet, many localities require a person to be a minimum of 18 years of age to get a tattoo. Hamilton, New Zealand, where I have undertaken my tattoo research, does not require a certain age for a tattoo. However, a person under 16 years of age must have parental or guardian consent before being tattooed at a tattoo studio. Concerns about how old individuals are when getting tattooed is a paternalistic concern but does not directly address the quality of the tattoo work done on client skins because regulations for age would not take into account the skill level of the artist doing the tattooing. Additionally, regulations for a certain age to be tattooed do not address where a tattoo may be placed. Noteworthy are the tattoo artists who elect to be part of an organization dedicated to not tattooing someone under the age of 18. New Zealand tattoo artists, who are interested in adhering to this ethical code, can join the Tattoo Artists Association of New Zealand (TAANZ). However, TAANZ functions primarily as a lobbying group for safety of tattooing rather than a safety enforcement agency (“tattoos & piercings”, Youth Law Aotearoa, 2015).

Tattooing businesses in Hamilton are regulated by sanitation codes, yet no rules regulate the quality of inks used in the tattoo gun. Similarly, no basic requirements are available for the education of a tattooist before he or she can work on clients (“Tattoos and Piercing Facilities”, Hamilton County Health Guidelines, 2015). Sanitation requirements do not directly address the quality of art, the application of the art, the quality of the inks, the type of designs allowed, and where artists tattoo on a person. Discussion of tattooing ethics is usually framed within the context of sanitation requirements and age concerns.

Another aspect of tattooing ethics in New Zealand is that it does not have the amount of commentary about it that other countries have though less commentary may be correlated with New Zealand’s smaller population size. Although I came across a few blogs written by tattoo artists who live outside New Zealand, I was not able to find blogs specifically addressing ethics and tattooing from artists in New Zealand. I was not able to find research articles specifically addressing an ethical code followed by many tattoo artists, or an ethical code of certain artists, within the confines of a tattoo business or businesses in New Zealand. I was not aware of ethics and etiquette rules playing an important role in the tattoo industry until I did my research. A research gap in literature about tattooing exists because tattoo artists and their ethics are not often discussed in anthropological texts. My fieldwork was centered on art and the aesthetic, but I will address some of the implications of the ethical code and etiquette rules of tattoo artists at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio at the end of Ch.4 Discussion.

Summary of Preliminaries

Utilizing information from the texts Wrapping in Images (1993) and Art and Agency (1998) by Alfred Gell, I assess the social world of tattooing through the anthropological data I collected at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. New Zealand society consists of many people who have tattoos and who do tattooing. These New Zealanders may or may not be of Maori descent. Gell suggests that the interaction between tattooed bodies, group and individual, reinforces self-identity and identity with a group that is influenced by a cultural environment (1993, p.8). Within the traditional social world of tattooing in Aotearoa, Classic (historical) Moko was reliant on designs which classify the individual by rank and sex. Many designs rely on narratives about the supernatural. Additionally, rite of passage narratives are constructed on the skin with Moko (Gell, 1993). Te Awekotuku and Linda Waimarie Nikora (2007) discuss the designs and skills essential for Moko in Aotearoa. They detail how traditional Moko designs converge with Contemporary Moko practices. Moko is worn by Maori and non-Maori globally, not just in New Zealand.

Therefore it was surprising to me that there is not more anthropological fieldwork that specifically focuses on art and the aesthetic in respect to contemporary fine-art styles of tattooing and its relation to traditional indigenous tattooing practices in the Pacific Island region. Sanders’s research (2008) focuses on the social world of contemporary tattooing in the United States of America, but some of the contemporary tattoo styles he describes are also found in Hamilton, New Zealand. Because not enough is known about the convergence of tattoo art styles in a tattoo business setting in New Zealand, where Polynesian and Western styles influence each other, I highlight the different styles, artists, and tattooed persons within the fine art tattoo business of Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. Flax Roots Tattoo Studio’s physical location is in the central part of Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand, where I place the tattooed person in the context of local social interactions. I focus my research at on Flax Roots Tattoo Studio because of the different tattoo artworks that are done there by four artists who each have an aesthetic style. Some of the styles done there are Polynesian, and some are Western. Similarities and dissimilarities arise when I compare different tattoo art styles and aesthetic attitudes in my fieldwork.

