Picnic at Hanging Rock #3: Rites of Passage 2011 - Craigy Lee

Published: 23 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 196, March, 2011

He’s still out there! This issue, we find Craigy Lee ‘resting’ – or maybe a better way of putting it would be ‘not driving’. Indeed, for part three of his road trip, we find him working hard at Rites of Passage.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Rites of Passage Tattoo Festival, almost every Australian artist I have met or spoken to over the past few months have been extremely excited about the event and why is this? Well this is the first ever convention in Australia to be organised by a tattoo artist. Claire Reid has not simply put her name to it, she has been actively involved in almost every aspect of planning and organising the event. Melbourne is the perfect city, often referred to as the Arts Capital of Australia, it is a hive of independent and state galleries it openly celebrates and exploits its graffiti art too.

After driving between 6 and 9 hours everyday, sleeping in a tent and eating off a camp stove for the past three weeks it was quite nice get back to civilisation. As we drive down the highway towards the tower blocks of Melbourne,  I feel I have never been happier to see buildings over two stories high! It’s also interesting what 3 weeks in the bush will do to the way you look and feel, but it was nothing a proper bed, shower, a haircut and new pair of shoes couldn’t fix and after indulging myself in these modern day rituals we so often take for granted, I was finally ready to get to work at my first tattoo convention overseas.

Attending conventions always wets my appetite and gets my creative juices flowing, it’s a chance to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself further, meet new people share ideas and catch up with old friends. I am both extremely excited and a little nervous about the weekend event as it is the first international convention I have ever worked at. Plenty of Aussie and New Zealand artists provide a strong foundation for the festival, myself, Jo Harrison, David Corden and Gemma Pallat have all made the trip over from the UK while Nick Baxter, Jeff Gogue and Chad Koeplinger are a few of the names flying the flag for the States.

When we arrive at the venue my breath is truly taken away, as I have never been to a tattoo convention in such a beautiful building. The Royal Exhibition Centre was built in the late 19th century and has been beautifully looked after and restored in recent years. Walking inside is even more amazing, with high ceilings, roof windows and domes painted with murals and fancy patterns, it sure is a million miles away from the four walled conference centres and sports halls I have attended conventions at before.

I decided to play up on my English heritage decorating my booth and dressing accordingly, its good to make an effort if you want to make a good impression. I decorated my booth with a collection of goodies I had collected from charity shops in town and a 3 piece suit along with my new haircut made sure I was looking rather dapper.

As the first day kicked off it was clear the vibe and atmosphere of the show was indeed very relaxed which mirrors the Aussie way of life in general. It was nice to meet all the people I had been talking to online via emails and forums. Lots of people made an effort to come and introduce themselves and talk to me which made it feel like I wasn’t so far away from home. It was also nice to see some of their artwork in the flesh Sam Rulz had returned to Melbourne for the show after moving back to New Zealand a few months ago and the boys from Third Eye Tattoo were also putting out some nice clean traditional work.

One of the problems in working conventions is you don’t get much time to look around, but as we were on the other side of the world with lots of artists I had not heard of before, I tried to make an effort to get round and have a look. I would like to thank my girlfriend India and Mac from getinked.com.au for helping me get some photos while I was working! Chad Koeplinger and Steve Byrne were pretty much flat out all weekend as were Horiyoshi 3 and local favourite Mick Squires.  Dr Rev “the bloodpainter” was great to watch painting canvas and shoes with his own blood.  The artist that really caught my eye this weekend was Mark Halbstark from Germany but I’m a sucker for bright cartoony tattoos. Kent based David Corden was also very busy and did some beautiful realism pieces over the weekend eventually scooping the best of day prize on Sunday. Realistic colour work seemed to be extremely popular and took up most of the entrants in the best of day competition and with work of this standard, I would have hated to be one of the judges.

The overall vibe and atmosphere of the show was very chilled and laid back, there was a good programme of artistic and cultural events over the three days, which included rituals and displays from Tibetan monks, indigenous Aborigonals and street performer Lucky diamond Rich. Local celebrity Tony ‘The Face” Cronin was also present chatting to fans and signing books. It also strongly promoted awareness for the world we live in today with 100% of the events profits going towards protecting Australian land growth and aboriginal trusts.  But they also practice what they preach, with most of the packaging from the food and drinks being served being either recycled or biodegradable. You get a genuine feeling the organisers care about what they are doing and are putting on a show without the corporate crap, something which a lot more conventions should take notice of.


Rite Here, Rite Now

Towering over the Carlton Gardens, the inaugural Rites of Passage Tattoo Convention and Arts Festival took place in Melbourne just a couple of weeks back (January 28-30) at the magnificent Royal Exhibition building. In the words of seasoned US tattoo artist and convention veteran Chad Koeplinger, “this is the most beautiful setting I’ve ever tattooed in for a convention, by far”…

The Royal Exhibition building is more than beautiful – it’s also historically significant. Pointing behind me, convention organiser Claire Reid explains, “the first cornerstone of Australia was laid here. It’s a very powerful building”. 

For three hot days, representatives of progressive tattoo culture spanning the globe converged under its ornate archways to do what they do best, with everywhere from Indonesia to England, the US, Germany, Italy, Norway, France and Japan having their diverse styles exhibited. In addition to tattooing, there were bands, seminars for tattoo artists, film screenings, an art show and lots of top-notch nosh (including plenty of ice cream to tide the crowd over in the 40 degree heat). The sense of camaraderie between local artists divided by a few suburbs, to those divided by language barriers and oceans, was palpable.

