More than skin deep: tattoos mark Black Saturday

Marco Noble, one of the many Flowerdale residents who has been tattooed. Photo: Justin McManus
Marco Noble, one of the many Flowerdale residents who has been tattooed. Photo: Justin McManus

THREE years after the Black Saturday fires, green and black remain the dominant colours on the approach to Flowerdale. The green can be seen in the fringes of leaves that jut from the blackened trees that line the road. The new growth appeared within weeks of the fires ending. Before then the twisted branches were all but naked, the foliage barely existent. Epicormic growth, this process is called, when leaves sprout from buds protected deep within the bark. It is nature's means of surviving fire trauma, common to eucalyptus trees.

''Green and black are the colours of our new logo,'' Flowerdale resident Odette Hunter said when I mentioned what I had observed on the drive up that morning for a gathering in the Flowerdale hall several months after the fires.

The logo was launched at a community service on May 17, 2009. Back then the grief was raw; the community was hurting. It could be seen in the shell-shocked faces of many of the survivors and heard in the stories they told of the loss of friends and homes. Of Flowerdale's 320 houses, 201 were destroyed and 13 locals died defending their properties or trying to escape.

A tattoo was the last thing Hunter imagined having, but the fires changed all that. ''As soon as I saw the logo I knew I had to have it. There were no words to express what happened on Black Saturday. It was unspeakable. The image was so simple, but said it all.''

A week later, Hunter drove the 80 kilometres from Flowerdale to Vic Market Tattoos in North Melbourne and had the logo applied beneath her forearm, just above the wrist. She rolls up her sleeve to show me the silhouette of a burnt tree. A single green leaf sprouts from the trunk, mirroring what I had seen that morning.

Hunter wept as she told the story of the fires to Olivia Brumen, the artist who applied the tattoo. Twenty-one years old at the time, Brumen served her apprenticeship at Vic Market Tattoos and now works there full-time.

''I had never heard of Flowerdale,'' Brumen says. ''And I was overseas at the time of the fires. But when I first met Odette I could see how massive it was. I could see the tattoo meant the world to her. Getting it was literally part of the healing.''

After hearing Hunter's tale, Brumen offered to apply the tattoo for free to any Flowerdale resident who wanted it. In the following months a 12-seat community bus took residents to the parlour on Tuesdays, Brumen's day off. They spent their time alternating between the parlour and the corner pub, just a few doors away.

I joined a bus load at the parlour one Tuesday morning and watched Brumen at work. ''The image is so powerful,'' she says. ''Even though they are black, the twisting branches can be seen as life giving veins. It was a challenge to make it look good on skin. My offer to apply it was a small gesture. It was the least I could do.''

Three years after the fires more than 120 Flowerdale residents have the tattoo. It is an ongoing affair. When anyone wants one, they ring Brumen directly. As the third anniversary approached I met a group of them in the newly-built Flowerdale community house. Designed with community consultation, the spacious building flows with natural light. The colourful sofas in the foyer invite conversation.

''Each of us feels very humbled and lucky to have survived,'' Hunter says. ''And each of us have our own reasons for getting tattooed. There was a sense of community before the fires, but there has been a major shift. We got to know many more of our neighbours through our trips to the parlour and at the regular community dinners we've held since the fires.''

Annie Robertson had never had any desire to be tattooed. ''When I first saw Odette's I was sure I couldn't do it. Then I changed my mind. I guess the thought of a tattoo on the body is not so hard to accept after what we went through. I needed to remind myself to keep feeling hopeful. I love the way the logo hints at hidden roots and at the hidden valleys of Flowerdale. It reminded me that one day these valleys would be coloured green again.''

Robertson has the tattoo on her forearm, enclosed in a circle. ''I love the concept of Pi,'' she says. ''It is a number that never ends. It has infinite possibilities, but it is also how you calculate a circle. It encompasses everything.''

Judy Baker, local legend and former CFA captain, has the tattoo on her chest over her heart. She intends having one green leaf added as each year passes after the fires. ''Sorry, I am going to cry,'' she says, when she is asked about the tattoo.

She hates being asked directly about the day.

The tattoo reminds her of the many unsung heroes, the people who fought the fires, their camaraderie, and those who are in it for the long haul.

Artist Lee McGill, who lost her house and studio, has the tattoo on her foot. ''I shocked myself by having it applied. I had never thought of tattoos as appealing at all. For me the image represents strength and resilience. It's not in your face, but it's there.

''It reminds me of why I settled here in the first place. Flowerdale allowed me to be myself. Part of it is the physical thing. It's the valley, the way the hills envelope you. There is a hidden secret here.''

Unlike other residents who have the tattoo, McGill has still not decided whether to stay in Flowerdale or to leave. ''I am in limbo. I haven't been able to rebuild. But the tattoo and the community feeling it represents, encourages me to stay.

''The tattoo and why so many have wanted to have it, reminds us we should never underestimate a community with passion,'' says John Burgess, the former chairman of the Flowerdale recovery committee. ''The tattoo symbolises that passion.''