Sometimes I refer to the physical or online locations outside Hamilton that have influenced, or been influenced by, tattooed people at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. I acknowledge that tattooing exists in a globalized space, as evident from Rees (2016) and my fieldwork. As Rees pointed out, tattoo art is becoming legitimized. Increasingly, upper class and middle class people in New Zealand buy tattoo art. They can wear fine art tattoos to signal their identification with a highly valued art world. However, the theory of art as social capital cannot completely explain its older origins associated closely with traditional crafts. Stephen Davies (2006) suggests that no single culture or period can claim exclusive ownership of the concept of art. Davies makes the case again in The Artful Species… (2012) where he concludes that aesthetic attitudes are both biologically and socially made. Davies (2006; 2012), Sanders (2008), and Rees (2016) would perhaps agree with Kant (1790) that aesthetically pleasing tattoo artworks are viewed across cultures as good art, but they seem to disagree with Kant about a universal and permanent legitimacy of artworks.

I consider my research about the aesthetic and art of tattooing to be important in three ways: it explores the phenomenon of tattooing in an understudied tattooed community in contemporary New Zealand; it focuses on art and the aesthetic in relation to tattooing; and it includes anthropological fieldwork to support my conclusions about this specific tattoo studio. All of these factors contribute to knowledge about tattooing in social science literature. I do not make general claims about tattooing everywhere as my fieldwork’s intention from the outset was to be a case study of a fine art tattoo business that drew clients mainly from a localized space yet had ties to the international tattooing community. My goal is to achieve an in-depth look at the ways in which art and the aesthetic operate within a small social group of tattooists and clients who are embedded within their local culture and sometimes connected to other tattooed cultures in single or multitude of social spaces. I ask and answer these questions: 1. How do tattoo artists and their clients engage with and shape tattoo art and its aesthetic at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio? ; and 2. How do these tattoo artists’ ethics influence their relationships with their clients and art?

Chapter 2 Methodology

“The aim of anthropological theory is to make sense of behavior in the context of social relations” (Gell, 1998, p.11)

My research project enables the reader to develop a better understanding of tattooing in practice at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio in Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand because I have carefully selected methodology that enabled me to investigate this community properly. The methods for gathering data I employed are grounded theory, interviews and photography, fieldwork, and verification of my interviews and photographs by participants. Each of my methods involved carefully planned steps and questions. Each of my methods involved a careful way of checking my beliefs and updating my beliefs about my fieldwork based on evidence from interviews and photographs. Therefore, in this second chapter, I explain my role as researcher before detailing my methodology.

My Role as Researcher

Through critical inquiry using well-thought out research methods, I tried to objectively document the phenomena of tattooing. I strived to be objective; and this meant being aware of my intuitive judgments. For example, I could easily have made things up in order to fit my conclusion to a prescriptive paradigm. In Practical Research: Planning and Design (2010) , P.D. Leedy and J. Ormond discuss the importance of evidence in interpreting data. Researchers can sometimes make unwarranted claims and far-flung inferences from their data. Often, the pressure to produce something new in an academic field rushes a researcher to make incorrect conclusions (E-book loc. 8847). So, I did not rush, unthinkingly, to quick conclusions.

Furthermore, I aimed for objectivity as “[I] recognize[d] that the power of the documentation is in its objectivity, in its chilling irrefutability, not in its neutrality… [I was]…prepared for some serious tests of [my] ability to remain a[n]…observer” (Bernard, Research Methods In Anthropology…, 2002, pp.349-350). I am biased because I think as a human; but I stated my biases and strove to analyze social interactions without prejudice. Instead of fitting my fieldwork findings into a narrow slot, which is too narrow for the width of information my fieldwork produced, I preferred reaching evidence-based conclusions drawn from qualitative research methods. As an evidence-based anthropologist, I updated my beliefs based on the findings from my fieldwork. When my fieldwork pointed to a different conclusion than I thought it would, then I changed my beliefs about what I thought would be the result. This sort of applied rationality to research was part of my goal of striving to be engaged objectively with my work. Therefore, I identified, addressed, and communicate any assumptions, beliefs, or biases which may have influenced interpretations of research within my dissertation and when relevant to ethical guidelines standardized by the University of Waikato. I maintained a willingness to modify my interpretations of data when new information conflicts with previously held provisional conclusions.

