The Aussie pioneer of the Neo-Aboriginal style, Tatu Lu.
The Aussie pioneer of the Neo-Aboriginal style, Tatu Lu.
A goanna and green tree snake.
A goanna and green tree snake.

OVER 50,000 YEARS AGO, Aboriginal people arrived in Australia. The vast landscape they wandered as hunter-gatherers was believed to have been created in the Dreamtime, the sacred era in which ancestral spirit beings created the world itself. These spirit beings could take on many forms and whether they appeared as humans, animals, or plants they made all living things and infused the world with a sort of magical life-essence, concentrating it in places such as rocks and rock (art) shelters, water holes (billabongs), creeks, and trees. The Spirit Totems, as they are called, were the guardians of the natural world and today the Aboriginal people believe they are descended from these beings, especially those that are associated with various animal and plants that represent their original Dreamtime ancestors.

In Aboriginal culture, painting, music, and dance have always been used to recreate ancestral events and express the essence of the ancestral beings themselves. Through these mediums, the Aborigines also honored their mythical ancestors by recording their sacred activities so they would not be forgotten. In painting, ancestral designs of spirit beings (or mythological creatures associated with them) and totemic animals or plants were depicted because they were thought to contain the life-giving power of these entities. In turn, traditional Aboriginal artisans believed they could capture some of the magical life-essence associated with them so that animals and food resources would multiply.

Although Aboriginal peoples never tattooed, the meanings and symbolism associated with their traditional arts have recently become a great source of inspiration for one Australian tattooist and her clients, especially those of Aboriginal descent.

TATU LU AND THE NEO-ABORIGINAL STYLE

For Tatu Lu of Mullumbimby, New South Wales, Aboriginal Art has always been a source of inspiration. But she also explains that nature has also been a guiding influence in her work, and today many Aussies – whether they are Aboriginal or not – are drawn to it because it reinforces their Australian identity. Lu explains:

“My tattoo work covers all styles as a whole; however, a lot of my specialized work is about identity, particularly Australian. Many Australians are now looking to identify with their country. Be it the Australian fauna and botanicals or the Australian Indigenous they are all guided by a few different philosophies. My botanical work is obviously influenced by the Australian bush, and the environment. I grew up in the bush, and I know and understand the form of Australian bush plants well. Tattooing these plants takes me back to my childhood, and I see botanical plant tattoos, of all countries, as a great symbol for people who are looking to identify themselves with a place. Everyone comes from a place where there is a native plant, and it’s an extremely positive form of identification.”

“My Indigenous-styled work is obviously influenced by Aboriginal art and culture. I grew up with Aboriginal art around our house as a child and have always had an interest in Aboriginal Australia. The majority of my clients who get this work are of Aboriginal descent and are looking to reaffirm their cultural roots and cultural identities. My other clients hold a deep respect for Aboriginal culture and they look to express this through the ink they receive.”

Interior views of Tatu Lu's studio in Mullumbimby.
Interior views of Tatu Lu’s studio in Mullumbimby.

One of the most characteristic aspects of Aboriginal art is the “X-ray” tradition, a style that Tatu Lu has recaptured in her tribally-infused works. As its name implies, the X-ray style depicts animals or human figures in which the internal organs and bone structures are clearly visible. Spinal columns, the heart, the throat, breathing bladders (fish), and intestines were carefully reproduced because the interior aspects of an animal’s body were considered to be sources of its life-giving source, and these physical aspects were no less important to the overall identity of the creature than its outward appearance. Many animals depicted in Aboriginal art were totemic clan symbols and related to specific legends concerning their adoption by clans as ancestral relatives. However, X-ray art also includes more secular images depicting fish and animals that were important food sources. Depictions such as these were not decorative; they were visual requests or prayers to the Spirit Totems, especially for abundant harvests of various foodstuffs. Thus, it was through these kinds of representations that Aboriginal artists expressed their ongoing relationships with the natural and supernatural worlds.


