Kahu Gill is one of the two founders of hand poke tattoo studio Thick and Broke - so what better way to connect with them than interviewing whilst getting a tattoo?
This story appeared in the Black Lagoon Volume 1.
Kahu Gill, a fellow Steiner school graduate (look it up, it’s very artsy) has started a hand poke tattoo studio in the heart of Eden Terrace. There’s four of them in the collective - Kahu, Kitty, Scout and Claire - and the collective has been operating for the last three months. It’s a small but clean studio set up in an old shop on New North Road, and they all live together in the flat above with a sassy cat named Data. They live and breathe their craft. It’s a nice vibe in the room, dotted with miscellaneous trinkets, sketches, and books. A handmade sign on the wall declares ‘This is a safe space. Don’t be that guy.’
Kahu was was an apprentice of Tash Wood of Tableau Studio, learning the art of tattooing with a machine. After a year they ditched that and opted for the manual art of stick and poke - if you’re wondering, it is as it sounds: it’s a needle taped to a tongue presser (the one that the doctor sticks down your throat and makes you say ‘aaaah’), and you simply poke this into the skin, dot by dot. Kahu thinks on their days using the tattoo machine. “I would get so anxious before every tattoo that I would be unable to eat for two days, which is terrible because I would get terrible shakes. Hand poke does not have the same level of anxiety, so I put the tattoo gun aside and taught myself how to do it.”
Even though they’re 24 and self-taught as of five months ago, Kahu knows a shit load about their craft - they even have their own apprentice. They plan to train tattooists in proper hygiene with the goal to take over the world with tattoos. It’s impressive when you note that even their old boss Tash is self-taught. “She couldn’t really teach me much in the sense of ‘how to tattoo’ because no one taught her. She would say to just practise and learn for yourself, and you’ll just get better! And that’s true, I have to learn for myself. I’ve been practising on my legs a lot lately.’
As you can assume, Kahu is peppered with tattoos, large and small, both hand poked and with a machine. “There’s a lot of my tattoos which I don’t think are necessarily my style or taste anymore, but I still love them because of when I got them and what they meant to me then. They’re like badges.” I think about my own shitty hand-poked tattoos and chuckle. Even though some of mine look pretty average, they are wonderful reminders of where I was at back in the day. They elaborate. “They’re also like prizes. That way I hold back on getting them; they’re like a reward that I give myself - sometimes literally.”
"Thick and broke, that's pretty much us".
I mention the sign touting the studio as a safe space. “We’re inclusive here, we are all gender non-conforming. The culture in the scene is very masculine; it’s a real boys club. But we’re gonna change the culture. That’s the plan, change it from the ground up.” My first tattoo was from a gruff man who thought my idea was funny, asking three times if I was sure I wanted to get it. “Yup, guy tattooists can be assholes!”
We’re a third of the way through the tattoo, and Kahu hits a sore spot on my arm. “Sorry! You’re sitting good though. I’m not good with pain. I’ll complain the whole time, I’m always grimacing aloud all the way through.” I try not to laugh as that makes my whole body shake. How the heck can they tattoo and not cope with the pain? “I think you’re allowed as a tattooist. You already know it hurts, but for me saying ‘ow’ helps the pain. I got the back of my thighs done and it was my most painful tattoo, I was biting the pillow, trying not to cry. I had it during the certain time of the month, so that hurt more…“
I go into my haze to deal with the pain, and think about how interesting it is to start a professional business in a craft which most teenagers do to themselves very unhygienically in maths class (I for one am entirely guilty of that). “It’ll be interesting to see how many people take us seriously as a hand poke business, but I guess we’ll see once this Viceland doco ‘Needles and Pins’ comes out.” They recently filmed with ‘Beyond Beauty’ presenter Grace Neutral, a prolific hand poke and body modification artist from London who has been documenting tattooists here in NZ. “She is so lovely. We hung out loads, went to the beach, and she gave us all tattoos of her coven sign.” Kahu, being of Māori descent also notes the regularity of people asking them to do tā moko. “Grace was asking me loads on tā moko, and I felt not very qualified to say! I heard later that they went and interviewed Tame Iti the next day on his tā moko. I hope I didn’t say something stupid. So embarrassing.”
They’ve only been a business for three months, but the collective is going steady. “I’m already having to turn people away!” There’s only four in the collective and the studio can’t accommodate for many more, but they do have dreams to expand. “We want it to be more of an arts collective. I want to have field trips where we do art classes and open air painting at the Domain or something, try get as many people to join the collective from an art perspective.”
I’m suddenly woken from my haze by a wash of cold green soap, the cleaning solution to wipe up excess ink. “Ah sorry! My bad, I always like the freezing feeling but I forget I need to tell people because it freaks them out… But warning is no fun!” An hour into the tattoo and we are almost done. “We’re close, I’m just making the lines perfect. Perfectionism - that’s what stick and poke is so good for. Other artists try to go really fast - you’re never going to be as fast as a machine so don’t even bother. Just be really good.”
Kahu cleans up my arm and we look at the finished result of my little content heart tattoo. The lines are, like they said, perfect. I feel a little sheepish comparing it with my other hand poked tattoos. I take a photo of Kahu by the front door, and they tell me about the name of the collective. “Thick and broke, that’s pretty much us. We’re a bit chunky, not too smart (jokes) and always need more money. ‘Thick and broke stick and poke’ was said as a joke but it just stuck. You know it’s good when it’s a joke.”
Thick and Broke Collective are doing some seriously cool shit - check out their Instagram to see their beautiful work (and for bookings). @kahu_gill and @thickandbrokecollective. Also, they do free touch ups!
© 2017 by Ruby Reihana-Wilson
This story appeared in the Black Lagoon Volume 1.