Data Analysis: Importance of Grounded Theory

Grounded-theory research helped me understand the phenomenon of tattooing, as reflected in my case study. According to the book Practical Research (2010), “[t]he major purpose of a grounded-theory approach is to begin with the data…” and use it to develop a theory (Leedy and Ormrod, electronic loc. 4865). My fieldwork informed the literature. Before I began my research at Flax Roots, I familiarized myself with a wide range of texts, some of which became part of my literature review. Not all of the texts I considered survived the final cut into my dissertation. The texts I left out no longer stood up after data analysis. This intentional editing was based on the importance of grounded-theory research. “The whole idea is to discover patterns of behavior or thought in a set of texts” (Bernard, 2002, p.464). Anthropologist Russell Bernard lays out six purposes of using grounded theory as a methodological approach in field studies:

(1) Produce transcripts of interviews and read through a small sample of text. (2) Identify potential analytic categories- that is, potential themes- that arise. (3) As the categories emerge, pull all the data from those categories together and compare them. (4) Think about how categories are linked together. (5) Use the relations among categories to build theoretical models, constantly checking the models against the data- particularly against negative cases. (6) Present the results of the analysis using exemplars, that is, quotes from interviews that illuminate the theory (p.446).

I set out to address each of the six points. First, I transcribed and read each interview. Second, I identified themes that arose from my interviews, photographs, and observations. Third, I compared emerging sociocultural categories that (fourth) required thinking about possible categorical linkages. If relations existed between sociocultural categories, then I (fifth) checked these categories against negative cases. Sixth and last, I presented the analysis coupled with quotations from field notes and interviews.

Qualitative Approaches in My Case Study

In my case study, data analysis involves five steps. The first step is the “Organization of details about the case” (Leedy and Ormond, 2010, loc. 4691). I arranged my observations of Flax Roots Tattoo Studio closest to time and date an interview or photograph was taken. The second step is “Categorization of the data” (loc.4691). In Chapter 3 Interviews, Photographs, and Observations, I categorized each client’s interview under one of the four artists. An artist’s interview is before their clients’ interviews in each artist category. So, I categorize clients’ interviews by their artists, then I chronologically order the clients’ interviews under each specific artist. In my transcription of each interview, the punctuation and spelling reflect the interviewees’ way of speaking to me. Sometimes specific photographs, interviews, or observations may need interpretation. The third step is my Chapter 4 Discussion. I categorized the interviews based on how the interview questions were answered by participants. Some participants’ responses do not fit neatly into a specific category or an interview question (loc.4691; loc. 4698). Step four is to identify the patterns in my research. I looked at my overall fieldwork and found the patterns to summarize in my conclusion.

In Conclusion, observable conclusions are drawn about tattooing at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio in Hamilton, New Zealand. This fifth step avoids generalization of research findings to environments outside my research. As an alternative to concluding in a sweeping generalization, I note the similarities and dissimilarities of the interview content (loc. 4721). I conclude by offering provisional answers and an analysis of the socio-cultural environment of Flax Roots Tattoo Studio.

My research project is a case study because, for a specific length of time, I observed a tattoo community at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio and analyzed its environment. Specifically, I looked for insight into socio-cultural factors which possibly influenced a tattooed person’s aesthetic attitude and choice of art; and how a tattooed person may have influenced these socio-cultural factors. Since I am attempting to reach conclusions from my tattooing research, my three qualitative approaches (interview, observation, grounded theory) follow four guiding principles discussed by Alan Peshkin (“The Goodness of Qualitative Research”, 1993).

The first, used for observations and interviews, is the operations categorized under the detailing of description. Description, or an account, contains the operations of “…processes, relationships, settings and situations, systems, and people” (p.24). In my description of the tattoo studio, I explain the social operations around tattooing. Relationships, between tattooists and tattooees, often are influenced by these social factors. After detailing the interpersonal exchanges at the studio, I interpret these observations. Peshkin’s second guiding principle is interpretation, or a “[c]larifying and understanding [of] complexity…” (p.27) which draws on evidence-based insights and concepts (p.25). I interpret the interviews and ethnographic data, within the socio-cultural area of Hamilton, in relation to concepts explored in the aesthetic and art.

The third principle is verification, which is validating data (p.27). Interview transcripts were approved by participants. No participants disagreed with or clarified the statements I recorded and, subsequently, used for my dissertation. The fourth and final guiding principle discussed by Peshkin is evaluation; that is, research implications (p.28). After assessing observations and interviews, I describe sociocultural factors that may influence individual preferences regarding a tattoo. I point out the dynamic relationship of people influencing culture and culture influencing people. From the academic writing about tattooing, I use some of the best literature about contemporary tattooing practices for help in evaluating my fieldwork. I describe the tattoo studio environment when relevant to my research questions. P.D. Leedy and J. Ormond (2010) explain the methods of a case study; methods I use. I collect data from observations, interviews, and photographs (E-book loc.4683). I focus on a single tattoo case study because contextual make-up offers the possibility of a detailed understanding of that specific situation (loc. 4672). My hope is that the details and conclusions of my case study can be used as reference for other researchers inquiring into the social world of tattoo art (loc. 4688).

