Lighthouse Flash Weekend News!!! – Artist Interviews #1 Josh Roelink
1) Hey Josh. Since you’re a 20+ year tattooer, I’ll get straight into the meaty questions. So for me, you were one of the icons of Australian tattooing even before I’d started as part of the industry myself. You definitely had a different approach to what was around at the time as far as having your own artistic agenda, in contrast to the standard “flash service” mentality that prevailed. There’s merits to both aspects of tattooing. But it seems this “artist agenda” driven approach has prevailed among most busy big city tattooers. Can you fill us in on some of your thoughts about this evolution? And also how this approach has worked, or varied, for you having stepped away from Sydney into the smaller town of Lennox Head?
Thanks Alex. My personal evolution has been an interesting one. I got into the game knowing that I wanted to make better tattoos than those I was seeing at the time in Australia. This was sparked by getting tattooed but also by seeing the sort of work that was being produced by artists in the US in the early 90’s – people such as Ed Hardy, Mike Malone, Eddie Deutche, Guy Aitchison, Aaron Cain and Marcus Pacheco. I definitely didn’t have their abilities at the time, but it was what inspired me in my relentless work ethic and desire to get better than I was. My early work was rubbish – I had no real mentors or artistic colleagues to work with, the industry was incredibly small with only a handful of younger artists like myself spread around the country. I got a lot out of working internationally with great tattooers, and that was how we all got better back in the days before the internet.
I think the new move to pursuing a particular style or artistic agenda in the industry is a natural evolution in the industry, and Guy (Aitchison) actually foresaw it in a magazine article in the late 90’s – the future of tattooing was to be very similar to the way the art industry works. That would mean a whole bunch of ‘hobbyists’ (those who have little to no idea what they’re doing and have had no real instruction, hence little ability to make an income), a range of ‘tradesmen’ (those who have had apprenticeships and are good, solid tattooers working in street shops and giving people what they want – Pinterest tattoos and the like) and finally the ‘fine artists’ – those that make a living working within their own vision, and have a range of business skills to support that vision. For me, and my generation, we have always worked within the street shop scenario, and in a time when tattoos were not so popular, so we had to do it all in order to make a living. We never started out thinking ‘I’m going to do women and floral tattoos’ or ‘I’m just going to do Japanese tattoos’. So to recreate ourselves within this new paradigm – whereby the artists who are the busiest are those that specialise – takes some time, effort and real focus as old habits die hard.
I think part of my move out of Sydney into a small coastal town has been part of that transition for myself, but ironically it also led me back into the multifaceted artistic requirements of working in a street shop again. It has been a move that was important for me – I would have ended up being very unhappy had I stayed in Sydney, and for me part of my move was to integrate my life more with my work. That meant that my overall life was balanced and happy and as a result my work would reflect that. I’ve never pursued anything other than harmony and beauty in my work – regardless of my success – and I knew that in order to create that in any real way, I would have to transform my life to nurture it. I always found that very hard in Sydney – it takes so long to do the simplest of things, it takes so much energy to just be. Living up here in Lennox Head and having less requirements of my time from a very busy city life allows me time to reflect and incorporate a sense of peace and beauty into my work, something that is more important to me than being overly successful or busy, living in the city.
2) For me, Tatudharma was the pinnacle shop in its time. When I started tattooing, this shop is where I wanted to end up as my final destination. It was also one of the first, if not the first, private studios in Sydney. This was a new commercial approach to tattooing in Australia, and once again, a trend that has caught on (with examples of great success, as well as many non-eventful operations). What inspired you to turn your back on the traditional shop front approach to a tattoo shop?
After I got back from Japan in the early 2000’s, I knew I wasn’t going to get where I wanted to from continuing working 6 10hr days a week in a busy street shop. Don’t get me wrong – that introduction into the industry was fundamental in developing my abilities to produce work – but I needed the space and time to be able to work out things the way I wanted and I think at the end of the day that is what Tatudharma afforded me – the space to be able to create tattoos the way I wanted – which was with intention, patience and consideration. I think anyone who has moved from a busy street studio to a more private space where there is less pressure to ‘perform’ knows what I’m talking about. In that space it comes down to the individual’s own motivation and ambition, not pressure from a boss to fill the commission drawer every week. I offered that to the people that worked for me and it was something that seemed to promote better art and a better working environment, both of which made me happy and those that worked with me. It wasn’t ever going to be making me rich, and that was never my intention – but I can see now that some business-savvy operators have used the same model for financial gains, which is interesting for me to observe. I’ve always aimed for ‘win-win’ in my relationships with people, no matter the circumstances, and it always promotes growth and harmony. Ultimately the ’new’ studio model was part of my overall motivation for harmony in my life and with those that I come in contact with. I say ’new’ because Ed Hardy had done it in the 80’s in San Francisco and the Japanese have been doing it for a few hundred years – I just followed suit in Australia and only coincidentally happened to be one of the first.
