TATTOO ARTIST Rachel Jane, from MELBOURNE VIC, is 30 years old and shares her experience in the industry and her art/tattoo style.
When did you find out you had a love for tattooing?
I think my love for tattooing increased when I was around 17/18years old. I started exploring history in a lot more depth as I began to feel drawn towards it as a career path. Coming from New Zealand where it’s culturally appreciated through Polynesian/Maori cultures, I had the added filter of viewing it in the light of connection to culture and ancestry as well as with the general association to fringe society.
How did you gain the experience tattooing?
In 2008 I landed an apprenticeship in a tattoo shop that was in an industrial area in the outer suburbs of Auckland, NZ. I had been taking my portfolio around tattoo shops all over the city for months with no luck and that shop was the last one on my list. I was feeling pretty deflated by that point. I remember the shop had a strong 80’s/90’s flash influence covering the walls with laminated cherry creek, Spaulding & rogers flash sheets. He said he had an apprentice already and he couldn’t pay me anything, but if I wanted to go in a couple of days a week to observe how the shop runs, I was welcome. I went in every day and got stuck into helping out where ever possible – the phones, emails, cleaning, lunches and eventually I was allowed to start cleaning tubes, drawing his designs, hand stencilling and setting up and breaking down his station etc. I tried to stay a step ahead in helping out around the shop. Any crumbs of information I wrote into a notebook and became a sponge. I wasn’t allowed to try a machine properly for many months, just dismantling them and putting them back together. However, I remember in that first week, he set up his station and, on the spot, looked me dead in the eye “so you wanna be a tattooer do you?!” then told me I was going to tattoo his inner wrist right then. I was melting inside but was like okay. It was a line of planetary symbols (perfect tiny circles and lines), very small with a 3RL (very thin line weight, easier to see your mistakes). The whole time he’s watching me with a staunch face and not saying much. I think I blacked out at that point I was having an internal meltdown hahah. Luckily, I passed the test!
Do you do art previously?
I have always been a natural drawer. So, my previous experience was art classes throughout school and then sketching/painting still life and portraits in my own time when I was in high school.
Is your art style different from your tattoo style?
When I’m painting or creating something outside of tattooing, I prefer to do it in a different medium or style to my tattoo flash. I love painting in acrylics, getting more fluid or less serious with it. Tattooing is kinda structured in the technical aspect so it’s a nice break from that sometimes. I love a lot of different mediums. I’ve done embossing, embroidery, painting pottery, as well as painting with acrylics and sketching with pencils or charcoal.
What type of tattoo style would you say you have?
I don’t know how to define my style, to be honest. It just comes out how it comes out. But some clients have said, “sexy traditional” regarding the ladies I design haha. I guess it branches off the traditional style in some ways but I take influence from a lot of styles. When I put it together, I like to switch off and draw without much influence from other artists.
"PEOPLE WANT TO AVOID THE EXPERIENCE SO DESPERATELY THEY ARE GLUED TO THEIR PHONE...I GET IT...BUT YO...PLEASE SIT STILL FOR OUTLINES HAHA."
Whats the tattoo industry like in Melbourne? Competitive or supportive/collaborative?
I’ve only been in Melbourne since 2013. It’s become a lot busier with more tattooers and shops, but over all I feel like it’s a pretty connected situation. A lot of shops are friends and some aren’t, but nothing too hectic.
How does it make you feel when you see your tattoo on someone walking down the street?
It’s pretty cool. But I’m also that person who will be like “Oh that’s a nice tattoo who did that?” and they tell me I did it a year ago or something hahah.
I get a lot of people saying they see my tattoos on the street, so that’s pretty cool too. When they recognise your work and can guess it was yours. It is trippy to consider how many people you’ve tattooed over the years and all those tattoos floating around.
What do you like tattooing the most?
GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS!
What do you hate tattooing?
I don’t tattoo anything with hate as an intention! I was taught that when tattooing, your intention is put into the persons skin. Always have positive or balanced intention when tattooing someone’s body. I always remembered that for some reason. There are things I find more difficult from a technical stand point which may be a bit annoying in the early stages. Like trying to draw a geometric design or something. But once you’re tattooing, it all becomes lines on a stencil, not an image... Obviously, also wont tattoo anything hateful.
Over the years have you seen your tattoo style progress?
I started tattooing walk-ins, and I am glad for this. I still tattoo a lot of them today, it's probably the majority of my income! But yeah, my style has progressed over the years from traditional into what it is now. I think if you’re creating anything, you will shift and change your approach and execution as you discover different things that inspire you. Also, because it is an expression of you, I think different periods of your life also influence how things come through or what subject matter you’re looking at. It took years to develop my style into what it is now. I remember agonising over it in the early years, wishing I could know what my style was. I tattooed American Traditional for a while, then I started to add more detail and go back to using thinner line weights and focus more on ladies as subject matter because that’s what I liked to draw the most.
Where has been your favourite place to tattoo?
I think travelling around the US – LA, NYC, SF, PHX. All the shops were so much fun to work in and meeting so many new people who I was in contact with through Instagram, it was dope. Europe was amazing too. Melbourne has always been up there, it’s a great place to work. So pretty much everywhere.
What are the most annoying things clients do?”
Okay, one thing. Someone might be super picky with every millimetre of their design. You gotta draw it a few times for them (which is fine), then when you start tattooing them, they want to get their phone out and start moving around trying to film you or texting people – just moving any other limb is moving the area you’re working on a lot! It’s like, what was the point in being picky? Then they might complain about any slight line being wobbly. People want to avoid the experience so desperately they are glued to the phone, which I get it, but yo, please sit still for outlines haha.
What's the hardest tattoo someone has asked for?
I find the most difficult thing being the placement of a tattoo. I really don’t like tattooing necks anymore. I struggle with the positioning and how stretchy the skin is. Also places like the waist, where there’s no structural support underneath. That being said, I can still tattoo them fine, it’s just not preferred haha. If there’s a design I don’t feel capable of doing a good job of, I will straight up send them to someone who will.
What's your favourite piece you’ve done?
That’s a bit like asking who your favourite child is haha. I have many.
What do you love about being a tattoo artist?
So many things. Even though this is way shorter than the dislikes, they pale in comparison to the things I love about it. I’ve met the best people, travelled and worked in amazing countries around the world, being able to draw for a living is pretty insane. I like that it’s not just artistic ability, it’s also you gotta know a bit about anatomy, electricity, science, how to speak to people of all walks of life and hold a safe space. You’re doing very meaningful pieces sometimes – memorial tattoos for example. That’s always humbling. I love that it’s such an old craft that goes back thousands of years in almost every culture. It’s something once learned, will never leave you.
What is the hardest thing about being a tattoo artist?
Overall, it’s an amazing career. I love it. What you put in you’ll get back. Nothing is owed to you. You earn the knowledge with dedication and respect of the craft. It’s easy to put tattooers on a pedestal assuming that it’s an easy road when viewed through an Instagram feed. But the realities are that we put in many hard years before reaching that point. We don’t receive any benefits, if we injure ourselves or get sick, we don’t get paid leave or workers compensation. I injured my drawing hand for 8weeks once and couldn’t draw, tattoo or get paid, that was fucked. Our income is varied. People assume you get paid $150 by the hour. Nah, you get paid if you do a tattoo, and you don’t keep the total amount. You could be showing up to work for days and make no money. I’m in a good spot now, but I have had long periods of time, very stressed out about making rent because I was doing a tattoo a month. It’s all dependent on self-motivation as well. The first few years are tough getting the right skills (which I feel an apprenticeship is a good way to learn) and putting in the work to gain a client base and develop your style.
We take our work home, it’s 24/7 for some of us. I’ve worked Sat/Sun for the last 4-5years so you can make good money by working hard on weekends, but you lose your social life pretty easily. It’s also very hard work on the body and mind, I am still listening to my body as to what works best for me.
Sometimes it is frustrating to know you went through an abusive apprenticeship and spent 100’s of hours refining your drawing/tattoo skills to meet the standards of a tattoo that will last in the skin, spending years learning your craft and then there could be a sudden burst of a style that requires no drawing skill and you can see application is damaging the skin, but it takes off and grows like wildfire. It feels unfair. You just have to keep focused on doing what makes you happy and stay true to your work. Also, this is always a thing, when people tell you they bought a “gun” off eBay and tattooed their mates while drunk... I get it, but common ya’ll. Be smarter. If one drunken fuck up causes severe infection, someone could get seriously sick. This also affects the industries reputation and ruins it for everyone trying to do it the right way.
Do you have any advice for a tattoo artist?
If you’re wanting to learn, I would say the same things I heard when I was beginning..get tattooed a lot from people you admire. Don’t expect people to hand this knowledge over, show them you’re worth receiving it. They put in blood sweat and tears for the right to receive their knowledge, so don’t expect to book in a tatt and within 5mins ask them 21Q’s. Do your own research on the history, know where it comes from. Do your own research on basic info so you know what you’re getting in to. Come speak to us in person, we don’t view a vague email inquiring about apprenticeships as showing us how much you want it. Draw a shit load, every style you can. Make a portfolio. Don’t come in with a scribble on a napkin. Unfortunately, not every shop has good intentions either, so listen to your gut about whether it’s the best spot to learn. You have to expect some struggle being an apprentice for sure because it’s almost like a rite of passage, but you’ll know if someone has your best interests in mind compared to someone who just uses you for slave labour. Please avoid blindly tattooing people at home without knowing what to do. Big no, no.
Working at Melbourne Tattoo Company, in Melbourne CBD