It was something Moale James expected to happen, but it still hurt.
- A Papuan Australian woman was turned away from a Brisbane club because of her facial tattoos
- The club privately apologised but will uphold its dress code, which bans people with face and neck tattoos
- Community members are calling for changes to anti-discrimination laws to protect people with tattoos
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“I didn’t hurt anybody,” he said.
A spokesperson for Queensland’s Office of Liquor and Gaming Regulation (OLGR) said it did not regulate dress codes in licensed venues, except for prohibited items associated with identified criminal organisations.
The OLGR lists a number of outlawed gangs, such as the Bandidos and Comancheros, whose symbols are banned from being displayed at bars and clubs.
“Licenses may also refuse entry to a person for any other reason provided doing so is not in contravention of discrimination laws,” the spokesman said.
“A patron has an ability to take a matter to the Queensland Human Rights Commission if they feel they have been personally affected by discrimination.”
Queensland’s anti-discrimination laws are currently under review.
There are calls to change the 30-year-old legislation to stop pubs, bars and restaurants from denying entry to people with face and neck tattoos.
“I just want a little bit of empathy, a little bit more respect,” Ms James said.
From marginality to belonging
University of Queensland anthropologist Mair Underwood, whose research focuses on body modification, said tattoos carried cultural baggage.
“In Western societies … they’re predominantly symbols of lower-class masculinity and criminality,” she said.
Although tattoos have become more mainstream, Dr Underwood there was still significant stigma attached to facial tattoos.
“Because it can’t be covered. So it means [in some cultures] a greater commitment to disengagement from the mainstream,” she said.
But in many Pacific Island societies, including Papua New Guinea, tattoos mean something entirely different.
“Tattoos were about belonging. They were about a social status … about fitting in to the wider community, they were expected practices,” Dr Underwood said.
Like Ms James, others are working to revive tattooing practices that were outlawed or discouraged during colonisation.
She said the issue of regulating facial tattoos in venues was a tricky one.
“There’s no easy way out of this situation. There are elements of our community who are going to be offended by people with facial tattoos,” Dr Underwood said.
“I personally think that we should lift bans on facial tattoos.
“If they enter the club and they misbehave, then they can be asked to leave. I think it should be based on behavior rather than on adornment.”