Aboriginal tattooing is something that is not just underexplored in Australia, it is almost unheard of… until now. Nikita Ridgeway tells us about Dreamtime and why she started a site that continues to grow, while educating people worldwide.
Inked: Where did the idea come from to start the site and why was it important for you to gather people behind the idea?
Nikita Ridgeway: Dreamtime Ink Australia first started off after I established the Aboriginal and TSI Tattoos fan page on Facebook on February 13, 2012. I created the page because I have quite a few Aboriginal tattoos myself and, being an avid fan on many Facebook tattoo pages and other tattoo websites, I had never ever seen any Aboriginal tattoos at all, which was rather a let-down and upsetting, so that was the instigator to create the page. I had never come across many other people who had Aboriginal tattoos. It turns out I was wrong. In the space of five months the page has now reached over 7000 fans, which will be 8000 by next week. It’s growing by 1000 fans a fortnight. I was astounded to see the rising popularity of the page and how it just went viral on the internet overnight. The page gained 100 fans a day when it started off.
Seeing the popularity of the page, and the thousands of tattoos being shared on the page, and the thousands of messages I was getting from not only the Indigenous community but also non-Indigenous people wanting to know more about resources to learn more on the art form or where they could go to get Aboriginal tattoos done, or to ask if I knew of any Aboriginal tattooists, gave me the inspiration to establish Dreamtime Ink Australia, the only Aboriginal tattoo company in Australia, and probably the world. It’s a company dedicated to enhancing and promoting the genre of Aboriginal tattoos and creating opportunities for Aboriginal tattoo artists in the industry. It is rare to see Aboriginal tattoo artists working in the industry, nationally or internationally, and see much published work on Aboriginal ink work. I didn’t want to just open a shop and that’s it – I was thinking of the bigger picture and long term plans. Educating and providing resources and a ‘one stop shop’ so having everything having to do with or related to Aboriginal tattoos, for everyone. It’s a company run by the people for the people, in a culturally appropriate way.
Being that there had never been anything in terms of a centralised hub of information on Aboriginal tattoos, I felt that gathering info and networking with as many people as possible in both the Aboriginal and tattoo community would get the company out there and it would effectively start to gain ground and experience rapid growth. There is strength in numbers, and taking on a challenge to inform and create a resource of an unchartered genre would need the assistance of everyone possible. The community is what gives the company its stature and it is only right to get everyone involved on something that already is proving to be a successful and popular venture.
Tell us more about ATSI tattooing, and what is it that most people don’t understand. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tattooing in Australian society is starting to become a modern day form of passing on cultural knowledge and, more specifically, it is a way for the younger Aboriginal and TSI people to express their cultural pride and share their cultural knowledge.
Even though it isn’t actually a traditional cultural practice of ours, it is becoming a way to still stick within the realms of passing on cultural knowledge through art, just in this case it is in a more modern day process of ink to skin, which can be likened to the process of applying ochre to the skin which is prominent in our cultural ceremonies.
While there are those of the older generations in the community that do not agree with Aboriginal tattoos because they feel it diminishes the traditional processes of culture through song, dance, language, and art, or the traditional practice of not using or showing an image of passed loved ones, it is quite evident from the increase of Aboriginal tattoos today that it is an art form that will remain everlasting among the people themselves. Dreamtime Ink Australia is here to educate everyone on these processes of traditional beliefs, so that they can understand and respect the genre of tattooing. Even though, as much as we advocate and educate on these practices, there will be people out there getting tattoos that conflict with the traditional beliefs. It is Dreamtime Ink’s duty to inform as many possible to put a stop to this, or at least educate people so that they can make an informed decision.
Who have you got on board to support the cause, and how will they help? Since the establishment of Dreamtime Ink I have been working avidly with as many tattoo shops as possible in different states, that either have an Aboriginal tattooist working in their shop or have a good rapport with the community, who the community. It is very important to Aboriginal people to feel they can go to a tattoo shop that will take the time to work in a culturally appropriate manner. By building up good working and networking relationships with these businesses, it allows me to gain info and find possible apprenticeships for up and coming Aboriginal and TSI Tattooists, thus increasing the numbers of our people’s tattooists in the tattoo industry, which sadly is currently not many at all. But Dreamtime Ink aims to change that! I have also been talking with Protat and some Indigenous and mainstream health organisations to get on board to help with the Dreamtime Ink’s campaign for the fight against Hep C, which is on an alarming rise in the Indigenous community.