My field notes consist of three types of data: methodological, descriptive, and analytic. Methodological notes described where, when, and how I collected the field data. Descriptive notes detail what I saw and heard, comprising the bulk of my records. Analytic notes are the observations I wrote based on my methodological notes and descriptive notes (Ibid, pp.376-377). My field notes assisted me in “(1) identifying categories and concepts that emerge from… [my literature review] and (2) linking… [these]…concepts…” (Ibid, p.462) in order to ground my research within the social science discipline. I noted observations at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio for about five hours a day, two days a week, during mid-January to March 2015. I spent a number of random hours and days at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio and at my office at the University of Waikato interviewing tattooists and tattooees. The last interview was done at a local coffee shop, near Flax Roots Tattoo Studio, at the request of the interviewee. Interviews allow me to ask questions about clients’ and artists’ associations with tattooing. These interviews required approximately one hour of a participant’s time at a safe, private, and convenient location. Thirteen people, who were tattooed by one or more Flax Roots Tattoo Studio’s artists, consented to photographs and interviews. Out of those people who consented, ten clients were interviewed because three people who filled out consent forms did not respond when later contacted about doing an interview. Additionally, four tattoo artists working at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio were interviewed there. Photographs were taken at the tattoo studio. Photographs were sometimes taken during the time of the interview.

As an interviewer, I followed specific guidelines outlined by Leedy and Ormrod (2010) in order to conduct a semi-structured interview that was contextually accurate. Semi-structured interviews are useful in this research because I recorded perceptions of participants about tattooing at a specific place (p.181). The interview format mainly consisted of two people, a one-to-one ratio of researcher-to-participant. In two instances, I interviewed more than one individual (an artist and his client; a couple and an artist). I had prepared interview questions in advance (See Appendix I). These questions were created with my guiding research question in mind and encourage interviewees to talk about tattooing in a conversational approach without hinting at particular answers. I asked questions aimed at gaining a description of each person’s tattoo(s) as well as a description of their occupation, hobby, gender, sex, age, tattoo art preference(s), and aesthetic outlook. Additionally, I asked questions about their perceptions of other people with tattoos located in Hamilton; sometimes this led participants to talk about tattooed people living elsewhere in New Zealand and the world. Based on a participant’s response, I followed up with specific questions that varied from participant to participant. The center column of Appendix I contains examples of how a question could have been followed up by me. In order to be interviewed and possibly photographed, tattoo artists and their clients were given the same information letter and consent form. I took photos before, during, and after a particular tattoo piece was done. These photographs were of clients’ tattoos, artists doing tattoo work, tattoo drawings, and Flax Roots Tattoo Studio’s interior and exterior. I took photographs with the same audio-recording device I used for interviewing.


My research increases the knowledge of tattooed people involved with Flax Roots Tattoo Studio in Hamilton. I cannot generalize my case study, and in effect my fieldwork, to all people in tattooed communities in New Zealand and in other countries. I do not claim that the global tattooed community will exhibit the same ideas about art and the aesthetic. Nevertheless, my fieldwork sheds light on tattooing practices in New Zealand and perhaps the rest of the world.

Another limitation was the budget and time constraints embedded in the completion of my dissertation. I would have liked to interview and observe several different fine art tattoo studios within Hamilton and elsewhere in New Zealand. I chose to gather as much quality information as I could, with time and budget allowance, at Flax Roots Tattoo Studio. Yet, I also view a case study as a strength because I was able to focus on one community; this intentional focus added insights to my research I may not have been able to include had I not interacted with participants to the extent I did. Had I done my study in multiple places in a constrained amount of time, I may have not developed the trust of participants.

Yet, limitations should be mentioned in a case study with one interviewer. I am perceived certain ways by the tattooed people I interviewed and other interviewers may have been perceived in different ways. A different interviewer may have been got different responses from my research questions. For example, some men were hesitant when answering the gender and sex question. Would some men have answered that question a similar way if I had been a man conducting the interviews? Would women have answered the gender and sex question in a different way? Ultimately, I did the best I could do with the knowledge I gathered from participants from my fieldwork.


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Art, aesthetics and ethics of tattooing
Analysis of a tattoo business in Hamilton
The University of Waikato
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
analysis, hamilton, anthropology, art, ethics, Alfred Gell, aesthetics, philosophy, social science, marketing, Moko, tattooing, business ethics, sociology, Kant, New Zealand, Waikato, Maori, Kelabit, artists, tattoo artists, Clinton R. Saunders, Stephen Davies, anthropology of art, philosophy of art, ethics and anthropology
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Mandy Shaver (Author), 2018, Art, aesthetics and ethics of tattooing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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