How a Tattoo Goes from Sketch to Skin with William Brown
One of Australia's most sought after artists on his creative process.
Photography by Thomas Robinson
This article is supported by HP’s new OfficeJet Pro 8700 Series Printer, designed specifically for small businesses. In this series, Print People, we meet a bunch of Australians who incorporate print into their creative practice.
William Brown got his first tattoo as soon as he was legally allowed to. Since then, it’s been hard to get him out of tattoo shops. He’s spent the last seven years honing his skills, working hard to become the popular and sought after tattooist he is today. With a special interest in traditional and Japanese designs, he works full-time tattooing at Tattoo Rosies in Sydney’s Surry Hills, as well as designing on the side for skate company Passport.
We sat down with William to ask him about his early years as a tattooist, where he gets his inspiration from, and how technology helps him bring his designs to life.
VICE: Was becoming a tattoo artist something you always wanted to do?
William Brown: Definitely not. I only realised I was interested in becoming a tattooer after a few years of getting tattoos. I did art in high school, but only because I thought it was a subject I could mess around in, not because I wanted to pursue it as a career. I had no idea what I wanted to do after I finished high school, but I was really into surfing and skating, so I guess tattooing melted its way into that culture I was a part of. I remember going into a few shops and just feeling this sense of magic. There was so many cool designs on the walls, and tattooing going on, it made me want to hang out there all the time.
When did you realise you were going to make a career out of it?
After a few years of tattooing at home and butchering people with equipment I’d acquired through friends, I realised that if I was going to take it seriously I needed to actually go and get an education on it. The only way to do that was through getting an apprenticeship, and working your arse off for about two years. I was lucky enough to get my foot in the door and I didn't want to stuff that up. I had a pretty good deal with a nice studio and good boss. It was unpaid which was tough, but that’s just how it works.
Give us a run down of how a design comes to life from start to finish.
It starts off with whittling the customers’ million ideas down into one tattooable one. I’ll start taking tracings of the skin area and then go through my references which can be books or paintings or stuff from the internet. I’ll bring a draft back to the customer, and then tweak it from there.
Can you tell us a bit about your references? What are you currently drawing inspiration from?
Lots of things! It’s really important to have a large collection of reference points that I can go back to. If I look at what I’ve got on my desk at the minute, I’ve got stuff ranging from a memoir about the late cartooner and tattooist Greg Irons to a book on a Japanese tattooer from the 1900s. Instagram is also a such a great inspiration because you know it's constantly updating and there's so much new stuff out there all the time.
Using printers is a pretty large part of your practice, how do you incorporate them into the design process?
We have a couple of different ones we use all the time. One of them prints out a basic carbon black print, one creates a printable stencil of the design, which we stick onto the customers skin before actually tattooing. Using printers saves so much time if you need to reduce the size or shift the design around in any way. Sometimes the design can become completely distorted when you actually lay it down on the skin, and it just helps so much to be able to fix it up quickly. I feel very privileged to have access to this technology. There are times when I’ve had to stencil by hand and it just takes so much of your time and concentration.
What is it about traditional and Japanese designs that you like so much?
These two styles are pretty much the foundation of most good tattoo designs these days, they are just so strong and timeless and it’s really hard not to come back to these styles in my own designs.
How did you get involved in Passport?
I skate with the owner of the company, Trent, and was around when he started it all up. I was also trying to get an art portfolio together so I could get into tattooing professionally, so it was just good timing for me to get involved. He usually throws some pretty big ideas at me, which I find challenging, but at the end of the day when you see a customer come into the shop wearing a shirt with your design on it, it’s a bit of a trip.
Did you find it tricky to swap between the two mediums of tattoo and print design?
Absolutely. When I’m drawing for a tattoo, there’s a lot of things you need to do to make it work for skin, rather than just creating a ‘cool drawing’. Totally different to just drawing on a flat piece of paper.
Anything you're working on at the moment?
Nothing solid yet, possibly some Aztec-style designs with Passport. I’m really into South American traditional designs so that would be really cool to experiment with some of that, as well as working on some larger scale dragon and snake designs that I’d be stoked to tattoo!