I have also been liasing with state to state Indigenous art organisations, collecting and collaborating to gather info on the different art styles and forms of tribes around Australia to the Dreamtime Ink website, as well offer a very detailed insight to it all in the Dreamtime Ink Aboriginal Tattoos book I’m due to release in the coming months! It is important for non-Indigenous people to understand that there are over 250 Aboriginal tribes of Australia, all with their own unique styles and stories specific to their tribe.
Why do you think there is a lack of information out there about ATSI tattooing? It’s almost impossible to find. I think the lack of info is due to the fact that, according to the Aboriginal tattoo artists that I have spoken with who have worked in shops over the past few decades, have sadly had to deal with quite a lot of racism, which probably deterred a lot of our people from pursuing the field further in terms of a cultural design perspective. But today, even though there is still a lot of racism in Australia, there is just as much tolerance and a better understanding of my people and our culture and art. Australia gets hundreds of thousands of tourists to these shores, enticed by the beauty of my people’s culture, and they like to take with them momentos such as authentic Aboriginal art. Today, you see Aboriginal artwork on Qantas planes and on their staff uniforms – I’ve even seen it on coca cola cans for Australia, in our Olympic team uniforms, on our streets and in our schools, and Aboriginal art and culture is starting to have a stronger presence in all sectors of Australian society. It was only matter of time that it would venture into the world of tattooing. I personally think that, over the decades, my people’s main focus has been the political rights of our people in our country and the improvement of the socio-economic status of Aboriginal and TSI people in Australia. All other issues never really were up for discussion. But being that we have progressed so far in Australia and still continue to this very day, you see so many of my people working in all sectors of Australian society, it has now come to pass that tattooing is another field to add to the list of areas my people have taken upon themselves to make their mark on society through and spread the strength, courage, beauty and uniqueness that is the Aboriginal and tattoo culture.
How important has social networking been for spreading the word? How else do you intend to let people know? Social networking has played the main role in spreading the word and genre of Aboriginal and TSI Tattoos. It was through the creation of the Facebook Aboriginal and TSI Tattoos page it has assisted us which we are currently in the process of already reaching one of the main goals of our company which is to enhance and promote Aboriginal and TSI themed tattoos, in the hopes that they too like Polynesian and Asian themed tattoos can be just as popular nationally and internationally.
Every day the Dreamtime Ink Aboriginal and TSI Tattoos Fan Page gains a 100 members, or 1000 fans a fortnight. Our page has been running since February and should reach 8000 fans in five months by the time our official launch party for Dreamtime Ink Aus on the July 20. Our page now reaches and has thousands of fans in 20 countries including Australia, the United States of America, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Indonesia, Taiwan, Germany, Philippines, India, Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Malaysia, Ireland, Singapore, Japan, and Sweden.
We literally get hundreds of messages on both our group/fan page as well as our individual Dreamtime Ink Facebook profile page. It has been the basis of our business, and directs traffic to our website (dreamtimeinkaus.com) for all our services and information. Without the use of social networking I do not think that Aboriginal and TSI tattoos and Dreamtime Ink would not have grown so popular so quickly, and have the positive impact it already has had and will have in the years to come.
We also have our very detailed website for Dreamtime Ink which I know for a fact is the only one of its kind that is a platform or hub for Aboriginal and TSI Tattoos. We also have our monthly newsletter we send out which has a subscriber rate of 4,300 so far and grows rapidly daily. We also have our Twitter page, Instagram and soon to be released Dreamtime Ink Aus app for iPhone and iPad.
