By Crystal Morey
I'm gonna just start this whole interview with a disclaimer... I love Owen dearly and really want to do this interview, but he's one of my best friends and partner in crime so this is bound to get real messy, real fast. That being said I do think, for the record, that he's über talented. Each new piece he does leaves the last in the dust... Sucking its thumb and crying for its mother. While he is without a doubt one of the loudest people in the industry, he is also incredibly modest and hard-working. His artwork is insane, be it portrait work, Japanese inspired pieces or pin-ups - the end result is always jaw-dropping. I think he's a bit of an idiot savant...
CM: So let's start at the beginning... How did you get into tattooing? You were doing nails at a little mani/pedi salon if I remember correctly and someone noticed how well you painted dolphins and recommended you try your luck tattooing?
OW: Ah ha ha! Yeah, but when those dolphins turned into a complete underwater scene that took over the whole hand I started dreaming of bigger and better things.
I kinda fell into it really. After doing a few years of random jobs (including digging a pool by hand and reconditioning engines) post failing high school, I decided to try to find a job using my artistic interest.
I was doing an airbrush course for helmets and automotive airbrushing when I met a girl there whose dad was a tattooist so I started making enquiries. All he did was make me buy the A to Z of Tattooing by Huck Spaulding, but that's as far as it went. It wasn't 'til I went to buy some equipment that I landed an apprenticeship.
CM: What was your apprenticeship like? Don't leave out any backroom hijinks either... I'm willing to bet good money your formative years were rife with indiscretions...
OW: Actually my apprenticeship was pretty traditional which I'm very thankful for. I was making needles and drawing flash sheets to start out then learnt how to pierce (everyone had to) and make tattoo machines before i started any tattooing
Most the hijinks came from me being a clumsy buffoon like getting hit by a car on my motorbike two weeks after starting and ending up in hospital or crashing my push-bike in front of the shop trying to show off doing endos or spilling coffee on myself in the street trying to dance like MC Hammer. It was a street shop so there was plenty of action on the street too. Regular fights between bicyclists and car drivers/motorcycle riders. They were fun times looking back on it, we had a good crew there.
CM: Where was this?
OW: A place that no longer exists called, Advanced Art tattooing in the northern 'burbs of Melbourne.
CM: And you went from there to Tattoo Magic before opening your own shop?
OW: Yeah, Magic was the last place I worked at and it was a real honor to work there. It was really the shop that changed everything for me. I first went in there to get my first tattoo outside of the shop I was working in back in 2000 an it just blew my mind. Back then it was Geordie Cole, Sara Bowyer and Claudia Kuster and I were deciding if this whole tattooing caper was really for me... When I went in there I couldn't believe the level of tattooing they were doing.
All the stuff I was told couldn't be done was their standard! They are some of my greatest influences in tattooing and I still keep in touch with all of them, so to work there really was something special. It's also where I honed my TOTO karaoke skills.
It wasn't an easy decision to leave but I needed a new challenge in life. It was either move overseas or open a studio. Considering I'd worked in this city for 13 years it'd be stupid of me to walk away from that.
CM: So you left and started Tama... how has that been? Why Tama?
OW: Oh, come on don't be coy, you suggested it and it ticked both boxes for us. We were looking for a name that combined our interest with the Japanese style of tattooing and our love of hair metal. Tama is the name of a drum company that sponsored half of the bands we love and the drum kit I wanted so badly when I was learning to play years ago. It's also the name of the ball that dragons hold or is under the foo dogs' foot at the temple statues and so forth... It sounded good to me, I was drunk at the time. Ha!
The studio has been great. It's set up in the heart of the city and is really easy for our clients to get to, especially the interstate clients who don't have a car and need hotels, etc. We wanted to set up a quiet space that's focused on the people getting tattooed.
Privacy was the only real issue in the last shops I've worked for, and nowadays we are doing a lot of private tattooing. We do most of the consulting/answering questions via e-mail and make appointments for people to come down and get tattooed or further consultation. It gets kinda awkward when you're right up in someone's butt-crack with a shader and someone comes in asking about pricing or something as we don't have a counter person. Also if we're tattooing someone in a really painful spot it's best just to keep going and get it done rather than stopping to answer the phone or make appointments.
CM: Yeah, that no phone policy in the shop is entirely for your clients. You are so very considerate! Your frickin' halo needs a good polishing! And Tama is a rad name! So many deep meanings... like an onion. Okay so getting back to this, who inspires you artistically? Who do you reference? Look up to?
OW: My halo needs more sticky tape, it's falling to pieces!
That 'ol chestnut... ugh, how to shorten the list? Outside of tattooing it's artists like Frank Frazetta, William Stout, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, Drew Struzan... There is also a whole bunch of Chinese painters I have books of that I have no idea how to pronounce their names, as I can't read Chinese.
Within tattooing it's been pretty much everyone I've ever worked with as they have all had an influence on me. It's really hard to make a list, there's so many that I've looked up to over the years, but I guess the main ones have been (and still are) Filip Leu and Grime. Those guys have set the standard over the years and continue to raise the bar, plus they are really nice guys too.
Others on the list would be Mike Roper, Mick from Zurich, Luke Atkinson, Dean Sacred, all the guys from Skull and Sword, Andre Malcolm, Shige, James Tex, William Yoneyama, Geordie Cole and of course Evan Griffiths, who I now work alongside, but I think the one I look up to most would be Claudia Kuster as she has been a mentor for so long. She always pushed me to try harder and her phenomenal drawing ability was the benchmark that I've aspired to since I first walked into Tattoo Magic over 10 years ago... Plus, she's been a great friend over the years.
CM: I'm telling RJB that he got shortlisted... Tell me your most off-the-hook tattoo experience...
OW: SHIT! Of course!! Rockin' Jellybean is a MASSIVE influence! See that's why I hate lists... I knew I'd forget someone. Oh! Throw Aaron Horkey and Ken Taylor on there too while you're at it!
Off the top of my head it's hard to pick one story. Every trip overseas I've ever done has been related to tattooing in one way or another and it's taken me to some amazing places and given me some crazy stories, from an insane tattoo convention in Austria where the first course descended from the roof on a huge round table with mimes who prepared the main course before your eyes... Getting tasered in L.A., to a friend nearly getting his throat slit by some crazy dude who climbed through our third-story window in Edinburgh!
The true value of tattooing for me has been in traveling and the people I've met. The kindness and hospitality of strangers to crazy times with good friends. It's a world with a lot of genuine people and real characters and I hope it stays that way.
CM: You got tasered? I haven't heard that story yet... I don't think! So while you rounded that last question off nicely and we really should stop there, I feel honor-bound to ask just one more before I let you go... What is it with you and IKEA?
OW: F**KIN' IKEA! That place is a inhumane experiment to see what people can possibly endure in terms of frustration and disorientation. It's a maze of dawdling elderly and indecisive couples with screaming babies and rocket powered kids where everyone moves in the 'roughly' one direction at completely different speeds, where I only want one thing and yet still have to walk through the whole damn store, the staff are useless and the pencils are too short! I can't even write with them... (Pauses for breath...) And every time I get near the checkout I realize I have to go back in against the flow to get something I forgot from near the start of the maze! Ugh! You had to bring that up didn't you?
We went there for a lot of stuff when setting up the shop as it was cheap but it's not worth the mental torment. I never ate the food... Everyone I've spoken to that likes IKEA eats the food, I reckon they put stuff in it.
I don't know maybe I'm jaded... Not crazy, just jaded, REALLY jaded...
CM: A-Mazing! Ha-ha-ha, oh wow!
(Owen can be found at Tama Tattoo Studio in Melbourne, Australia.)
(Crystal Morey works for Gomineko Books and is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. For more info on Gomineko Books please visit their website: www.gominekobooks.com.)