A traumatic incident that saw him badly burned as a child set Shane Cook on a lifelong journey to learn more about his Indigenous heritage. His story is writ large through both the tattoos that cover his body and in his unique artwork.
In the studio with Shane Cook
Shane Cook’s body is a canvas — a canvas covered in striking monochrome tattoos.
There’s a praying Virgin Mary on his forearm and a huge, signed portrait of heavyweight champ Mike Tyson covering his ribcage. On his neck, next to the intricate geometric inkwork that pokes out from under his T-shirt, is a kookaburra in honour of the nickname his grandmother gave him as a child: Shane “Kookaburra” Cook.
Like most tattoos, Cook’s tell a story. In this case, it’s a story of overcoming incredible physical pain and mental trauma and, along the way, connecting with both his artistic vision and his identity as a First Nations Australian.
Cook takes up the story at his Wyatt Street studio, a warehouse space tucked away in the city’s East End. Parked out the front is his jet-black Toyota Prado, kitted out and ready for another off-road adventure with his partner and young daughter. Inside are the spray cans and stencils he uses in his work.
“I was in an incident when I was 12 years old where I was burned pretty badly,” the 31-year-old says.
“Some kids in a park were playing with fire and I got into an argument with them. It was just a little argument, the kind kids have, but one of the kids just threw lit petrol at me.”
“Mum was always artistic, always doing pottery or drawing or painting,” he says.
“But while I was in hospital she was drawing a lot. Sitting by my bed and drawing. And then that’s when I started asking a lot of questions about what she was drawing, and about my nana.
“Mum showed me books about Aboriginal people, with Aboriginal men all painted up, and people doing rock art. I found it all interesting and wanted to learn more about it.
“But when I would ask about my nana, my mum wouldn’t really answer, she wouldn’t really know. This just made me want to know more.”
Cook discovered that he was part of the Wulli Wulli and Koa Nations of Queensland, a discovery that set him on a journey. The scars from that incident are now covered by the tattoos – “I think it was a way of taking control of my body again” – but the investigation into his heritage is very much ongoing.
Cook’s work takes street-level art – the tattooing and graffiti he grew up with – and fuses it with Indigenous traditions to create a unique style which has seen him design Sir Doug Nicholls Round guernseys for both Adelaide and Richmond, among other high-profile commissions.
But it’s being on Country, actually walking in the footsteps of those who came before him, that truly inspires his work.
“One of the reasons I love to use stencil art, for example, is because that was something that was done back on my Country,” Cook says.
“Handprints and stencils of boomerangs and, something that’s really unique to my Country, actual stencils of kids’ feet.
“And there are also engravings on our Country, and scar trees. It’s been pretty incredible to have been a person who didn’t know about any of that to being someone who’s been able to travel all the way back home and be connected back with my community. It’s been a pretty crazy few years.”
Cook’s recent projects include a collaboration with artist Dave Court to create a mural as part of the City of Adelaide Reignite Project. He was also the recipient of a Guildhouse and City of Adelaide Catapult mentorship, for which he was mentored by experienced interdisciplinary artist Reko Rennie.
When he’s not making art, Cook can often be found on the tools, building and house-painting with tradie mates, a process he says gives him the mental space needed to think about his next projects.
And if he’s not on a worksite, he’s probably rolling on a jiu-jitsu mat, training for a marathon, or even on the other side of a tattoo gun.
“I do a lot of hard physical stuff — it’s really good for my mind.”
Going forward, Cook says he wants to use art to connect even more deeply with his Country so that he’ll be able to pass knowledge to his young daughter when she’s older.
“But I also want to connect with other young kids from my community. I think there’s a lot of knowledge that can come from all the different people from our community, but because we live all over the country, it’s really hard to kind of get us together to kind of document it.
“So in the last 18 months I’ve been working a lot more with photography and doing a lot of video work, which is a new part of my practice.
“And I’ve been out doing a lot of cultural burns back in my Country, which has been pretty significant. With me being burnt, and now going back and using fire as a way to heal Country, I think that’s pretty cool.”
Cook says blocking out time to work on a major solo exhibition is something that is firmly on his radar.
One thing is certain, though — this marathon-running, martial-arts-fighting, Indigenous artist-designer-photographer-tradie won’t be standing still for long.
You can see more of Shane Cook’s art, design and other projects on his website and Instagram @shanenaturecook.
In the Studio is a regular series presented by InReview in partnership with not-for-profit organisation Guildhouse. The series shares interesting stories about South Australian visual artists, craftspeople and designers, offering insight into their artistic practices and a behind-the-scenes look at their studios or work spaces. Read our previous stories here.