I have received expressions of interest from the Sydney Tattoo Expo organisers to have a booth at their event as well as many other tattoo expos across the nation and, astoundingly, the interest in our tattooists and our cultural tattoos has not stopped there. I have had expressions of interests and invitations to take Aboriginal artists overseas to America, UK, Asia and Europe to take part and be showcased at many expos. I intend to spread the word and increase the awareness for Aboriginal and TSI themed tattoos by being a part of and present at as many national and international tattoo events possible. Seeing the work on our website is great, but to see, experience and interact with Aboriginal and TSI Tattooists in the process of doing a culturally-themed tattoo is a whole other level and something I would like to be able to share with as many possible.
Who are the people behind Dreamtime? Mainly myself, Nikita Ridgeway, and just recently some help from my brother who I have now appointed as my public relations officer, but with the growing popularity of the company we will be taking on new staff very soon.
I currently do everything from monitoring and updating hourly and on a daily basis the Aboriginal and TSI Tattoos page, Twitter, Instagram to updating the website and sending out and putting together the monthly newsletter and liaising with tattoo shops and tattooists, emailing them or ringing them to have a chat about what my company does. I am a graphic designer by trade and event organiser and have had experience doing several annual national Indigenous events, so handling this magnitude of work and requests is nothing new to me. I actually built the website myself, did all the graphic design for the company, answer all the phone calls and reply to emails, messages and posts on the page and interact with as many contacts from both the tattoo and Indigenous communities to build Dreamtime Ink.
I have over eight years experience and skills that I know I have put to great use to build Dreamtime Ink and hopefully I can teach others, and will see many more come on board to work in the company. I guess fate chose me to be the one to take on the challenge of promoting Aboriginal and TSI tattoos. Like the Kev Carmody song goes: “From little things big things grow” and if I, as just one person, can make such an impact with Dreamtime Ink Australia there’s no telling what a huge company could do. I envision Dreamtime Ink Australia making an everlasting, positive impact nationally and internationally.
Tell us about the campaign to let people in the community about Hep C and its relation to tattooing? We intend to create awareness and help lower the effects of Hepatitis C through backyard tattoos and piercings, which is on an alarmingly fast rise within the Indigenous community. Being that previously there wasn’t many Aboriginal or TSI tattooists to go to get tattooed by, lots of the Indigenous community members settled with getting “backyard tattoos.” By creating Dreamtime Ink and the referral database we locate Aboriginal tattooists or shops who work with the community and educate the community on getting their tattoos done in a clean, sterile environment by showing them that there are tattooists among their own people they can go to and rule out the need to settle for less. We intend to get the message out there to the community to urge them to really consider the ramifications and risks on their health by getting backyard tattoos and piercings, and really confront them with stories of Hep C from members of the community from every state. Maybe if the message is coming from an all Aboriginal and TSI tattoos company the community will actually stop and listen, and hopefully really and truly take in the warnings.
The main goals of Dreamtime Ink Australia are:
• To promote the genre of ATSI (Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander) tattoos to the tattoo industry and educate non-Indigenous people on what is culturally appropriate to tattoo, via various online digital mediums such as our website, social media platforms, newsletter, media/marketing campaigns, events, publications and print material.
• To enhance and promote Aboriginal and TSI themed tattoos, in the hopes that they, like Polynesian and Asian themed tattoos, can be just as popular nationally and internationally.
• Enhance and enable opportunities for Aboriginal people to get into tattooing via apprenticeships. Dreamtime Ink will engage, network and collaborate with tattoo shops nationwide and act as a vehicle and gateway between both the tattoo community and Indigenous community of Australia, which furthermore will entice the Indigenous community to utilise the services of Aboriginal people working within tattoo shops to receive ink work, diminishing the need to get backyard tattoos.
• Create awareness and help lower the effects of Hepatitis C through backyard tattoos and piercings, which is on an alarmingly fast rise within the Indigenous community of Australia. Dreamtime Ink will run a long-term marketing campaign through community events and tattoo events, and enlist the help of Aboriginal tattoo ambassadors’ from different sectors of the community – such as Aboriginal footballers, singers, leaders, and community icons who have ink work themselves – to deliver the message of healthy ink and piercing and “think before you ink”.
What are Aboriginal and TSI tattoos?
