Mastering the needle: From the dark side to Buddhism and beyond for Christchurch tattooist

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.

New technology makes Brad Raven's job less painful for him - and his client - when working in his...
New technology makes Brad Raven's job less painful for him - and his client - when working in his Bryndwr studio. Photo: Geoff Sloan
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.

Brad Raven. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Brad Raven. Photo: Geoff Sloan
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.

Brad Raven inked a web on his hand when he was 14-years-old, the first of a countless number of...
Brad Raven inked a web on his hand when he was 14-years-old, the first of a countless number of art works adorning the tattoo artist's body. Photo: Geoff Sloan
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. 

Brad Raven's Bryndwr studio, Raven Heart Tattoo. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Brad Raven's Bryndwr studio, Raven Heart Tattoo. Photo: Geoff Sloan
In basic terms, how you produce a portrait tattoo?
I make a semi-permanent stencil for the skin. Then I look at the photo and transfer what I see to the skin. It’s a very complicated process with portraits, you have to be absolutely precise. The smallest detail that’s off will alter the person’s appearance. I like that challenging aspect of it.

Is tattooing easier now through technological developments?
You could take hours to draw a stencil sometimes, now I do it with three clicks of a button on the computer. There wasn’t a lot of technology initially. We were using machines that were over 120 years-old. It was very limiting. Over the last decade a lot of bright people have come into the industry. The machines, stencils and needles have changed.

Feels like an opportune moment to dig into the needle aspect then. 
There’s two types, the traditional needle and a safety cartridge needle, which have an internal membrane in them. They withdraw within the cartridge when they’re not in use. They allow for a lot more precision. I use a wireless machine so I don’t have cords attached. It allows me to get into different angles and positions without being uncomfortable. The old (electric) machine was heavy and it used to sit over the back of your hand. There were a lot of issues with RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) and carpal tunnel syndrome. If someone said to me in 1991 years ago I’d be using a wireless pen machine I’d have laughed. We have tech engineers involved now, so what we’re doing now was not achievable 30 years ago.

Does this mean the tattooing is not as painful now?
Yes. A cartridge’s spring system softens the impact of the needles and we don’t have to bury the needle in as far as we used to. The needles used to be very blunt. They were designed for entomology, designed for sticking insects to boards. They were terrible to use, so painful. Generally you want to be between half and three-quarters of a millimetre under the skin. For a blunter needle to penetrate you had get the machine running faster to counteract resistance from the skin. Now needles are so fine and sharp there’s no resistance.

The din from those old electric machines must have been disconcerting, like a dentist’s drill from yesteryear.
I’ve lost most of my hearing in my left ear after using them for 25 years. The silent machine produces a more relaxing atmosphere for clients too. Many fall asleep. We play meditation music. It’s night and day compared to how tattoo shops used to be. Back in the day it was heavy metal blaring, you had eight machines buzzing away. It was just chaos.

Sounds pretty edgy, though.
Absolutely. Through the ‘90s to the late 2000s, it was the wild west. Everyone wanted to be a rockstar. You’d get crazy clients. They’d walk in, pick a design and get tattooed on the spot. In Surfers we were open until midnight or 2am. Back then we wouldn’t check if they were drunk.

Late night tattoos are a more sobering exercise these days, aren’t they?
Now we have legal consent forms for people to fill out. We refuse if they’re intoxicated. We want to make sure people are making sound decisions. That’s an important part about learning to be a tattooist . . . how to work with your clients and how to make sure you’re giving them something they’re not going to regret. I’ve had people want a demon ripping apart a woman on their leg. I’m like, ‘What happens when you have kids? How are you going to explain that to your children?’ Think about how it’s going to look in 20 years. Everyone changes, tattoos don’t.

You speak from experience there, don’t you, with the flames around your throat?
That’s 12 years-old now, it’s an old gang tattoo. I’d rather not say which gang. This doesn’t reflect who I am now. I’m a peaceful person, I’m a Buddhist, I’m vegan . . . all the good stuff. I’m getting it lasered off next year.

How many tattoos do you have?
I had about 50, when I was 20 years-old, then I stopped counting. I’ve had close to 300 hours worth of work in the chair. I’ve probably spent $1000 because I get tattooed by friends. Most tattooists charge between $150 and $250 an hour so it definitely adds up. 

What makes tattooing a compulsion for many people?
It’s the permanence that’s addictive. People might want a marker of some kind: a time in their life, a person or pet. It’s also an amazing visual art you don’t just see occasionally when you walk into a room. It’s with you all the time. My oldest client was 87. She was an adorable lady. She had a swallow on her hand because her husband had one. He passed and she wanted to remember him.

Iconic US tattoo artist Norman Collins, aka Sailor Jerry, died in Hawaii in 1973 and is now...
Iconic US tattoo artist Norman Collins, aka Sailor Jerry, died in Hawaii in 1973 and is now probably best known as a brand of rum. Photo: Supplied
Do you have to be a student of tattooing history to do it justice?
A lot of tattooists are not doing apprenticeships so that rich, beautiful history is not being passed down. It’s very sad. Pretty much the only one people know now is Sailor Jerry and they don’t even know he’s a tattooist. Sailor Jerry (Norman Collins) was one of the most influential western tattooists in history. He taught everyone who’s anyone and it’s sad to see he’s just a bottle of rum now.

The most painful part of the body to tattoo is?
Parts that aren’t exposed, where you have a lot of nerve endings that don’t get a lot of touch. They’re very, very sensitive so they’ll be more painful. If it’s ticklish it’s going to hurt more. People who get their full body tattooed, the last part’s their armpits. That’s to say: ‘Look, I’m done.’ 

A bottle of Sailor Jerry rum. Photo: Supplied
A bottle of Sailor Jerry rum. Photo: Supplied
How much pressure do you feel to get the tattoo spot on?
It’s the biggest concern and it’s also the biggest reward. For a lot of the clients it’s an emotional release when they get tattooed, they call it pain therapy. It’s their time to let things go and do something for themselves. We’re taking on that so you have to concentrate the whole time.

Any unusual requests etched in your mind? 
I tattooed genitals back in the ‘90s, male and female. One guy wanted a heart tattooed on his penis. He’d just got out of jail and he wanted to surprise his girlfriend.