Pouring rain and grey skies usually signal autumn in Perth, and it’s on a day just like this that I make my way to Marc Pinto’s Primitive Tattoo studio over on Barrack Street to talk to his two female tattoo artists, Ree and Ashley.
Women with tats are AWESOME. There is something infinitely sexy about a woman with a little bit of ink and a story to tell. In a world seemingly dominated by the boys, it’s rare to see a female face with a gun in her hand that she isn’t just cleaning. For a long time, women had no place in tattoo shops. But the times, they are a-changing, my friends.
I start with Ree — who, quite honestly, does not look like the hardcore artist she actually is. Originally from Thailand, this pixie has a love for chocolate, spicy food and, of course, tattooing. As we walk up a black, spiraling flight of stairs, she giggles and admits that her English isn’t very good. Pretty soon, I’m convinced she was only being modest.
Behind that humble façade lies some pretty big cojones. Five years ago, Ree closed her own studio in Thailand and came here to find something better. She settled down near Perth City and passed by Primitive every day, peering in through the window, like some magical scene out of a tattooed Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Eventually, she noticed an advertisement for a piercer in the shop’s window — which she thought was an ad for an artist. “It was a mistake!” she says. “He was looking for someone to do piercing, but because my English wasn’t so good then, I thought he might have been looking for an artist. It was a complete fluke!”
Her fluke turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t have anything,” she laughs. “No portfolio, no references, no machine. Nothing!”
Nevertheless, this feisty little mama was soon holding her own against the studio’s relatively more proven artists — and even gained a bit more self-confidence with her adopted language. “I was very quiet before, but now I can’t stop talking. I think I talk too much,” she says with a laugh.
Ree’s even become more upfront with her customers. She’s noticed that the majority of women who come in ask for flowers, pin-up girls, swallows; generally, designs that are more feminine and sometimes incredibly intricate. Pretty as these may be, however, Ree’s not afraid to refuse a request. “If I think it will turn out ugly, I will tell them honestly and I won’t do it.”
She may be fast earning a reputation in Perth, but Ree’s humble enough to know that her craft is “all about learning.” She says, “It’s a never-ending process. I have my own style, but I like to learn from other artists and adapt it to suit my own artwork.”
Unlike most artists though, Ree’s own inks, although in abundance, are mostly hidden. Coming from a Thai-Chinese family, she’s been raised in a culture that’s not very open about tattooing. She believes that, while oriental inks are popular and a common sight on men in her homeland, it’s still quite taboo for women to have them. “When I’m in Thailand, I usually wear jeans and long t-shirts, even if it is hot, to hide my tattoos from my family.”
And that is a lot of art work to hide. Her back is covered with a large koi fish, as well as traditional Thai tattoos, which she was reluctant to let this writer photograph because they’re still works in progress. She also has traditional pieces in white ink on both her forearms and on her chin, which she says are a lot easier to hide.
“In Thailand when you see a woman on the street with tattoos, people have a tendency to stare. Just because you have a tattoo, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I have tattoos, but I don’t drink or take drugs. My only vice is smoking,” she admits shyly as we share a cigarette on the dimly lit landing on the second floor. “That… and chocolate.”
(Text and photos are © Sarah Rodrigues)