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For the Love of Tattooing: The films from the New Zealand Film Commission

18 Jan 2016 | Categories: General | Posted by: Sean Herman

This year I will be continuing the series I had been doing entitled “For the Love of Tattooing.  For the past few years I have been writing about my personal love of tattooing, interviewed other tattooers, and interviewed collectors (which can be read here).  This year I will be continuing with the exploration of a love of  an ancient craft, one that is “as old as time, and as modern as today”.  Last post I brought you a film that heavily influenced my love of tattooing, “Signature of the Soul“.  This post I will be bringing you several more films from the New Zealand Film Commission, with the first being the director of “Signature of the Soul”, Geoff Steven, first foray into tattooing culture, the film “Skin Pics”.


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Still from the film “Skin Pics” (1980)

Skin Pics  (1980)

Film Overview:  “A bold reveal of a rose tattoo opens this 1980 documentary on contemporary Kiwi tattooing. Then, a potted history of the practice punctuates visits to parlours on K Road and Hastings, plus the studios of industry legends Steve Johnson and Roger Ingerton. Interviews with tattooists and their canvases roam from stigma, the perils of permanence, and motivations for inking; to design tropes (sailors, serpents, swallows) and tā moko. Commissioned by TVNZ for the Contact documentary slot, the Geoff Steven film chronicles a time when “folk art has become high art.

You can view the full film here.


Tattooist from the film "Skin Pics" planning out a piece.

Tattooist from the film “Skin Pics” planning out a piece. (1980)

I was going to post more about this New Zealand film, but after reviewing it, I am just going to put a link up for the people that are interested.  “Skin Pics” is Geoff Steven’s first foray into filming tattoo subculture, so try to go into the film knowing that, and knowing when it was filmed in 1980.  Tattooing in 1980 was just beginning to get more educated on cross contamination, and what measures to take to prevent it.  That being said, this film is right at the beginning of a change in tattooing, so there are things like a lack of glove usage, lack of machine bags, etc that I don’t advocate.  This film is a brief, interesting, picture in time, and by no means how tattooing should be done today.  Also, Geoff Steven’s exposure to tattooing at this point was predominately from white culture, so the viewpoint is a little one sided, along with it being the beginning of his life long tattoo education.  These tattooers didn’t have an apprenticeship, and taught themselves, something that I definitely don’t advocate.   The only way that I would recommend getting into tattooing is through a proper apprenticeship, learning a respect for tattooing, and further knowledge in many fields, including sterility and cross contamination.  Though they do touch on the effects of non sterile tattooing in this film (citing various diseases and infections that occur for many of the interviewees) I can not reiterate enough that if you want to tattoo, get an apprenticeship, get educated.  If you are tattooing, make sure to do all you can to avoid cross contamination.  Respect the craft we are fortunate to work within.  Back to the film though, sorry for the rant.

A young woman shares her stories with tattoo removal, and the scars from it as seen in the film "Skin Pics" (1980)

A young woman shares her stories with tattoo removal, and the scars from it as seen in the film “Skin Pics” (1980)

A tattoo from the film "Skin Pics" (1980)

A tattoo from the film “Skin Pics” (1980)

“Skin Pics” is an interesting document in time for tattooing, and just that, a document in time.  Tattooing has come a long way with responsibility, sterility, and education, but the overall love for tattooing is still there and is apparent in Geoff Steven’s film.  I loved hearing the various interviews and pieces that were very raw and honest about how tattooing has affected people of all ages and cultures, all over the world.

A woman from the film "Skin Pics" enthusiastically shares her stories of her love of being tattooed. (1980)

A woman from the film “Skin Pics” enthusiastically shares her stories of her love of being tattooed. (1980)

The beauty and love for tattooing is obvious in the interviews throughout the film, the excitement and willingness to share so many stories that are very personal and intimate for all of these people.  That’s why I include this film when talking about tattoo documentaries in this series. I could hear people talking about why they love tattooing all day, and many of these interviews just left me smiling.

The New Zealand Film Commission, whose website hosts full versions of the films  “Skin Pics” and “Signature of the Soul”,  has some more great movies that you can check out.  Savage Symbols”, “Ta Moko” , and “Into Antiquity: A Memory of the Maori Moko” cover a wider array of tattooing, including a focus on Maori tattooing.  Maori and Samoan tattooing are the heart beats of the history of tattooing for the New Zealand people, yet both are still very mysterious and somewhat unknown to American culture.  I am including the links to two films that are a great place to start, both giving a brief glimpse into a culture and society that is integral to the craft we love of tattooing.

Here are some descriptions along with links to the film.  Enjoy!


The New Zealand Film Commission bring you the film "Savage Symbols"

The New Zealand Film Commission bring you the film “Savage Symbols” (2002)

Savage Symbols  (2002)

Directed by Makerita Urale

The title shot from the film "Savage Symbols" (2002)

The title shot from the film “Savage Symbols” (2002)

Film Overview:  “This documentary is a look at the art of traditional Samoan tattooing, or pe’a – based around interviews with nine men who have the tattoos (which cover the lower back and upper legs). The film goes to Samoa to discover the history of tatau, and also interviews NZ-based Samoans with pe’a. They talk about the cultural significance of the tattooing, what it means to them, and about dealing with the pain of the long tattooing process, as well as the recovery period afterwards. The documentary screened at the 2002 NZ International Film Festival.”

You can view the full film here.


The New Zealand Film Commission bring you the film "Ta Moko" (2007)

The New Zealand Film Commission bring you the film “Ta Moko” (2007)

Ta Moko (Maori Doc)  (2007)  

Directed by Kim Webby

Title screen from the film "Ta Moko" (2007)

Title screen from the film “Ta Moko” (2007)

Film Overview:  “Tā Moko is a half hour documentary on Māori tattoo, including rare footage of internationally acclaimed Māori artist George Nuku getting a full-face moko via traditional tattooing techniques. The documentary follows the journey of Ta Moko from its use and status in traditional Māori culture, to its appropriation as gang insignia, and its revival as an expression of Māori identity and pride in the modern world. Directed by Kim Webby, Tā Moko screened on TVNZ, and was a finalist at the 2007 NZ Media Peace Awards. “

You can view the full film here.


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The New Zealand Film Commission brings you “Into Antiquity: A Memory of the Maori Moko”

Into Antiquity:  A Memory of the Maori Moko (1972)

Directed by Wayne Tourell

Title screen for the film "Into Antiquity" (1972)

Title screen for the film “Into Antiquity” (1972)

Film Overview:  “This 1972 documentary explores the world of a dying generation of Māori female elders or kuia — “the last of the Māori women with tattooed chins”. Narrator Selwyn Muru extols the place of the kuia in Māori culture, and of wahine tā moko. Among those on screen are 105-year old Ngahuia Hona, who cooks in hot pools, rolls a cigarette, and eats with whānau, and “the oldest Māori” Nga Kahikatea Wirihana, who remembers the Battle of Ōrākau during the land wars, and has outlived four husbands. Into Antiquity was an early documentary from veteran Wayne Tourell.”

You can view the full film here.


Next week I will be bringing you one of my very favorite documentaries about a tattooer that worked in Alabama for a time in his career, and changed the lives of the community around him.  His viewpoint on small business and on being involved with his community are very influential on myself and how I approach our shop, The Bell Rose.  It will be an honor to bring this documentary to you, so make sure to check back soon to find out what tattooer documentary I am speaking about!

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