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Interview on Travelin’Mick

Instead of a CV, read this interview with Travelin’ Mick, where he makes his personal history and work philosophy better understood than by simply listing dates and numbers...

You actually started your career as a journalist with a report about the tattooed gangsters of South Africa, the so-called ”Numbers” Isn‘t that quite ambitious for a rookie writer and photographer?

That was actually rather by coincidence, because I worked part-time in Derek Baker’s Metal Machine tattoo shop in the centre of Cape Town, South Africa. It was quite a rough area at the time, shoot-outs in front of the studio and such. The gangsters themselves were usually heavily tattooed and sometimes came into the shop, behaving quite respectfully as soons as they entered the studio door. Our security guard was some kind of a negotiator between the gangs and got me the right contacts, so I could get interviews and photo shoots with some drug dealers and even contract killers without having to fear them. I was encouraged by an old school friend (who is now chief editor of German TaetowierMagazin) to write an article about it. This turned out to be a real successful piece, so I thought I’ll give it a go as a freelance journo and photographer! My camera training I received from Julia Tiffin, at the time a renowned art photographer in Cape Town.

Quite soon you specialised in documenting tribal tattooing. Was that by coincidence too?

No, the interest had definitely been there before, by virtue of pure curiosity, but also through my university studies of Political Sciences, English and History. I later focused my courses and papers on Intercultural Communication. Before my time in South Africa, I drove my motorbike all the way from Germany to Cape Town on a seven-month journey, and I encountered many cultures there that had tattoos, scarifications and other body modifications. I realised that hardly any research had been done about that before. After that I started traveling more and more around Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Middle East and I was hardly ever able to find any literature about tattooing and its connections to social culture. You know, even now, we are deeply influenced by the cultural and sociological roots of tattooing: Issues of group affiliation, social identity, tribal behaviour and its visualisations on the body are all around us, just think about football fans, fashion trends or even street gangs.

How do you actually choose the places you go to, and how do you find tattoo cultures there? 

It is difficult indeed, and I sometimes have to go all the way back to the roots, into British, French or German colonial literature of the 19th Century, for instance. I spend a lot of time in libraries and I got a huge collection of anthropological books together myself by now. Once I flew to the Philippines, simply because I saw a single black-and-white photograph of a tattooed lady, taken in the 1940s. The internet helps nowadays, of course. And, by the way, I don’t think I will run out of topics to write about any time soon. The more I look for it, the more I can find.

It does take a lot of determination and stamina to find out about these cultures, find the funds to go there yourself and then document them... How do you go about that?

It is not easy when you have to pre-finance all the travels yourself, go somewhere on a hunch, get some coverage - if you are lucky - and then hope you can make back your investment through magazine articles... Destinations like Papua New Guinea, Nagaland, West Africa or the South Pacific are incredibly costly to travel around in.

It does take passion for the topic, first of all. The proper research can be tough too and on occasion I had to visit a place several times, before I found anything. Take the case of the Ramanami, a tiny Hindu sect in the very centre of India that tattoo their entire body with the name of the god Lord Rama. I had to travel to India three times before I found someone who had the slightest idea where these people can be found. And even then it was hard, because they don’t stay in one place, but live scattered over a large area and they move around. Some of them have not only never seen a white person before, they actually had no notion that such a thing exists! I was sworn to secrecy about their actual location in order to let them live their pious lives largely undisturbed.

What are the main problems or even dangers that you face on your travels?

Mostly, it is just exhausting and uncomfortable, to be honest, like trekking through the African savannah for a week with Tanzanian nomads and eat nothing but rice and beans, for example. I am not too crazy about days of riding on dusty roads on a clapped-out bus along abysses filled with burnt-out car wrecks either. The most hairy incident was when I was bitten by a rabid dog in Laos. I had to race into the capital to get my shots in time before the virus had reached the brain. Once infected, the disease will break out after six to eight weeks and will kill you, one hundred percent.

Encountering rebels or tattooed gangs is often less of a problem. They usually regard me as some kind of harmless exotic being, who is interested in the same things as they are, mainly tattoos and a good time.;-) Some of the most beautiful moments of my travels where when partying with tribal elders in a remote valley or having a ball with some gangsters. It’s probably because outsiders tend to stick together, I guess. Many ethnic minorities often suffer from discrimination in those countries, where they are the original native population! And as soon as they openly speak out against this, they are labeled as “terrorists“.

Sometimes I have my issues with authorities, like customs, police or army, since they sometimes do not appreciate journalists “snooping“ around in their affairs. This is often a good indication for something afoul in this particular area or country. It has happened to me in Myanmar a few times, but also in India or Egypt.

It is, by the way, a telling sign that the USA do not admit foreign journalists without a visa anymore...

Do your own tattoos help you in your research?

Absolutely. I am convinced that several of my stories would have never happened without me being fully tattooed myself. It is our common ground when we meet, even if we don’t speak the same language. Whenever I meet tattooed people somewhere, we can look at each others’ pictures! They see that I am “genuine“. Of course, I will ask questions about their tattoos and take pictures of them, since I obviously love tattoos too. I have them all over my body, just like them. The tattoos are the best icebreaker and each one of them has a story connected to it. This way my encounters with tribes are never lopsided and unfair, but become an exchange of knowledge and experience.

You do sometimes even get tattooed there yourself, right?

Yes, and those occasions often become a real party. The whole village watches the foreigner getting tattooed in the old method. Quite often the youngsters have no knowledge of or even interest in the ancient traditions of their own people. If a foreigner comes along, quizzes the elders about it and even gets one done himself... That can even revive a bit of interest for their own culture... I hope.

And I do get a souvenir that no one can ever take from me again, it is indelibly engraved into my skin. I have two flying tigers tattooed on my thighs by the Shan in Myanmar, temple tattoos from Thailand, several tattoos from Borneo, from the Mentawai in Indonesia, from Samoa, Hawai’i, pilgrim tattoos from Egypt and Jerusalem and even a magic implant from a Buddhist monk; a tiny gold stick in my throat! The latest souvenir was a healing tattoo by the San Bushmen in Namibia. They are exactly identical to the ones Ötzi, the Iceman (the frozen mummy found on the Austrian-Italian border) received 5000 years ago!

What are your immediate plans and projects?

I am still busy searching the world for traditional tattoos and modifications. Particularly in Africa and the Pacific areas, there are plenty of areas uncharted and lots to discover. And I haven’t even touched South America! Of course, books are in the making, first a coffee table style volume with portraits of people traditional tattoos called „In Your Face. The Beauty of Traditional Tattooing“, based on my travels, as well as a compilation of some adventures.

I am getting more and more involved in supporting serious documentaries on tattooing, on and off camera and am open for future projects along those lines, despite my hectic schedule. 

Also, I am seriously considering in cooperating with an American travel agency, guiding special interest tours for people who personally want to explore traditional tattoos at the places where they actually come from.