Picnic at Hanging Rock #8 - Craigy Lee

Published: 25 July, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 201, July, 2011

What it is about Brisbane that I love so much? I can’t quite put my finger on it but if I was asked to stay in Australia this is where I would settle down.

The art museums, art house cinemas and suitcase markets (where you sell any art or handmade items so long as they can fit in a suitcase) boast the creative-cool of Melbourne but without any of the pretentiousness. Ten years ago there were some eighteen tattoo shops between the Gold Coast, an hour south of Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, an hour north, today there is an estimated ninety-eight. With that kind of boom a lot of great talent has emerged and there is a lot of choice but for every good shop there are a handful of bad ones cashing in on the tattoo industries recent popularity.

John Nash has seen the change over the years, as his studio is one of the oldest running shops in the area. John moved to Brisbane in 1976 to work for well-known tattooer Dutchy, in Fortitude Valley in the heart of the City. Duchy’s’ shop was probably Queensland’s first professional tattoo studio. “I moved up because of the busy workload. There used to be people queuing outside the shop and down the street waiting to get tattooed. I’d tattoo twenty red back spider tattoos in a day for a dollar each. It was so busy, the machine would get really hot, the solder would melt and bits would pop off while you were tattooing, so you’d have a soldering iron next to you so you could stop to fix your machine!” 

Inevitably the plethora of shops means you rarely see a queue outside tattoo shops these days with the exception of one place - True Love Tattoo in Sherwood where on Friday the 13th you can get a small tattoo for 13 dollars, which results in a crowd of excited regulars and Brisbane’s avid tattoo collectors forming outside the shop before the doors open.

True Love has been established for six years and has built up a strong reputation for putting out good clean traditional artwork. There are six full time artists working here and the vibe of the shop is like a constant party with laughter and plenty of banter between the artists and customers from open till close. The ringleader for most of the antics is tattooer and shop owner Mez, with his accomplices Luke, AJ, Nailz, Dave and Pip. The shop has an American old time feel, with prints, original paintings and skateboards decorating almost every space of the walls. One of the regular characters who frequents the shop is seventy five year old Carl who got his first tattoo at True Love when he turned seventy three and proceeded to get tattooed by AJ and Dave every week for a an entire year, never missing an appointment. As studios earn a reputation they take on more custom work and a lot stop taking walk ins, but True Love is keen to keep its friendly easy going attitude and takes walk in appointments everyday. 

“If we stopped doing walk ins, I’d miss all the characters and banter you get” Mez tells me and I think he is right, you never know who is going to walk in and that’s the fun of it. A lot of people forget tattooing is a service, something that you are providing for someone that is personal to them, “I think with a lot of well known shops there is a lot of tattoo snobbery,” AJ adds. “Tattooing has always been a working class art, and that’s what I love about it.” Affordable, accessible and down to earth, True Love keeps those values at its core and will continue to thrive.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a handful of ‘appointment only’ private studios in the city - small creative environments behind closed doors and away from prying eyes. Seventh Circle in the “Gabba” is one such shop. When I arrive at the studio it is easy to walk past: a black door, blacked out windows and no sign. There is a knocker with a sliding hatch above, it reminds me of a secret speakeasy and certainly gives arriving customers a sense of adventure. Inside is tastefully decorated with walls covered in framed artwork and dark wood furniture. This is home to Loz, Brendan, Ryan and Peta. Loz opened the studio eighteen months ago having worked as a tattoo artist for fourteen years, he wanted his own space to work. “I got tired of walk-in shops, I wanted to work somewhere I could concentrate on my tattooing and not have to stop to talk to people coming in the shop all the time, tattooing is not a spectator sport.” Most of the other artists agree that there is less pressure in the studio, they can take their time and not worry about their next tattoo. Brendan adds “I can give my tattoos one hundred and fifty per cent and I don’t worry about walk in customers sitting in the shop waiting to get tattooed, that stress has gone.”

Being able to give their art that amount of concentration sees the guys and gals here being able to specialise in what they love and the rewards for customers are awesome work. Someone else hitting that level is Mimsy at Trailer Trash Tattoo, another appointment only studio but set up for different reasons. Mimsy worked in the city for ten years but becoming a full time mum meant she wanted to spend more quality time with her family. She is often seen at conventions tattooing in her vintage 1950’s style caravan and customers getting tattooed get the full kitch experience - it’s a lifestyle and her home studio is another charming environment to get tattooed in.  

“Customers love the laid back feeling I have created here, usually I do two or three tattoos a day so I can make sure I am creating only my best work.” Although an appointment only studio may be daunting for some, she enjoys working alone and readily admits that she gets extremely nervous working around other artists. Perfecting what she is doing without that pressure means she can really create her best work and things, it seems, have worked out well for Mimsy “When I first opened I only had a weeks worth of bookings and I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but now I have more work than I can do!” Though she has a waiting list most artists strive for, it does, she admits, bring a few downsides. “I do wish I had more time to paint and do other artwork. I’m taking on an apprentice soon, so I would like to get to a point where one day I am creating more art and less tattoos.”

Tattooing used to be just a job but that doesn’t cut it anymore it has to be a passion, from the likes of John Nash who freely admits when he picked up a tattoo machine at 16 he couldn’t draw and still can’t, to the intense talent I have been so lucky to work with over these past months, Australia’s tattoo industry is only going one way, upwards.


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee