The tattooed octopus: notes on the cover of Arms Race

posted on August 19th 2014 in Writing with 0 Comments

A few years ago, on a launch heading to a small island off New Zealand’s south coast, I thought I saw a giant octopus. It lay beneath the waves like a bruise. It was as wide as a downed jumbo jet. I figured something that big had to be powerful and old. The horizon was built from pearl-black cloud.

On the island we spent ten joyous days in knee-deep mud. Afterwards, outside the pub, a bunch of young Maori guys did burnouts on hired motorbikes. They were a roading gang over from the mainland.

You gonna chase them? someone asked the local cop.

Nah, he said. I know where they live.

Round the same time in remote Ruatoki, where the local Tuhoe people never ceded sovereignty to the Crown, three hundred heavily armed police were kicking in doors. They’d uncovered a terrorist plot. Among key evidence was a man’s drunken boast that he would kill George Bush by catapulting a bus at his head. The following strategic text messages were also pivotal. They detail plans for enlisting people in the cities:

KL: U mean like cells nd shit: nd then do da hit?
TL: Ae.
KL: Swt; i’m in.
TL: C if u got mates, got to love Tuhoe, give their lives.
KL: Got 2 mates; dum as fuk; do nethin 4 me; can drive truks; fly planes, got kidz 2.
TL: Cher cuz. Da dumber da better.

Eight million bucks of surveillance, national hysteria, a whole town of brown folk terrorised at gunpoint, and they found four unregistered hunting rifles.

Those elements – a gang of mischievous road workers, a small island, guns, the Ruatoki raids, a vision of a giant octopus – fermented away in my head for years. ‘Octopus’, the first story in the book, is the result. It’s a tale about immature, dumb-arse politics, and real, old grievances. It’s about the crazed humour that takes over when you’ve gone too far.

When the time came to choose a cover for the book, I was stoked to see a concept sketch featuring tentacles. Text designer and artist WH Chong’s idea was bold, rough and typographic. I liked it. When the finished product came through, I loved it. It was painterly and alive. More than painterly: Chong had done an actual painting.

There was just one tiny detail that nagged at me. At first I couldn’t place it beyond a vague desire to include some kind of patterning. Then I worked it out: in the story, the octopus has a ‘gleaming, dripping moko’ carved on its face.

My iwi, Ngai Tahu, doesn’t have much pre-European wood carving left. Most was destroyed in the Musket Wars, or lost in the aftermath of colonisation and disease. Only two or three pieces remain. I wanted to reference these in the design. Phone calls and emails to New Zealand ensued. I hunted high and low. I couldn’t find anything.

Then, from my coffee table at home, I picked up a book on Maori carving and leafed through. There it was: one of the few remaining pieces of old Ngai Tahu work, a pou with a huge stylised pukana face. The pattern that’s laid into the octopus tentacles, and which graces the inside covers, is a homage to that ancestral art.

First published on the Readings Blog