17 April 2023

Riverina Rewind: The nude tattoo that was too rude for Wagga

| Chris Roe
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Tattoo Wagga

‘Sun’s out, guns out’: Rolling up his sleeves in Wagga in 1920 got one digger arrested. Photo: Chris Roe.

Tattoos are now a common sight on the streets of Wagga Wagga where one can barely look about without seeing inked flesh in every colour and design imaginable.

Studies show that one in four Australians now sports a tattoo and Wagga boasts two busy parlours and several highly regarded artists.

But back in the 1920s, tattoos were far less common and generally confined to sailors, criminals and circus performers.

READ ALSO Riverina Rewind: ‘Beautiful Wagga’ as we saw ourselves in 1941

There was a growing interest in exotic ink as more Australians ventured abroad and many returned servicemen came home with a skin-deep souvenir, but until recently it was not something one generally displayed in polite society.

So it was, that in February of 1920 Wagga’s fine citizens were scandalised by a rolled-up sleeve and a suggestive design.

Headline from a paper

In the 1920s a “wowser” was someone who frowned on immoral behaviour. Photo: Trove.

Sydney’s The Sun newspaper summed up the commotion with the headline “OFFENDING ARM – WOWSERISM AT WAGGA – TATTOOED FIGURE OFFENDS – Soldier Warned”

It was a Saturday afternoon when 28-year-old former digger John Rae was walking along the footpath with his sleeves rolled up “nearly to the shoulder” to enjoy the summer sun outside a popular hotel.

To the horror of passing pedestrians, his bicep bore a 6-inch-tall tattoo of a nude woman who had been revealed in all her naked glory!

READ ALSO Riverina Rewind: Council calls for a whipping with nude bathers busted on Wagga Beach

A small crowd of Wagga residents were so shocked that they called for the police and according to the Herald, “Constable Cooper was called to arrest the man for offensive behaviour”.

Mr Rae was charged and when called to the box in the police court he pleaded not guilty and was asked to again roll up his sleeve to reveal the lewd tattoo.

After close inspection, police magistrate Mr McMahon declared that it was “plainly a representation of a woman in the nude” however he “expressed some doubt as to the fixity of an ethical standard in matters of this kind”.

He concluded that “the whole question is whether the figure is offensive or not” and was inclined to let him off with a warning.

“Was it offensive to the public?” the magistrate enquired of the arresting constable.

“Yes, Your Worship,” Cooper answered.

“Did he deliberately display his arm, do you think constable?” McMahon asked.

“I believe so, Your Worship. He would have been severely handled by the crowd if he had not been arrested,” added Cooper, hinting at just how rowdy things had gotten before he intervened.

In discharging the tattooed digger, Mr McMahon noted that many people took exception to the depiction of nude figures in Sydney’s arts precinct in the Domain and in shop windows and Rae was cautioned to keep his ‘guns’ under wraps and not to display his arm in such a way in the future.

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