While his father Matt Archbold was notorious for his blanket of decorative skin art, Ford Arch has employed a more minimal and modern approach to the ink gun. (Carey)

The Short History Of Surf Tattoos

Archy, Hoyo, Fletcher… it’s a full blown rebel yell!

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The earliest known tattoos date back to 3300BC. They adorn Otzi the Iceman, who was found on the Italy/Austria border, frozen in a glacier. Otzi had tatts that corresponded closely to bone problems in his ankles and back, perhaps indicating they had an acupuncture-type function. He probably owned a sled, but it’s highly unlikely he surfed.

Tattooing was prohibited in 500BC by the Book of Leviticus. If you think that sounds definitive, Leviticus also prohibited handling pigs, eating crayfish, and having sex with your sister.

The intersection of tattooing and surfing is harder to pinpoint. Among the surfing peoples, Japan and Samoa have the longest traditions in the artform (Samoans gave us the word tatau, via Captain Cook), but conversely they have short surfing histories. Polynesian tattoos are steeped in sacred meaning, much of it tragically lost when the Hawaiian kakau fell under missionary pressures. Hawaii of course is probably the place where tattooed surfers first rode waves, and Jack London is probably the first westerner to see it, in 1907. Returned servicemen (especially sailors) from World War Two were among the first to bring ink to American lineups. But for a long, long time, in this country and elsewhere among Europeans, tatts remained the preserve of the military, the prisons and the circus.

Nat Young’s History of Surfing (1983) does not feature one tattooed human being. Matt Warshaw’s gigantic 2010 tome of the same name features one solitary image of Darryl “Flea” Virostko flexing a muscle with a modest band around it. Danny Way and Matt Hoy are the only tatts visible in Phil Jarratt’s epic 320-page corporate history of Quiksilver, The Mountain and the Wave. If you believe the hardcovers, surfing is a graceful aquatic ballet, practised exclusively by the unblemished.

But surfer ink emerged from the shadows in the 1980s. Marvin Foster, who did prison time, led the pack. Then, in a rush, came the Matts with Tatts: Archbold (San Clemente – flames, crowns, spiderwebs and angels), Branson (Perth – double sleeves) and Hoy (Newcastle – heart, star, anchor and double sleeves, and a page from Green Eggs and Ham on his thigh). Each came from a different aesthetic: all three were 24-carat hard nuts, and were widely emulated.

Illustration by Nanda Ormond.

Mick Campbell took the Ben Cousins road, scrolling his iron sixpack with Gothic lettering, which seems like tempting fate if you’re into beer. Sunny Garcia combined traditional Hawaiian designs with a hibiscus, a map of the islands and a reference to his accounting difficulties: “Death and Taxes”. Bobby Martinez went for a shotgun-toting Mexican bandido, while the back of Christian Fletcher’s head is rendered as a decomposing version of the front of Christian Fletcher’s head.

The turn of the century ushered in tatts as code for gang membership: the Bra Boys, who used theirs to sell t-shirts, and the Wolfpak, promoting neck braces.  More laidback dudes can make a larf of it: Mitch Crews got a taco on his leg and Julian Wilson lost at tenpin and had to ink a bowling pin on a finger. Chippa Wilson has a T-Rex on his knee, a weeping Jesus on a forearm and angels and demons battling it out on his guts.

But ingenuity died and ink got silly on the piss. Trophy tatts became a thing: Gabe Medina’s got the 2014 World Title trophy, but stepdad Charlie’s also got it – inscribed into his left forearm. And Silvana Lima’s got her 2009 Bell emblazoned across her ribs. Footballers, pop idols and even for Chrissake Lachlan bloody Murdoch look like they rolled in wet comics.

Rebellion got humped by the mainstream. A backlash was inevitable. So those paragons of good taste, the Surfers Paradise nightclubs, are now cracking down on tuff stickers. Even East LA hard man Joe Crimo has read the writing on his eyelids: he’s launched a GoFundMe campaign to have his facial tatts erased. Even Death and Taxes aren’t permanent.

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Jock Serong