The painted man: interview with Tai Woffinden

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Tai Woffinden is a speed king. In 2013 he won the Speedway Grand Prix series to become World Champion. He’s since won it twice more. But you’re more likely to notice the ear-stretchers, and the tattoos that cover 75% of his body.

The philosophy of identity has been the subject of unceasing debate since the origin of humankind. If you are so minded, you can read the classical scholarly accounts, including the marathon poem ‘The Odyssey’, understood to have been penned by Homer around the eighth century BC, which, amongst other things, connects with the notion of self. Since I was a kid, and old enough to have deep and meaningful conversations with myself, the enigma of personality has been captivating. However, since adolescence one identifying feature has remained fairly consistent – the way I look.

Our thin yet resilient skin – the largest human organ – and especially the wrapping around the contours of our faces, provides a pictorial element of our identity. How much of our true self is represented by our outward appearance is open to conjecture, but what if you decide to significantly change this shop window to the world? Does your overall identity change? Do people treat you differently? Do you migrate to a different you?

The more I wrestled with these uncertainties two themes became dominant. First, my own decision to change the way I look. Having made this landmark choice, my confidence grew to another level, and I was cool with myself. Perhaps for the first time in my entire life my reflection was pleasing to me and – in my opinion at least – stepping away from the norm for a guy of my age. I like the new me! The second issue is perhaps more abstract but nonetheless connected to a purposeful decision to change how the world saw individuality.

The link? Tai Woffinden – the three times individual speedway world champion. The 32-year-old athlete born in the UK, but having grown up in Perth, Western Australia after emigrating with his family, is the undisputed painted man of this adrenalized motor sport – where 500cc motorcycles accelerate faster than a Formula 1 car, with the added risk of having no brakes. His decision to illustrate his body and parts of his face is a line of enquiry I needed to follow in my quest to better understand the human construct of identity.

Madonna once said, “I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art.”  How closely does this resonate with you?

“It not only resonates with me, but with every person. Although there are millions of people all over the world, we are each unique in our own special ways. I can see where Madonna is coming from, and I agree with her.” 

Tai was right – identity is never ordinary and should never be ordained by others. Madonna’s take added a vital new dimension to self. When looking at my reflection in the mirror I was actually admiring a piece of art – and the rest of the world can marvel at it for free! 

When did your body art start and what was the trigger?

“I just wanted tattoos when I was young. Mum and dad weren’t that happy; dad only had a standard one on his forearm. When I was fifteen and racing my dad challenged me to beat a couple of older guys, not expecting me to do so. I beat them both – so a deal’s a deal and I got a tattoo!” 

American writer, Jack London, proclaimed, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” What’s your story?

“I grew up in Western Australia and rode motorbikes. I came out to Europe to become a professional, but I was kind of playing at it for the first few years – coming home and going out on big benders with all my mates and letting my hair down for three months every summer back in Australia. This was good fun and I absolutely loved it!” Tai then paused as he reflected upon the moment it all changed. “My dad passed away in 2010. That was like a switch – from a teenager to becoming a man overnight. I got my head down and focused on my career.”

Tai’s effervescence quickly returned as he casually added that he then won a few world titles. This, an understatement of epic proportions when his individual and team titles across many countries are tallied up.

“There is not really much left for me to do other than win more world championships.” A driving ambition that won’t please his rivals. 

The people I know who have tattoos have mostly chosen to be discreet; most can be covered with clothing. You have prominent ones on your face and hands too. Why did you make this choice?

“I just wanted to be different. I saw a great quote once that went something like this: ‘What are you going to do with all those tattoos when you are older?’ and I think the response was something along the lines of, ‘What are you going to do when you get older – look like everyone else?’ I thought that this was quite insightful when I read it.

“I had my sleeves done and my mum said, ‘please don’t get your hands done.’ I said I wouldn’t, and she replied, ‘you had better not!’ If she hadn’t said that last bit, I probably wouldn’t have got them done.” 

Over the years mum has become far more accepting; nonetheless, his face is still wholly out of bounds. “It just progressed then to my neck as I had run out of space on my chest, and then a little bit on the side of my face.”

