Otautahi Tattoo

I don’t have any tattoos, wear any jewellery (including a watch) or carry a cell phone. Except for clothes (sneakers, jeans, wallet and t-shirt) I am unadorned which probably makes me the complete opposite of most Kiwis who are, according to Ryan the manager at Otautahi Tattoo, the most tattooed people in the world. Lonely Planet backs up this claim and also describes NZ as the second best place in the world to get a quality tattoo after Thailand but these numbers are hard to verify. Statistical research suggests that the British are in fact the most tattooed people on the planet and here is where it gets interesting, a fair whack of Otautahi’s clientele are from Britain, (followed by Germany, Holland, Austria and Australia), body art enthusiasts who have come down to get inked, encouraged by NZ’s sterling reputation for nurturing and producing high class tattooists.

To prove the point I get chatting to a guy from Birmingham who is getting Eddie the Head (he’s the Iron Maiden icon) applied to his right bicep. This Eddie is waving a Union Jack in a symbolic act of patriotism for the English rugby team who are about to compete in the Rugby World Cup. The tattooist wonders at the wisdom of getting a tattoo in honour of “such a crap team,” but the guy (who does not want to be named) takes it all in his stride.

This rugby fan is also an unabashed Bruce Dickenson admirer, (hence Eddie the Head) and has been for some 20 years since discovering the band as a 15 year old. “I used to daydream that Bruce was my uncle. Imagine having an uncle like that – he is an Olympic fencer, he can fly 747s, he sings brilliantly and writes amazing lyrics. He is a kind of genius who excels at everything he turns his mind to. I used to imagine all the amazing things he could have taught me.”

While this conversation is going on I am carefully watching the young guy applying the ink. Considering that his canvas is living flesh and that any mistake is a potential disaster, I am in awe of his calm and steady hand.

 

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Otautahi Tattoo is a chain of three parlours that take in Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown. The brand began 8 years ago in Christchurch in a location that turned out to be slap bang in the centre of the red zone. Owner/founder Brad Cone, finding himself without a location and bills to pay, made the decision to relocate to Auckland and pick up where the earthquake left off.

Put together in 2 frenzied weeks, Otautahi on K-Rd was an immediate success as was the next location in Queenstown. Ryan, “When we opened in Queenstown the standard was pretty ordinary and our presence lifted the bar.” Most of Otautahi’s Queenstown business comes from tourists and the location, which employs 5 fulltime artists, is “seriously busy.”

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The K-Rd location employs 10 fulltime inkers and 3 apprentices and the artists specialise in various categories that include Traditional, Neo-Traditional, Polynesian and Moko. Arapeta is Ngati Porou from Gisborne and is the moko specialist. He began his working life in the bush but by his mid-20s was over it. It was while searching out something new that he met master carver Mark Kopu “who saw something in me and basically railroaded me into an apprenticeship.” Carving led him to tattooing and finally Otautahi K-Rd where he happily applies his skills to a variety of customers.

Arapeta own body art includes a Puhoro around his midriff, a tattoo that is gifted to an artist when they have achieved the ink world’s equivalent of a University degree. While most of his body work is traditional, his left arm is an interesting experiment that combines classic Maori design with Hawaiian, Mexican and bio-mechanical elements. The effect is a striking statement about the evolving nature of traditional Maori body art.

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Ryan, the manager at Otautahi, is a towering figure, (a mixture of Dalmatian and Samoan genes), and in to put it succinctly, he is built like a brick shit house. An imposing figure, but like everyone at Otautahi he is friendly, open and the antithesis of the tattooist enthusiast of lore, the hard Sailor Jack/Gangland figure. These days body is a socially acceptable form of self-expression, one that makes Ryan feel “more complete as a person.”

I share Ryan’s words to patrons and inkers alike and they all agree that body art makes them feel “special, whole, distinct and at peace.” This last word is especially interesting and wholly fitting with the environment at Otautahi.

I have enjoyed my brief exploration of this rather fascinating world but when asked if I will be coming back to get a tattoo for myself my answer is a firm “no.” I it’s not for me. I like having an unadorned body so much so that I even shave my hair off. Plain and simple, that’s me. It was a different story for Ren, our photographer. She was quite taken by the experience and just before we left, she signed up for a tattoo as did our intern, Ann-Kirsten, and as we walked back to the office both girls were all abuzz with ideas for their impending ink work.

Otautahi K-Rd is open 7 days a week from 10am (except Sunday’s when they open at 11am). They apply some 75-100 tattoos a week and close around 7pm.

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