Being a tattoo artist anywhere is a tough job. Every day you permanently mark people's skin with deeply personal images and phrases. But in the city, you have the room to develop a reputation of your own. Clients come to you because they like your style, they get your aesthetic, and hopefully believe that you are the right person for this job.
In small towns like Cobram on the Murray River in Australia, clients come to you because you're their only option. Paul "Boydy" Boyd is the owner and artist at Ink Me Tattoo, the only tattoo shop in the town of 6,000 people. Here there aren't a lot of options when you want to finally get that tribal armband, infinity symbol, child's name, or memoriam portrait. So Boydy has to be able to do everything.
Being the only tattoo place in town means you need to be versatile, flexible, good with people, and pragmatic. You're given a very strange but telling window into what your neighbors are thinking and feeling. It's one of the reasons he describes his two-seat set up, where he usually works on two or three clients a day, as looking more like a hairdresser than a city parlor. He spoke to VICE about how good manners and a willingness to tattoo a dick will help you go far with a small client pool.
VICE: Hey Boydy. So you're the only tattoo and piercing shop in town, do you feel like a landmark?
Paul "Boydy" Boyd: Yeah, everyone knows me even if I don't know them. I don't go out much, you get bothered. If I go to the pub people come up to me like, "I want to get this tattoo," and I'm like, "Yeah, alright, my shop's over there, come and see me Tuesday." I won't spend all night talking to drunks.
Do you have a typical type of client?
I get all sorts. I say 95 percent of my clients are normal and 5 percent are the sort of crazy where you wonder how they get through everyday life. The way I have the shop set up because a lot of normal people are afraid to go into tattoo shops—being a small town you want to get as many people as you can. A lot of clients coming in are surprised. They think it's going to be dark and dingy but it's like going to the hairdressers'.
Are certain types of tattoos more popular than others?
I do a lot of writing, especially with girls, they like writing. You have little fads, infinity symbols were crazy for a while. All the girls were getting those or feathers. They come in and they're like, "Have you done this before?"
In a small town do you need to be like, "Don't get that, Barry has that"?
For small tattoos I'm not fussed. If it's something a bit more extravagant I'm not going to do that on two people.
Most towns this size couldn't support a tattoo parlor, why do you think you've been able to make it work in Cobram?
When I first opened a lot of people said it wouldn't work; other tattooists had tried opening shops here. I think it's more about the way you treat people:It doesn't matter what business you go into, if someone treats you badly, you're not going to spend money. I'm just a normal bloke, I think a lot of tattooists have that arrogance which makes people uncomfortable. I've lived in Cobram for 30 years, I know a fair few people—you just have a yack.
Is there pressure to do work you don't like? What happens if someone brings in an idea that's garbage?
I'll politely tell them, "That won't work that way, we can do something along these lines." People bring in pictures they've drawn and think are awesome, I ask them to leave it with me to tidy up. Some are fine with that, others are like, "I want it just like that." Then you have to say, "Well I can't do it because it's shit and I can't put my name to it."
Isn't there a business element—with such a small circle of clients you couldn't afford to refuse every design you didn't want to do?
I do tattoos all the time that I don't like much. If I was a renowned tattooist in a big-city shop and someone bought me a tribal I'd say, "Nah I don't do that shit." But in a country town you've got to be a jack of all trades, you can't afford to be picky, you've got to adapt.
Is there anything you won't do?
There're certain spots—you have people come in that haven't got any tattoos and they want a tattoo on their head. If they come in with full sleeves and heaps of tattoos I'll do it, but if it's their first tattoo I won't. A girl came in and she was only 18 but she wanted me to tattoo her neck. I asked if she had a job and she said no, so I wouldn't do it. She goes, "You have to do it, I'm 18." Legally I can do it, but morally I can't.
If you're the only tattooist in town, how did you get into this?
I'm self-taught. Ten years ago a mate was always going on about tattooing. I was getting sick of it so I bought us tattoo kits to encourage him to do it. I started on myself and friends, and basically it went from there. I kept learning, practicing, going to conventions, and trying to watch really good tattooists. I'm a person who can pick up things by watching. If I see how something's done I can usually nut it out.
Are you ever tempted to go work in the city?
I grew up in Melbourne and moved to the country when I was 12. I love the country—even if I was making big money I couldn't imagine going to work in the city.
What's the most insane piece of work that you've ever done?
Probably tattooing a dick—I've done a couple. The first time I got asked to tattoo a dick it was on a regular. I'd done his head, his face, everywhere. He wanted me to tattoo his dick into an elephant—his shaft was the elephant trunk and then I shaved his pubes off and did the head.
For the first ten or 15 minutes I was just laughing—the funny thing was this dude has the biggest dick I've ever seen. I finished the trunk and said, "What sort of head do you want?" He said, "Whatever you want." So I did a cross-eyed elephant.
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