In researching everything for the Dreamtime Ink Australia Tattoo book I’m due to release shortly, and from the large amounts of tattoos uploaded onto our social media sites from the community, I have concluded that Aboriginal and TSI Tattoos can be broken into the following categories:
Aboriginal portrait tattoos are a popular choice. The traditional or tribal Aboriginal Man is commonly depicted in portrait tattoos. Portraits of traditional Aboriginal men and women have come in all shades, colours and sizes.
Artworks such as these possess a sacred feel to them, paying respects to Elders of the past.
Tribe name tattoos feature frequently throughout the different types of Aboriginal themed tattoos. Before colonisation there were 500 Aboriginal Tribes. Today there are under 250 tribes remaining.
There are unlimited designs and tattoos dedicated to the many Tribes of Aboriginal people of Australia.
Getting a tribe name tattoo is an ode to the pride and love Aboriginal people have for their tribes, their people and their roots, where they come from and their identity.
Exo-skeleton art shows the skeleton of the creatures and people the art depicts, almost like X-rays.
Exo-skeleton tattoos are similar to the cave and rock art of Aborignal People, which commonly depict exo-skeletons.
Another popular Aboriginal themed tattoo are totem tattoos. Every Aboriginal tribe within Australia has an animal totem associated with them, a personal totem special to one individual and even a family clan totem derived from the dreaming of their totemic being, which help define a person’s origins and connections with the world, their relationships with the past, present and future.
Most Totem tattoos stay within the realms of Aboriginal design, mixing up the Tattoo Designs with dot art, exo-skeleton, cross hatching, and earth/traditional tones.
Dot Art today is recognised globally as unique and integral to Australian Aboriginal art. On the surface, the dot is simply a style of Aboriginal painting, like the use of cross-hatching or stencil art. Explore deeper into the history of the Aboriginal dot painting and you find a world of camouflage, secrecy and ritual.
The terms ‘dot painting’ or ‘dot art’ stem from what the Western eye sees when faced with contemporary Aboriginal acrylic paintings. This painting style arose from the Papunya art movement in the 1970s. Papunya Tula artists used a process, that originally mirrored traditional spiritual ceremonies. In such rituals the soil would be cleared and smoothed over as a canvas (much like the dark, earthy boards used by the Papunya Tala) for the inscription of sacred designs, replicating movements of ancestral beings upon earth. These dreaming designs were outlined with dancing circles and often surrounded with a mass of dots. Afterwards, the imprinted earth would be smoothed over, painted bodies rubbed away, masking the sacred-secrets that had taken place.
Whether a concealer of deeper, spiritual meaning or simply symbols of fruits, rain or feathers, the acrylic dot paintings of the Aboriginal people become increasingly complex and innovative artistically.
Acrylic Aboriginal paintings and now tattoos are highly emotive, incorporating an innovative balance of traditional and modern. The dot technique offers a sense of movement and rhythm causing the artwork to sing, jump and dance with energy and life, much like the rituals that inspired them and, in the process, passes on the traditional knowledge of the people.
ABORIGINAL & TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER SLEEVES
It is only now starting to become a popular practice of fully Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander themed tattoos are being done.
Sleeves being done have a wealth of mixture of different designs from the culture.
The most important thing about the sleeves and all Aboriginal and TSI tattoos is they still stick to the ancient tradition of passing on cultural knowledge through art, which nowadays is starting to expand out into tattoos and even though they are not a cultural practice of ours, tattoos are socially accepted these days and are another way of expressing cultural pride and knowledge of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia.
Torres Straight Islander Tattoos
The Torres Strait is a body of water which lies between Australia and the Melanesian island of New Guinea. It is approximately 150 km (93 mi) wide at its narrowest. To the south is Cape York Peninsula, the northernmost continental extremity of the Australian state of Queensland. To the north is the Western Province of Papua New Guinea.
The islands’ indigenous inhabitants are the Torres Strait Islanders, Melanesian peoples related to the Papuans of adjoining New Guinea. The various Torres Strait Islander communities have a distinct culture and long-standing history with the islands and nearby coastlines. Their maritime-based trade and interactions with the Papuans to the north and the Australian Aboriginal communities have maintained a steady cultural diffusion between the three societal groups, dating back thousands of years.
