A licence agreement between a Tiwi artist and a woman who wanted a tattoo of his work created an unusual question for not-for-profit licensing organisation, the Copyright Agency.

Tiwi artist Chris Black said he felt no hesitation when Katie Hagebols contacted the Jilamara Arts and Craft Association to request permission to get his work tattooed on her arm.

The image in question was a painting from 2018 called Jarrangini (buffalo) depicting Black’s dreaming, or totem, which he inherited from his father.

In the Tiwi Islands, totems are passed down through the paternal line and each dreaming has an associated dance, used to identify Tiwi at cultural ceremonies.

The design of Jarrangini is based on the ceremonial body painting used by Tiwi people to protect from the spirits of the dead.

Tiwi artist Chris Black was happy to have his worked tattooed. Photo supplied by Copyright Agency.

Visual Arts Business Developer at Copyright Agency, Arlette Martin, consulted on the licence. She said Hagebols’ background as an artist who had worked in the Kimberley and understood Indigenous culture made her easy to work with.

“She wanted to make sure she paid for the privilege of someone else’s work on her body,” said Martin.

Although Black was happy to license the artwork, Martin said the process of creating the licence for the tattoo meant carefully teasing out its implications.

“[We had to ask] can a non-Indigenous man reproduce your artwork as a tattoo on a white woman?” said Martin.

“There are men’s stories and women’s stories in the Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander [cultures], and it was just making sure that was appropriate and respectful.”

“They were all questions I’ve never had to ask before.”

Hannah Raisin, Manager of Jilamara, said the experience has encouraged Black to look for more opportunities for people to get his work tattooed.

“Chris is working on an exhibition at MARS Gallery in Melbourne later this year, and as part of that, he’s been thinking about designing more tattoos and having them as part of the exhibition,” said Raisin.

“People could come and see them, and maybe get tattoos as a result of the exhibition.”

A stencil of the artwork before it was tattooed. Photo supplied by Copyright Agency.

With a population of approximately 350 people, the Tiwi Island community of Milikapiti is small. Jilamara is the cultural hub of the community, with family links keeping people making art at the centre.

Black himself learned to paint watching his grandfather, Joe, at Jilamara. Joe Black’s work is still on display at the National Gallery of Victoria today.

“[Joe Black] was famous for painting, and he said, ‘You carry that tradition in you,’” said Black.

Keeping the tradition alive, Black now encourages his nephew, Reggie, to paint at the centre.

“It’s good for him to have something to do,” he said.

Artworks at Jilamara are usually created with traditional ochre paints on gesso painted canvases.

The artists often prepare the pigments themselves, heating yellow ochre from the mainland over a fire until it becomes red. White ochre is taken from the cliffs, and charcoal is used for deep blacks.

By Sarah Smit