Rhys Gordon talks to Greg Ardron, unquestionably an icon of the Australian tattoo industry who continues to have influence on artists today via his studio in East Hills, Sydney. Follow his history through this enlightening interview.
Rhys Gordon: Hey Greg, can you tell us about your earliest memories of tattoos?
Greg Ardron: Like a lot of us I first saw a tattoo on a mate from school. He had gotten a skull by ‘Dutchy’. I was 16 at the time and living in Mudgee, where I grew up. Not long after I made the trip to Dutchy’s small shop and got a horse head that cost me $6. That was all I could afford and that started my fascination with tattooing. I then went on to collect a few more from Dutchy and then one from Max Chater in Kings Cross.
How did you get your start in tattooing?
I could always draw quite well and achieved a top 10 recognition in the state for my year 12 art assessment. [At the time] I was playing in a band with my old mate Steve Ladmore, so I was drawing promo flyers and then naturally progressed to tattoos. Not long after I ended up with some equipment and began tattooing – largely by trial and error. In those days tattooing was such a closed shop and the only way to gain info was to get tattooed and watch with an eagle eye what was being done. So I drew my arse off and tried to learn as much as I could.
What was the first shop you worked in?
Myself and Steve Ladmore opened up Golden West Tattoo in down town Mudgee. I worked full-time in the day and then stacked shelves at Woollies at night. After about a year I had tattooed just about everybody who wanted a tattoo and [felt I had] progressed as far as I could.
What was your next move?
From there I looked to the big smoke for inspiration. I went to the cross and got a small tattoo from Max, spending all the money in my pockets. I jumped the train back to Mudgee and on the long hot trip I was looking through a discarded newspaper. Like a lightning bolt hitting me I saw an ad in the paper for a tattooist. In the early 1980s this was so rare. Once I got home I rang the number and lined up an interview with Duke Brown.
The ‘Duke of Hash, Gash or Gas’ Fame?
Yep, you rape ‘em, we scrape ‘em, the one and only. I worked at Night Action in Granville. The shop was open 24 hours, 7 days a week. I lived there as well so it was a mental time. I would regularly be woken up to tattoo somebody – so much so that I built a bunk bed above my workstation. Night action lived up to its name with a lovely female customer sharing my bunk bed with me the first night I built it.
How long did you stay with Duke for and then where to next?
After about a year of madness I was offered a job in Kings Cross. Spider, who I worked with at Night Action, and I would regularly go to the cross. Once there we would visit all the shops, including Bob Hammond (by the taxi rank) and Max and Big Pete’s, looking for any opportunity of a job or [to further our] knowledge. Back then shops were small and only two, maybe three, artists maximum. So jobs were hard to come by.
Then luck struck with John Masters offering me a job at Kings Cross Tattoo studio on Darlinghurst Road. [It was] a new shop that he and his wife opened after leaving Wally Hammond’s Red Light Tattoo. Nick Tiliakos was working there too at the time and John was training up Kenny Adams. John was an amazing artist and could really get the customers in the chair. He had a great way of drawing things freehand. I learnt a lot from John, then about a year into it he decided to move home to New Zealand and I took over the shop.
It seems Kings Cross was a good move then, and is this when the shop became SleeveMasters?
Kings Cross was kind to me, but no Sleevemasters came later on down the line. It remained Kings Cross Tattoo studio with Nick and me on Nightshift and Kenny Adams on dayshift. Kenny went on to work the dayshifts after I polished off the rough edges and got him going good. Kenny, or as some knew him ‘The Swagman’, did 18 years of daytime traffic for me. A while later Nick went over to Max and Pete’s where he remains today with his brother Rocky.
I’ve got an old t-shirt that Cliffe Clayton gave me that says Greg Ardron Cross Graphics, what’s the story there?
Well I had a small problem that turned into a bigger one. The shop had no DA to tattoo from. That would have meant closing down and re-applying which I probably would not have gotten and gone broke, so I diversified.
Diversified? Is that an old term for being creative?
Yeah you could say that. I changed the name to Cross Graphics so it wasn’t named a tattoo studio, and then put up rock t-shirts and posters saying this was the main business. Then after numerous court appearances by my lawyer and a seven-year cat and mouse game with the council, I won my DA. Reason being that the council didn’t turn up to court so the judge awarded in my favour. In other words – business as usual. I could go into some other smear campaigns or should I say creative diversity, but I’ll save that for the movie.
So did Sleevemasters come about around this time and how has it become so synonymous with both tattooing and Kings Cross?