3) Talking about Sydney again, you seem to be coming back here more frequently for guest spots, servicing new and old customers. Do you feel drawn to Sydney as a city again? Or is there something about Sydney tattooing that is attracting you at the moment?
It has taken me a while to come back – I didn’t at all for about 2-3 years there. I do think Sydney is an amazing city, but I was just really happy where I lived and worked and didn’t want to leave. A lot of my clients getting larger work came up and saw me for the first few years, but after a while it seemed like too much of a trip for many and so that tapered off. I have great clients where I live, but the demographic is different up here – as are their financial priorities – and I missed having clients that were very committed to the regular sessions needed to get large work completed. That, and I really wanted to be exposed to that super-charged creative environment where art was important and was regularly being discussed. Lighthouse has been incredible for that – it really is a beacon of creativity for many and I get a huge amount of inspiration and energy from working there. If it wasn’t for Lighthouse I doubt I’d be back working in Sydney, or at least the prospect would not be so appealing to me.
4) While the main focus of your work has been Japanese for a long time now, there has been some definite variation in your style within that genre. From where you stand at this point in your long career, what do you feel are the main strengths of Japanese tattooing? And what are the features within the genre that you are trying to push?
Part of my artistic motivation and journey has been relentless re-imagining and re-creating of art I love. Japanese art is not the only art I love, but it is definitely the main one that I get drawn to in tattooing. It’s hard to discuss Japanese work without resorting to overly used terms like ‘classic’ and ‘timeless’ but that is pretty much the reason why I love Japanese work – it can defy fashion and time if done well. I think it’s incredibly hard to be consistent with Japanese work – it requires an almost obsessive compulsion to not look at anything else, and very few are able to do that. If you don’t live and work in Japan itself then you need to create a construct of that environment somehow within our society which means either living in a fantasy world you’ve created yourself (which some have, right down to the ‘Hori’ title) – or you are reimagining the style in your own context. Very few are willing to put all else aside in order to immerse themselves into Japanese culture the way you need to if you’re going to be really good at Japanese work. Real Japanese tattooing means knowing the pattern you’re putting on the character ’s clothing you’re drawing has a significance beyond the mon (crest) or title of the character’s family – there are infinite complexities to it which very few will truly understand let alone play with.
I’ve had my fair share of struggle with consistency in that style but these days I know what I like and I know what works. Hopefully over the next 10 years or so that will result in a more concrete style that is solidly based in what has come before me and yet is still my own. I don’t kid myself that I am a Japanese master, I had that conversation with Horiyoshi III one night after work when I worked with him in 2001 – if you’re not Japanese, you won’t really be doing Japanese work in the truest form. You need to know the language fluently, the history fluently, be Japanese – which I’m not. To me, the forms are enough, the archetypes are enough – there is a universality to the imagery that everyone can understand regardless of your knowledge of Japanese history, language and culture, and at the end of the day that’s what us westerner tattooists are working with – symbolism and archetypes. In regard to what I am trying to push within the style, it’s really part of my overall lifelong dedication to harmony and balance – I like to refine my work as much as I can, strip things back and ensure there is a gentleness to the experience of viewing the work – even if it’s a violent scene, there should be something that instills joy, peace or at least stillness within the viewer and that is what I search for. As ethereal as that may sound, it’s still a very practical endeavour – restricting colour palettes but making them more harmonious, having the forms basic but with flow and solidity of form, good composition. Having space for the viewer’s eye to rest in-between the composition, having a rhythm to the work. It’s an endless journey, but I feel that after 25 years in the industry and with the space I have created in my life to sit and contemplate my work, I know where I want to take it now.
5) As someone who encouraged me early on to always have artistic projects on the go aside from one’s work, can you describe what you see as the relationship between on-paper artwork for its own sake, and its influence on your tattoo work?
I think the most important thing is to keep studying and keep playing. It’s not enough to do the work daily as a tattooist – that ends up in just doing what’s required and there is little change so work can stagnate. You can see that in some artists’ work – the money and success has taken priority and their work has stagnated, they’ve stopped developing. I have a minimum daily commitment to myself to do one sketch a day – it doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to take long, but it has to be something that I’ve thought about or observed that I want to explore further. It’s these explorations on paper that come to me when I’m working, it allows the spontaneity to occur. A jazz musician needs a comprehensive catalog of scales, motifs and progressions to be able to create spontaneously and we artists are no exception to this phenomenon. Anyone who does Japanese work knows how important this stuff is – because most of the backgrounds need to be drawn on, spontaneity is important, the ability to create interesting forms in the moment is important if the work is to look anything other than formulaic. You can see the difference between those that rely on formulas and those that think and truly create in the moment, and we both know which one has more life, which is more pleasurable to look at.