In this bogan skin

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Words || Aprill Miles

The end of my last relationship started over something small and simple. It was a thought that had been roaming around my head for years. I wanted to get a tattoo. I finally gave myself permission to do it and started madly google-ing images of what I imagined would be driven into my skin, two magnificent ravens encircled by the runes that would bear their names, Huginn and Muninn. They happily reminded me of the ravens that have for some reason or other, been a fixture of every place that I’ve ever lived. In the Hunter they would hop around my backyard in winter, cawing loudly at each other. In Sydney I walked past them everyday to get to classes, watching them scavenge through brown paper bags, hot on the scent of muffin crumbs. Or maybe they would be chasing away an Ibis, triumphantly flapping their jet black wings at the backs of those dreaded bin birds.

Huginn and Muninn were Odin’s ravens, and said to fly all over the earth everyday to bring back news to the All-Father. I imagine them perching on my own shoulders; Huginn – knowledge, whispering secrets in my ears and Muninn – memory, making the connections between all the disparate morsels of knowledge. I decided to talk to my then partner about this idea.

The conversation went something like this:

“I really want a raven tattoo.”

“Oh no, no, tattoos are tacky. I don’t think I would want to be with anyone who has tattoos,” he says this with a wrinkled face. The kind that babies make when they try to eat a lemon for the first time.

“I don’t think they’re tacky. Besides, both my parents have tattoos.”

“Yeah. That’s because they’re bogans.”

The last sentence ends the conversation entirely and I seethe about it for months. As I fill my phone with pictures of ravens and my instagram feed with tattoo artists, I cannot help but tell myself that I am not a bogan, not at all. But in a way that sentiment might be right. Maybe my parents are bogans. But what does being a bogan even mean?

Calling someone a bogan is usually taken to be a bad thing. A bogan is defined as a person whose speech, attitude or appearance are unrefined and unsophisticated. This is pretty vague and subjective, but to a lot of people unrefined and unsophisticated can amount to a person covered in patriotic tattoos. When I think about my parent’s tattoos, they may be ‘unsophisticated’ because they are simple. My father has three, the first of which has been there since long before I was born. It is a chain wrapped high around his left bicep, circling underneath the skin marked by the smallpox vaccine that betrays his age and international origins. Years of surf and sunburn turned it into a dark greenish-blue. When I was 13 he got a celtic cross on the right side of his chest and two years later followed it with a celtic knot. The chain makes my father strong in my mind, with arms like a lumberjack that can lift me onto his shoulders and create beautiful carpentry from hard red wood. My mother’s are more secret and I didn’t even know they were there until I was 10. There is one on her back that I hardly ever see, a cheeky throwback to years spent with friends chasing the next rock concert and wishing that Monday would never come .The other is a slender blue feather that sits on the left side of her chest. I see it peek over the tops of her favourite dresses and it reminds me of when she is happy, free to do whatever she wants, to fly wherever her heart takes her.

It is possible that the association of tattoos with bogans stems from the practice in many parts of world of branding criminals with tattoos. This practice is old enough to have been recorded in Greece in 450 BC where criminals were given tattoos which were called ‘stigma’. Later in the 8th century the Yakuza of Japan developed irezumi tattooing using sharpened bamboo to implant ink under the skin in response to the forced prison tattoos bestowed upon them with words like dog or pig. This has led to the famous, or infamous, tradition of modern Yakuza members being covered and marked by extensive tattoos. English convicts arriving in Australia were also heavily tattooed, usually not because of forced tattooing but the association still holds. While an association with criminality may lead to an association as unsophisticated, many of those ‘bogans’ with tattoos are marked with symbols that seem to have little to do with what is seen as Australian bogan culture. For example my father’s celtic designs are drenched in Anglo-European traditions, his cross an echo of the religious symbols tattooed on the arms of the aristocracy during the 18th century. This reminds me of his love of classical music which has blossomed into yearly trips to the opera. My mother’s slender blue feather to me symbolises her taste for high fashion clothes, her wardrobe a favourite hiding place of mine as a child when I would dive into a jungle of ostrich feathers and bespoke leather pants. I decide that if this is what it would be like to be associated with  bogans, a group of simple people with hidden interesting lives, then that is fine.

I finally settle on another norse symbol, a vegvisir. It is a small rounded intricate stave, the lines and curves supposedly carved into ships to ask the gods to steer them safely to their destinations no matter how bad the storm or how dead in the doldrums. Essentially it means that you can never get lost and this makes me feel warm and safe. On a hot December day I lay down on a table covered in cling wrap, watching a woman carefully pull a long needle out of plastic wrapping.

“Alright, breathe in and then I’ll start.”

Later that night as my perfect wound weeps under a layer of cling wrap loosely taped to my shoulder blade, my ex lets me know that this tattoo is only special if I don’t get another one. He says, “I don’t know if I want to stay with someone who gets lots of tattoos,” and what I hear is that he doesn’t want to be with a bogan. My simple design seeps into my simple shoulder blade and my father texts me saying that it looks “fucking awesome”. Almost a year to the day after getting my first tattoo I break up with my ex in an unsophisticated and simple way and start planning my next tattoo. 

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