Australian Tattoo History Part One


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Words by Rhys Gordon


Welcome to the first instalment of an ongoing series on the rich tattoo history of Australia, and New Zealand as many great artists have crossed the seas to work and contribute here.

In the 1950s, there were three tattoo shops in Sydney. These were run by Sailor Bill on Liverpool Street, where Bill used to work from the verandah of his house; Alex “Painless” Chater on Oxford Street, Paddington (close to the army barracks); and out at East Hills there was Big Pete Blackwell and Bob Woods.

In 1971, New Zealand legend Roger Ingerton (RIP) of Wellington opened Bondi’s first shop. It wasn’t around long as Roger returned to New Zealand the following year to take over Kevin Gray’s shop in Vivian Street, Wellington. Over the following years, Bondi saw shops come and go. Tattoo artist Peter Wells, of Rose Tattoo fame, is said to have had a shop with Fran Stinson on Hall Street. Fran built her career working with Sydney icon Tony Cohen at The Illustrated Man. In 1986, an American named Lynton Nancarow opened up shop and called his backyard set-up American Graffiti. Needless to say this was a failure. Then Body Art opened on Campbell Parade in an upstairs laneway close to where Bondi Ink is now situated. Kaleidoscope Tattoo is now Bondi’s longest serving studio, after opening in the mid-90s. Bondi Junction, where I am situated today, has seen East Side Ink operate for quite a few years before closing due to building redevelopment. It also saw the likes of 119 Tattoo open on Oxford Street before relocating a few shops away and rebranding as Collective Tattoo, which closed in 2015. I will delve into these early Bondi shops further in future issues.

I’m going to recount a little of Ingerton’s experiences at this time and how Australia kick-started the tattooing life of one of the greatest and most respected artists of our time. Ingerton was tattooed by both Sailor Bill and Alex Chater years before he was travelling for work and hand-poking tattoos after hours. In 1969 Roger and his yet-to-be wife Margaret visited Sydney with Kevin Gray, introducing Ingerton to Wally Hammond in the new year. Hammond had opened up Red Light Tattoo in a first floor apartment, overlooking Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross. He taught Ingerton how to make machines, mix colours from dry pigment, solder needle groups together and make stencils. They worked together, with Ingerton gaining knowledge and experience that would take him into the great career he had, until his passing on April 15, 2015.

Hammond was internationally known for his machines and his pigment. He supplied his colours to the best in the business throughout the world. A true pioneer, he would test out colour combinations on his own arm – for safety and vibrancy – so that his inner arm looked like a rainbow test patch of dots and colours that he had trialled over the years. Needless to say, his commitment to his craft saw him run a successful tattoo supply company before retiring. Hammond’s colours are still revered around the world for their ease of application and strength, especially his orange.

The Red Light was a starting point for a lot of great tattooers today and also had many visiting New Zealand artists do spots there. Kiwi Kim worked there and went on to become one of our greatest female artists of the time, also working with Tony Cohen before she opened up Celtic Dragon in Newtown. Nick and Pete “Rocky” Tiliakos started their careers under Hammond’s guidance and worked there until Hammond retired and went to work with Big Pete and Max Chater.

Another New Zealander named John Masters worked with Wally Hammond before parting ways and ended up opening Cross Graphics. John worked here with Nick Tiliakos, then Greg Airdrop came on board after working out in Granville at Duke Brown’s studio Night Action that was opened 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not long after this, John Masters returned to New Zealand for health reasons with Greg taking over and in time, turning it into the powerhouse that was to become Sleevemasters. Greg Ardron spent 18 years here before moving into semi-retirement and working alongside his old right hand man Jeff Rhodes, who had opened up Stingers out at St Marys.

Max Chater moved into The Cross with Big Pete Blackwell after a long stint with his father Alex, on Oxford Street in Paddington. Max would have to be one of the longest serving tattooers in Sydney, along with Tony Cohen, who started tattooing in the 60s and went on to run studios in Manly and then Williams Street, before moving to his iconic Elizabeth Street studio, The Illustrated Man, near Central Station. After almost 25 years in the same location, The Illustrated Man moved directly opposite the old shop, still on Elizabeth Street.

All of these people, and more, have helped shape tattooing in modern times – not only in Sydney, but also throughout Australia. Before the internet came along and before what is currently termed a “guest spot”, artists would write letters and form friendships, often driving the lengths of the country to be tattooed and work with a fellow artist.