Somewhere around this time I was designing a new business card (I’ve designed all my own cards from early on). There were no computers in those days, I would lay a card out then use what is called tetra set. It’s basically a sheet of letters that you could then transfer onto artwork making your own cards to then be printed. So I’d done a Kings Cross Tattoo studio business card and had an empty space. I was going to fill it with either ‘Professional Tattooing’ or ‘The Sleeve Masters’. I went with ‘The Sleeve Masters’. From there I painted up a sign and it was kind of adopted by locals and our customers. The Sleevemasters then became Sleevemasters and I went on to trademark the name.
We did loads of merchandise, lighters, and stubby holders, belt buckles, sew on patches. You name it, we did it! Even those fancy pins that all the hipsters now think are the rage. Been there, done that. Next.
Who was working with you through the years, as I think you spent 18 years in Kings Cross?
Yep, 18 of the best. We used to say that one year in the cross was worth five anywhere else. Terry Wrigley, a famous tattooer from Scotland, said we were the busiest tattoo shop in the world. In the ‘80s and into the mid-‘90s, it was non-stop. You would turn up every day or night with people waiting to get tattooed and the cross was in full swing. Every crazy, rubbernecking, footy tripping tourist, gangster or high roller would come through the doors and nightshift was always the craziest.
I’ve heard some great stories that we can go over later, what about your crew at the time?
I had Chris Chate and Kim Royal in the early days and then Steve from Mudgee came up. Kenny was obviously there, and then Fred Heinrich “the Hitman” worked for five years before opening his own shop in Granville (but would still come do Friday nights as they were too much fun to give up). Jeff Rhodes came along around ’88, when I went overseas to the Dunstable and Amsterdam Tattoo Conventions and then stayed until opening up Stingers in St. Mary’s. A lot of people tried but the cross wasn’t for everybody. It has chewed up and spat out more [people] than have stayed. It takes a special type to deal with anything and everything that can and did come along but if you could handle it, it would be the time of your life.
You’re a member of the PTAA and were vice president I believe?
I am a life member, and a proud one. I joined early in its concept and eventually became State Representative and then Vice President while Pete Davidson from Queensland was President.
Can you tell us a little about the PTAA?
Basically we are an association that has the best interests of tattooing at heart. The PTAA has been involved in Health Department consultation and in the early ‘90s was involved directly with the State Government in re-writing the Skin Penetration Act. We introduced a level of competency where artists have to reach a certain standard to be involved and we have a code of conduct to abide by. We also organise many tattoo shows to help promote quality tattooing.
Are you a member of any other tattoo associations or clubs?
I am the founder of the Kings Cross Tattoo Club that has over 400 members. I was an Australian representative for the European Tattoo Artists Association where I would write regular articles on what was happening Down Under and the funny fuckers would then print it upside down in there magazines. I’m a member of the Japan Tattoo Club, Amsterdam Tattoo Society and Tattoo Archive in San Francisco.
I know you travelled a lot to conventions, can you tell us about some?
I went to England a few times and to the legendary Dunstable Conventions. I visited Lal Hardy, Ian of Reading, Lionel Titchner up in Oxford and many more. It was great to meet up with so many people I had been corresponding with over the years and reading about in magazines. I went to the Amsterdam Convention and got runner-up for best female in the tattoo competitions. It was such a small world the tattoo world then and everybody knew everybody.
Speaking of trophies, I’ve seen your trophy cabinet, or should I say cabinets. You’ve won pretty much everything but are there any special ones you’re particularly proud of?
I think ‘The Dutchy Memorial’ in 2005 is a big one, especially since he did my first tattoo and is such a legend of the industry. Also the ‘Best Overall Tattooing’ trophy at the 1992 tattoo show. It was held on my home turf in Kings Cross at the Gazebo Hotel. Whether it be first or a placing, anytime you take an award is great as you are being judged against your peers. It is a great acknowledgement of both you and your customer’s dedication. Everybody’s a winner in fact.
Have you had many gust artists from overseas work with you?
Molly form Amsterdam came over years ago on his around the world tour. His business card used to read “have gun will travel”. Then Igor Mortis stayed awhile after a rough start. Fred Heinrich thought Igor was snaking a customer on a shift change, so he bashed him then dragged him into a back room and nailed the door shut. After I smoothed that one out, Igor stayed – believe it or not. It was just a quick lesson in Aussie tattoo shop etiquette.
Crazy Eddie form the US (who just passed away) came through town one weekend like a whirlwind. Dave Osbourne who is Col Todd’s nephew from the Pike worked with us as did Yanky Dave Downey. Paul Sayce and Dereck Campbell from London came through as well. Back in the day Sleevemasters would be visited by every tattooist and tattoo collector who came to town. So many I can’t remember but these ones stand out.
