Generation Y. We had our Nokia 3315s confiscated at school, Kevin ‘07 was a beacon of progressive light for us young voters and we eat smashed avocado.
But what we lack in home-owning, we gain in body art, and today’s millennials are also a group who turned 18 during a time when the tattoo industry grew 5.5 per cent. By 2010, approximately 39 per cent of those born between the early 1980s and mid 1990s owned a tattoo.
What was once considered a marker of rebellion or risk-taking behavior, today, one in four of us consider tattoos as a ‘coming of age’ celebration. In the same way venues for 18th birthday parties were booked and so were flights to the Gold Coast, many also made an appointment at the tattoo parlor like a rite of passage into adulthood. We are the generation of university degrees, Uber and social conscientiousness, and impulsive permanent ink.
As a woman with a 2007 foot-tattoo of the word "love" in cursive, who is now too tired for music festivals, too conservative for denim shorts and too old for flower crowns, I've experienced this first hand.
Statistically speaking, one in five of the parents at future P&C meetings will be concealing a tattoo under their suit and tie. Chances are it will be of the Southern Cross. Which brings me to the cultural phenomenon of the Southern Cross tattoo - something that has become so widespread it’s now known as a ‘South’n Cross tatt’ in the same way that calling ‘Maccas’, ‘McDonalds’ in the 21st Century is unnecessary.
In with the in crowd
Generation Y and the Southern Cross tattoo could be argued as being two sides of the same coin. What was once on 19-year-olds in the nosebleed section at Hilltop Hoods’ gigs, is now blue and faded on late-20s, early 30s skin. In 2010 – on the tail end of the SC tattoo boom – a tattoo artist in NSW claimed that he was still ‘pumping out’ at least three to four Southern Cross tattoos per week. Another estimated they’d done 200 per year. Southern Cross tattoos have since become so common, rather than actually being the needle in the haystack, it’s as though young Australians took that needle in the mid-naughties and began inscribing five stars on themselves with it.
This meant that, you could… a) get a tattoo and avoid the embarrassment of ending up with a Chinese symbol that didn’t quite translate properly and b) like any fashion or trend, derive confidence from impressing peers.
“I wanted the tattoo because everyone had it and I thought it was cool,” says Beck, who got it on her foot 8 years ago (and is currently looking to have it removed).
Aaron, 26, another SC-owner, says he was inspired by a friend’s design and got one once he was of age. “We all thought we were cool back then for getting them. Back in my hometown there was maybe 2 or 3 who had one in my group, but later I joined the Navy and it was like, everyone had one. There was so, so many.”
Southern Cross is the new black
But why a design taken from our national flag? Well, assuming you were privileged enough to be involved in the dominant culture, majority of millenials were products of a time which spawned and invigorated John Howard's 'mateship', the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Australia Day parties, ‘Where the bloody hell are ya?’, 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!' and #straya. Those born in 1988 even had a special 'Australia' birth certificate which commemorated the nation’s bicentenary. Branding yourself 'Australian' would seem like an obvious choice when you've been fed an extreme amount of national pride quite literally since the day you were born.
But logistically, the Southern Cross was everything that its predecessor, the tribal tattoo, wasn’t. It was small, it was easy to have done and it was cheap to buy.
The Southern Cross was everything that its predecessor, the tribal tattoo, wasn’t. It was small, it was easy to have done and it was cheap to buy.
Owner of Disappear Ink, Peter Poulos says that it was a default tattoo for many at a particular time and his experience as a tattoo removalist (based not far from Sydney’s Shire) further tells the story of this bygone era.
“Here you had a group of guys who got them [Southern Cross tattoos] because their older brothers’ had the tribal tattoos and that was something that had been and passed,” he says.
“A lot of the time tattoo removal is just fading them down so they can get them covered because the art of tattoo has developed so significantly. Back then it was ink, now it’s art work.
