Our good friend, travelling companion, guest artist and fellow hand tattooist Brent McCown was able to squeeze in a short visit at Skin&Bone between the Stockholm Ink Bask and the Icelandic Tattoo Convention last Fall. Zsa Zsa from Z-Tattoo has been wanting to feature him in her magazine for some time so we took the rare opportunity to take some photos and interview him over a pot of tea :-)
Brent in all his seafaring glory
Cover from the latest issue of Z-tattoo
And an English translation for the Swedish impaired:
Brent McCown: “The White Chief”
Despite 26 years in the business, Brent McCown retains his youth, in body, heart and mind. Unlike many Old School and Traditional practitioners, Brent bridges the gap between machine and traditional tools and is very open and willing to share his knowledge. Born in New Zealand, Brent began his career in 1988, tattooing out of a caravan in Australia and then an Old School biker shop on Darwin. He eventually moved back to New Zealand and worked closely with such notorious characters as Merv O’ Connor (who is in his 80’s and still tattooing 6 days a week) and Steve Ma Ching (who is famous for his New School Samoan designs). It was during this time that Brent took up the traditional Polynesian tools and began honing his craft while travelling. Brent has won awards at some of the biggest conventions in the world… New York, London, Milano, Amsterdam and Copenhagen to name a few. Brent has also been instrumental in bringing Tatau into the 21st Century by developing hygienic tools for hand tapping… wood has been replaced with autoclaveble plastic, boars tooth combs have been replaces with sterile needles. After travelling many years Brent settled in central Europe with his German wife Steffi and son Maddox where he owns the studio Tattoo Tatau in Villach, Austria
Past or Present:
I asked Brent about “Tatau” (Traditional hand tapping) and why the interest and addition of traditional tools to his tattooing?
“I think all positive thoughts are a step forward , and any negative to change is a step backward to killing it. The Hand tapping part of my job has evolved from me through an accident: I was helping my neighbor a tatau artist sterilizing and building some tatau tools and then the interested developed from there”. Sort of a cultural exchange. “Nowadays I’m constantly trying to improve the method of tatau whilst still keeping true to tradition, and I hope that this will keep it alive for future generations”
Authentic “vs” Aesthetic:
Polynesian tattoos have become very popular the last several years with a lot of impressive work coming out. When asked if an artist needs a deeper knowledge of the symbols than just aesthetics to produce a good tattoo, Brent responds, “I think is very important to understand what you are creating as the tatau has lots of meaning from nature, for example, it is very common for someone to tattoo birds flying upside down because they don’t understand the symbols”.
When asked about traditional tools versus tattoo machines for cultural tattoos, Brent sees a lot of grey area. “Machine and Traditional are both great, in the beginning the artists used what was available. Both create really different textures and effects on the skin, and as an artist I love the contrast between this 2 mediums. However I also believe a fully traditional tattoo (eg. a peá or malu) with full meaning should be done the traditional way.
The Rutherford Factor:
When asking Brent about the problems of being a “Pakeha” (White man) tattooing traditional symbols the conversation quickly turns to John Rutherford. Rutherford was a British sailor from the early 1800’s who travelled and lived amongst the Maoris. Rutherford was tattooed with a Samoan Peá (traditional trousers) as well as a Moko (Maori facial tattoo) and other Polynesian tattoos. He was highly respected amongst the tribes and became known as “The White Chief”. He was in some ways a foreign diplomat of his time and you begin to see a similarity when talking to and looking at Brent. Some modern Polynesians see the tattooing of traditional patterns on foreigners as “Tabu”(forbidden). However this was never tabu in the old days… it became tabu when the missionaries arrived. Tattooing was a heathen practice and if they couldn’t stop the Polynesians from doing it, they could at least forbid them from tattooing the Christian sailors.
Brent says, “the thought of many, that a non polynesian should not have a polynesian tattoo is very very incorrect. It is a very dangerous and jealous thought. In the times before the white man in Polynesia this jealously didnt exist, it is a modern thing created by the ones that have lost their culture and trying to get it back. Instead of embracing the ones reviving it they are condemning it to a slow death. For a culture to survive they need to be strong and together with no racial prejudice and adapt to the times”.
9500 Villach, Austria
Tel: +43(0)650 / 3542 302