While he is a ''non-tree-wearer'' as he calls it, it was Burgess, and Peter Williams, from Deloitte Digital, who came up with the idea to have a community logo. Five entries were considered, but it was the one submitted by Sydney artist Jessica Mason that stood out. ''You could see immediately that it symbolised rebirth,'' says Burgess. ''The decision was unanimous.''

More than 400 people attended the community launch of the logo at Moore's Road Reserve, behind the Flowerdale pub, on May 17, 2009. Each was presented with the logo embroidered on a cloth badge.

''We used it as a way to promote community connectedness,'' Burgess says. ''First they had to sign a visitor's book, so we got to know who to contact and keep in touch with. We did not want anyone feeling isolated.''

''I always swore that I would not have the tattoo,'' says Flowerdale identity and bush poet Peter Auty. ''Then I went up north for a break and I was just walking around when I suddenly realised I wanted it. As soon as I returned, I said to Odette: 'Put me on the bus'.''

Auty's tattoo is in the form of a padlocked chain that encircles his hand. "So I can never get it off,'' he laughs. Olivia allowed space for a keyhole in the lock, but I said no. Fill it in. I never want the chance to have it unlocked again.

''On the day of the fires everyone banded together and helped in whatever way they could. Some made sandwiches; others provided refuge for kids in safer houses. There is no real hierarchy here. This is what I love about Flowerdale. You are accepted warts and all. No one batted an eyelid when I first arrived in 2001 and walked around in kilts. No one in the valley saw themselves as better than anyone else. But the fires have brought us closer together. I now know many people I didn't know before.''

Unlike the others, Paula Turner never even contemplated having the tattoo. ''I don't need it on my body. The image of the tattoo is in my heart.''

The logo reminds her of what has changed. ''Before the fire, possessions meant much more to me. I lived in the Flowerdale village before my house was rebuilt on a property fronting the creek and felt a great sense of community. I live alone again, but I always feel I am protected - by the hills, by the people, by my friends.

''Slowly, the birds have returned,'' she says. Each is fully registered: the eagle that landed on her barbecue the other day, the blue wrens, black cockatoos, king parrots, little honey eaters, the kookaburras that burst into laughter at dusk.

''Flowerdale is a place where humanity and nature walk hand in hand,'' she says.

As Odette Hunter and I eat lunch at the Hazeldene store later that day, we keep running into people who have the tattoo - one with three butterflies hovering near the tree, another in the form of a locket. After lunch we call in on artist Sharon Collins, who ushers us through her recently completed home.

Collins and her partner, musician Michael Minten, settled in Flowerdale five weeks before the fires and lost their house on Black Saturday. Their new home stands just a few doors down from the old site. In deference to the threat of fire, open grassed space extends from the verge of the forest sloping down to King Parrot Creek.

''I fell in love with the symbol as soon as I saw it,'' Collins says. ''I wasn't allowed to apply it at first because I was pregnant. As soon as I could I had it done. Artistically, I love it too,'' she says.

Collins has the logo tattooed on her foot in the form of an anklet. Minten's is topped and tailed by scrolls inscribed with the place and the date of the fires. As an artist, Collins is obsessed with the image and is working on a series of drawings inspired by it. The shape of the tree was the central motif of her powerful artwork that featured 280 hands of Flowerdale residents cast in resin. It is one of the many forms the logo has taken since it was launched.

The image now features on T-shirts, as patches on some CFA uniforms, on the roof of the community centre and as a mosaic by the entrance.

When asked to reflect on the tattoo process almost three years down the track, Olivia Brumen notes the changes. ''Odette recently had 13 leaves added to the tree, in honour of those who died. Annie Robertson is planning to have the tree fully covered in leaves. They are now looking at the fires in a new light,'' she says. ''It's no longer a solitary tree with one green leaf, but a community of trees.

''They are so strong these people. Even when I first met them, a few months after the fires, they never let people see the extent of what they went through. They showed their support for each other. They shared their friendship, spent the day together. They tried to focus on the positives.''

The process has changed Brumen's perception of her vocation. ''It has helped me as an artist,'' she says. ''I can see new possibilities. It made me realise one little thing can be so important. The people opened up to me. I got to see them working through it together.

''I felt the emotion each time I applied it. The body goes through a mild shock. People get an adrenalin rush just getting the tattoo. I think it helped them believe we can endure this. We've endured the physical challenge, and we got through it.

''I have always thought that living skin is the most beautiful of canvasses and that tattoos are more powerful than art hanging on walls. It is a non-conformist form of expression. You can be whoever you want to be, develop your own voice, physically and aesthetically. Each Flowerdale tattoo is slightly different, an expression of the individual, but each works from the same template.''

Individuality and community, nature and humanity - this, I now realise, is the ''hidden secret'' of Flowerdale and all of this is captured in the tattoo.

Arnold Zable ran writing workshops for Black Saturday survivors in Flowerdale and other affected towns in a project supported by the Grace Marion Wilson Trust, Alexandra Library and the Victorian Writers Centre. His most recent book is Violin Lessons.