You arrive to Melbourne 16 hours after flying leaving Saigon, four and a half hours of which were spent in a Chinese airport where you ate beef-noodle soup that would soon destroy your stomach and have you gassing people out on the plane. The fat pimply, greasy Chinese 20-something sitting next to you keeps drinking milk, after milk, after milk, chugging them down as you fart into the cushion trying to drive the smell deep into foam oblivion… Before landing the flight attendants walk by and hand out napkins to cover your faces while they spray down the cabin in some disinfectant to rid the plane of dangers to Australia’s agriculture. You watch the stewardess walk by spraying the overhead bins and the bathrooms with what looked like air freshener. You fart some more beef noodle gas into the cushion, and the fat kid next to you is sitting there with his mouth open, burps up his milk. Welcome to Melbourne…
The tattoo gods smile upon you as you get through customs with no problems. You step outside into the sunlight and the fresh air, take a deep breath of that southern atmosphere and board a bus heading into the center of the city where you plan on taking a taxi to Dynamic Tattoo. The window frames a countryside and suburbs, you still have yet to see the city but you can see this is a different world from where you spent the last three months, there are no chickens running through the streets, no rickshaws, there are traffic laws and people are obeying them and there are more cars than motorcycles…
Band of Horses plays in your headphones as you ride along –reading the signs written in English, looking at the McDonalds, the Drive-Thru, the cars, it looks… American… –it looks Western. You’re not an outsider anymore; you look like everyone else around you, no different than the rest. It’s slightly comforting, but concurrently you feel some culture shock. There’s the city up ahead, modern architecture, a giant Ferris wheel being constructed, an ice rink, trams and skyscrapers.
You step off the bus, smelly, jet-lagged and groggy. Your friend Jaymin that you met last year in Panama is there waiting for you along with a woman named Tracy, whom you’ve never met but is the girlfriend of your buddy Dan, and they have both come to pick you up, which feels nice.
You’ve decided to head straight to the tattoo shop and touch base. Because there’s ‘no second chance to make a first impression’ you might as well smell as bad as possible and look like a fucking derelict jet-lagged hobo. You walk with Jaymin to his van, throw your backpack in and go to get in on the wrong side, the American passenger side, not the Australian driver’s side.
Traffic is thick on the way to the shop. You wonder about what the month will be like, what it’s going to be like working with Trevor. The conversation with Jay comes easily; you talk about your trip in South East Asia and you both reminisce about Panama –where you met last year and talk about how rad the rest of South America is. He informs you that you have just arrived in one of the most expensive places on the planet.
Jay parks the van, you grab your backpack and walk with him to the shop, there it is, you see the red and white TATTOO sign up above the door, and turn in. You have been wanting to come out to work at this shop for three or four years and you’ve finally made it. You’ve met Trevor three times before this and he was always friendly. He had taken progress photos of your back piece when you were getting it done by Grime.
In the 12 or 13 years you’ve been tattooing you’ve met some amazing dudes, Tony Derigo and Mark Warnick, guys who took you under their wings and shared some real good secrets with you, secrets that only 15 years in the industry could supply, guys like Justin Shaw and Jet, who live for this shit and take friends on as family. Not to mention all the talented people you’ve worked alongside over the years, but you’ve never known an older man, a pioneer, someone who’s put 30 years in. The fact that you’re going to be working with him makes you excited, nervous and honored. You can feel it in your stomach, is it butterflies? Is it tension? The buzz of the machines is coming through the windows and it sounds comforting as fuck.
When you walk in, Trevor’s standing there, tall, grey hair with a military flat top haircut. He’s at the counter along with his wife Debbie. You have your backpack on and your other backpack strung over your shoulder. He looks at you and Jaymin as you walk in. You shake his hand and he looks you up and down, slowly, taking in your bloodshot eyes, your tattoos, backpacks, puffy face, multiple chins, dirty shoes, ruddy pants and sweat stains, it seems like he’s staring into your soul and digesting all of the muck and mire. You regret not taking a shower and wonder if he remembers that he liked you at one point. You look down at your palms and see the healing wounds from your motorcycle accident in Vietnam… –you wonder if they look like leprosy.
“Mr. McStay, it’s been a while sir. When was the last time I saw you? I think it was Arizona, huh?”
“Yeah. In Arizona at [Mike] Roper’s, we thought you were getting here yesterday mate, we had an appointment set up for ya.”
“Shit man, sorry. There must have been a mix up with the dates … I was on the plane.”