The Torres Strait Islander People are also classified as Indigenous Peoples of Australia, hence why you hear the term ATSI= Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people of Australia.
You will find with Torres Strait Islander themed tattoos that the main design consists of their traditional head dress known as a “dhari” accompanied with a five-point star, each point of the star representing the five main islands of the Torres Straits. The star also represents navigation, as a symbol of the seafaring culture of the Torres Strait.
Common colours for TSI tattoos, if not in Black and grey shades, are white, green, blue and black, all of which feature on their national flag. It means: blue= water surrounding the islands; green= the land; black= the people; white= peace.
SPIRIT – WADJINA – MIMI TATTOOS: Understanding their importance.
What are they? They are a representation of Aboriginal “deities” that have many roles and no single description or term can describe all of these. Based on their primary role, they fall into three main categories.
(a) Creation beings. Many are involved with the creation of people, the landscape, and aspects of the environment, such as the creation of red, yellow or white pigments, so can be called “creation figures” or “creation beings”.
(b) Ancestral beings. In many examples, these deities are regarded as the direct ancestors of the people living today and so they are “ancestral figures”, “ancestral beings”, “ancestral heroes”, or “dreamtime ancestors”. Here, the term “ancestral being” is used to describe these deities.
Ancestral Beings taught the first people how to make tools and weapons, hunt animals and collect food. They lay down the laws that govern their society, and the correct way to conduct ceremonies.
(c) Totemic beings / totemic ancestors. A totemic being represents the original form of an animal, plant or other object (totem), as it was in the creation period. The concept of a totemic being overlaps with that of a creation being and an ancestral being because the totemic being may create the abundance of species, and people see themselves as being derived from the different totemic beings.
Among the top three popular Aboriginal-themed tattoo categories are Aboriginal flag tattoos. The flag, designed by Harold Thomas, is our people’s national Flag. Black: the people; yellow: the sun; red: the earth.
Even though not officially recognised globally, it is a symbol worn by so many Aboriginal people with the utmost pride. There have been many variations with the use of the flag.
In order to keep the terminology manageable, the term “ancestral being” is used here to describe all aboriginal deities, rather than including the terms “creation being” and “totemic being”. There are hundreds of ancestral beings throughout Australia, recorded by Aboriginal people in their stories, songs, body paintings and art. This includes recordings in the rock art (rock carvings) dating back thousands of years.
Ancestral beings are an intrinsic part of Aboriginal belief and everyday thought. As one moves through the day, walking past a particular rock or creek, spearing a particular animal, catching a goanna, or collecting other bush foods, the ancestral beings who created these places and things come to mind. Even making tools and weapons will bring to mind the myths and legends of the ancestral beings who taught the Aborigines these skills.
Each ancestral being has its own creation story, has performed specific activities in the creation period, and has played a specific role in relation to laying down the laws for people to follow or in creating the landscape. This information is contained in the body of songs, dances, stories and paintings for each clan or tribe and is revered during certain ceremonies.
Aboriginal silhouette tattoos is the famous traditional stance of an Aboriginal man holding a spear in one hand and standing on one leg. Many Aboriginal people today are getting this design as tattoos.
Weapons and Implements
Weapons and implements were used for hunting by the men and gathering by women, in everyday life.
Lots of common weapon and implement tattoos being done depict boomerangs, spears, shields, and coolamons.
Aboriginal slang – some even say broken english to some extent – is commonly derived from traditional language. Each state and region has words that are used that many can identify with a specific region to know which area an Aboriginal person comes from when travelling elsewhere. For example, in each state an Aboriginal person has one word they identify or use to say or show they are from that particular state:
NSW & VIC = KOORI, KOORIE
QLD = MURRI, MURRIE
NT = YOLGNU
WA = NOONGAR
SA = NUNGA
More generalised terms known nationwide that are used include:
Whichway= “How are you, what’s happening, where you from?”
Gammin = That’s stupid, silly, not right
Deadly= Commonly associated with dangerous, to the modern day Aboriginal and TSI person it means great, awesome, perfect, exciting, too good, absolutely.