Those of you who know John Pule’s art will have little trouble identifying his work in this drawing and the one that follows. It began its life as part of a conversation we were having in the sun outside Café 1894 and the University of Canterbury, where John was Writer-in-Residence during the second semester of 2013 and we shared adjoining offices in the English programme where he was hosted.
First draft, right upper.
This is the design for a tatau that will live not as a print on a gallery wall, but on my skin. John’s hiapo-inspired interleaved and layered works are now a part of our culture and a Niuean signature that speaks into many lives wherever he goes. Now, I will be in part a Pule, a walking work of his art, on both my left and my right arms.
How did this come about? It certainly was never my intention to seek out moko or tatau, as if I was some visitor to a fashion culture that seemed to promise acceptance into a club of coolness. I’m 66 years old, a middle-aged Palangi inexorably passing my use-by-date. I’ve been there and done that in fifty different ways, I’ve paid my rent in the body and spent the results in soul and spirit; as far as being hip goes, there is nothing left to prove, if there ever was.
First draft, left upper.
No, this was simply a korero over coffee by a couple of writers getting to know each other. When I told him how much I liked his tatau, how it suited him, he said, “Why don’t you get one?” – or words like that. I laughed: hey, I was a dying – if not quite a dead – white male. My skin was too pink and pale, I’d seen too many bad examples of Pakeha with a tattoo gone wrong.
John disagreed; we talked more, with him finally saying, if I came up with some designs, he would draw me the patterns. I found myself – surprisingly – saying “yes, that would be amazing”. It went from there. I then had to look at what mattered to me, what was my story? I had put it down in many and various ways with words, but this was different. What – if you were going to draw your life on your skin – really mattered?
John had related to me how the tatau spoke of his life and connections; when asked about his designs, he would ask the enquirer how long they had – and start reciting poetry, poems that related to the green geometry of the visual patterns on his rich brown arms. His tatau seemed to me much more concrete than the abstract swirls of many Maori moko I have seen. I liked that.
I was not thinking of whakapapa, genealogy, very literally, but looking for images that spoke into my life – the figurative. So I drew the outlines of my arms and began with the right – the human, the cultural. For the left, I went for the natural, the world not made but the world we find ourselves within. Rangi and Papa, perhaps, but not exactly.
Second draft, right upper
I knew on the right there would be a ship, and crucifixes and anchors, a whale and a dragon: my Welsh mother and my London father. I would need a plane, an aircraft image that was simple, so that flight was in there as well as sailing over water. This arm was my parents and the forces that made them and still shadow me: war, ships, aeroplanes, sacrifice, death and resurrection. Then came the red dragon of Wales, and the whale that swallowed and spat up Jonah. I found some images and collected them for John.
For the left arm, it was a clear choice: the West Coast where I had grown up and become more clearly myself. We needed the rivers and the mountains, the heavenly bodies so radiant there in the night sky; the ngahere, the trees of the bush and the criss-cross structure of the road-rail bridge that shaped my life in Blackball as I grew.
Second draft, left upper.
I had a copy of the Colin McCahon painting Bill Pearson used on his classic 1963 novel, Coal Flat; the lines of the mountains behind the town were perfect to imagine the Paparoa range, under whose shadow I lived for ten growing years and later, in Runanga over those mountains, living for another ten as an adult. Those mountains where so many miners have died, the Pike River 29 the most recent tragic reminder. These ideas I gave to John and left him to it.
It wasn’t long before he came back with the first drafts, and the whole blur of events became shaped by the drawings that grew out of these. I knew I was committed; the next thing would be finding a moko artist to do the work. For this, I had some guidance from the experience of a friend. I would go to see Christine Harvey, who had done some fine work for a Native American friend some years ago.
Christine lives now in a quake battered area near the sea, with her home-schooled tamariki. As I ride up and park my scooter, the gulls are crying somewhere unseen near the shore. I’m greeted by her whanau; it’s all very familiar: shoes off, cuppa tea, curious tamariki. I showed her John’s original designs and we soon connect, so the work is agreed. I can come at a time that suits her, and her sister will look after the kids so Christine can work on me in her studio.
A fortnight later, after John’s return from Fiji, he sent me the final designs – beautiful. It was all there and I arranged with my ta moko artist to come on Monday the 26th of May and begin. I was fine until the night before, and then started to get nervous as sleep fled – what if I couldn’t handle the needle on my skin, and the hours required to finish?
John Pule and Catherine Montgomery, publisher, Canterbury University Press.
But John had been encouraging me all the way along, so now it was time to man-up and go with the unfolding plan.
Email, John Pule, 15 May.
I will be thinking of you… as you meet and discuss procedure and protocol with Christine, as you accept into your skin the symbols and places of your life. These tatau will forever begin story telling. When people ask you what do they mean, then you start your story or poem. It will read like a bookshelf. I feel very honoured that you are going to carry my drawings of your stories and deep thoughts. This is what will bond you and I.
Monday 26 May.
Today is the day. I slept badly and I am very nervous. Will I be able to go through this? Will my old skin accept the ink clearly? Soon, we will see.
Shaving the right arm for the whanau story.
I shave my arm in preparation and kit myself up for the trip out to North Beach; it’s cold and wet and very windy. I stop off at The Palms – such a whacky name for a cold South Island shopping mall – to get some money to pay for the work. Now, it’s past the red-zoned green fields owned by the Crown, where once were houses, over the rumpled pot-holed roads lined with orange traffic cones, I head for Christine’s place and my appointment with the needle
Christine begins the drawing process
It takes us four hours of drawing and inking my skin to get the first work on the right arm done, with more to complete in the next session. Two hours of transferring John’s drawings with special pens, then the big moment as the needles make their first entrance into my skin, tracking their way under her expert direction with hot, burning, tiny bites along the trail marked out. I somehow know it will be all be fine. I close my eyes and listen to Whirimako Black, Tuhoe songbird and Christine joining in with her waiata Maori, pushing , holding, turning my arm as I receive the work of John Pule into my body.
Life lines: inked up and bathed in ointment to relieve the sting.
The next day I write this poem, send to her – and she tells me it made her cry…
where comets run
I close my eyes
and the world begins
with small green birds from branch to branch
as her needle spins
punctures skin on the map she drew
the birds fly off when the teeth of ants
draw fire and blood
that was held within and will only burn
when her needle spins
on waiting skin
skin was never made for this
but the world begins when Tuhoe sing
and the eyes recall what the heart
forgot and longs to bring
in this patterning
when I tell Christine who cuts my flesh
and wipes the blood like Jesus’ sweat
of karakia in the small hours tuning
the frozen stars
over Maungapohatu swirling in
where comets run
where skin meets skin
Three days later I am healing and getting used to my new skin: what does it mean, how is this affecting me, am I changed internally or not? I can’t sleep very well the first couple of nights, and that, John says, is the tatau speaking stories to me, “I like the Rotoiti and the window with the double lines moving across. How do you feel? You will be glad when it is over but for now meditate and go with the pain, feeling and the experience. Some say it is healing, a time to let go, to wonder about things.”
The journey continues this coming Monday, Queens Birthday weekend. I remember that it will be 35 years since Lee my partner then died on the icy road near Aickens – “sometimes it’s a moment ago and at others, another life”,Theresa writes. Those losses are what really marks us, what actually inscribes the invisible heart.
The writing arm.
The work goes on…