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Brisbane nightclub's tattoo policy brings Queensland anti-discrimination law into focus

Moale James says there is "a lot of pride" in wearing traditional Papuan reva reva markings. (Supplied)

It was something Moale James expected to happen, but it still hurt.

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 was not allowed in.

"He looks at my licence, 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.

Moale James, 23, before she was marked with facial reva reva. (Supplied)

But she was still refused entry.

"I've received discrimination before for my marks, but not to the extent of being refused entry," she told the ABC.

Reva reva is a full-body marking tradition that dates back generations in Moale's family. (Supplied)

Venue stands by 'blanket policy'

Ms James posted about the incident on social media, calling out the club.

Hey Chica! 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 Chica! 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.

Moale's mother, Ranu James, also wears reva reva on her face. (Supplied: Moale James)

"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 signify a different moment in my life," she said.

The tattoos – known as reva reva – also adorn her legs, arms and back.

Moale James has her face tattooed by Papuan Australian woman Julia Mage'au Gray. (Supplied)

These marks are an important tradition in her mother's Papua New Guinean village, Gaba Gaba, where women's full-body tattooing dates back generations.

"I wear the marks of my ancestors on my body," Ms James said.

"They identify who I am."

Moale is tattooed with the traditional hand-tap and hand-poke method. (Supplied)

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.

Moale’s mother, Ranu, pictured with two elderly women in their village home in Gaba Gaba, Papua New Guinea. (Supplied)

Ms Gray, who lives in New Zealand, said she was disappointed to hear about the nightclub incident.

Outpouring of support

Hey Chica! has faced widespread backlash since Ms James publicised the incident on social media.

Neil Cabarello, a 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.

Perth chef Neil Caballero is of Filipino heritage. (Supplied)

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 did not 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.

"Licensees 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.

Some New Zealanders with Indigenous Māori heritage wear tattoos on their face or arms that are culturally sacred. (ABC News: James Carmody/File)

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 symbols predominantly of lower-class masculinity and criminality," she said.

Although tattoos have become more mainstream, Dr Underwood said there was still significant stigma attached to facial tattoos.

"Because it can't be covered. So it signifies [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.

Some want to revive the traditional practice of reva reva. (Supplied)

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 behaviour rather than on adornment."

'I'm not a threat to society': Papuan Australian woman turned away from club because of her facial tattoos.