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ART: Rhys Gordon

Featured in Freestyle Volume 06 2008. Interview by Cristian Diaz. Photography by John Churchill.

From the juvenile age of 16, Rhys went from tatting his mates in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir, to dispelling his artistic aura on people all over the world.

Rhys Gordon considerately holds the rear entrance door and allows me to be the Alice in his Wonderland for just a few hours. But wonderland had never in all my journeys scared me so shitless as I’m transported from Sydney’s Surry Hills to a Fritzel dungeon straight out of Austria. “You know this place use to be a morgue”, Rhys eloquently puts it as we scuffle up the staircase of Innervision Studios. This simple example of dry sarcasm and its effective healing powers are the traits of a tattoo artist that really knows people and how to deal with them, whether they be tensing in overwhelming pain, semi-naked in complete acceptance or packing shit in a haunted death chamber.

So Rhys, how long have you been inking customers?

Since roughly 1990, I did my first tattoo at around 16. A friend of my father’s was a tattoo artist and I would always hassle him to let me hang out and stuff. So I got sort of serious at 17 where I’d be hanging out with him after school, on weekends and school holidays, it all went from there. I suppose I’m now coming into my 18th year.

Tattooing people at 16? I couldn’t draw hangman at 16…

Yeah I was pretty lucky that I could draw and use that skill because I was really shit at football and cricket.

What made tattoos so appealing to you at that age?

I remember the first time going to a tattoo shop, seeing the older guys getting inked and just thinking man! if only I could do this and make a living out of it. So that’s what did it for me. I just loved hanging out with the local kids and older guys that were inked up. At that age you’re still kind of immature and very impressionable. Guys like Charlie, my dad’s mate, were role model figures with their cool lifestyles. The stories he would tell, the hot car he cruised in, the earrings and long hair, his hot young girlfriend all that kind of shit, I was like wow, this is a different way of living. I just liked the whole sort of outcast feel to it, but back then you really made a step left of society, as it wasn’t as accepted as now.

So Travis Barker wouldn’t have looked as cool back then?

It was more of a ‘tough guy’ image back then, which really didn’t go down as smooth as it would today. When I was 18 I had half sleeves and chest plates, driving around in a HQ Monaro I was always getting pulled over by the cops. I was looked at as just an Aussie Bogan, where as now I’m almost trendy because of the same shit.

Trendy is now a word that’s highly associated with tatts because of public icons like Beckham, who is sleeved out on both arms. Is he and reality shows like Miami Ink massively responsible for the change in the public’s perception?

For sure! Back then there weren’t many sub cultures around, where now there are so many fragments, you can be this or you can be that, there is so much more available for a young person to want to become or fit in with. Before people would associate tattoos with sailors, outlaw bikers and the military but now with reality shows like Miami Ink you’ve got tattooing in people’s lounge rooms 7 days a week, sometimes twice a day man, that’s just never happened before. I got friends with no tattoos at all and it’s their favourite show, so it’s definitely true and it’s done well in promoting the craft and making it much more accepted.

Does the mainstream impact annoy you or do you see it as a positive?

It’s cool for me as I’m reaching a completely different category of clientele that didn’t exist a few years ago. We got nerds and geeks that are coming in and getting full sleeves for their first tattoo, rather than just building a tatt slowly. We tatt up CEO’s and legal professionals now, basically any end of the spectrum walks through the door. And people are putting more thought into it now rather than just “oh fuck it, I’d get any old bit of shit on my arm.” Like here people generally wait 6 months to get something done, so they’re not making an irrational decision, they come in and we do consultations and we tell them to bring in all their ideas. We’re getting a lot more of a thinking customer who only helps improve the art, so if I had a choice of it going back to the outcast days I wouldn’t, I’d keep it where it is today, it’s growing and now nothing is going to stop it.

Is this similar to the piercing craze that had every knob jockey stabbing their tongues a few years ago?

Tatts are a different league, they’re on there for life, but a piercing is very similar as it is the first real tester of self-expression that usually leads into tattooing. Its also got that freak/secretive label to it as you can have something under your clothing that only you know about, like you would never suspect this clean cut guy that’s wearing a suit has his cock and nipples pierced.

I can imagine how many wannabe Kat Von Ds are starting to line up outside your studio, trying to become the next inner-city tatt artist…

Yeah there’s heaps man and it’s great to see that, just as long as it’s for the right reasons. What’s really annoying is when I get art fags ringing me up wanting to become tatt artists for the trendy reasons only. It’s always that they want to look cool or express themselves about some shit, not because of the craft itself. They don’t realise that there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that’s not always noticed unless you’re a tattoo artist. There’s an entire technical aspect to it, as you have to make your needles, mix your ink, tune your machines and be constantly doing maintenance on them. You might look cool tattooing some hot chicks back for a while but trust me you don’t look cool when you’re up till midnight on your day off, drawing sketches for clients.

Moving onto your global pilgrimage, you traveled the world getting inked and learning the craft. Tell me about this experience?

