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

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

The 23-year-old Papuan Australian celebrated her partner’s birthday early Sunday morning with a group of friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley nightclub district.

But when she was standing in line at the popular bar, Hey Chica!, a guard told her not to enter.

“He looks at my driver’s license, then he looks at me and says, ‘I can’t let you in because of your face,’” she said.

“And I paused because I actually anticipated this to happen.”

Ms James said she calmly explained that her tattoos were an important part of her Papua New Guinean cultural heritage.

But she was still denied entry.

A woman poses for a professional portrait
Moale James, 23, before being marked with facial reva reva.Delivered

“Then I walked away. And I didn’t have to say anything to him because all my friends did. They said to me, ‘No, this is discrimination,’” she told ABC.

“I have been discriminated against for my grades before, but not to the extent of being denied entry.

An elderly woman with reva reva marking all over the body
Reva reva is a full body marking tradition that goes back generations in Moale’s family.Delivered

Location stands for ‘blanket policy’

Ms James posted about the incident on social media and called the club out.

Hey Chica! apologized in a private message to Ms James, but said it would continue to enforce a blanket ban on tattoos on the face and neck.

“We’re sorry to hear about your experience,” the message reads.

“While we realize that our rule has caused you unintentional distress, we maintain a general policy that prohibits head and face tattoos at Hey Chica! along with other entry conditions.

“While we understand this is a strict policy, we will continue to enforce it under the Liquor Act.”

Hey Chica! did not respond to ABC’s request for comment.

Queensland’s alcohol laws require venues to take reasonable steps to remove or exclude people carrying items associated with certain criminal organizations.

Ms. James said Hey Chica!’s policies were discriminatory.

A woman with facial tattoos poses for a photo against a dark background.
Moale’s mother, Ranu James, also wears reva reva on her face.Delivered: Moale James

“It’s 2022. It’s not okay to just assume that this one general rule can cover everyone with a tattoo. It’s ridiculous.”

Reva reva: recapture an old tradition

Last month, Ms. James received her first facial tattoos on the occasion of her graduation from a college degree in journalism and communications.

“All my signs point to a different time in my life,” she said.

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

Three women sit in a room with traditional artworks
Moale James has her face tattooed by Papuan-Australian woman Julia Mage’au Gray.Delivered

These markings are an important tradition in Gaba Gaba, her mother’s village in Papua New Guinea, where full-body tattooing goes back generations.

“I bear the marks of my ancestors on my body,” said Mrs. James.

“They identify who I am.”

A traditional tattoo method is applied to a woman's face
Moale is tattooed using the traditional hand-tap and hand-poke method.Delivered

Traditional tattooing has died out for several decades due to the impact of European colonization, but Mrs. James is part of a movement to revive the old practices in her family.

Australian Papuan artist Julia Mage’au Gray has tattooed Mrs. James’ face using a hand tap and hand poke method.

“Traditionally that was done with lemon thorns, but these days I use stainless steel for hygiene purposes,” said Ms. Gray.

Two women with traditional tattoos sit with a small child
Moale’s mother, Ranu, pictured with two elderly women in their village home in Gaba Gaba, Papua New Guinea.Delivered

Ms Gray, who lives in New Zealand, said she was disappointed by the incident at the nightclub.

Outpouring of support

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

Neil Cabarello, a 31-year-old chef from Perth, said he was also expelled from the club that same night because of a prominent rose tattoo on his neck.

A man with a prominent neck tattoo poses for a photo
Perth chef Neil Caballero is of Filipino descent.Delivered

For him, the image has a religious meaning.

“I am of Filipino descent… I was born into a very conservative Catholic family. I have this tattoo as a representation of the Mother of God,” he told the ABC.

Mr Cabarello said he also felt discriminated against.