Although Tai has considered more on his head, he heeds the wishes of partner Faye. “If she gave me the green light, I’d have more on my face, but I will respect her decision since she has to look at me every day.”

How have others reacted to your look?

“It depends on which country you are talking about. US, Australia, UK, and Western Europe – not really a problem. Further east – for example Poland, Russia, and Ukraine – older people do tend to stare and look down at me.” 

How do you feel about your look?

“It’s just me now. I’ve seen photographs of me when I was younger without tattoos and I think ‘oh my God, I look so weird!’ I love my look. I’m very happy with it.

“Like a lot of people with tattoos, if I could, I would start again. I’ve got some really amazing ideas – the most insane body art! But I’ve kind of done it from 15, then added and added. Sometimes the guy will come to my house and tattoo me, and I’ll flick through the pictures and think, that looks sick – where can we put it? Then boom, it’s done! Some have meanings, but some are just filling in the gaps.”

Identity, image, and profession are intrinsically intertwined. You risk your life for the entertainment of others – how important is danger in your life? 

“Danger is really important in my life but not only from the aspect of my job. Danger gives you that adrenalin – and I’m an adrenalin junkie. I ride a motorbike for a living for a start, although I don’t actually get that much of a buzz anymore. It’s something I’ve done over and over and over again for so many years and that buzz does die off a bit. I’m searching in other places.

“I raced a sprint car in Australia. It’s an absolute weapon of a thing. Once I had done a backflip on a BMX, I did it on a motocross bike. I’m trying to organise a double backflip too.”

Tai then reeled off details of his other daredevil pursuit – skydiving – acknowledging that once he had finished jumping out of aeroplanes, he would start jumping off cliffs. “The more danger, the more adrenalin, the more buzz, and the more excitement. I’m forever chasing that vibe. Where do you stop?”

No brakes and no gears, surely you have to be crazy to ride speedway?

“No! You could say that about many other sports. For many people looking in on what I do on my YouTube channel, they may think that it is crazy, but riding a speedway bike to me is like you walking down the road. When you walk down a path, 99.9% of the time you do so without tripping up. That’s the same for me on a speedway bike because I’ve done it for so long. I began when I was 12 and started riding speedway in 2002. It’s become second nature.”

We share the same significant loss – that of our dads. My dad was my hero, and he first took me to speedway where I saw your dad, Rob, ride. Would you please tell me about the influence your dad had on your life? 

“My dad was more my best mate than my dad. Obviously, there were times when he had to be the father figure and discipline me for being a little out of control; but the majority of the time he was my best mate. We travelled together around Europe in the early years, taking in different countries – Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany – virtually everywhere.

“Then his life was cut short, and he didn’t get to see me achieve the greater things that I have accomplished in my career. But I’m sure he’s watching down from above.”

In his compelling autobiography – Raw Speed – Tai wrote this powerfully poignant tribute: “For Dad, my best friend, my teacher, my travelling companion, my father. Everything I have achieved came from what he taught me about life and how to live it.” 

You display a powerful sense of self. What is your message to those who have yet to discover themselves?

“My message to anyone is live every day, don’t waste any opportunities and take a moment out of your hectic day just to sit there and appreciate what you do have, and not what you want.”

Meeting Tai in person for the first time at the 2022 FIM Speedway Grand Prix of Great Britain was an opportunity I didn’t intend to waste, and the premium risk-taker took my understanding of identity to a new level. Often what lies beneath is obscured by what someone looks like, and our own latent prejudices. But Tai the sage stands proud in an often-confusing landscape of self-doubt, and his personal insights perfectly compliment the words of writer Theodor Seuss Geisel who, under his pen name of Dr Seuss, concluded, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” 

© Ian Kirke

Photographs kindly reproduced by kind permission of Mateusz Wójcik / Monster Energy

Ian Kirke

As a kid, and latterly a dad and police officer, I realised that I have an almost endless list of things I want to make sense of. I suspect I am not alone. Hopefully, as a law graduate and post-graduate criminologist, my life observations reflect a degree of authenticity and balance – but I’ll allow you to judge that for yourself. Synthesising humour, grief, horror and hedonism, I think I’m an all-rounder! I am also a frustrated speedway promoter, passionate Notts County fan and part-time philosopher.
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