Carl Cocker - The Survivor

Published: 22 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 194, November, 2010

He was born in New Zealand, raised in Tonga, went to high school in Fiji and college in Malaysia. He started tattooing to survive, overstayed his welcome in the States and was forced back to New Zealand. From these inauspicious beginnings, Carl Cocker at Kalia Tattoo in Auckland is one of the few Tonga artists to take the traditional Polynesian tattoo culture outside of his home country.

Kalia Tattoo lies on a busy street in one of Auckland’s southern suburbs - Papatoetoe. It seems to have become the Chinese Quarter since there are now restaurants selling dumplings and fried shrimp everywhere - although KFC and a bunch of car dealerships have also squeezed in making it look somewhat like a typical American city. Inside the studio sits Carl Cocker tattooing a Maori tattoo symbolizing his customer’s family of ten children.

The windows and the walls are covered in pictures of Polynesian tribal tattoos and all the people inside the shop are from a South Pacific Island. Carl Cocker himself is Tongan but his tattoo career actually started in Malaysia. 

“My dad thought that Asia was the centre of technology so he sent me and my brother to attend college there - also it was cheap. I studied electronics. After me and my brother ran out of spending money we had to do something drastic to get food, so we came up with the idea of tattooing. Asian people stick to themselves - they won’t help you if you’re hungry. So we started off tattooing ourselves using homemade machines made out of toothbrushes, pens, hangers, sewing needles and a stereo motor with a cell phone charger,” he says, showing me the Polynesian tattoos on his legs. 

This was 2001 and tattooing had just become legal in Malaysia, so the brothers did well. 

“It was starting to get more and more popular. We used our own tattoos as adverts for what we could do and started off charging 10 or 20 dollars. After a while, we found that people would pay 100-150 dollars and that’s when I realized I could actually make a career of this.” 

Although born in New Zealand from Tongan parents, he moved back to Tonga at an early age. His high school years were spent in both Fiji and Tonga before he eventually moved to Malaysia, and after practicing their new careers for a while, Carl’s brother moved on. He now works at Zulu Tattoo in Beverly Hills under the name King Afa. Carl on the other hand met Filipino artist Spec at Zoo Body Art in Kuala Lumpur, who helped him with an apprenticeship. 

“He told me to bring in some pictures and when he saw them he said: “If you can do this with a homemade machine, imagine what you can do with a real one”. So I saved up money, went to the States and bought a machine. I had no idea if it was good or not, but I brought it back and he taught me how to use it. I did mostly Asian stuff, like skulls and dragons since Polynesian style wasn’t that popular.”

Realizing there was much more money to be made outside of Malaysia, Carl went to the USA, but without any luck soon found himself back in his country of birth, but not by choice. 

“Nobody took me in and when I went back to Tonga for my son’s second birthday, I had overstayed my welcome in the US so they didn’t let me back in again. Instead they shipped me off to New Zealand since I had a New Zealand passport, although I’d rather have gone back to Tonga!” 

Even so, he decided to stay in New Zealand and met Inia Taylor at Moko Ink who took him in and taught him a lot about the Polynesian style of tattooing. In 2006, he went to the Tattoonesia convention in Tahiti, where he won his first award. After this he left Moko Ink and tattooed from home until he opened up Kalia Tattoo in April, 2009.  Now he’s spreading the culture of both his home and neighboring island nations from the shop in this Auckland suburb - a culture that was dead for nearly 200 years before it was revived again 20-30 years ago. 

“The Christians banned the art of tattooing when they came to the South Pacific. They took the tools away and the funny thing is that if you want to find a traditional Polynesian tattoo machine today you have to go to a museum in England. There are none left in Tonga.”

Even though the amount of tattooed people and tattoo artists has increased in Tonga - including Carl’s little brother Papa - the attitude towards tattoos amongst the common man is still a bit on the sceptical side. 

“A lot of people go to church and the Christian ‘belief’ is that tattoos are something you get in jail. It’s even like that here in New Zealand. Maoris with tattoos aren’t really accepted in some places here, but there are a lot of tattoo artists in Tonga now - however most of them haven’t done the traditional styles. More people are doing that now, but it has mostly been done in Hawaii.”

He works in all Polynesian styles and there are similarities and differences between them all:

“One big difference between the two is that in Tonga – and in Samoa as well - you read just the colour, so the tattoos will be more black, but in the Maori culture the gaps also mean something. Patterns are mostly based on family, the ocean, land and weapons. In Maori everything’s basically based on what’s called koru – which is the symbol for a fern when it starts growing and it looks like this,” he says and shows me a part of a tattoo that reminds me of the sign for yin and yang. 

“It’s a symbol for the beginning of life. The malaia is also common. It’s your spiritual guardian on land and in sea, in the shape of half fish and half bird. In Tonga the spiritual guardian is a man called tiki.”

“The Tongans were the bullies of the South Pacific and we ruled for instance, Samoa for a while, so we don’t know if we took their style or we gave them ours. Tattooing was also used as a punishment for people held prisoner, so it’s hard to say. 

One thing is clear though. The ritual of getting half your body tattooed when you become a man at the age of 16 is long gone. 

“People are not as strong anymore. Nowadays they wait until they’re 30-40 before they get it!” he says with a smirk.


Kalia Tattoo

2 East Tamaki Road, Hunter’s Corner
New Zealand 

Tel: +64 9 2780220


Text & Photography: Simon Lundh