Picnic at Hanging Rock #10 - Craigy Lee

Published: 19 September, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 203, September, 2011

After driving nearly 30,000km around Australia, the inevitable has finally happened we hit a kangaroo whilst driving at 7pm on a Friday night...

After making it 2km to a roadhouse, which was shut, we slept in the car and got towed in the morning to a small town – if you can call 12 buildings a town – called Carmila, which isn’t even on our map. Now Australia is a little laid back in times of crisis, which means nothing is open over the weekend-garage wise, so we have to spend two days here in the middle of nowhere before we can get towed to a ‘big’ town to get the car fixed. This place is just like a scene from Crocodile Dundee – the ‘real’ Australia. Dingos in the bush, kangaroos in the cane fields and crocodiles in the creeks.

The bar is pretty much a shed full of locals with ten teeth between them, who stop talking and watch us as we walk in, but as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving and this is certainly the case, as once we get talking to them they are a great bunch and the beer is cold, so I guess there are far worse places to get stranded. This unwanted chain of events has unfortunately delayed our arrival in Cairns and there are no tattoo shops to check out here. Did I mention the town is only made up of 12 buildings didn’t I?  You really can’t make this stuff up.

After a few days of isolation, we finally get on our way again and reach our destination. Cairns is a popular tourist destination as the Great Barrier Reef is on its doorstep. With this in mind, there are some ten tattoo shops in town, five or six of which are all on one street, preying on the tourists eager for a permanent memento of their trip of a lifetime. You may also be wondering why there is no nice landscape photo of a city accompanying this month’s article? Well Cairns is pretty flat and unimpressive, partially due to the amount of cyclones that hit the area, so you will have to make do with me grinning like a Muppet in the creeks and rainforests to get an idea of what the place is like.

I start my short stint of work at Obsession Ink. The shop originally opened in 2004, but current owner and artist Matt bought the business from his former boss last year. The shop is busy, with a lot of bookings as well as walk-ins. Bright, airy and open, the studio is nestled between cafes, bars and tour operators. Once I get my feet wet, I learn tourists sure are the bread and butter here, I don’t think I tattooed a single person from Cairns during my stay. Terrance who is originally from Canada works alongside Matt and both the lads specialise in different styles - Terrance in old and new school and Matt in colour realism. Between appointments when I stand outside for a drink, you really get the feeling of a holiday town and I just can’t get my head around how many studios that are a literal stones throw from my feet. “There is a lot of price competition between shops, clients go shop to shop and barter for the lowest price” Matt tells me, “but we stick to our quote and worry more about the quality of work going out the door.” And he is right because quality is what brings people back, especially the locals which keep them going in the slow season.

I am only working a few days in the two weeks we have here – I’m supposed to be on holiday – so I try to get a feel for the place as quickly as possible and someone who has seen all the seasons pass over the years is veteran, Duane Cash, who has the oldest established shop in Cairns. Duane is a third generation tattoo artist, and he started young. He was just 13 years old when he first became interested in the craft and it took him a while to get into the industry. “Back then there was only one shop in every town. My dad used to tattoo but gave it up, so he sent me to see his uncle who was a tattoo artist.” Frustratingly for Duane, his dad’s uncle had got rid of all his tattoo equipment and sold up two days before he arrived. Finally at the age of 15, Dennis Star gave him a chance: “I walked into his shop and there was a picture of my uncle on the wall. When I told him that was my Uncle George, he gave me a chance.” Duane finally started up his own place at the age of 17 and has been tattooing ever since.

Cairns City Tattoo opened its doors back in 1985 – it was the only studio in town for eighteen years and has of course noticed the recent popularity tattooing has gained. Obviously being in the town that long, the shop has a great reputation making them extremely busy. And while Duane has lots of large scale Japanese pieces on the go, he still keeps every Saturday free for walk-in appointments. “It keeps me fresh and I like the fact that you don’t know what you’re going to do next” he explains.

I admire that kind of attitude. When you know he is an artist that has been in the game a long time, it would be easy for him to rest on his laurels and only book work he wants or likes doing, but he doesn’t. He understands where it all came from and respects the walk-in service part of tattooing. “Not getting too stale or comfortable is the key to staying on top of things. There are a lot of great young artists emerging at the moment, doing great work, perfecting and pushing things forward”. Duane has six full-time artists working alongside him many of whom have been with him for over ten years. The shop covers every style you could want, as well as now offering laser removal.

Due to tattoo TV shows and the general popularity tattooing has gained recently, a lot of kids are getting their necks or hands done as a first tattoo: “That’s where the laser is good, people make bad decisions, but it also helps me when we do cover up work to give customers more options” – and options are always a good thing because at the end of the day, tattooing is a service and will always be a customer led business.


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee