Jo Jeffries meets the Hamiltonian tattooist and fly fisherman.
WORDS JO JEFFRIES IMAGES HOLLY MARIE RUSSELL
Ali’s needle moves in a fluid motion. Fine, delicate marks appear on his customer’s skin. The movement takes the tattoo artist back to his roots. His family are from the Kelabit tribe, on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo. Ali explains how tattooing forms part of his tribe’s traditions.
“In the space of a week, every female in the village who has started puberty gets tattooed. All their limbs are covered: both sleeves and both legs.”
A childhood love of drawing, and fascination with the fine lines of his grandmother’s tribal tattoos, led to an exploration of the arts. Elliot Mason, owner of Zeus Gallery in Tauranga, says, “Ali has the ability to turn his creative hand to most mediums with impressive professionalism and execution.” But it is his work as a tattooist which has connected him with his cultural heritage.
While drawing was always a favourite pastime as a child, and art was embraced, his family eventually pushed Ali towards a more traditional career.
“When we moved to New Zealand, my dad tried to steer me towards becoming a pilot. And I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t want to be a pilot. I want to draw, I want to paint.’ It took them years to understand that I want to be an artist.”
He had his first taste at high school in Hamilton and in the skate park after school. It was a way of connecting with mates from around Hamilton, but Ali also connected with the subculture on an artistic level.
“I find the creative community in skateboarding is quite wide. It’s a platform for other artists to express themselves: it could be street art or it could be designing skateboard graphics.”
The skateboarding crowd opened Ali’s eyes to other artistic avenues. He began listening to punk music, and it was a natural progression to move from drawing and painting to street art. A stint in Wellington opened up the world of stencilling and character drawing and when Ali returned to Hamilton, he felt compelled to brighten up the streets.
Melville Skate Park was a favourite spot to paint; using just a paint brush and acrylic paint, he refined his illustrative yet painterly style. It was there that he met Glen Leslie, a student of media arts, who invited him to ‘paint nights’ in his studio space. The pair were soon joined by Jared Benwell, and in 2005 the trio named themselves Underwater Collective, a collaboration of minds that resulted in artworks exploding with post-apocalyptic characters, absurd humour and subversive references.
Notoriety was rapid, and Underwater Collective soon had great success with gallery bookings and numerous commissions. The success lasted for some time after Glen left to live in Scotland in 2010.
It was around the time of the Collective’s success that Ali’s former girlfriend bought him a tattoo gun as a present. He’d already started getting himself tattooed while on visits back to Borneo, but it hadn’t yet occurred to him to try doing it himself.
He was fascinated with the new tool, experimenting through trial and error. When it became clear to him that his interest in tattooing could become a paid vocation, he approached parlour after parlour, asking for an apprenticeship.
Eventually, thanks to Underwater Collective’s presence on social media, the owner of Custom Collective (now Flax Roots Tattoo) agreed to take the amateur ‘backyard scratcher’ on. The apprenticeship was a trial by fire. Ali was chucked in the deep end and learned by observing.
“I was so into it and studied pictures, wondering, ‘How do they do that? Was the line first, and then the colour? Or was it the other way around?’”
For five years, Ali lived and breathed tattooing, developing his style. His creative process focused on playing with variables of line, image and skin; acute observation and experimentation were key. Ali’s unique point of view is reflected in all that he does. His other passion, fly-fishing, is approached in the same way: observation, intuition, and trial and error.
“For me, it’s more than putting the bait on, chucking it out over the water and opening a beer. I like things with variables. I like to think ‘Why did it work? Maybe I’ll change this.’ That’s why I like skateboarding. Graffiti is a bit like that too.”
Over the past couple of years, Ali has moved away from colour and bold lines and sought inspiration in the delicate precision of scientific drawings. He’s made artistic moves that intuitively bring him closer to his ancestry: fine lines and only black and grey, as it was for his grandmother.