Words by Rhys Gordon            Main photograph by Peter Rae

Recently an exhibition was staged offering a selection of photos, machines, flash and memorabilia that took the viewer deep into the world of tattoo art practice across three cultures – Asia, Polynesia and the West.

The exhibition, called Behind The Lines and staged at the aMBUSH Gallery in Sydney, was lucky enough to have Sydney tattoo royalty attend in the form of Max Chater (pictured opposite). Max participated in a live interview for the closing day of the exhibition where he offered his insight into Australia’s tattoo history. Those who weren’t present missed out on some surprising and interesting facts which I would like to share below.

The first surprising fact as it turns out, was that Max’s father – Alex (Painless) Chater – actually learned to tattoo from a Swedish man named Kris Kristiansen. To give you a brief insight into Kris’ background, he joined the merchant navy aged nine, jumped ship in Melbourne at 13 and found his way to the Australian gold fields seeking fortune. It was there he befriended a Chinese man who taught him hand poke tattooing. Eventually Kris made his way to Sydney where it was believed he opened Sydney’s first tattoo shop in the city. It is here Alex began his career with Kris.

Kris and Alex’s shop was quick to attract attention because the signage said ‘Electric Tattooing”. In today’s day and age, this may seem trivial but at that time these words alone would attract customers who had heard the tales of ‘six colour tattoos’. This was the early revolution that set tattooing on its current course.

Electricity allowed for electric tattoo machines to be more accurate and much faster compared to hand tattooing. I believe, looking back over Australia’s tattoo history, this was the golden era of tattooing. It was an era of ingenuity and craftsmanship. In Max’s interview he noted: “If you didn’t have it, you made it and if you didn’t make it, you didn’t have it.”

Back then, an old doorbell would be adapted into a machine, some copper piping would be your tube and a rubber hose would be your grip. A bicycle spoke was an ideal needle bar, an eraser was the perfect gromit and so it went. Before tattoo supply companies, a tattooer would rely on himself of his connections to build and maintain his equipment. This allowed for more experimentation and ultimately, development of the industry.

Colour was a whole new ball game and Sydney’s Wally Hammond was famous for it. From his red light studio in Kings Cross, Wally pioneered pigment formulation. Like all good inventors, his first customer would be himself and it was here he would practice his colour combinations. This way, he was able to monitor and check the vibrancy once healed. Wally’s orange is legendary in the old world and attracted tattoo royalty in the likes of Ed Hardy and Mike Malone, just to name a few. I have been lucky enough to see some of this orange healed from over 40 years ago and it was as solid and vibrant as if done last week. It still remains a mystery as to what happened to his stockpile of colour.

A lot like the supposed barrel of Sailor Jerry machine frames that were cast here in Australia with the help of Des Connolly. Rumour has it that they are still out there somewhere, along with some of Bill Furness’ blanks, thought to be cast in Broken Hill and sitting patiently in a 44 gallon drum awaiting re-discovery.

To give you a background on Max Chater; he began tattooing under the guidance of his father at their Oxford street studio in Paddington, NSW in 1959. Once his father Alex retired, the younger Chater took over running the family business. Back then shops were mainly operated solo or with a maximum of two people. Max speaks of the 1970s as a time of change, which saw him move into Kings Cross and form a partnership with Big Pete Blackwell, starting Max and Pete’s Tattoo studio. Max and Pete’s was originally set-up on Llankelly Place, Kings Cross until early re-development moved their shop to Darlinghurst Road, where it still resides today. Max took over completely once Big Pete retired and moved to Queensland.

Today the shop formerly known as Max and Pete’s has been renamed Max’s Village Tattoo, and is still running strong with legendary Australian artists Nick and Pete Tiliakos working by Max’s side. Originally from Wally Hammond’s studio, Nick and Pete came to work with Max after the suburb’s red light district was rezoned for development and closed in the early 1980s.

Nick and Pete have worked in Kings Cross for 40-plus years and are two great characters. Through my investigations into Australian tattoo history, it’s interesting to see a rich history of family ties in tattooing. Zack Chater, Max’s son, is a third generation tattooer who carries on the family legacy at Max’s Village Tattoo.

Beginning his career in the 1990s, Zac is keeping alive Sydney’s (and most likely Australia’s) longest running family run tattoo studio. The 1990s also saw Brett Cohen begin tattooing with his father Tony at the Illustrated Man and Greg Ardron, of Sleevemasters, taught his daughter Vanessa to tattoo at his old iconic studio in Kings Cross.

I recently took a trip to Cairns and to the home to another story of a great family lineage of tattooers. Cairns is home to Duane Cash, who has been tattooing since 1984, and got his start tattooing in his mid teens with the help of another tattooer in the family, his Uncle George.

George had retired but connected him with Dennis, an old time tattooer who gave Duane his start at just 17-years-of-age. Duane went on to open his own shop after first working on fishing trawlers to save up enough money.

Like many Australian tattoo artists, Duane Cash has an amazing family history, which saw him run Cairns’ only tattoo shop for 18 years. Duane honed his skills with the guidance of Les Bowen in Townsville and the late Paul Braniff of the Gold Coast. Duane now has three studios in Cairns. The most prolific of which is the Cairns City Tattoo, which has become a far North Queensland institution with the who’s who of Australian tattooing going through its hallowed doors. Names such as Cliffe Clayton, Chris Tied, Moe Webley, Paul Braniff, Evan Griffiths, Benji Tobin and more. It is still going strong and these days helping to raise the next generation of great tattooists with Paul’s son, Luke Braniff, among a number of those who have done guest spots over the years.

Interestingly enough, Uncle George also helped to kick-start the career of legendary Australian tattooer Moe Webley, as a teenager in the 1960s. Moe worked on the railways and would always spend time with Uncle George, who eventually gave him his start in the industry. Moe went on to work in Brisbane at a time when there were only four other tattoo artists in town. For those who aren’t aware, Moe opened the shop Expert Tattooing in Stones Corner, which has gone on to become an institution with many great tattooers – such as Cliffe Clayton and Bernie Olzewski – on the payroll over the years.

Finishing up with Max’s insights into tattooing, he firmly believes that photocopiers, stencil machines and the Internet have propelled tattooing forward. Although progress and technological advancements in the industry are inevitable, he also believes that with the introduction of these modern tools, a lot of the industries magic has been lost. Where previously you had to work through or repair your own equipment, now these skills are being lost with a simple click of the mouse.

I would like to thank Max Chater and all those mentioned in this article for allowing me into their lives and offering me their insight into Australia’s rich and varied tattoo history.