By Tom Zillich
Thanks to well-inked basketball freak Dennis Rodman and other Hollywood/rock star types, tattoos are hip again. Nothing newsworthy about that '90s trend.

What's significant these days is the lengths to which people will go to have something of personal meaning tattooed on the ol' bod. For Vince Hemingson, a trip to the local tattoo shop evolved into an around-the-world tour in search of the history, rituals and social importance of tribal tattoo art.

A post-divorce "mid-life crisis" brought him to a Davie Street shop where he met well-traveled tattoo artist Thomas Lockhart, who machine-inked Hemingson with a lion emblematic of his Scottish heritage.

"I was a bit of an unusual customer in that I spent so much time researching my tattoos," says Hemingson. In his frequent trips to the shop, he learned of Lockhart's tattoo-discovery journeys to exotic locations.

"He told me about his trips to Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro, to the hill tribes in the Philippines, and with the headhunters of Borneo who tattooed him. As a filmmaker I really got to thinking that there's a film here. Some people in the industry I talked to thought it was the best idea for a documentary they'd heard about in 20 years."

Born was the idea for The Vanishing Tattoo, an in-progress film project with the ambitious goal to film the oldest examples and the most authentic and original practitioners of tattoo art—before they and their art disappear for good.

Hemingson and Lockhart recently returned from a six-week, seven-country trip to Southeast Asia, where they scouted locations and shot 10 hours of film. Their pre-Christmas travels took them to Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, Tahiti and back. Hemingson diarized the trip on the award-winning website, launched in September 1999 and now crammed with more than 1,000 pages of tattoo-related script.

They met Japanese masters of tattoo art, and discovered a renaissance of the art in places like Samoa. In Thailand, they experienced the more spiritual side of tattoos done by monks.

"To them a tattoo is by its very nature a magic tattoo," relates Hemingson. "At the Thai monastery we were at, every March 1 everyone comes back to get their tattoo recharged with this incredible 24-inch steel needle, and they do it one point at a time. They get blessed beforehand, and after it's done the monk gives you an incantation for you to repeat. Then he blows on the tattoo to give it power. We got to meet the head monk because we were spending so much money—500 baht notes at a time. And he blessed us a few times just for the photo op."

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Thomas Lockhart and Vince Hemingson Photo: Doug Shanks
Photo: Doug Shanks

Vancouverites Thomas Lockhart (left) and 
Vince Hemingson teamed up in the Far East
to research their Vanishing Tattoo, a film
project that will consider the history, rituals 
and social importance of tribal tattoo art.

Tattooing traditions are dying out in some Far East regions, but not in Samoa and among the Maori in New Zealand. Some of the traditional designs are gone, says Hemingson, but people in those regions feel that you can't be Tahitian or Maori unless you have a tattoo.

"There's a renaissance going on that the rest of the world isn't aware of, really."

Lockhart, whose body is covered in a kimono-style tattoo, found that many of the village elders who'd worked on him in the mid-'90s are now dead. Those of the younger generation have tended to shun traditional tattoos and tattooing in favour of machine-inked American cultural icons such as eagles and Harley logos.

"In some places not only were the images fading, the traditional method of hand-poking tattoos is lost to the electric tattoo machines," Lockhart laments.

They have plans to discover tattoo artistry in regions of Russia and Europe, and as close to home as Haida Gwai/Queen Charlotte Islands, where many young aboriginals have no idea that the Haida were once skilled tattooists.

The Vanishing Tattoo could expand from a 90-minute documentary into some sort of TV series, given enough financial support. Already on board are CanWest Global, The Aboriginal People's Network and BC Film.

"We're not anywhere near finished," sighs Hemingson. "When I first started this I thought it'd be a quick-and-dirty little documentary, but we've discovered a whole world of this stuff. We're getting a tremendous amount of interest from academics who are realizing that this is a human endeavor that's kind of been stigmatized in western cultures which has viewed tattoos as the work of the lower classes. For the rest of the world, tattoos are culturally important."