Brisbane nightclub’s tattoo policy brings Queensland anti-discrimination law into focus

It was something Moale James expected to happen, but it still hurt.

The 23-year-old Papuan Australian was celebrating her partner’s birthday with a group of friends in Brisbane’s nightclub precinct, Fortitude Valley, early on Sunday morning.

But when she lined up at the popular bar, Hey Chica!, a security guard told her she wasn’t allowed in.

“He looks at my license, then he looks at me and he says, ‘I can’t let you in because of your face,'” she said.

“And I paused because I’ve actually been anticipating for this to happen.”

Ms James said she calmly explained that her tattoos were an important part of her Papua New Guinean cultural heritage.

But she was still refused entry.

A woman poses for a professional portrait
Moale James, 23, before she was marked with facial reva reva.(supplied)

“Then I walked off. And I didn’t have to say anything to him because all my friends did. They said to me, ‘No, this is discrimination,'” she told the ABC.

“I’ve received discrimination before for my marks, but not to the extent of being refused entry.

An elderly woman with reva reva full-body marking
Reva reva is a full-body marking tradition that dates back generations in Moale’s family.(supplied)

Venue stands by ‘blanket policy’

Ms James posted about the incident on social media, calling out the club.

Hey Girl! apologised in a private message to Ms James, but said it would continue to enforce a blanket ban on face and neck tattoos.

“We are sorry to hear of your experience,” the message said.

“While we appreciate that our rule has caused you unintended distress, we do enforce a blanket policy that prohibits head and face tattoos at Hey Chica! along with other conditions of entry.

“While we understand this is a strict policy, we will continue to enforce this under the Liquor Act.”

Hey Girl! has not responded to the ABC’s request for comment.

Queensland liquor laws require venues to take reasonable steps to remove or exclude people wearing items linked to certain criminal organisations.

Ms James said Hey Chica!’s policy was discriminatory.

A woman with facial tattoos poses for a photograph against a dark background.
Moale’s mother, Ranu James, also wears reva reva on her face.(Supplied: Moale James)

“It’s 2022. It’s not OK to just assume that this one blanket rule can cover everybody with a tattoo. It’s ridiculous.”

Reva reva: Reclaiming an ancient tradition

Last month, Ms James received her first facial tattoos to mark her graduation from a university degree in journalism and communications.

“All of my marks mean a different moment in my life,” she said.

The tattoos – known as reva reva – also adorn her legs, arms and back.

Three women sit in a room with traditional artwork
Moale James has her face tattooed by Papuan Australian woman Julia Mage’au Gray.(supplied)

These marks are an important tradition in her mother’s Papua New Guinean village, Gaba Gaba, where women’s full-body tattooing dates back to generations.

“I wear the marks of my ancestors on my body,” Ms James said.

“They identify who I am.”

The traditional tattooing method is applied to a woman's face
Moale is tattooed with the traditional hand-tap and hand-poke method.(supplied)

Traditional tattooing died out for some decades due to the impact of European colonisation, but Ms James is part of a movement to revive the old practices in her family.

Papuan Australian artist Julia Mage’au Gray tattooed Ms James’s face using a hand-tap and hand-poke method.

“Traditionally that was done with lemon thorns, but today I use stainless steel for hygiene purposes,” Ms Gray said.

Two women baring traditional tattoos sit with a small child
Moale’s mother, Ranu, pictured with two elderly women in their village home in Gaba Gaba, Papua New Guinea.(supplied)

Ms Gray, who lives in New Zealand, said she was disappointed to hear about the nightclub incident.

Outpouring of support

Hey Girl! has faced widespread backlash since Ms James publicized the incident on social media.

Neil Cabarello, the 31-year-old chef from Perth, said he was also turned away from the club on the same night because of a prominent rose tattoo on his neck.

A man with a prominent neck tattoo poses for a photo
Perth chef Neil Caballero is of Filipino heritage.(supplied)

For him, the image holds religious significance.

“I’m of Filipino descent … I was born in a very conservative Catholic family. I got this tattoo as a representation of the Mother of God,” he told the ABC.

Mr Cabarello said he also felt discriminated against.

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