You have an amazing tattoo collection of machines and memorabilia; can you tell us a little about this?
I always collected anything with a tattoo on it and it slowly turned into an obsession. At one point I actually had a newspaper clipping service that would cut out anything to do with tattoo in the print media. I would have an envelope turn up in the shop every week with everything printed in Australia in it. Obviously from my travels I collected business cards and t-shirts. Then I think it was when John Poole called me about the late Frank Collins collection from Adelaide I really got serious. With Frank’s collection, I then went on a mission to collect as much as I could. I ended up with 40-odd machines from Vic Farr’s collection when he passed away. The when Bob Wood retired I got a big box of machines and parts. I had Bob wind me 50 sets of coils and rebuilt them all, totalling something like 80 machines. At one point I had over 400 tattoo machines in my collection.
Jeff Rhodes and I built 40 skull machines, they were used as trophies at the ’92 Sydney Tattoo Show and then we used the remainder to trade and swap for other machines. As you know I just brokered a deal with the help of you (Rhys Gordon), to send a good collection of machines both Aussie and international, to the Rome Tattoo Museum.
Thanks Greg it’s always nice to see them go to a good home where they will be appreciated and on display for all to see. Keep the magic alive I say. You also have built a lot of machines too.
Well when I began there was no eBay, so if your machine broke you had to fix it, re-tune it, make your own needles, mix your own colour etc. There was much more skill involved than today. So with all that obviously came an interest in machine building. I’ve experimented over the year with Perspex framed machines so they can never be shorted out. I’ve cut from bits of box tubing where I would make my own coils. I’ve done it all. I believe to be a great tattoo artist you need to understand the working knowledge of your tools, otherwise how can you master them? Also, how embarrassing would it be to sit there looking like a fool in front of your customer not knowing what’s wrong! Amateur hour.
What was your favourite set up to tattoo with then?
I love black and grey and would use a 3-needle liner and a Hairy Mary. I’d thicken some lines up with a 5 round – all hand made needles. That’s about all you will get out of me on that one.
I believe you sold Sleevememasters in the early 2000s?
Yes 2001 to be exact. After 18 years I’d done my time and went on to work with my old mate Jeff Rhodes out at Stingers before re-opening the historic East Hills Studio. That studio is where Big Pete Blackwell and Bob Wood started in 1958. The rest, as they say, is history.
You have been behind some amazing promo designs over the years, mine and I’m sure a lot of peoples favourite being the reaper with the sewing needle, any inspiration behind that?
What can I say, I like reapers, I love women and I like sewing.
Thanks Greg. Before we finish up, can I do a little hits and memories session, kinda like a true, false or pass?
Sure go for it.
I heard you tattooed for three days straight once when the American ships came in?
[Laughter] No, that’s wrong. It was five days straight. On day three I went to a hotel, had a shower and changed my clothes. We regularly tattooed non-stop like that when called upon when the ships were back in town. It was mental. I would also exchange US currency dollar for dollar, at a rate of two to one in our favour, and then get a tip out of them.
Yep, I’ve heard some crazy stuff, like you never broke a hundred dollar bill?
Yep that’s correct.
I heard you had your lounge room wall plaster in hundred dollar bills. Is that true?
No, it was in my bedroom. A feature wall you could say.
How many tattoos do you think you’ve done?
Years ago we counted up a bunch of day sheets with tattoos and roughly estimated it to be 50,000-plus. I used to do 15 to 20 a night, if not more in silly season.
Wow, what days and hours were you working?
Tuesday to Saturday, 8pm to 4am minimum. I’ve seen the sun rise so many times.
Did you tattoo US actor Rob Lowe?
No, Kenny Adams did. I tattooed M.C. Hammer.
Any last words?
Tattooing has given me a great life. It’s allowed a young boy from Mudgee to make a living from art, travel the world and meet so many great people. I’ve been married a few times; have two daughters Vanessa and Loretta who tattoo. It’s been a wild ride and I’ve loved it all. I think I’ve definitely lived quite a few lives in one compared to ‘Joe Citizen’.
I’ve been able to pass on my knowledge to Dean Reardon who did a proper apprenticeship with me. He builds great tattoo machines that I taught him as part of his apprenticeship and has a great love and respect for tattooing. I’ve taught him all he knows but not what I know. With a good grounding he will work the rest out. Dean now works out at Stingers doing great tattoos.
Thanks for your time Greg. It’s been great to get to know you and call you a friend. I can’t wait for the filming we have done to come out that will accompany this article. As they say, if you liked the book wait for the movie.