Kurt’s turtle, barramundi, and crocodile tattoo inspired by traditional art of the Mara tribe, East Arnhem Land. Cross-hatching (turtle and barramundi) is associated with the concept of “brilliance” that refers to intense sources and refractions of light, like the sun’s rays, that are characteristic of ancestral beings and power. The saltwater crocodile is an important entity in many northern Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and legends, and is a totem of certain clans.
Kurt’s turtle, barramundi, and crocodile tattoo inspired by traditional art of the Mara tribe, East Arnhem Land. Cross-hatching (turtle and barramundi) is associated with the concept of “brilliance” that refers to intense sources and refractions of light, like the sun’s rays, that are characteristic of ancestral beings and power. The saltwater crocodile is an important entity in many northern Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and legends, and is a totem of certain clans.

Several of Tatu Lu’s clients have commented on the personal meanings that their tattoos convey. Kurt, owner of a beautifully executed barramundi, long-necked turtle and saltwater crocodile tattoo, says that his body art speaks about his family’s Aboriginal heritage and history and linkages to his ancestral territory:

“My mother’s family comes from Groote Eylandt [Island], which is northeast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and our tribe is the Mara. My mother, who is an Aboriginal artist, follows the Arnhem Land style of art which is her father’s tradition. I wanted to express my Aboriginal heritage with images of native water fauna, which were all a very important part of life on Groote. The long-necked turtle represents my family totem, we put Groote Eylandt in the centre, surrounded by rarrk (Aboriginal cross-hatching) designed by my mother. Barramundi fish represent a common food source and also the saltwater crocodile, an unforgettable part of island life. The island was placed in the centre of the turtle’s shell to deliberately incite the question of what is it? Which it does! It gives me the chance to explain to people about where I come from and my family. It’s become a wonderful tool for educating people about my cultural roots.”

(left) Banskia tattoo. Aboriginal peoples collected the nectar from the plant and also soaked its flower spikes in water to make a sweet drink. Blue fairy wren on early black wattle (Acacia decurrens)(right).
(left) Banskia tattoo. Aboriginal peoples collected the nectar from the plant and also soaked its flower spikes in water to make a sweet drink. Blue fairy wren on early black wattle (Acacia decurrens)(right).


Bianca Dufty repeated similar thoughts, but her tattoos also recount the dark history of the Stolen Generation, a period when Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families by Australian government agencies and church missions between 1869 through the 1970s. Tatu Lu told me she has yet to meet an Aboriginal person whose family was not affected by these policies.

Sugar glider possum on Blackboy (Xanthorrhoea).
Sugar glider possum on Blackboy (Xanthorrhoea).

Bianca said: “My great-grandmother and her sisters were taken away from their mother when they were babies and placed in a mission. Their country and tribe was the Ngemba (Brewarrina). The Ngemba tribal totem was the sand goanna and I chose this theme for my tattoo because it connects me with my country and culture and shows my Aboriginal identity. But it also helps my healing and dealing with the removal of my family from their lands, and gives me a chance to tell their story. The top goanna has ngunnhu (fish traps) in the body, these were of huge cultural significance. Local tribes would meet at these traps and hold corroboree, a kind of ceremonial meeting where people reenacted events of the Dreamtime. The bottom goanna has symbols of emu and kangaroo tracks, paths and meeting points.”

Many of the figures represented in Bianca’s tattoo are ancient and carry multiple meanings. Ngunnhu have been utilized by the Ngemba for over 40,000 years and are possibly the oldest surviving human-made structures in the world. The tail fat of goannas has been collected for ritual purposes for thousands of years (it is ceremonially rubbed on the body), but it is also a highly valued food resource thought to have restorative properties. Symbols representing tracks and paths also represent animals that were important food resources.

Ngarrgu Frazer, of Bidjara and Iningai tribal descent, also bears a tattoo that encompasses all of the culturally important aspects of his tribal ancestry, including individual design aspects that he wanted to showcase. His family totem is the gulbayi or the flightless emu that is Australia’s largest bird. The emu tattoo represents all of the animal life of his country, and depicts the yulgu (heart), yaaga (lungs), and galgany (large intestine) of the gulbayi.

Ngarrgu Frazer's gulbayi or emu totem.
Ngarrgu Frazer’s gulbayi or emu totem.

