Aotearoa isn’t lacking in talented tattoo artists, with many great traditional studios in operation and an influx of young, experimental, self taught artists building notoriety. You can find local artists doing contemporary blackwork that’ll transport you instantly to sweaty Berlin clubs that lock you in till dawn, drawing up ignorant tattoos like those found on line-cook aesthetic Brooklyn-ites. For over a year, during the early pandemic, we were lucky enough to have a lockdown-trapped Rita Salt, of New York City, tattooing on our shores. Not so lucky for them. I got 4 tattoos out of it though.
Rachel Barker is a writer / producer at VICE NZ in Aotearoa.
One of the stand-out talents building a reputation for their dark, eerie and sometimes humorous style is a Wellington based artist who goes by the name Cuck Norris (or Cuck_Norris999 on Instagram)VICE went along to Cuck’s Cuba Street-adjacent studio to chat all things ink – including how they kicked their career off the ground as a self-taught artist – and what influences their dark designs. Oh, and we got a tattoo in the process.
VICE: So, who are you, who is Cuck Norris?CUCK NORRIS: I am a tattoo artist based in Pōneke. I've got a private studio. Self taught. And how long have you been tattooing?I've been tattooing for, shit, how long has it been? I've had a machine since 2017. But I'd say it's only been the last three and a half years that I consider myself actually tattooing.Where did the name Cuck_Norris999 come from? So unfortunately Cuck Norris without any numbers was taken. I actually didn't come up with the name. A friend of mine called Tommo came up with it in 2019.It was just an Instagram name, a new Instagram handle. Then I started tattooing and then once I had more of a following I was debating whether or not it was like a name I should keep. But yeah, it was a resounding Yes, you should keep the name, from everybody I talked to. And it's kind of funny, just like referring to the tattoos like, Oh, is it a Cuck piece? Just the way people talk about it is really funny.
How does being a self-taught artist work? I think it's been a balancing act of my skill level and drawing ability. A downside to being a self-taught tattoo artist, at least for me, is it takes much longer to get good compared to doing an apprenticeship or something where you've got constant feedback on what you're doing and how to improve. It's actually funny because I wanted to be a tattoo artist when I was in high school, but it was something that I put away, which I'm kind of glad I did because I came to Wellington to study instead. But my plan was to go do an apprenticeship because I've always been interested in drawing and tattoos. But funnily enough it started with just doing stick and pokes in first year on myself and my flatmate.Was that with legit equipment? No, no, no, no, it was like sewing needles in Indian ink. Eventually I got a machine because I was tired of how long it took to do stick and pokes. Once I got the machine I would occasionally just tattoo myself or friends out of my bedroom. It wasn't anything serious.
How did you take it from just being your friends to becoming more of a legit job?I'd say once I got the confidence, and once I wanted to take it further than just offering it to people I knew… I think Instagram was probably the thing there. Like, making my Instagram more tattoo-orientated, posting availability and designs etcetera.
You have a really gorgeous, distinct tattooing style. Where did that come from? I've been drawing my whole life, I've always been interested in visual arts.I think it's probably the fact that I taught myself how to tattoo. I didn't have to do a particular style, or I didn't have someone above me who had a style that I would draw from, even subconsciously. But yeah, just kind of tattooing when I wanted to tattoo, drawing what I wanted to draw.I definitely got advice from friends who had more experience when I didn't really know what I was doing. Or if I had a question, I’d ask them about it. But for the most part, in terms of actually tattooing, that was all just trial and error and having willing friends to give me this part of their skin for these tattoos. Y’know, it's kind of funny seeing them (the early tattoos). You can see how far you've come when you look back. Do your designs have roots in fantasy? To me it’s very gothic and very science fiction-y.Oh, yeah. I love fantasy and fiction and everything. The movies, video games, horror games, there's definitely a lot of inspiration from there.I think one of the most recognisable influences is going to be Berserk, which is the manga. It's not Junji Ito is it? No, but Junji Ito is definitely another inspiration. Berserk’s a big, cult following, dark fantasy. It pretty much just follows one person over a long period as things kind of get progressively more fucked up in the world. The art style is insanely creepy. Just lots of demons with human faces. And I think when you look at my drawings, you can see a lot of that.
Were you ever a Silent Hill fan? I’ve actually never played Silent Hill, but I'm aware of the iconography in that.I do totally see that kind of creature design being comparable to some of yours. I love it.
And how do you feel your style has evolved?For me, it was drawing stuff that I knew I could tattoo. And then I'd reach a critical mass, y’know, feeling like I'm bored with this, I want to try something new. Then it's this balancing act where my tattooing level increases, so then I push my drawing ability. And then my tattooing has to catch up to that. And then I make my tattoos better than my drawing, and I have to push the drawing higher. Do you feel like there’s a general push towards what would be described as experimental or non-traditional tattoos?I mean, the tattooing scene globally, from what I can see, is at this really beautiful point where it's more about your own individual style and expression as opposed to hitting a certain traditional style of tattooing. People are just tattooing how they draw or how they create onto people's bodies. It may still fit into certain styles, but it's more of an individual expression.Do you think having an art school background helped you? I think in the long run it has. I wouldn't say anything directly in terms of drawing ability, because the school I went to was very conceptual as opposed to skills-based. So you weren't necessarily taught how to draw, how to paint, but you were taught how to think about what you're doing.
I think the most important thing for me was just like – because I was thinking about doing tattooing straight out of high school – having that break and going to uni. It allowed time for my drawing ability and what I wanted to draw and my taste to develop. When did you get your first tattoo? I think I got my first tattoo when I was 17. But it was all by the book. My mums a tattooed individual and they were willing to sign the consent forms and everything.Do you like what you got? Yeah… It's like, I don't dislike it, but my taste has changed since then. Yeah. Y’know, I don't think they're bad tattoos in any regard. I don't want to remove any of those (early) tattoos but I think it's a nice place to work from, with other tattoo artists, like adding layers to them over the years.That’s a cool way of looking at it. On a different tack, what makes a good or bad client in your eyes? I wouldn't say I've had any bad experiences with clients, really. It's a real intimate experience getting a tattoo, like sitting with someone for hours, getting to know them…I think it's probably just an etiquette thing of just like, not bailing on the day. I'm not gonna hold it against the person. I can just tell them ‘next time make sure that you set an alarm on your phone or something and let me know’. I think it's definitely more important to be talking about, as someone who's getting a tattoo, what you should expect in terms of your boundaries and whatnot with your tattoo artist. Because it is a power dynamic that people do and have used like many times in the past, unfortunately. So I think it's more important to be talking about what is and isn’t okay when you get a tattoo. It's about consent, informed consent.
Totally. And last but not least, what's coming up for Cuck Norris? I’m releasing some new merch so I guess upcycled, if that’s still a term people use, like, op-shop finds that I've been bleaching and dying and putting designs on. I'd say I've probably made about 40 to 50 t-shirts and hoodies and stuff. And I'm just having a little pop-up shop this month on the 17th at Windy Workshops gallery in Wellington.
Rachel Barker is a writer / producer at VICE NZ in Aotearoa.