Bev Nicholas, best known as Cindy Ray, is a renowned figure of the tattoo industry, both in Australia and around the world. She made a name for herself in the 1960s when at 19 she took up her first machine and later made her name as a tattooed pin-up star. She paved the way for women tattooists and for all of the tattooed ladies. She is a credit to Australian tattoo history and it was an absolute honour to be invited
into her home for a one-on-one interview (she also makes a killer lunch).

Words by Kelly Koolstra-Aplin

INKED: How did it make you feel being titled as ‘Cindy Ray: Australia’s Tattooed First Lady’?
BEV NICHOLAS: Well, actually I don’t think I am the first. Not as far as I know. I’m aware there was a lady called Alexis who used to go in the shows, but that would have been many, many years ago.

So did she also go to tattoo shows or anything like that back then? Well, she probably would have been at the side show alley, because back in them days there was no such thing as tattoo get togethers, conventions and the likes of what there is today.

Would you say tattooing was popular when you started out? No, it wasn’t till a few decades later on, it was very unusual to see anybody with a tattoo, let alone a female. I remember going down to the old Chinese restaurant on the waterfront and there was a lady who worked there who had these big cabbage roses on her arm and everybody would be looking at them because it was just so rare. And then all of a sudden along comes me with tattoos everywhere.

Did you find that you got stared at a lot? I did a pretty good job of covering them up because I had a father who was horrified when his daughter come home tattooed, and if any of his friends came to the house he would yell out: “You go put on some long sleeves because so and so is here.”

Actually nobody knew that I was tattooed for quite awhile. Then I got invited to go on Melbourne Tonight and my aunty rang Dad up the next day: “That wasn’t Beverly on TV last night with all those tattoos was it?”

Did your Mum like your tattoos? Well no, Mum didn’t really like them, but I ended up doing one on her once.

Oh really? Yeah, she had a bit to drink before and, of course, Dad was not impressed when we came home… seeing this horrible looking duck tattooed on the top of her arm.

What was your first tattoo experience like? Well, the first night I got tattooed I ended up with one on top of my shoulder going to the elbow and that was a Hula girl under a palm tree and, oh goodness I forget what the other one was of. And then I had two wristbands of roses. They are all covered now that lot.

Do you have favourites? Well, no I don’t think I really do have a favourite one. Maybe… I like the little tiger I’ve got on my shoulder that was done by Cliff Raven in America when I went over there, years ago. Cliff’s no longer here but he was a real lovely guy, a real gentleman.

Did you ever do a tattooing apprenticeship? I first became a tattooist not by choice. No, my ex happened to get into a fight and broke his hand and there was a shop we had, well he had it, not me, down on the waterfront. So, he said to me: “Looks like you’re going to have to tattoo the next few weeks.” I said “I can’t tattoo!”, he said “There’s no such thing as can’t, anybody can do whatever they like… Don’t worry if you stuff it up I’ll fix it up when my hand gets better.” Oh, I’ll never forget the first one I did, I’ll tell you what…

Cindy Ray: the original pin up

What was it of? It was a parrot and I think it took me about six hours to do, when I could do [it] in half an hour now. The guy’s walked in with his mate and he’s gone out the front and I could hear them talking – “Do you know that that sheila is going to tattoo you?” – because there wasn’t women tattooing back then, oh gee, I was a nervous wreck and anyway hours later, it didn’t look too bad. So here I am all these years later still doing the odd one and thinking this was going to be for six weeks.

How many years has it been now? It would have to be, gee this is showing my age isn’t it, 52 years ago.

Wow, that’s a credit to you to stay in this industry for that amount of years. That’s awesome. So when tattooing, what is your preferred style? Well, I don’t like the old school; I don’t like doing that at all. I probably prefer doing black and grey sort of work if I can. But you’ve got to do what people want nowadays and everybody wants poetry or writing written on them. I’ve been through all the stage of this tribal stuff and it sort of runs in stages and reverts back to you know, what it was sort of thing.

Do you do a lot of portraits or anything like that? Oh no I’m not a portrait artist. No, no, no!

Have you ever done one though? No I haven’t. I probably would make somebody look like Donald Duck or something. I’ve seen some portraits and I’ve looked at them and Kenny who I work with has got John Lennon on him, and goodness it doesn’t look like John Lennon, it looks like Harry Potter, and he would tell everybody that too.

Many years ago you opened up your very first tattoo studio, can you tell us a bit about that? The one at Williamstown you’re talking about? Well, actually that was opened up with my ex and I, we opened that shop up and then he went over to St Kilda to work and he turned around and said well I keep that shop there and he’d keep the one at St Kilda, and that’s how it come about.

Back in those days there wasn’t tattoos shops like there is today, so people getting tattooed only had a small selection of shops to choose from. Even in the city back then there were two tattooists and everybody sort of knew everybody really well and it was a different scene altogether.

Do you find that because of who you are in the industry that helped you with more people coming through the door? No, I wouldn’t say that, no. Most of them that actually were coming down in the beginning [was because] Danny was a very good tattooist and he had quite a good reputation and that helped with clientele. He’d go to work on the weekend and they would be lined up like sardines out the front of the shop. Nothing like it is today.

Things have definitely changed. And you’re still tattooing? I only go in on Sundays. I do enjoy it and I enjoy the company at work, yes.

In 2005 in St Louis you were inducted into the Tattoo Museum Hall Of Fame. How did that make you feel? I have never been so scared in all my life, I mean I got to the airport and KD came with me, another female tattooist, and I said to her “Look, can we do something wrong so we get jumped onto the next plane and head back to Australia?” [Laughs] I said, “I don’t know if I can face what’s gonna happen here.”

Oh really, you were that petrified? I was, because they had this dinner in honour of me and it was all invited guests and there was TV cameras everywhere and people everywhere and I’m up on the stage with Lyle… it was overwhelming, it really was. While I was there, it was just before my birthday and these people had gone out and got the biggest cake I had ever seen for my birthday, and all these people were tattooing me on booths and walking up the aisles singing ‘Happy Birthday’, it was just overwhelming you know.

[Laughs] You’re very humble. At one of the shows that you came to not long ago, people’s heads all turned when you walked past. It’s really funny to see that you don’t even realise that people are like, “There she is, there she is”, people like Nikko Hurtado, Joe Capobianco… No, I don’t. But, I actually only went to that show just for the fact I wanted to meet Joe Capobianco. He’s a real good friend with Sharon Brouse, who tattoos in Utah and I thought, I’ve gotta meet Joe you know, and he’s just such a wonderful person. He’s lovely.

Being a female tattoo artist in today’s society, how do you feel it’s changed in say the last 10 years? Enormously, there’s a lot of talent out there now. There’s a lot of people with fine arts degrees that have got into tattooing. Back when I got into it we just had to tattoo you know, you didn’t have to be artistic and I think today they are just all different, far different.

They have so much more to go on, there’s more tattoo books out there and also the internet… That’s exactly right, 99 per cent of the people that you encounter in the shop, they want something off the net. Nobody wants to go in anymore and look around on the walls and say I’ll have that one up there.

Throughout you’re tattooing career, can you tell me some of the highlights that you’ve had? I’ve had a lot of highlights. Meeting tattooists overseas and well, if I wasn’t tattooed I probably would have never travelled overseas to begin with. And it’s just different, they’re sort of, they make you feel real welcomed. I mean you don’t go into your local butcher shop and he tells you “I’m going to a convention” you know, and butcher’s all inviting each other around to stay and come out for dinner and things like that.

I’ve been to Europe too. I went and stayed with a tattooist in Scotland once for a month and travelled around and I went down to London and Lal Hardy was real sweet and took me out to dinner a couple of times. When I was in America, I actually went out and had a birthday celebration with Ed Hardy for his
40th Birthday.Cindy Ray tattooistOh no way, Ed Hardy! Oh, Ed’s a lovely guy and Fran, his wife, she’s really lovely too. You just get to meet these people, there’s no put on. I mean everybody knows who Ed Hardy is… T-shirts, this and that, but Ed is the most down to earth guy that you would ever meet.

Oh nice. So Bev can you tell me what tattoo machines you prefer to use? Well, the best machine I ever had which lasted years and years and years was a Micky Sharpz. But I don’t think they are made today like he used to make them years ago. Everything is sort of mass produced these days, but that was my favourite machine.

You’ve had a lot of cover up work done on you, right? I did. It was only a couple of the original ones on my legs I didn’t get covered. When I went to America for the first time I seen the new thing out was everybody getting sleeves. So I just thought to myself well I would look better than having a tattoo here and a tattoo there, so now if I got sleeves maybe people won’t notice I’m tattooed.

[Laughs] How did that go for you? Actually it worked on TV one day. I was in the green room and I was on this program and there’s this woman sitting there and she was having this conversation with me, very la de da, high class woman and all of a sudden she’s like “Oh my god, they’re tattoos!”.

What did you say? Nothing. I was going on, you know being presented as the Tattooed Woman … I’ve had the same thing happen in hospital once too. When the guy who was going to give me the anaesthetic came around and, “Lift your shirt up” he says to me, [in a] very proper, English voice. He lets out a mighty roar and the woman in the next bed says, “What’s going on?” He got such a shock because they didn’t expect it.

So if you could give any advice to the younger generation when choosing their very first tattoo, what would it be? Don’t get your neck tattooed and don’t get your hands tattooed. I’d say have a really good think about it because you know I feel a lot different today than I did back then.