An alleyway behind a shuttered brewery is about where you’d expect to find a tattoo parlour, and Josh Roelink’s Tatudharma is no exception. But once you walk through the doorway of his Sydney studio, the tough-guy stereotypes fall away. Antique woodblock prints line a corridor made with a Japanese-style rice paper screen, leading visitors to an airy and comfortable space. Antique cabinets are filled with Roelink’s collection of Asian art and tattoo ephemera, and vintage photographs of extraordinary body art hangs on the walls. A woman sits at a drafting table working on a tattoo design and Led Zeppelin plays softly in the background.
This is not the sort of place you can walk in to on a whim and expect to come out with a screaming banshee on your shoulder. Roelink works by appointment only, a practice he adopted after spending time working with masters in Japan, a country whose tradition of tattooing dates back centuries. (Its current tradition has its roots in the 17th century.) Securing an appointment with Roelink isn’t easy ‘ his skills as a designer and tattooist, and his colourful East-meets-West style, are well-known and the wait between consultation and the first appointment is around a year. In the interim, Roelink works his magic, coming up with a unique design based on close consultation with the client.
‘It’s a design brief really, [a process of] sorting out and understanding what you’re meant to be doing,’ says Roelink, a soft-spoken but enthusiastic 35-year-old with short cropped hair and an armful of tattoos. ‘People come in for a consultation and we sit down and talk about what they want and where they want to get it.’ He examines any existing tattoos the person may have, photographs the body part to be tattooed and then makes a tracing when appropriate. ‘We look at any references they’ve brought with them and I show them some references I’ve got. We just generally talk about the best ways to go about doing things and we sit down and talk about different ideas. I get to know people and understand them really quickly. It’s a very intuitive thing; to figure out what people do and don’t want.’
About a week before their first appointment, Roelink shows clients an outline sketch via e-mail or in person. Because people come to him for his particular style, revisions are rare. The work on the body begins with Roelink drawing an outline onto the body either with a stencil he’s made up or freehand. Then the process of tattooing begins. Using sterile needles that he makes himself, Roelink inserts ink or pigment under the epidermis. A full upper arm (shoulder to elbow), known as a half sleeve, takes between three and six three-hour sessions.
Roelink was studying visual communications at the University of Technology Syndey when the tattoo bug bit. It was 1989 and a friend he shared a house with came back from the US with a tattoo and an armful of tattoo magazines that chronicled the alternative body art scene that was developing at that time. Roelink hadn’t seen anything like it before. Information about tattooing and tattoo artists was hard to come by ‘ the web had yet to open the lines of communication for subcultures ignored by the mainstream and the magazines were unavailable in Australia. Once he found it he was hooked.
‘It was all pretty secretive and hush hush, which is part of the reason I was drawn into it. I’m very curious by nature and if there is a mystery I want to find out about it,’ he says. ‘The work in these magazines impressed me. Seeing the work of artists such as Guy Aitchison, Bernie Luther and Filip Leu made me think there was a lot more potential. I didn’t know you could do tattoos like that.’ (Most tattoos he’d seen in Australia were commercial designs known as flash tattoos, designs that were easy to replicate and quick to do.)
Roelink first worked with the woman who gave him his first tattoo, Kiwi Kim, in Sydney’s inner west. Later he honed his skills as a designer and tattooist working on the west coast of the US and Canada, where the alternative tattoo culture was a vibrant scene. But he says that it wasn’t until he went to Japan, first to be tattooed by Horiyoshi III, and then to work in his studio, that everything really came together.
‘I feel that I didn’t really grasp a lot of the ideas about working on the body until I went and worked in Japan, where I had could see a lot of large Japanese work. It really helped me understand the dynamics of working on the body. Actually seeing it first hand and watching the way it was designed and put on was completely different.’
‘It’s a completely different world. The relationship between the client and the tattooist is different ‘ there’s a lot more respect towards the tattooist. There is also a lot more freedom for the tattooist. But they’re just highly disciplined really. I was working with a young guy there who had worked every single day for three years, and he was one of the apprentices. It’s just that sort of discipline that you don’t experience in the west.’
After flirting with the idea of staying in Japan for good, Roelink decided instead to recreate the oasis of calm he found in Japanese studios in Sydney. He found a receptive group of clients and his style flourished, with designs that borrow from traditional Asian designs, using motifs like koi, chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms, but are also more abstract, filled with intense gradations of colour, movement and references to the West coast style.
Making art on the body – getting under someone’s skin – is by its nature an intimate interaction, and though Roelink spends incredible amounts of time creating the design and inking it onto the body, he says that letting the design go is part of the art form’s appeal.
‘I think that’s one of the things that I like about it; when you do it you have to be totally present and when it’s gone, it’s gone,’ he says. ‘Tattooing is definitely a big part of my life but for [someone I've tattooed] I’m something else. They’re always going to remember me whereas I don’t always remember them, unfortunately. It can be hard. But I don’t really need to hold onto it. I can let it go.’
You can see Josh Roelink’s work in the new exhibition In your face: contemporary graphic design, 5 August-5 November at the Powerhouse Museum for Sydney Design 06.