Ngarrgu added: “There are five seeds from the Macrozamia moorei plant within the back of the gulbayi, representing the plant life of my country and the five members of my immediate family. Evidence of my ancestors using the seeds of this plant 20,000 years ago has been found, and this plant is the most primitive of all seed bearing plants on earth: it lived in the Jurassic period (around 180 million years ago) at the time of the dinosaurs. The hand stencil surrounded with bimburd (red ochre) in my tattoo represents the extensive stencil rock art found in Bidjara country, which are some of the largest aboriginal rock art stencil sites in Australia, if not the world. These art sites are of great spiritual importance to our people and depict symbology of our dreaming stories, lore, and complex rites to be followed. They also serve as ‘written’ sign communication between tribes coming together at the sites for trade and ceremonial purposes. Finally, the gulbayi tracks and murri (man) footprints together represent the spiritual culture of my people and illustrate the duality of spirit between man and animal, in my case between man and gulbayi, and the spiritual progression in the continuance of life. And the five boomerangs in the neck of the emu were common Bidjara hunting weapons.”

An X-ray style kangaroo with mechanical elements.
An X-ray style kangaroo with mechanical elements.

I have been intrigued with Tatu Lu’s work ever since we began communicating just before the 2012 Melbourne Tattoo Convention. And I asked her to tell me more about her lasting creations:

“Much of the traditional Aboriginal culture and beliefs are extremely inspiring but Australia still knows relatively little about it. However things are changing. At the Sydney Tattoo Convention earlier this year it was interesting to note that while doing an Indigenous piece, quite a few Aboriginal people came up and commented on how ‘deadly’ (‘awesome’) it was to see an Indigenous piece being inked.”

“Some of my clients are Aboriginal artists or related to artists, and this often results in collaborations on the designs, which is fantastic. Working on the east coast many of my Aboriginal clients today live a western lifestyle, however they know where their Aboriginal family and heritage are from, and wish very much to identify with it. The work I do is inspired by years of studying Aboriginal art, where I mainly use traditional color and style to achieve the desired result to tell my client’s personal story.”

PIONEERS DOWN UNDER

But Tatu Lu’s inspiration as an artist is also rooted in another aspect of Australia’s past – the nearly forgotten history of female tattooists working Down Under. Australia is renowned for its sexism and the tattoo industry is no exception. Until the advent of social media, female tattooists had difficulty promoting themselves since Aussie tattoo magazines generally focused on male practitioners. So Lu and other tattooists like Ex de Medici, Raelene Robinson, and Megan Oliver are working with fellow tattooist and author Clare November Miles to tell the story of “The History of Pioneering Female Tattoo Artists in Australia” in a forthcoming book.

Bianca’s tattoo of climbing sand goannas, her Ngemba clan totem.
Bianca’s tattoo of climbing sand goannas, her Ngemba clan totem.
Three geckos.
Three geckos.

Clare explained: “Most people know about Cindy Rae (aka Bev Nicholas). Bev was one of the very first women in Australia to be heavily tattooed and toured the country as ‘Cindy Ray’. In the 1960’s she was known as ‘the classy lassie with the tattooed chassis and the girl who put the oo in tattoo’. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, and even up to and including now, her image was used and plenty of money was made – but not for her. She was mostly unaware of all the publicity she was getting. She didn’t know of her fan club, the sale of her photographs, her name being used on so many products and the impact she was having in the tattoo community.”

Clare’s new book seeks to show the accomplishments of outstanding Australian female tattoo artists past and present, by searching out the reasons for their successes as well as the overwhelming obstacles that precluded most from achieving greatness. The book also focuses on how various female artists got their start in the industry, what they like and loathe, their personal opinions of how the tattoo industry has evolved, and the changes they have witnessed in the industry over the decades. The book will also profile a few outstanding contemporary female artists, like Tatu Lu, from each state who are achieving success in their own very special way.

Aboriginal-inspired dotwork design.
Aboriginal-inspired dotwork design.

For more information on Tatu Lu, please contact her at:

Tatu Lu’s Tattoos
18 Burringbar St.
Mullumbimby, NSW, 2482
AUSTRALIA
ph. +61 2 66844715
www.tatulus.com.au

For more information on Clare’s new book, please contact her via email: paintedladybrisbane@gmail.com

Phoenix rising from Aboriginal dotwork.
Phoenix rising from Aboriginal dotwork.