I was 21… so I was tattooing for roughly 5 years when I began my travels. I left because a lot of my friends I grew up with went overseas and all of a sudden I had more friends living in the UK, so I went down and landed a job there. The scene in Europe and the States is a lot more open and aware, obviously because of the population but they have more tattoo conventions, massive ones compared to our ones here, they’re just incomprehendable. I wasn’t a threat to anyone over there as I was just a young travelling Aussie asking heaps of questions and because of that all the artists exchanged a lot of information with me. I made a lot of contacts and got heavily tattooed as well, which for me was the best form of learning. Up until recently, Australia was always 10 years behind the rest of the world because we’re so isolated, so it always takes a while to catch on here. So I just went out there and just started getting tattooed, working, visiting different tattoo shops, going to tattoo conventions, going over to different countries in Europe just for weekends and seeing as many tattoo shows as possible to learn. I was young and my mind was like a sponge that wanted to suck up as much as possible, so for me the best place to do learn was over there. I did 5 years in London as a base and travelled all across Europe… I also lived in Amsterdam for 2 years.

The land of the Dutchie? How was that?

Sin city is every young kids dream, it’s a really cool place and the Dutch are really cool people… they have a great tattoo history steeped in tradition as Amsterdam is a sailor port/sailor town full of awesome stuff. I was 27 riding my pushbike on the cobblestone streets surrounded by wicked architecture, and I remember thinking ‘man if I was riding around on a pushbike in Australia as my form of transport, I’d be a loser!’ It’s just a different lifestyle. I also did a lot of time between Asia working and travelling in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Did you find a Mr. Miyagi of the tatt world in Asia?

Not really. After a while being in any trade you get to a stage where there is no real one master, there’s a lot. I looked at a lot of people all over the world that were on that top level and took bits and pieces from all of them. The only way to learn from a dude like that is if you work with a great master for a couple of years, but I’d always travel around and kept moving. For me there hasn’t been a real one master. A lot of people I’ve worked with her in Australia and abroad have all influenced me in some way… you know you look at what’s good what they’re doing and mimic it or alter it, then incorporate it into your own style. Nothing is really original anymore; everything is copied to an extent.

How would you best describe your style of work?

I'm pretty much an all rounder…. my basis has been in "street shop" style which is basically when people walk in and get want they want. But in the last 6-7 years I've branched out into the custom area, where you talk to someone and you're doing a non-standard design which is something personal and not just a spur of the moment thing. My style is still a street shop manner where I’m fast and productive; it’s different to someone who is from an art background who hasn't busted their chops on doing tribal, roses and old English, that’s where I get my technical proficiency down. So now I'm right into the custom stuff which I do 5 days a week and 1 day I do a full walk in service. My styles have developed to different ranges which include a traditional American-sailor style, Japanese which I’ve personally got a lot on my body and script lettering, both colours and black and greys.

So you’re not a specialist in one specific style?

No, I just don’t want to be pigeon holed and burned out with just one style. I love Japanese styles but there’s only so many dragons and koi fishes that I can do before I fuck myself and go insane with just doing scales.

Speaking of shit crazy, how do you deal with knobs on crack that come off the street requesting Tweety Bird or a tiger holding two berettas? Are there tatts you just won’t to be affiliated with?

For years I sort of battled with it, I would try all these different techniques to get them away like give them a ridiculous quote which you know they can’t afford or just be diplomatic and try to get them away from the idea. At this stage of my career I’m not really needing the money that bad and I’ve developed a lot more morals then when I first started, you can really clock up a lot of bad Karma in this job, so I have to always be sure of what I’m placing on people for life. My own personal things are that I don’t do hands, faces, necks or any kind of racist images and promotion. But I always recommend them on what other places can provide that service if I can’t do it myself.

What’s been the craziest tatt you’ve done on someone?

In the UK I had to ink this chick that wanted a fuck’n massive snake coming out of her asshole, so that was a bit of a trip.

Ha-ha sssssssexy. Does the appeal of tattooing beautiful women ever wear off?

I’ve been in contact with them on a daily basis for so long now, I can appreciate beauty but it never distracts me, I’ve always kept it ‘down’ so to speak. It’s like when a doctor puts on his gloves, when they’re on his doing his job, it’s the same with me as I’ve always been professional about it. You just can’t be a sleaze bag with clients, but trust me it does exist in this industry.

Stupid celebrity stories. Got One?

We get plenty that come into the studio, especially sport stars that I don’t recognise, but I remember I inked up one of the dudes from B.R.O.S, you remember them?

Bleached pansy dudes that sang (high pitched/no testicles style voice) “when, will I, will I be famous?”

Yeah one of them was a pretty cool guy actually, my boss tried to pay him out about his music saying that it was shit and all washed up but the guy then destroyed him by saying “I don’t have to work another day in my life, unlike you!”. So we all thought they were soft talking fags, but in the end this guy gave it back to the boss and had the hottest wife out.

So what can a potential client expect if they decide to get inked by Rhys Gordon?

I am someone who has spent the better part of there life eating, sleeping and breathing Tattooing. From being heavily tattooed myself and continuing to do so. Vast experiences both here and abroad. Dedication to the cause and great communication skills. All this combined and more will allow you to tap into my knowledge base and create something great that you can be proud of and stand the test of time.

Final words of inspiration?

Go to art school and get yourself heavily tattooed by different artists, watch what they do and learn from them. Don’t buy shit off Ebay and start doing it out of your bedroom because you will start to teach yourself bad habits. Try and also get yourself an apprenticeship, it's good to learn off another artist the correct way as you’ll probably avoid around 10 years of banging your head against the wall. Remember that it’s no standard 9 to 5; you have to live it, breathe it and make it your life as the job really never leaves you.

To find out more about Rhys Gordon, visit

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