When I asked Claire why she established the convention she immediately replied, “we’re basically trying to raise money for old growth forests and Aboriginal trusts, and we’re trying to make tattooing eco-friendly”. A talented tattoo artist herself, Claire is passionate and environmentally conscious - all profits from the convention went towards this cause. As for the tattooing aspect, her aim was to present the craft in a new light. “I wanted to create a different association with tattooing. People here crave culture, and everyone’s really enjoyed the Haka and the Indigenous ceremonies”.

One of the most consistently crowded booths at the festival belonged to Durga, an Indonesian tattoo artist specialising in motifs specific to tribes in the Mentawai Islands and Borneo. Wandering around the festival in little more than an elaborate loincloth, he informed me that these tribes usually use different kinds of sharp objects like thorns, bones and sharpened bamboo to apply tattoos, however for this convention he used a needle attached to wood for his hand tapping. When I ask Durga why he came all the way to Melbourne to tattoo, he replies, “to see what the difference is in the tattooing here, meet different artists, presentations, performing, and to have some fun.”

Representing traditional Japanese tattoo at the festival were Souryou Kazuyoshi Nakano and Choshu Horikazu (who has a full body suit from Souryou Kazuyoshi’s father, Japanese tattoo master Horiyoshi III). Performing Tebori (a traditional Japanese style whereby a needle attached to a length of wood is jabbed in a repeated motion into the skin), they are accompanied by translator Crystal Morey, who informs me that Choshu is self-taught and has been tattooing for 7 years. Dennis Gray, one of the keener (and more pain-tolerant) punters at the festival gets 3 tattoos in a row, including one each from the Japanese tattooists.  Choshu gives Dennis a Hanya mask, which he says is a popular motif. Later that night Japanese dancer Sanaxxx performs the dance of the Hanya mask - the story of a woman consumed by a jealous rage.

Next up, Dennis sits for Souryou Kazuyoshi, who gives him a bright red Daruma doll. Dennis explains, “in Japan you go to a shrine and buy a papier-mâché doll, and both eyes are blank. So you paint in one eye and make a wish, then when the wish comes true you paint in the other eye.”

Dennis’ third piece is executed by Rudin Rashid of 171 Tattoo in Dandenong. This is the first convention for both Rudin and the shop. “It’s been great for people who live on the other side of the city to see our work and see what we’re about”, says Rudin. “As far as Australia is concerned, Melbourne has one of the most thriving tattoo cultures going on. There have been a lot of highlights, but the best thing is getting to watch people tattoo and being surrounded by like-minded people”.

Revered artist Jeff Gogue (whose waiting list is booked 2 years in advance) was having an equally good time when I caught up with him. “I love the venue, the people are awesome and there seems to be a real appreciation for tattooing in general and for my work as well. It’s probably the nicest group of people I’ve ever seen at a show.” Being one of the highlights of the line-up didn’t mean Jeff could relax, though. “You can’t come to a show and not feel the pressure to improve. The group of people who usually attend a convention are hungry - they want to grow and step forward, and the rest of the people just stay at home”. When I asked about his impressions of the scene in Melbourne he replied, “No matter what the genre I’ve seen, it’s of a high calibre - be it Japanese influenced, realism, refined, colour portraits – it’s all really good here.” The winner of Best Tattoo of the Show was Jo Harrison, for a large colour back piece that took roughly 20 hours.

Checking out scarification straight after a delicious vegan lunch (thoughtfully served in biodegradable packaging) probably wasn’t the smartest idea. Body modification practitioner Brendan ‘B-slice’ Russell, garbed in a red plastic apron and surgical facemask, resembled a butcher as he expertly carved up a friend’s leg - however he couldn’t have been a more genial chap. “My biggest inspiration is, someone will come in to me with a lot of fear and they will walk out on top of the world”. In addition to scarification, B-slice performs body piercing, branding, implant art and suspension at Alien Art in Newcastle.

One of the highlights among the many entertaining performers was Lucky Diamond Rich (Guinness World Record holder for Most Tattooed Person), with his circus-inspired show. Drawn to performing from a young age, Lucky laughs, “it kept me off the street - or rather put me on the street, in a legitimate form”. When I caught up with him, Lucky was tattooing the scalp of Tony ‘The Face’ Cronin, a heavily tattooed chronicler of organised crime in Melbourne. Other performance highlights were legendary Sydney dominatrix Madam Lash, and live music ranging from folk to rock, indie and hip hop.

One of the more unusual art forms on display was by Dr. Rev, who paints using his own blood. A tattoo artist for over a decade, Dr. Rev explains, “I go to work to tattoo. I come here because I want to have fun”. Despite this, one of his tattoos won Best Black and Grey for a portrait of Marilyn Monroe on his wife.  A highlight of the expo was Jeff Gogue and Dr. Rev collaborating on a painting of a skull – one half in oil and the other in blood. Their piece was auctioned off, with the proceeds going to Sea Shepard (a marine conservation organisation).

By all accounts, everyone who participated got a lot out of the inaugural Rites of Passage Tattoo Convention. Here’s hoping Claire Reid will be around to show Melbourne a good time again next year.


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee