Fri. Nov 26th, 2021

Brad Raven’s journey through life is mirrored by the images he inks onto clients in the serene confines of his Bryndwr studio, and the art work fading from view on his own body. A career tattoo artist, the 47-year-old works through his labour of love with reporter Chris Barclay.

When did you grit your teeth for your first tattoo? What was the motivation?
I always had a fascination with tattoos and art. I come from a family of artists, drawing was just a natural thing for me. I was 14 when I tattooed a web on my hand using a needle and Indian ink. I got in a lot of trouble for that one. Mum said ‘If you wait until you’re 17, I’ll pay for you to get a tattoo’. I got three done for my birthday. I pretty much started picking up tattooing the next day and I’ve never stopped. When I saw I could actually draw on people and it would be permanent, that was the clincher.
What was the design of the first tattoo you had done in the legendary Len Brownie’s studio down Colombo St?
It was kind of a candle with smoke and a wizard’s face. Total ‘90s art, really cheesy. It’s gone (covered up/lasered) now. I was one of those kids that was into heavy metal music, the dark imagery really appealed to me back then . . . skulls, demons, that kind of thing. I was on that route initially.

Was it easy to make your mark, as it were, in your own studio?
Len gave me some advice and I opened a studio in 1993 when I was 22. Tattoos weren’t very popular back then. There were three studios in Christchurch, now there’s over 50. Tattooing was very underground, very old school. You had to be brave to step into a studio back in the day. There was one in Addington with bullet holes in the windows. That’s kind of how they were.

Tattooing can be an art form indelibly to crime, organised or otherwise, can’t it?
For the longest time tattoos were marks of criminals and sailors, workers. But if you go back a hundred years before that it was royalty getting tattooed, high society. It wasn’t an art for common people. Now there’s less of a criminal element. Criminals definitely get tattooed, but they don’t really get tattooed in professional studios now.
From a health perspective, is tattooing safer now than it was when you opened your first studio at 697 Gloucester St?
Yes, as far as equipment goes. Everything’s disposable. There’s a very low risk of contamination now. I wear gloves for every part of the process and probably wash my hands and sanitise 40 times a day. Everything I need to touch – lamps, tables – is covered by a disposable contamination barrier.

Can you remember your first client, the first person you tattooed?
It was my cousin. We did some really horrible tattoos on each other. From there, friends were willing to be tattooed. I’d practise on them.

Do traditional techniques still apply today?
There’s different techniques, but it comes down to three things: line work, shading and colour. Generally the majority of tattoos have a structured outline around the design, usually in black. Then you’ll have shading to give you your shadows and contrasts. Then colours if it’s a colour piece.
How difficult was it to master those techniques from scratch?
When I started tattooists wouldn’t talk about techniques, they kept it closely guarded for fear of losing business. There was a book, The A to Z of Tattooing by Huck Spaulding. He was a legend in the ‘60s. No tattooist would give it to you but I managed to get a copy. With the advent of the internet, it opened everything up. I contacted a lot of artists overseas and we’d bounce ideas off each other. Because you were overseas you were no threat to them.

Eventually you went abroad to expand your portfolio.
I went to Brisbane when I was 24, for 15 years. I walked into an amazing job at Wild at Heart with a world-renowned artist (Bernie Olszewski) who had been tattooing since 1980. Everything I knew about tattooing, I threw out. I worked on the Gold Coast for five years under Paul Braniff. He was my true mentor. I learned everything about tattooing and being a good human.

Then it was Surfers Paradise to Los Angeles.
I walked into another amazing job with one of the original legends of tattooing in America, Gil Monte, in Hollywood. He tattooed every celebrity under the sun in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was on Sunset Boulevard. From there I ended up in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Miami.

Do you focus a particular style? Has your outlook changed since those ‘dark’ days in the ‘90s?
I specialise in realism. I pride myself on my portrait work. I do a lot of memorial tattoos, portraits of loved ones passed. It’s a huge honour for me to do that because it’s healing process for them. Having their loved one on them forever is massive
for them.

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