From Pen to Needle: a Brief Story of a Tattoo Apprentice

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By: Caroline Tuohy

In a back room, sitting next to a switched-off light box, Michael Sharks drinks his tea and spins around on a fabric-backed, office style, chair with wheels. He adjusts his peaked baseball cap and has a fidgety habit of sweeping his black fringe across his forehead when he speaks. He’s an immigrant, a young Englishman who came to Australia with ideas of it being “a lot warmer to be honest”. When pressed, he jokes “I genuinely thought kangaroos were everywhere”.

Michael Sharks is the shop apprentice at Voodoo Ink, a small but popular tattoo parlor located near the iconic Acland Street in bayside St Kilda. Sharks works the desk, a position that is tantamount to managing the shop, and he does so in concert with the on-the-job training that forms the basis of his apprenticeship.

Sharks describes his English hometown as “a really shit place”. Like many young men and women who find themselves in Australia after leaving their home soil, Sharks had a desire to travel. He came here for as good a reason as any: a mate of Sharks inherited a house after his mother died and Sharks came over here to spend some time with his friend. “That story isn’t very interesting,” he says, “I guess it’s got death in it though, is that interesting?”. For someone whose appearance might make a mother clutch her metaphorical pearls and call for the smelling salts, appearing interesting should be the least of his worries.  As, apart from his face, every inch of exposed skin is covered in ink, even across his knuckles.

Leoni New is a full time, professional tattooist who works at Voodoo Ink with Sharks. “Mikey was a hard one to pin down,” she says, “he was weird when I met him”. The ‘weird’ Mikey found his position at Voodoo Ink by being a customer first. A relationship of sorts develops between tattooist and customer for the endless hours that needle is being applied to skin. During one such conversation, while Sharks was being tattooed, he mentioned that he had worked in tattoo shops before; “In fact,” he says, “It’s the only job I’ve ever had”. A few weeks later, the owner of Voodoo Ink called him and offered him a job.

Outside work, Sharks lives with his ‘missus’ Grace, but otherwise leads a limited social life. “There’s a big difference between the perception [of] the rock star thing and reality. It’s really hard work. You have no time to party,” he says. His comments stand at odds with the popular television series Miami Ink which gives viewers an insider’s look at the life of a tattoo artist. The program features tattooists working at ‘Love Hate Tattoo’ in South Beach, Miami, where their lives revolve around working by day, drinking by night. They are shown buying vintage cars and travelling to destinations such as Thailand, Bali and Hawaii.

Closer to home, when you type ‘Melbourne tattoo parlor’ on the search engine of the video hosting website, a flashy advert for Sin City Tattoos in Essendon pops up. Set to electronic music, the clip features shots of vintage cars, shop merchandise and beautiful women interspersed with brief cuts of the heavily tattooed artists working on customers. Sharks describes his own experience in the tattoo industry differently: “It’s a 24/7 job, you don’t stop critiquing yourself,” he says, “It’s stressful, hard. It consumes you. You’re constantly learning. No one probably started off being an awesome artist but the more you draw, the better you get.” Drawing consumes much of Shark’s time both in the shop and at home. One scroll through Shark’s Facebook page shows endless pictures of the ‘flash’ Michael has produced. ‘Flash’ is the images on paper drawn by a tattooist that may eventually be transcribed onto human skin. One piece of completed, presentable ‘Flash’ represents many hours of work and acts as advertising to potential customers who may seek the tattoo artist talent on their skin.

Sharks hopes to be putting needle to skin on paying customers, himself, within six months. “It’s a really hard learning curve – the technical stuff,” he says, “you can’t go back over it, you can’t rub out lines.” This notion raises the idea of fearlessness. “It’s extreme art” Sharks says, “art for brave people”. The permanent aspect of Shark’s career is raised when he talks about being and remaining within the trade: “I don’t think anyone quits it once they’ve started. It’s sort of all or nothing. If you’re going to do it, you do it,” he says. So like the very tattoos they create, the tattooists themselves are committed to the industry. “It’s almost kind of like school, there are the popular kids, different levels, you know,” he says. Sharks is, ironically, a small fish in a big pond.

“Tattooing is an industry where there is a lot of jealousy and bitching and stuff like that, not everybody gets along,” he says. At Shark’s very own shop, ‘guest artists’ spend brief periods working out of the store. Big names such as Feroze McLeod and Biee Sae-Tang bring in customers and enjoy a high volume of work because of their reputation. They are the ‘top guns,’ the artists every tattooist wants to be.

Sharks finishes his tea and stands, break over. Back at the desk he begins an initial consultation with a walk-in who wants a cover-up job done on his right shoulder blade. The tattoo is now blurred and indistinct and Sharks looks at the man’s upper back with an artist’s eye and starts thinking out loud possible solutions to suit the potential customer’s needs. The walk-in leaves after securing himself an appointment as Sharks sits at the shop’s front desk and spreads his sketches in front of him. As he un-caps a marking pen, he muses out loud how long he’ll really last in his career; “Until my hands give out,” he says, “Or I get arthritis or Parkinson’s or some shit”.

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