Rhys Gordon: Japanese Tattoos and Oz tattoo history

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Rhys Gordon specialises in Japanese-style tattooing and is known best for his interpretation of this traditional, timeless style. His hard work has put him in the position to be able to tattoo large-scale work and complete bodysuits. While he is not a member of a family, nor working under a master, he has a healthy respect for the Japanese style. Having travelled to Japan numerous times and been tattooed by the masters (Rhys Gordon himself has a bodysuit), Rhys’ own interpretation of this style is influenced heavily by the 1970s and 1980s. Water and backgrounds are particular favourites of his. After more than 25 years tattooing, Rhys’ enthusiasm continues to grow as he looks forward to the future.

Inked: Where did your tattoo history begin? What was the allure of becoming a tattooer?

Rhys Gordon: I first became aware of tattoos around seven or eight years of age. My cousin’s boyfriend was a sharpie and getting covered at the time. I remembered being fascinated by them, the mystery of how they were done and how they could stay under the skin and not rub off. I would love seeing his new ones and was marvelled by them, realising that after a scab came off they were there forever.

Then when I was around 14, some of the older guys I would hang out with started getting tattoos so the interest reignited. I remember going to the tattoo shop with my mates and being blown away by this world. From about 12 I had a clear thought that I didn’t want a so called “normal life”. So maybe it was that, and the fact that I could draw well combined with seeing a shop, that I thought this could be for me.

The shop was amazing: an airbrushed front window, walls full of coloured designs of skulls, roses and dragons. The smell and sound of tattoo machines, tough guys, loose women, hot cars parked out the front; I had found heaven.

Around the same time, an old family friend re-emerged: Tattoo Charlie, an old friend of my dad’s who was a tattooer. I used to hassle him to teach me until he gave me a bunch of old designs to redraw and colour. From there I spent almost every night after school and weekends by his side being his sidekick.

From making cups of tea and cleaning to slowly learning the craftsmanship side of tattooing to actually doing my first tattoo. Knowledge was fiercely guarded and when something was bestowed upon you, you were genuinely grateful and felt you had earned it. It was head down to earn the next piece of the puzzle.

I was very lucky to have all the kids in the neighbourhood throwing arms and legs at me. But the complexity of tattooing eluded me and for a long time I doubted I had what it takes. With guidance, persistence and dedication, things slowly paid off. It was a time when there was no Google to consult or YouTube clips to watch, so when you worked it out it meant more and drove you on.

Who were the influential artists for you as you developed your skills?
Rhys Gordon: I’ve worked in over 30 shops worldwide, and only a handful of those have really improved me. The rest, although a lot of fun, and places to hone my technical ability and customer skills, actually taught me what not to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from these scenarios and believe these times to be equally as important.

Tattoo Charlie in Melbourne got me going in this business and I am forever grateful. He taught me the craft side of tattooing, from making needles to tuning machines, and set great standards of cleanliness. I then went on to work with Kenny Mac at his old Brunswick studio. I had an amazing time [at that studio] above a sex shop, before Brunswick became gentrified. I became a PTAA member, which was huge for me. I began getting tattooed by some of Australia’s leading artists: Paul Braniff, Little Mick, a young Geordie Cole and Trevor McStay to name a few. Kenny is one of the good guys and has always given me great advice and been pivotal in pushing me to travel.

Tell us a little bit about your travels through the world of tattooing and where you’ve worked.
Rhys Gordon:
I landed in London in late 1995 and worked a few shops before landing at Skinflash in Kensington Market; a super busy shop, and fun, but no real guidance. I self studied by going to as many conventions as possible. I met Lal Hardy who has become a life-long friend. Dave and Ozzy from Skin Deep in Bristol took me under their wings and taught me as much about life as they did about tattooing.

In 2000, I landed a job with Naresh Bhana at Flamin’ 8. Here is where I had the opportunity to test and push my artistic skills, travelling and working conventions, being exposed and becoming friends with my tattoo peers of London. I met and worked with Seth Arcane here too and we went on to work together again, later in life and Inner Vision.

I ended up doing six months in London at Flamin’ 8 and the other six months in Thailand on the island of Koh Samui with Chilli Joe having a great time tattooing backpackers and working on my tan.

I ended up moving to Amsterdam for two years, working for Dikkie (FAT) Dennis.  A crazy shop to say the least, but I met a lot of international and Dutch artists. Amsterdam is such a cool city, steeped in tattoo history. Dennis sang in a well-known rock ‘n’ roll band and embraced sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It was sometimes not the easiest place to work but always fun.

In 2003, I returned to Australia after eight years abroad. With my family now living in Queensland, I ended up working with Paul Braniff [on the Gold Coast], one of my heroes. Although I had been tattooing for well over 10 years at this stage, Paul kind of put everything in place. Working at Skin FX had been a childhood dream and one I thought unattainable. But it wasn’t unattainable and was fine-tuned by Paul and everybody I worked with. A group of us would go to art school one night a week, including Paul. He would do apprentice night, teaching his boys the art and craft of tattooing and I’d tag along, with something always to learn.

Sydney called with a position at Cliffe Clayton’s Inner Vision, working alongside Kian Forreal whom I worked with when he was guesting on the Gold Coast. Five years at Inner Vision allowed me to really explore and push custom tattooing with a healthy dose of walk-ins. Without my time here, with Cliffe and all the other artists I came in contact with, I wouldn’t be where I am today. This is when my years of working the street, helped transition me into a custom tattooer and I am forever grateful to have spent so much time at this Sydney icon.

I then went on to spend just under a year at Josh Roelink’s Tatudharma. I feel my time here with Josh, Nathan, Alex and crew to be like a Swiss finishing school to get me where I am today. Tatudharma showed me a different approach to tattooing, which still influences me greatly today.

Trevor McStay has been my biggest influences in both tattooing and life. I first got tattooed by Trevor when I was 20. Since then, even when afar, he has given me critique and guidance. He has invested his time and wisdom upon me, guiding me artistically and also giving me sold life advice. Trev and Lal are the two I always turn to for advice and I wouldn’t have been able to navigate tattooing and life’s pitfalls without either of them.

Many have no concept of how the industry has changed so much in just 25 years. How would you describe it, what are the major differences?
Rhys Gordon: Tattooing has opened, and continues to open, so many doors for me. From growing up in Melbourne it has enabled me to travel the world and I am close to filling up my third passport with stamps.

My long-term spots have been London, Amsterdam and Koh Samui. I have also guest-spotted in Switzerland, France, Germany, Ibiza, Belgium, Ireland and up and down the east coast of Australia, ending up working alongside my heroes like Paul Braniff, Trevor Mcstay, Lal Hardy and so on.

When I came into tattooing over 25 years ago it was undergoing a change. That change being from flash-based shops to the greater wanting of custom work.  There have always been the pace setters, but in the late 80s people started wanting more. Things like MTV and magazines were the predecessor to the internet, so people saw Guns ‘n’ Roses and Motley Crue etc. and wanted sleeves or similar work. So the demand started to increase and if you had designs slightly better or more colours than the shop down the road then you had a leg up. It was also an era when a tattooer was a fine craftsman. He could make his own needles, mix his own ink, and even build his own machines, or if not, repair and tune. A much more laborious era but much pride taken in it!

Monthly magazines were the Instagram of the day, scouring every page, looking for something to inspire you and customers would bring in cut-out pictures from them wanting these tattoos copied. You then had people entering the industry who could adapt to these requests. With this came artistic advancement and then tattoo techniques developed to accompany these designs.

The main change from both the craft and art side has been the internet. Since its humble beginnings it has been instrumental in so many ways; not always good, but relevant. It has enabled such easy access to tattoo equipment. Before the internet, you had to write a letter to America, await a reply with all the details, go to the bank and get a cheque made out to the supplier, send it back to them then wait a six to eight week turnaround. Now, it’s next day delivery with way too many suppliers with zero morals. 

Equipment has definitely improved but nothing revolutionary. Rotary machines have been around since 1981. You could buy pre-made needles before but you had to solder them to the needle bars yourself.

Inks have been refined with more than a rainbow of colours. Hygiene has lifted as has customer service and expectations. Information is so easily accessible and people from so many walks of life have embraced tattooing, TV shows are everywhere and we have tattoo models… It is non-stop. Our hunger for visual stimulation and consumption is huge.

What is Little Tokyo like as a studio? Why did you decide to open it up and why Bondi Junction?
Rhys Gordon: Little Tokyo, Temple of Art, is my homage to tattooing. Part studio/shop, temple, museum and home all rolled into one.

I had it gutted after signing a lease and started from a concrete shell. Like my car and motorcycle, built from the ground up. Custom not catalogue, built with vision and love, not profit.

It has gone through some line-up changes and will again and again as that is tattooing these days. Visually, it is overloaded with inspiration: I have a shrine, massive Buddhas, original paintings and vintage flash, and curiosities I have collected over the years. All I believe, culminating into a relaxed and inspiring place. Although we are custom and appointment based, demands for smaller and walk-in designs has evolved.

Our line-up is a strong one with everybody pushing their own style and I am proud to work alongside Mark Lonsdale, Jimi May, Luke Mills and Tristan Bentley. Little Tokyo ended up in Bondi Junction due to the tattoo licensing laws.  I had previously been working from my old custom-built private studio in Bondi.  After searching all over the city something brought me to the Junction.

How significant do you think social media has become to the industry?
Rhys Gordon: 
Social media has had a huge impact on tattooing and will continue to do so. In an image-hungry society, where consumption is huge, tattooing has flourished.  Whether you like it or not it is a useful tool in attracting customers, promoting yourself, providing inspiration, and is a platform for artists to shine.

I have no idea as to where it will go but it will be instrumental in our tattoo future.  Just because things change it doesn’t mean we have to be against them. That’s progression and the internet, one way or another, is at the frontline of this.

Tell us about Australian Tattoo History…
Rhys Gordon: 
Australian Tattoo History came about after a long fascination with the past.  There is an old saying that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Modern generic history is Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, both monumental in the development of our craft. My old friend Lal Hardy visited last year. He did a London tattoo history talk here at Little Tokyo to a packed house. He spoke of tattooing through the ages to an appreciative audience. Whilst he was here we visited such icons such as Bev Nicholas (Cindy Ray), Pete (Rocky) Tiliakos at Max’s Village in the Cross, Tony Cohen at Illustrated Man, Greg Ardron at East Hills, Trevor McStay, John Entwhistle and so on.

Lal suggested I start documenting our artists and history as it is of huge importance. I ended up taking over the Australian Tattoo History Instagram page from Ben Mountseer at Craftsman Tattoo in Queensland.

With it I intend to record and preserve our rich tattoo history. Inked Magazine has graciously allowed me to start writing an article in each upcoming issue. I have big things planned and with the continuing support from our industry will be able to educate people, and showcase our past; as you wouldn’t pick up a Fender Stratocaster and deny Jimi Hendrix lived. 

Rhys Gordon
Little Tokyo: Temple of Art, Custom Tattooing
5A / 71 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction, NSW, 2022
Email: info@little-tokyo.com.au  Website: www.little-tokyo.com.au