Craigy Lee: Return to Oz

Published: 28 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 221, February, 2013

For many, going to Australia is the trip of a lifetime, so I feel very privileged to be boarding a plane headed down under for the second time in my life. My love affair with the country has only just begun, and with the cold weather drawing in on London, it’s time to migrate towards the sun.

Returning back to the UK last year really made me feel like Australia was where I wanted to be, but unfortunately, getting any kind of working visa, nevermind a permanent one, is becoming harder for the people of blighty, despite the fact UK passports are being dished out like happy meals. So I felt another trip to weigh up my options and explore new avenues was exactly what I needed. After over two years of being constantly on the road, every man must think about settling down to some extent at some point. I would like to say a huge thanks to my buddy Joel, for sorting out our plane tickets and getting us to our first stop, Sydney, for a whirlwind four days of sun, sights and tattoos.

One of the nice things about previously spending such a long time in a country, is you have a bit more knowledge of the cool, trendy areas and where the best places to stay are, so we are headed straight to ‘hip’ Newtown where I will be spending a few days at King St tattoo with my buddy, Todd. Newtown is a vibrant place, with cafes, bars and funky eateries sprinkled up and down the streets – it reminds me of a less touristy Camden with far fewer chain stores.

Now, because of the biker influence on the city, Sydney does not have many well-known studios; many artists prefer to move to Melbourne or Brisbane where they are free to control their own shop and inter studio relationships are more friendly. King St tattoo on the other hand is trying to change that.

The studio has only been open two years, but owners Duncan and Emil have been tattoo enthusiasts for decades, and despite the fact that they are not artists, their passion and love of tattooing is equal to any artist I have met. Duncan in particular has an incredible collection of tattoos from an array of amazing artists located all over the world.

A few hours after I land I am in the shop starting my first tattoo. Everything is ready before I arrive, after spending the last 24 hours on a plane it makes slipping into the chair that much easier, and it’s the attention to detail in looking after artists that makes you feel that much more welcome in a new shop.

The vibe in the studio is really laid back and everyone is very friendly. There are 11 artists who work over two floors, the shop is open 11am till 11pm and the day is split into two shifts. I am working downstairs alongside Todd and Miles (who has just moved back to Sydney after a few years working at Frith St in London). The location and attitude of the shop makes me feel it will only be a matter of time before they start making some serious waves in Sydney, and indeed the rest of Australia.

The first few days are really hard adjusting to the time difference and I find myself waking up super early, but this isn’t all bad as we get out and about and head over to the harbour and to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Australia. Last time I was here the museum was undergoing some serious renovations which are now all completed – the museum is now a lot bigger, brighter and a good way to spend most of the morning, not to mention entry being free.

Our few days here go by quickly in a jetlagged blur, and before I know it we are back on another plane headed down to Melbourne for the second International Tattoo Expo. I worked the show last year and this year things seem to be growing bigger and better with the organisers flying in Corey Miller, star of TV’s LA Ink to make an appearance and tattoo at the show.

Unfortunately, there is a new convention taking place in Melbourne just one week before this expo with the likes of Paul Booth, Bob Tyrell, and Joe Capobianco attending, so I was unsure of what to expect this weekend and if it would even be busy. But one thing is clear, the world tattoo stage is starting to pay attention to Australia.

The convention is held in the same venue as last year, and as far as conventions go, it’s pretty corporate and soul-less; the Melbourne exhibition centre has around 11 halls, and as we walk in the building we walk past a ‘carbon convention’ and a ‘mind of a millionaire conference’ – it certainly makes it feel more commercial and business-like. The cost of the booths reflects this also, I worked 24 conventions last year and the Australian shows are by far the most expensive shows I have ever worked in the world! Quite why this is the case I am yet to find out.

Once the doors open and the crowds pour in, it is evident that the attending public this year are a much more mainstream crowd – last year there were a lot of scene kids, artists, and tattoo collectors in attendance; this year it seemed to be a lot of families and ‘average Joes’, the tattooing world is slowly getting watered down and becoming more accessible here like the rest of the world, I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Everything is progressing and it’s great to see some of my friends and artists I met last year and seeing where they are taking the art. I am working in a big booth alongside a heap of cool artists. Alex Bock, whom I worked with in Brisbane last year, has now made the move to Seventh Circle Tattoo, he has come on leaps and bounds since I first met him; I will be booking in some time with him for sure! Nicole Draeger is working to my right, last year she was in her own shop in Adelaide and has now moved to Green Lotus in Melbourne. To my left is fellow Brit, Gemma Pallet, who is still on the road and currently working from Nelson in New Zealand. I also got the chance to see Terrance Tait, whom I worked with in Cairns and has now opened his own studio up there. Myles Paten is also here and is still working at the same studio, though renamed ‘Nine Lives Tattoo’ creating some killer clean work. I also got to see Benjamin Laukis tattooing who is putting out some amazing work that I strongly recommend checking out. Corey Miller was of course busy all weekend, tattooing Australian football players and judging the competitions.

The weekend was bustling, and things have certainly changed a lot from last year, it will be very interesting to see what happens with tattooing and conventions over here in the next few years, as similar to England, more and more shows are cropping up all the time. But one thing is for certain, it sure is good to be back down under!


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee