Picnic at Hanging Rock #11 - Craigy Lee

Published: 13 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

The call of Sydney with its legendary status among all the world’s great cities was never too far away on this road trip. Finally, Craigy Lee arrives in the promised land – and finds himself amongst a metropolis of polar oppositesThe call of Sydney with its legendary status among all the world’s great cities was never too far away on this road trip. Finally, Craigy Lee arrives in the promised land – and finds himself amongst a metropolis of polar opposites.

Sydney is probably the place most people think of when you mention Australia. The Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach are all images tourists flock to every year to experience a piece of this awesome city; and once we arrived, I was already sold, buff beach bodies, tanned faces and a big city with beach living. Our last fleeting stop here was to work the Sydney Tattoo Expo and was far too short. So while Melbourne is certainly Australia’s arts capital I was interested to see what Sydney had to offer aside from the token postcard images – I wanted to get beneath its surface. So I’m back in town to work a guest spot at Platinum Ink, based just outside the city centre on the Paramatta Road.

The shop boasts a huge studio area where I will be working alongside head artist Jane and apprentice Ivan, funnily enough I find out that Lucky Diamond Rich (see issue 202) worked here when the shop first opened. Back then Jane was the apprentice and after years of hard work, now looks after the daily running of things. Her style can vary to suit each customer, but it’s her black and grey work that really grabs your attention.

The thing I love about Sydney is the next artist for anyone to meet is only ever around the corner, and that is Newtown. It seems to be the trendiest place in Sydney, a little like Camden, bars, cafes, book shops and vintage clothing stores line the streets with Skin Deep Tattoo and King Street Tattoo both satisfying the tattooing needs of the ‘trendy set’. And from one corner to a very different kind is Kings Cross, the red light area of the city, which boasts a lively night scene but is a little more rough and ready. Sleeve Masters occupies this strip and is open 10am till 4am every day. It claims to be “the busiest tattoo shop in the world”, and such a claim warranted a visit.

Upon arrival I find a small and dated shop that fails to deliver anything other than walls covered top to bottom in generic flash. Where it fails in presentation it certainly makes up for in stories (if you want to know you will have to ask yourself). If there was ever a place to cut your teeth in the tattooing world this could very well be it.

From the seedy underworld, I venture to the beautiful world of Bondi Beach. As you walk down the main strip amongst the sun loving, bikini clad population it is clear to see this is a place where the truly beautiful (if rather plastic) people of Sydney reside. Over-looking the beach in a prime location is Bondi Ink, where I have arranged to meet up and chat with its owner and artists. My first impression of the shop is it’s a very different environment to any studio I have previously visited in Australia. The whole place is open plan, two artists work in the front window over-looking the beach; with a location like this there is possibly no better view for a customer to look out onto while you inflict a bit of pain on them. The shop is extremely busy, open seven days a week and is home to 13 artists who work two shifts. It’s not just your average street shop either, they have resident artists from France, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia and deliver every style of tattooing their ever-demanding ‘tattoo savvy’ customer could want.

When we arrive, owner John is in the chair having some more work done on his leg by French artist Niko. “The whole place is set up to be inviting and customer friendly,” John explains. “Touch screen computers enable clients to browse portfolios and flash while the openness of the shop allows them to see how clean the working environment is, removing any stigma they have about tattooing.” In fact, when they decided to move the shop a year ago from the backstreets to the seafront, they had a lot of reservations from the local council. That all changed when the council arrived to inspect the shop John tells me laughing. “They said it looked cleaner than a dentists surgery, to which I replied, ‘it is!’ We have had no problems ever since.”

As I wander around, I ask the customers how they feel about being tattooed in the front window for everyone passing to see and the general consensus is “it’s great”, and to be fair, this is Bondi. Most of the people passing are hot girls in bikinis and topless men with surf boards, such a thing must surely be distracting for the artists but they assure me that, “after a while, you just forget about it.” I think I will have to take their word for it!

Everything here at Bondi Ink is aimed towards the customer and getting rid of the negative attitudes that Sydney has been plagued with due to a majority of biker run shops and it is going a long way to change perceptions.

During our time here, there have been many reports of biker gangs trying to close shops and even burn down rival tattoo studios making headline news across the country. Thankfully I have not experienced any of this first hand, but an incident did happen when I was working at Platinum Ink.

One Saturday, shop apprentice Ivan was getting in some tattoo practice on a piece of pig skin. At the end of the day, proud with his first attempt at tattooing, he got his stuff together and went home. On his arrival home he realised he must have left his prized piece of art back at the shop, apart from the smell it may begin to generate over the next few days he thought nothing of it and enjoyed his weekend. Tuesday morning rolled around and the shop opened as usual when two serious looking guys walked in and introduced themselves as detectives.

As things unraveled, the detectives tell the artists that a side-street had been cordoned off and an investigation was underway into a possible bike gang murder. They wanted to know if they knew anyone, with distinguishing tattoos, who had had a possible altercation with a bike gang, as a piece of human skin had been found in the alley. The bemused Ivan realised it was in fact his prized pig skin that had been misidentified as the bike gangs victim. Needless to say although the detectives were relieved, they didn’t see the funny side of their blunder.

Anecdotes aside, things are slowly moving forwards. Australia’s biggest tattoo convention is held here in Sydney, and along with the other shows around the country they operate a ‘no club colours or patches’ policy. The industry is trying to disassociate themselves from the biker image and show the public that tattooing is about the art. Indeed, even today biker gangs are still a problem across Australia, and overwhelmingly so in Sydney. It is the bikers strong-hold which has been suppressing the talent of this cities brilliant tattoo artists, bubbling under the surface, who usually leave in order to seek out the freedom of custom shops in other cites in Australia.

Sadly for a lot of the artists I spoke to who dream of opening their own custom studios in Sydney freely, the reality it seems is still a long way off.


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee