When you were a toddler you most likely had a doodle pad. The ephemeral nature of doodling makes the most of a small space while allowing you to experiment with your artistic prowess. As you get older you develop a proclivity for permanency that evolves, bear with me, through a desire to have your work recognised and your abilities applauded. You still have the doodle in you, yet the medium has changed. Your studio is still portable, but the pad is now human flesh and the doodle stick a mere guitar string dipped in Balinese stamp pad ink. Many think you’re irresponsible, reckless and idiotic, while others beg you to doodle on them. The law prohibits your doodling, allowing only licensed doodlers to do doodles. Yet in the face of such adversity you continue to practice and share your ‘art’ while inspiring others, like myself, to update their doodle pads for something a little more permanent. Unfortunately, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, and unlike the ruses of yore where one would awake from an alcohol induced comatose to find his friends had drawn a cock on his face with a biro, my best friend must learn to love his deformity, ‘I like it, it’s like I have the cosmos on my wrist.’ I agreed, ‘yes, a failure of universal proportions.'
Back-yard tattooing, claims the Professional Tattooing Association of Australia’s Patsy Farrow, ‘is very much frowned upon by the professional artist.’ Reason being, according to Patsy, is that ‘while these individuals strive to achieve the utmost standards within the tattoo industry, both artistically and hygienically and, not forgetting, legally, the back-yarder usually has total ignorance of hygiene, cross contamination and such, and wouldn’t have a clue as to what an autoclave is.'
I decided I’d like to meet a few of said ignoramuses and put the question to them.
‘An autoclave? It’s either a type of punctuation or a steriliser thingamajig.’
Introducing ‘Sweet Beans’ (his mother was a devout vegan). A welder by day, SB started tattooing at home in October 2010 after purchasing a machine off the internet with the intention to tattoo stitches on a fresh scar that disfigured his wrist. ‘It was a reminder not to almost kill myself again. Not to do stupid shit which I seem to keep doing.’ Like climbing the underside of a roof six meters high, slipping and doing a back summersault toward the ground where his hand cushioned the brunt of the fall, fracturing both the Radius and Ulna.
‘So was that your first tattoo or first home tattoo?’
‘First home tattoo. My first tattoo was by some dude with AIDS at a twenty-four hour tattoo studio when I was blind drunk.’
‘See. It’s safer in studios.’
Chiming in was ‘Doomsday’ (his mother was a proselytizing extremist). ‘I made a machine back in Perth out of a Playstation controller to see if it would work. This one was so sketchy, it didn’t have a needle, instead, it had a guitar string that I’d unwrapped the coil off and sharpened the wire with sandpaper. The motor wasn’t fast enough so I really had to stab it into the skin hard, I didn’t even have proper ink, I think I was using Balinese stamp pad ink. Anyway, we were all getting pissed and I said to them all, ‘look, this isn’t the right ink, I don’t want you all getting infected from it,’ but they were all like UGHRAAAAA, TATTOO US TATTOO US WE DON’T CARE. I had like seven people lined up. I only tattooed one person and then I was like, ‘Na, fuck this, you’re all going to share needles and shit, you fucking weirdos, what’s wrong with you all.’ You’ve gotta be the responsible one in that scenario.’
Patsy believes that the backyarder tattooist is incapable of ethical behaviour.
‘I screen many phone calls from shocked, angry and upset parents wanting to know what to do as their 13/14 year old son or daughter has arrived home with a tattoo, and not a good one at that. Usually their artistic abilities are very, very limited so you see some of the worst attempts ever when someone is looking for a removal or cover-up.’
It could be argued that backyard tattooists are creating a niche market for cover-ups… It could also be argued that said 13/14-year-old doodle pads needed better parenting.
Her comments evoke an image of a pasty-faced square headed white supremacist looking fellow with FUCK YOU inscribed onto his forehead. Google it, he exists. If he arrived home to his mother, who is also most likely his sister, who is to blame? The tattooist? His mother-sister? Or the numbskull himself?
Sweet Beans admits that he gets a bit anxious that people aren’t going to like their tattoo, ‘but then I come back to reality and realise, well, it is a home job. I don’t think I’ve done anything that anyone has regretted.’
‘People probably regret it,’ counters Doomsday, ‘but they’re not going to come back and whinge to you about it. Especially when they were drunk, coming at you screaming to be tattooed.’
Acquiring the necessary instruments to tattoo at home is simple . Machines can be purchased off Ebay for as little as $25, as can needles and ink. The only obstacle being artistic aptitude and blood alcohol reading.
Patsy would cringe at my facetious tone and the flippancy of Sweet Beans and Doomsday.
‘A tattoo is for life not just a play-thing that will wash off in the next shower,’ she implores. ‘Take the time to look seriously at what you are doing and doing too, look at the health aspects, look at your artistic abilities and if you really believe you know it all and are good enough, then please do the right thing, open a 'fully registered' studio or try a get a position in an established practice, become a professional.’
‘We’re always wasted,’ laughs Sweet Beans, ‘I’m not going to organise a time and place and sit down and have a boring time with you because I’m forced to tattoo you. That’s the whole thing we’re getting away from, that’s one of the biggest reasons we’re doing it is that it’s not a formal capitalist transaction, it’s more a memory than trying to make a piece of art. I think a lot of the tattoos we do are more artistic than some of the shit people take to tattooist to get copied onto their skin.’
The meaning is in the moment, and the image merely a reminder of that moment and the people who populated it. Employing the doodle analogy, although your two-year-old’s doodle isn’t an artistic masterpiece, it likely holds more significance in your heart and memory than an image of greater quality.
‘Yeah,’ concurs Doomsday, ‘you remember the day you did it, how you were fucked up and sitting in the backyard.
‘Yeah, it’s more a memory than a statement that you’re trying to make on yourself.’
‘It’s just a fun thing to do. All we’re doing is fucking around with our friends; we’re not stealing anyone’s business, unless someone wants a shit tattoo. Even then I’ve seen people that have tattoos that look like homemade tattoos that they’ve paid for at a studio.’
‘Home tattoos are certainly becoming the cool thing. Everyone’s gotta have one.’
I decided I wanted a shit tattoo, and considering I have no artistic talent, I was prepared for a genuinely shit, homemade tattoo. Doomsday explained the process of making a tattoo gun compiled from household detritus: Get a teaspoon, snap the head off it and make an L shape with it. Get the rumble pack out of a Playstation controller, ‘the rumble pack isn’t really as strong as you’d want, or my needles weren’t sharp enough, I don’t know, it worked but it looked like they were in real pain, or maybe they were just bitches.’ Anyway, super glue a button onto it and then the wire comes in and fits into the hole, so when the button spins it shoots the wire in and out, and the wire just goes through the mechanical pencil. Then just gaffer tape the shit out of it, electrical tape around the motor, get a Nokia charger and attach it to the motor. You can wire an on and off switch onto it too, if you like.
After assembling the contraption with ease, the thought of a guitar string laced in ink rapidly penetrating my skin made me cringe on many different levels. When a few friends found out what I was up to they volunteered their bodies to me. As Johnny Dep quipped, ‘my body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.’ From Johnny’s logic, I opened my friend’s journal and, with full consent, scribbled in it.
But it’s not the tattoo that has intrinsic meaning or artistic value, it’s the fact that I was allowed to make my mark - a vestige of my presence - and will always be remembered for it. Always remembered for that catastrophic piece of drunken scribble and the mayhem of that night…