Making his Mark
Borneo-born tattoo artist, illustrator and street artist Ali Selliman found his calling in Hamilton, and it’s been a journey that has re-connected him with his family history.
As Ali moves his hand over the customer’s skin with a needle, the marks appear: fine, fluid and delicate. It’s a movement not unfamiliar in his family history. The Malaysian Borneo-born tattoo artist and illustrator’s own grandmother was heavily tattooed, as is tradition in the Kelabit tribe.
“It’s only the ladies, only the females that get tattooed, and they do it when puberty starts. They’ll have the whole village within that age tattooed within the week, and they’ll get both sleeves done, and both legs.”
As a child, Ali was fascinated by his grandmother’s fine linear tribal tattoos, but didn’t make the connection that his childhood love of drawing would eventually lead to a vocation that had cultural roots in his ancestry.
While drawing was always a favourite pastime as a child, and making artwork was always encouraged by his family, there came a time when Ali was pushed towards a more traditional career.
“When we first moved to New Zealand my dad once sent me to be a pilot. And I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t want to be a pilot. I want to draw, I want to paint.’ It took them years to understand that I want to be an artist.”
It was in New Zealand that Ali began to connect with the counter-cultures that would become huge influences on his artistry and eventually lead him to pick up a tattoo gun.
He had his first taste when he attended high school in Hamilton and would go to the skate park after school. It was a way of connecting with mates from around Hamilton, but Ali also connected with the subculture on an artistic level.
“I find the creative community in skateboarding is quite big. You know, it’s a platform for other artists to express themselves… whether you ride the skateboard or you design skateboard graphics.”
The skateboarding crowd opened Ali’s eyes to other subversive sub-cultures. He began listening to punk music and it was a natural progression to move from drawing and painting to painting street art. A stint in Wellington opened up a world of stencilling and character-drawing and when Ali returned to Hamilton, he felt compelled to “brighten up the streets”.
Melville skate park was a favourite spot to paint; using just paint brush and acrylic paint, he refined his inimitable illustrative yet painterly style. It was there that he met Glen Leslie, a student of media arts, who invited him to his ‘paint nights’ in his studio space in town. The pair were soon joined by Jared Benwell and in 2005 the trio named themselves Underwater Collective, a unique collaboration of minds that resulted in artworks exploding with post-apocalyptic characters, absurd humour and subversive references.
Notoriety was rapid and Underwater Collective soon had great success with gallery bookings and numerous commissions. The success lasted for some time after Glen left to live in Scotland in 2010.
It was around the time of the Collective’s success that Ali’s former girlfriend bought him a tattoo gun as a present. He’d already started getting himself tattooed while on visits back to Borneo, but it hadn’t yet occurred to him to try doing it himself.
He was fascinated by his new tool, experimenting through trial and error. When it became clear to him that his obsessive interest in tattooing could become a paid vocation he approached parlour after parlour, asking for an apprenticeship.
Eventually, thanks to Underwater Collective’s presence on social media, the owner of Custom Collective (now Flax Roots Tattoo) agreed to take the amateur “backyard scratcher” on.
The apprenticeship was a trial by fire. Ali was chucked in the deep end and learned by observing.
“I was so into it and kind of like studied pictures and [was] going like, ‘How do they do that? Was the line in first, and then the colour? Or was it the other way around?’”
For five years Ali lived and breathed tattooing and over this time he developed his craft and his unique approach. His creative process focussed on playing with the unique variables of line, image and skin; acute observation and experimentation were key.
Ali’s unique point of view is reflected in all that he does. His other passion, fly-fishing, is approached in the same way: observation, intuition, and the trial and error of different variables.
“Instead of just putting a bait on and chucking it out, then opening a beer – it’s much more than that, and I like things with variables. You know, like I’ll do this and ‘why did it work? Maybe I’ll change this?’ And skateboarding’s like that, and grafitiing’s like that.”
Over the past couple of years Ali has moved away from colour and bold lines and sought inspiration in the delicate precision of scientific drawings. He’s made artistic moves that intuitively bring him closer to his ancestry: fine lines and only black and grey, as it was for his grandmother.
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