Louisa Conlon’s choice to pursue a career as a tattoo artist was unorthodox considering her conservative upbringing. Raised in the small New South Wales town of Mittagong, her dad was a mathematics professor and mum was a schoolteacher.
Yet Lu, or Tatu-Lu as she’s often known, has forged a 24-year career in the tattoo industry, focusing part of her work over the last decade on working with Aboriginal people. Lu has been creating representative traditional art tattoos for the Aboriginal community and inadvertently forging a connection between Aboriginal art and the wider Australian community.
“I initially had no idea how the Aboriginal community would react to the work because I’m not Indigenous and this work had never been done before,” Lu tells SBS.
Aboriginal art provides a communal language and portrays specific tribal information – but unlike other Indigenous cultures around the world, Aboriginal communities historically didn’t use tattoo. “Scarification was used by my people instead,” says Jeremy Saunders, a Biripi man from the mid-north NSW coast, and also a client of Lu’s. “We used to mark the arms and chest with small nicks to show levels of education achieved and pass on food knowledge.”
“I think putting our designs on our skin is showing a next step for our people. It doesn't replace our initiations but it shows that we are now stepping into a different stage of life,” says Saunders. “I'm now frequently seeing Aboriginal people proudly wearing tattoos, and I can identify where they come from by them.”
I’m pleased I’ve been able to promote another form of Aboriginal pride that can be worn on the skin.
Lu began her Aboriginal art-work when she was living and working in Mullumbimby. “I was seeing some of the young Aboriginal mob being drawn more to the Western culture rather than their own, so I suggested working with their own culture when it came to tattoos, and incorporating relevant symbols such as their totems, ” she says. With a Bachelor in Anthropology (Aboriginal studies), Australian history and fine arts, Lu was able to draw upon her knowledge to provide design possibilities and collaborate with clients.
Lu ensures her tattoos are culturally appropriate and has permission to use particular totems and symbols. “I really try to encourage family input with all my Aboriginal clients, particularly the young ones. I’ll get them to check with their family and elders if what we’re doing is OK. I think it helps to create stronger connections, not just to their Aboriginality but also to their families,” Lu says.
Clients now travel from afar to work with Lu in her private studio in Sydney. “I’ve noticed a lot of Aboriginal people have started to seek Lu out. There are not many Aboriginal tattooists about, so to have someone like Lu available, who's willing to work with me and understand where my design came from and why it was special to me was so good,” says Saunders.
Some of Lu’s well-known clients include country singer Troy Cassar-Daley, doctor and musician Joel Wenitong, and musician Xavier Rudd.
Lu only provides these tattoos to people of Aboriginal descent, and offers Australian botanical and fauna tattoos to her other clients. Saunders says, “Some of the designs that the Aboriginal clients are drawing from, including myself, are designs that are traditional to local areas that are quite special to us. Lu is very aware that certain designs belong to certain peoples. I think it's a credit to Lu to stand firm on that. And I guess it shows her depth of respect for our culture.”
As for Lu, she is satisfied knowing her skills are able to provide a new medium for Aboriginal pride. Lu says, “The best part about this work has been the great people I’ve met, and I’m pleased I’ve been able to promote another form of Aboriginal pride that can be worn on the skin. It’s also great that some of my clients are asked about the meaning of their tattoos and they can then share their culture with non-Indigenous Australians.”
Watch Food, Booze and Tattoos on SBS On Demand