Originally, the Southern Cross was just a star constellation, predominantly composed of stars in the Scorpius–Centaurus Association. It’s mostly visible in the Southern Hemisphere, where it helped Europe’s early sailors to navigate the oceans and came to be associated with a particular style of colonial patriotism.
But in 2005, this five-star symbol started to mean something else. This was when images of the Cronulla Riots were broadcast around Australia, along with images of the crowd’s most drunk, violent members sporting Southern Cross tattoos.
With this cultural shift in mind, we wanted to speak to some people who still have them. Why did they get them? And with racial inequality so regularly in the news, how do they feel now?
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed at interviewee’s requests.
VICE: Do you want to tell me about your Southern Cross tattoo and what it meant to you back then?
Julie Smith: I used to play Ultimate Frisbee as a sport, and I made an Australian team. So, I was a bit chuffed with that — very nostalgic of the green and gold. I just thought that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m right handed, so I had the Southern Cross done on my right shoulder.
Do you remember how your tattoo was received?
At first it was OK but then there were a series of racial tensions around that time and then the Cronulla Riots happened, and it just went ballistic. I was working at a technical college at the time, in quite a lower socioeconomic area. It’s basically filled with redneck meathead white Australians and the Southern Cross out there means something different. That’s why I decided to have it removed.
Has anyone ever looked at it and given you any flack about it?
Apart from my parents? No. Because of the Cronulla Riots and where I was working, I started to become a bit uncomfortable with the Southern Cross. I never really put it on display as a badge of honour.
When you see the Southern Cross these days, what is the thing that immediately jumps to mind?
Home. When you look up in the sky, you find the Southern Cross. I don’t have any negativity towards it. I’m happy to appreciate the Southern Cross in my own head as opposed to having it on my body.
What made you get your tattoo?
I was 18 years old and I was just like “fuck it.” I’ve never been someone to do things by halves, so I got a huge Southern Cross across my back.
Is it huge? How huge is it?
Oh, it’s my whole back.
That’s very committed.
Yep. I just decided to get a tattoo and then as time went on, I started travelling and realised that people really judged me for getting it. I was working on the Greek Islands and I remember someone pointing to my back like “Oh this fucking idiot.” I even started noticing people wouldn't talk to me because of it. So I started to feel pretty self conscious about it.
Do you still feel self conscious?
Yeah I do. I won’t really take my shirt off in public anymore. I was at a beach recently and every time someone drove past along the road I tried to make sure my back was facing the water, away from the cars.
That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.
It’s not. But someone told me that tattoos aren’t something to regret because they represent how you were feeling at the time. And I think that’s true. I don’t think you should regret a tattoo, but when you’ve got something tattooed on your back that has this racist stigma, people look at it and say, “what the hell has this dickhead done.”
Hey Ashleigh, when did you get your Southern Cross tattoo?
I first noticed the Southern Cross around 1997. During a very difficult relationship which included alcoholism and violence, I would go outside at night and sit on my little porch of my commission home, and I always seemed to be drawn to it. I got the tattoo at the end of that year.
What do you mean by you were drawn to it?
I always felt in some weird way that it was talking to me and giving me peace and strength. At the same time, I started to toy with the idea of a god as I started to also feel a supernatural and spiritual presence. And for some reason, it seemed to revolve around my time with the cross.
Have you felt judged by people for having the tattoo?
I was a young, tattooed single mother in the ‘90s. I have always felt judged.
Did that lead you to ever think about, or feel pressured to remove it?
I felt pressured into never getting tattoos in the first place. I had my first tattooist refuse to tattoo my shoulder/bicep. He finally agreed and I’ve never regretted it. Same with the piercings I got. I’ve always wanted subdermal diamante studs in the stars but figured they’d be ripped out by snagging on a towel or something like that.
With additional reporting by Joseph Lew