“Tribal tattoos and Southern Crosses are generally cheap works you got when you were 18 or 19; you went to schoolies, paid 100 to 200 bucks and had it scratched in. Now people are earning better money and have a better sense of what they like. Having things like Instagram also makes them see the quality of artwork out there.
“Southern Cross tattoos are really just blobs of ink. There’s no style. Only a handful are removing them for a sense of embarrassment, and from my experience, they’re getting an area cleaned up because they’re usually taking up space in the best places or prime positions like the chest or shoulder.”
Did Cronulla ruin it for everyone?
As the popularity of Southern Cross tattoo grew, it attracted a fairly ugly breed of suitors along the way. As such, you now can’t have a conversation about the constellation without mentioning that the proverbial coin is held in the sweaty fists of Australia’s nationalists.
Although people were aware of its existence; a friend of a friend had one, so did Shannon Noll, but needless to say it gained national profile under very damaging circumstances. The 2005 Cronulla Riots became a pivotal moment for the Southern Cross symbol, and what it represented and how it was being used. A mob of angry white Australians committing racially-motivated violence, branded with Southern Cross tattoos and wearing flag t-shirts that ironically, were probably made in China, became the image of Australian ‘patriotism’.
If people who supported the Cronulla riots weren’t already branded with the stars, they were actively going into parlours like they were enlisting into the hate brigade - often tattooing the words ‘Aussie Pride’ alongside it. Bigoted bumper stickers emerged, social media groups became highly aggressive and people were introduced to the xenophobic and grammatically incorrect slogan, ‘we grew here, you flew here’, demonstrating that racism was not only alive in the country, but unapologetically public.
People were introduced to the xenophobic and grammatically incorrect slogan, ‘we grew here, you flew here’, demonstrating that racism was not only alive in the country, but unapologetically public.
And for the tattooed who were just going along with the millennial movement, intending on having a much more diluted sense of patriotism or wanted it for any other reason, they couldn’t escape the stigma of extremist Australia and how its use of the Southern Cross now has 23 per cent of Australians very uncomfortable with the symbol.
“I hate having it now … I want it covered because it looks terrible and gives you a label that you’re racist – not proud,” Beck says. “People turned it into a ‘bogan thing’ and being racist when I wanted it for being proud of this country.”
Aaron echoes the sentiment, “Bogans took it and it became a hate thing. I’m pretty sure everyone there [at the Cronulla riots] had one [a Southern Cross tattoo] or got one after. But I’ve never regretted a tattoo and I still like it because I know I got it for the right reasons.”
Stars, not stigmas
Noongar man, Nathan, 30, who has the constellation on his back, is also concerned that the symbol has lost its original meaning.
“I found a year or two afterwards [of getting the tattoo], a lot of people were getting it. The one I have is an outline of the stars, and the ones they were getting were all coloured in. It’s like a stamp. Just like, ‘look, I’ve got the Southern Cross on me’.”
Nathan himself originally wanted to replicate the stars that his ancestors have looked at for over 2,000 generations.
“It’s [tattoo] more like the one in the sky. For myself, I wanted something representing my background and that represented the Australian history kind of things.”
Nathan is one of number of First Nations’ people who sport this predominantly white-Australian tattoo, putting the Aboriginal perspective into the controversial ink culture.
Trends often get hijacked by undesirables. It wasn't too long before slogan t-shirts, Big Day Out and Tinder quickly fell out of fashion because of misogyny, disorderly behaviour and dick pics. But unlike the lower-back tattoo that soon became the ‘tramp stamp’, perhaps an icon of patriotism - the Southern Cross - is too national for fashion, too symbolic for popularity and too permanent for tattoos.
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We Don't Need A Map a documentary exploring the history and culture of the Southern Cross symbol is a part of the #YouAreHere documentary series on SBS & NITV. It premiers on NITV on Sunday, 23 July at 8.30pm on NITV Ch. 34. Watch the trailer here