Picnic at Hanging Rock #1 - Craigy Lee

Published: 22 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 194, November, 2010

Craigy Lee was playing in bands and driving American bands on tour when tattooing found him. He eventually walked away from the music industry with his ears still ringing and decided to pursue a more creative path in life. Having spent months working on a portfolio before flying to Tampa, Florida to apprentice at New World Vision Tattoo Studio.

Craigy returned to England and found a two year home at Ouch Tattoo in London. You can take the man out of the tour bus but not necessarily the other way around - the need to develop and explore has driven him back to the road and Craigy is now headed out across Australia in search of inspiration and taking in as many tattoo studios as he can find on his way. 

"Marriage, kids and mortgages are all things that tie you down and quite frankly scare the hell out of me! All of the above, recession and another cold winter is reason enough to set sail for the adventure of a lifetime, spending the next twelve months traveling across Australia, working conventions, doing guest spots, meeting as many people as I can and keeping a travel diary for the good ship Skin Deep along the way.

My first stop is Perth, situated on the West Coast it is the most isolated city in Australia. A bit of a culture shock for a Londoner who is used to 24 hour service for pretty much anything. The current state of tattooing seems to be healthy - once you drive around the city and suburbs it’s hard to drive more then twenty minutes without passing a studio. Some of you may have heard of Phil Smart and ex-Brit Suzi Q at Holdfast Tattoo, who turn out some fantastic traditional work and whose recent guest artists have included Steve Byrne and Chad Koeplinger. Marc Pinto at Primitive in the city is also well known locally and at conventions internationally for his hand poked work.

Everywhere in the world, tattooing is growing and Perth is not being left behind. Having just held its first ever tattoo convention organised by the PTAA (“Professional Tattooing Association of Australia” to you and me), which on all accounts was a huge success, proving the healthy growth of tattoo art across the pond.

I’m starting my tattoo journey working at Tattoo Affair, owner and artist AJ has been tattooing in Western Australia for thirty two years, longer than anyone else in the state. Having had enough of politics and a busy life of the city, AJ moved his studio south of the river to Como five years ago, where it operates today. His favorite styles are oriental and realistic horror work and he has a steady flow of customers, many of whom are having oriental themed body suits or large scale pieces. He is currently working on regular Zack and proudly tells me “I tattooed his dad twenty odd years ago, I’ve known Zack since he was a kid” His work is good, clean and honest, a strong reputation that keeps him busy 32 years in.

AJ is certainly a character, he is one of the old school from days long gone - days he recalls when biker gangs owned a large percentage of the studios, days when the industry was self regulated by artists who got together for mutual benefit, scratchers were “spoken to” and sorted out and the “Red Hammer Club” took care of any new studios that opened within a certain distance of an established studio. Sounds like the Wild West doesn’t it? Those days are now thankfully long gone and while there is still a biker presence, there are now a lot of studios owned and operated by artists, pushing tattooing forward as an art form.

Maybe one of the reasons most people haven’t heard of many Aussie artists is the fact that the entire population of Australia is only one third of that of the UK. Although for such a vast continent, there are still plenty of world class artists putting out work at an international level and making a name for themselves.

Ex-Brit Suzi Q is one such artist - she has been working at Holdfast Tattoo for the past 4 years and greets me with a huge smile. Having settled here because there were not many known female artists in the city at the time, she is certainly busy, booking six month slots in advance. She has not only made a good name for herself in Perth but also within the industry. The studios last art show was a huge success, spanning a week and selling every painting in the exhibition. Suzi puts this down to the small town feel of Perth, “people seem to get behind you here,” she tells me, “I think it’s the isolation and the small town feel within a city”.

Guest spots are a regular occurrence at Holdfast with high calibre artists such as Steve Byrne and Chad Koeplinger getting booked up the day they are announced and it’s no surprise! Home grown artists are important at Holdfast too and they are doing everything they can to make sure Australia has new blood for the future having several apprentices at each of their studios.  “It’s an old style apprenticeship - we teach them everything from the ground up.” They also rotate their crew between the two shops, making it feel like one big team, and stopping anyone from getting too comfortable. “Healthy competition between the artists is good, everyone appreciates the other artists work even if it’s not their own style.” The crew are currently working on a book, compiling their artwork as a shop and in turn getting Holdfast out to a wider audience, moving the tattoo industry forward with their creative offerings.

Another well know name in Perth is Marc Pinto at Primitive. He has been working in the city for 14 years and his shop is easy to find right in the city centre. He greets me warmly and is softer spoken then I had first expected. He tells me how in the first five years in the city, he worked solely by hand in a traditional way, in recent years however he has taken up tattooing with machines to broaden his horizons.  He is a great ambassador for tattooing and its history. Originally from Singapore, he has travelled the world meeting some of the most influential artists of his generation. Marc settled in Perth due to his family but spends his time between Perth and Singapore having opened a second studio there 2 years ago. He finds his Perth customers very open, especially when it comes to custom work, “They are not so picky and let me interpret their design creating something we are both happy with - it’s nice because in Singapore there can be a lot of haggling”. He has seen the industry change a lot in the past few years especially in Asia where taboos surrounding inked skin are becoming diluted with the help of mainstream TV shows and conventions.

In Australia biker gangs have much less influence on shops and tattooing as a whole has become a lot more accessible which sadly, he comments, increases the budding ‘backyarders’ out there. That aside, the future is bright through the eyes of Marc Pinto. Progression and technique are the only things worth being interested in."

More from Craigy next issue as he continues his Tour.


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee