Once Were Warriors - New Zealand Roadtrip Part 1

Published: 05 January, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 207, January, 2012

When most people think about tattooing in the Southern Hemisphere Australia is often over-looked by the small island of New Zealand. Tattooing is not just a job here, it has strong cultural significance that is centuries old. Inevitably, somewhere so rich in tattoo history warrants a visit, and only a three-hour plane ride from Melbourne, it seemed the logical next step.

It’s hard to write anything about this place and do it justice. Every corner turned whilst driving through the immense landscape could be a screenshot from The Lord of The Rings. It is a photographers dream; I think you would have to be very unlucky to get bad holiday pictures here, and you just can’t help feeling like you’re waiting for an Orc army to come charging over the mountains.

I start my tattoo journey around New Zealand at the aptly named Epic Ink, in the capital of the South Island, Christchurch. Recently hit by a serious earthquake that made world news, the aftermath is still very present. The whole city centre, now called the red zone, is closed off due to unstable buildings, while old newspapers and coffee cups sit in the windows of condemned shops as a rather sombre memory of the tragedies of that day.

Epic Ink has been on the outskirts of the city for the last two years, and fortunately that’s why it is still here, “most of the shops in Christchurch were in the centre,” owner Jason tells me. “When the earthquake hit we lost about 13 of them, which was about half the shops in the city.” As you can imagine, in recent months they have been very busy. There are three full-time artists at the shop and they cater for almost any style of tattooing. “Some artists are picky about what they do, but we do everything. Being a good all rounder is important; while a customer’s tattoo might not be your taste, they are going to be wearing it, not you,” explains Jason. My fleeting few days here pass very quickly and we are back on the road again discovering the South Island before we catch the ferry to the North.

Our first stop is Omaru, a preserved Victorian town, which now holds an annual steampunk show and exhibition showcasing weird and wonderful contraptions. It feels rather odd being displayed in such a small town, but I think its isolation is what makes it so great. We then travelled to Invercargill, to pay homage to speed god, Burt Monroe’s, world’s fastest Indian. Next was Queenstown for some adrenaline action, then Wanaka and up to the Milford Sound for an awesome fjord experience, Greymouth next then across to Nelson.

As we drive through the many small towns and communities, you see a lot of tattoos, especially Maori designs, but very few studios. The bigger, more ‘touristy’ towns have them, but it really doesn’t feel as mainstream here, even in newsagents it is hard to find tattoo magazines. Before we get the ferry to the North Island we stop in the small sleepy town of Motueka near the Abel Tasman National Park, where natural springs provide some of the most pure drinking water in the world. We visit the resurgence pool, where a river re-surfaces, which has been used by Maori people for centuries as a symbol of rebirth. As many travellers have done before us, we washed our hands, feet and faces in the water to leave behind everything and continue our journey afresh. Washing in the fresh cold water in the silent forest all alone, I certainly had a very calm and perhaps spiritual experience.

After a three-hour ferry ride we arrive in the country’s capital city, Wellington. It is a fairly small city but has the heart and soul of somewhere bigger; it’s charming and full of cool bars and good cheap places to eat it. It is also home to Weta, which is the New Zealand based special effects company responsible for creating creatures and weapons for The Lord Of The Rings films, among many others. The city as a whole has a very creative vibe, but surprisingly in the centre there are only four tattoo shops, three of which are along the very cool Cuba St, and this is where I will be spending my week, at Alc Headquarters.

Alc is the brainchild of Guy, who is a totally awesome host for our time in the city. The brand started life as skate apparel and then four years ago the store was opened to give the brand a high street face. Recently the label has launched an awesome ‘artist series’, with shirt designs by tattoo artists such as Sam Rulz, Bugsy and Jelle Nelemans. Three artists work in the shop: Simon Morse who was a well-known comic book artist and now brings that style to his tattoo work; Cam who specialises in very beautiful soft black and grey work; and Ali who puts out traditional old school inspired tattoos.

The shop is very friendly and relaxed and the week here goes by all too quickly, and with plenty of goings-on thrown in. Firstly fireworks celebrations (yes they celebrate the November 5 here, and yes I’m a kid at heart), and then a surprise visit from Damien Echols who had been flown over by filmmaker, Peter Jackson, to work on a documentary. I won’t go into all the details, but google the ‘West Memphis Three’ and find the ordeal this fellow has endured – amazing guy to have met. Next time I visit New Zealand I will definitely be staying in Wellington for longer! But for now, we hit the road to explore the volcanic landscapes of Taupo and Rotarua and marvel at the wonders of their thermal parks, where steam seeps up from craters in the ground, geysers erupt daily shooting boiling water or mud up to 30-foot into the air, and you can swim in natural hot streams and waterfalls.

Continues next month...


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee