Tattoo culture alive and inking in Cairns
Painted man: Matt Ball says his body work is a great talking point. Picture: BRENDAN FRANCIS.
AFGHANISTAN seems a world away from a sunny afternoon at Grafton St in Cairns. But for 24-year-old Kailen Hodgekiss, who is casually propped backward while his forearm is filled with ink in every colour of the rainbow, it seems closer than ever.
Lance Corporal Kailen Hodgekiss spent eight months in Afghanistan last year. Before he left he was what is known as a ‘cleanskin’ in the tattoo world – he didn’t have any. Now, he is developing what he learned about himself at war into permanent body art.
“Being over there, you have a lot of time to think, when you are not out and about looking for the enemy, and you think about what means the most to you in life,’’ he says, glancing only occasionally at the buzzing gun working on his arm.
“Everything I’ve got on me now is a representation of that serious side of my life and next I’m getting the happy side of life as well, the contrast between the good and the bad, I suppose.”
His left thigh is marked with an intricate soldier, awash with colours like turquoise and burnt orange and dotted with ‘2 RAR’, his unit number in Afghanistan. “I can’t really describe how it feels to have it on me,’’ he says. “It’s not just for the two soldiers we lost but for fallen Australian soldiers throughout the history of war. I’m honoured to have it on me.”
Today, he is having the face of a beautiful woman added to his right forearm. “This side will be filled with the good things in life,” he laughs.
Sentimentality like Kailen’s is deeply melded into tattoo culture. And, amid an ever-changing social attitude toward the art of inking skin, emotional badges like his are more common than ever.
Body Funk Owner Lyn Stöckli says there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ tattooed demographic anymore.
“It’s no longer a tough sticker,” she says. “It’s interesting what people have under their clothes; I’ve been quite surprised when certain members of the community come in here.”
Fabian De Gaillande, who is working on Kailen’s ink, says shocking people is often the point.
“They like wearing a suit and then taking it off in front of their mates and it’s like ‘Where did that come from?’” he laughs.
A changing clientele doesn’t mean tattoo taboos are out the window. It may come as a surprise to some that Cairns City Tattoo owner Duane Cash thinks it is possible to step over the line and go too far with tattoos.
“Is there ever too much ink on someone? Yeah, I think so, definitely. Look at me; I haven’t got neck or hand tattoos, while other tattooists do. Sometimes it steps over the line from being tasteful, quality tattooing to overcrowded and messed up, not planned work or done properly,” he says.
“I’m pretty old school; I was brought up with old-school tattooists. No hands, neck, feet or face. They were our rules. The only time you would tattoo your hands is when you were completely inked up elsewhere. And the same as the neck, it was taboo to a point. Tattooists had it, but now it’s, you know, I see it every day,” he shrugs, adding that he believes the explosion of inked-up reality TV stars, sports stars, musicians and celebrities has made tattoos fashionable and trendy.
“People are coming in and getting first tattoos on their neck. They are coming in and wanting first tattoos on their hands. I still try to educate people. They need to set themselves up a bit more and get their career in what they want to do because it will make it hard for certain jobs,” he says.
Employers have mixed opinions and policies when it comes to skin art. Staff development manager for the CAPTA Group, Penny Cleland, says their policy is basically be prepared to cover up or don’t apply.
“It varies from site to site within the Capta Group but basically they need to have tattoos covered at all times, within reason,” she says.
“We’re hands-on with our customers and we look at the presentation and how you sell your company. Our market is very much families and middle of the road, so staff working in that field need to meet expectations of the customers.”
Co-owner of Re:hab cafe, Oscar Hallin, says they don’t have a tattoo policy for staff and says he believes covering tattoos looks worse than having them on display.
“I can understand it in a reception type of job, but in hospitality I actually think it’s worse to see people covered in Band Aids and stuff like that in order to hide them,” he says.
Duane Cash thinks the employment argument is a tough one.
“It’s sort of getting to the stage where people can say ‘You’re discriminating against my tattoos’ but really it’s their right, it’s their business. Let’s face it, I’m an employer too and I don’t want to be a hypocrite but I don’t want my tattooists with tattoos all over their face and grubby and messy looking.”
Meet 29-year-old Matt Ball. The self‑employed pressure cleaner, who gets tattooed by the owner of Sheridan St ink.ur.bod, Terence Tait, has Japanese-style tattoos on his throat, chest and arms that are not easy to hide. But Matt says they are often a benefit when it comes to his relationship with customers of his business, Rope Access Pressure Cleaning.
“I didn’t get a lot of external, visible stuff done before I started my own business, but the tattoos sort of help because clients ask me questions about them and we often get chatting for half an hour or so, we build a rapport,’’ he says.
“Some people still do judge, unfortunately. More with the older generation, some take one look at you and look away. When I got my first couple Mum wasn’t too impressed,’’ he laughs.
“It sort of is an addiction, before I even started I knew I wanted to have lots.”
His tattoo artist Terence, says he will knock back a customer if they want their first tattoo on their neck or hands.
“If they lose jobs in the long run, I don’t want to take the blame,” Terence says.
Fabian and Duane echo this sentiment. Fabian points out that for an artist, tattooing someone is like putting your name to them.
“I am not scared of turning people away. I would rather not make money than tattoo someone who is going to harass me about the poor choice that they made.”
Name tattoos are another no-go. Lyn at Body Funk says she simply doesn’t touch certain name choices.
“I won’t do names like boyfriends and girlfriends, because we spend a lot of time covering that up. And it’s quite amazing how people get really offended when there is someone else’s name on their partner,” she says.
The future of tattooing looks set to further change and grow, strangely complemented by the introduction of laser therapy. Most would assume the removal of tattoos goes against the grain of the artists who put their heart and soul into ink, but most declare they like the tool.
Fabian believes the rate tattoos are increasing is almost parallel to the popularity of laser.
“There is still going to be people making poor decisions because tattooists cost money and people will seek out the cheaper option,” he says. “...I think laser is a great tool, it’s not a negative thing.”
Duane believes the balance of the inked community will soon outweigh the ‘cleanskins’.
“There are still a few people who are dead-set against tattoos and they are always going to be around. They are more outweighed now by people with tattoos,” he says.
“Tattooing has changed and there are things in it I obviously don’t like, but the most important thing for the future of good tattooing is for customers to take their time and research – walk through the shop, get a feel for it, you’ve got to be able to mesh with them, have a good feeling and feel like that tattooist is into what they want. And be patient. You wouldn’t expect people to just walk in and create an incredible piece of art. It takes time and you see a lot of people not caring. They think ‘it’s ink, it’s a tattoo, so it’s cool’ but you need to stop, look at it and think how it’s going to be in 20 years. It’s going to last you a lifetime.”