“Oh well, no worries young fella, we’ll reschedule it.”
You meet his lovely wife Debbie who you’ve been talking with while leading up to your visit. They take you back through the shop and introduce you to Rob, Matt and Ryo who’s visiting from Japan. They’re all working on sleeves.
“We have some boxes for you here,” Debbie said as they lead you through to the back. You drop your bag off on the floor, excited to see these boxes, one is from back home, from Idle Hand and the other is a care package from Crash at Tattoo Artist Magazine (TAM).
Debbie grabs some scissors and passes them to you, you cut the tape and open them up in the Idle Hand box there’s a pair of Vans from your friend Isaac, a patch that says “Fucking Shit Hippies” (which will look great on your backpack) and some supplies. You open the package from TAM and there are shirts, stickers, books, magazines, colors, a power supply, pens, markers, a machine and, Christ Almighty! –It’s like a treasure chest. You’re fucking stoked. Trevor peaks over your shoulder and looks into the box.
You pull your torn up portfolio from your rucksack, the loose pages torn off from the spine shuffle in your hand. It’s the same portfolio that you bought in Bolivia and it’s demolished.
“There are more photos in it than the one I had shipped out.” You tell him.
He takes it, inhales deeply and flicks through the pages.
“Well mate there’s none of this shit here in this shop,” he said as he points to some of the work I had done in South America, “none of this whipple-shading, none of this lazy tattooing –we do nice clean shading here, good solid tattoos.” Your stomach tightens up. “Hey Rob? None of that shit here right?”
Rob looks up from the giant Japanese piece he’s working on smiles and nods.
You look up, knowing this is why you came –you came to learn, to shut-up and listen. “Yes sir –you’re the boss,” you said.
He nods. “Well you look awfully tired mate, why don’t you go get some food and get cleaned up…” he said.
You go out to the pub next door and order $22-dollar fish and chips and a $19-dollar steak sandwich. “Man, I don’t think he likes you very much?” Jay said, as he takes a sip of his beer.
You finish your food, take a shower upstairs at the shop, hang-out for the day and head to Jay’s house, where you see his lovely lady-friend Lou. You will stay with them for the next month. Jay will say it feels like a year.
That was a month ago and in the beginning of that month you started off shaky, you were nervous and had lost the hustle-and-flow that goes along with this job. You felt ring-rust and the slight panic of realizing that working in a high standard shop after 17-months of traveling and maybe five solid months of working may not have been the best preparation for coming out to this shop?
When you did your first tattoo Trevor walked over, stood over your shoulder and said, “there better not be any of that whipple-shading in there.” There was. Trevor sat down with you, went through your portfolio and gave you a really good, hard critique, pointing out things that no one had ever mentioned before, you could see the passion in his eyes, you could see an earnestness that made you thankful to be receiving these words of criticism.
This would lead to you doing one of the brightest tattoos you’ve done in years. You watched Trevor work harder than most everyone you know, he answered phone calls and cleaned his own tubes, swept the floor and did tattoos that could put other tattooers to shame. You watched the rest of the crew, Rob, Matt and Jake making damn fine tattoos, all of them working efficiently and responsibly. They all got to work around 10 in the morning, and man, looking back at your approach to the job you felt like a lazy shit-heel.
Into the second week though you started getting comfortable, that machine in your hand felt good and familiar. You began working on projects, you began to study and feel inspired. The groove was coming back and so was your confidence.
You went to a footy [soccer] game with Trevor, Debbie and Matt, his adorable daughter Sakura and his special lady-friend. You went to see L.A. Guns and Suicidal Tendencies with Daniel Aranda. You tattooed script, kanji, tribal, more script, and things like that. You asked out a bartender and she said, “I don’t go out with people, ever.” You saw a burrito priced at $28-dollars. You got drunk with Rob and went to AC/DC alley with Jake and Tammy.
You were invited to eat an amazing home-cooked meal of roast lamb that made your stomach happier than it’s been in months. You were blown away by the warmth and hospitality of these Australian folks, who have put you up and shown you around, and here you are now, with a sort-of-life, a regularity, a new community of people, new friends and soon just as all of the other times over the past year you’ll say goodbye and head off to the next spot.
You really do, get by with a little help from your friends. You head to Perth in around two weeks, possibly Sydney, maybe Bali, maybe New Zealand. Then you’ll head out to Europe in September, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Morocco, Switzerland, Lebanon, Russia, Poland, London, Barcelona, Madrid…
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro…
JTG- Sunday, May 29th 2011