Sydney seemed a hub of activity with Les Bowen and Peter Davidson spending time there before going on to open successful studios in Northern NSW and Far North Queensland. Both were heavily active in the industry and organised some of the earliest Tattoo Conventions. Pete Davidson was also president of the PTAA (The Professional Tattoo Artists Association of Australia). Les Bowen Senior also had the honour of having his artwork in Australia’s first ever tattoo magazine, Australian Tattoo. Les Bowen Senior is leaving a great legacy through his two sons Les Rice and Leon Bowen. Les runs the successful LDF studios and is an acclaimed painter in his own right, having won many prestigious awards. Leon has been living in Scotland for many years, running a great studio in his adopted home.

Perth has its own rich history with the late Bobby Thornton, who had many studios over the years and at one point was the only tattoo artist in all of Western Australia. Ricky Luder is one of our greatest ambassadors of tattooing, travelling the world and Australia from early in his career. Recently Bugsy of Third Eye in Melbourne wrote a book on Luder, Ricky Luder Licensed Tattoo Artist. I encourage you to get a hold of it, it’s a must for any collector.

I believe Tony Cohen’s book The Tattoo was Australia’s first ever published hardback book dedicated to tattooing. In it are great examples of Tony’s work and also that of other world-class artists. It documents Cohen’s career with memorabilia and relevant facts from all over the world. In this book, it is clear to see that Cohen is a man who really pushed himself artistically and set his own standards. Today you can still find Cohen tattooing at his studio. To me personally, this is amazing and something to aspire to. Cohen and any old-timer still in the trenches and plying their trade are a true inspiration and credit to our industry.

Melbourne has its own icons with none more respected and known than Cindy Ray, or Bev Nicholas as she is known today. Her history, for those uninformed, is remarkable and we will delve deeper into this in time. She has now become president of the PTAA and is still tirelessly giving to tattooing [Read more on Bev in issue 41 of Inked Australia/NZ]. The PTAA is now in its 31st year of operation and has done a great job throughout its history of running conventions and dealing with governmental bodies by assisting in health standards and so on. Bev and Patsy Farrow, a long time secretary and lifelong friend, are continuing to look after the art they love.

Bill Furness was one of our earliest tattoo suppliers and well liked among other tattooers. He is known for helping out younger members of the industry. You can find Bill’s machines scattered all over the world and they have become a collectable item, along with Cindy Ray machines, which are probably the most prized.

Des Connolly was in contact with Sailor Jerry and responsible for organising its frames to be cast in Australia. Des worked on Sydney Road, Brunswick with Alf Mingins who was known for his artistic ability and tattooing. Alf was related to Rich Mingins of British tattooing acclaim.

Dick Reynolds, reputed to be one of the longest serving tattooers of his time worked on Flinders Street in Melbourne, before later in his career working alongside John Entwistle in Richmond. Richard Whittaker, otherwise known as Dick, retired in 1985 after tattooing for 50 years. John Entwistle is known as the gentleman of Melbourne tattooing, opening his first shop in 1968 and still tattooing today. He has also had the honour of a book being dedicated to him by Danny Young of Frankston Tattoo and Jane Laver of Chapel Tattoo: John Entwistle, Tattooist: Melbourne, Australia. It’s another must-have and is an insight into John’s world, his lifetime spent painting his own flash, staying true to the old school values of the art and also running a successful supply business under the Johnny Dollar banner. He’s also a tattoo machine maker who is credited by Lyle Tuttle as the first to invent the quick-change tube-locking device.

There are so many colourful characters that I look forward to introducing you to over time. I’m happy to pass on their stories from a time when you earned your tattoo name rather than created one to be cool. Names like Inky Rick, Shaky Bill, Painless Chater and Bourbon Bill to name just a few. They are stories from a time where issues were dealt with in person rather than pathetic keyboard communication. From a time when your word was gold, your handshake your bond, your reputation guarded and earned, references checked and once you were accepted by fellow artists and customers alike, the tattoo world was your oyster. It was a world where it was up to you alone to do in it what you wanted and push yourself as hard and as far as you wanted.

I myself take this opportunity very seriously. I feel very lucky to be able to write for Inked magazine and would like to express a huge thank you to Vanessa for trusting me. I don’t pretend to know it all, but will do my best to check and cross reference future information as I hold tattooing very close to my heart.

As the time honoured saying goes: “Be good to tattooing and tattooing will be good to you.” 

Rhys Gordon originated from Melbourne, where he began his tattoo career. He did his first tattoo in 1989 and has now been tattooing for over 25 years. Gordon says tattooing has given him a blessed life, having spent eight years travelling and working abroad. Upon his return to Australia, he worked for the late great Paul Braniff on the Gold Coast before moving to Sydney to work at Inner Vision tattoo with Cliffe Clayton, whom just celebrated their 20-year anniversary. From there, Gordon moved onto Tatudharma before ending up with his own studio in Bondi Junction called Little Tokyo.