Tattoo artist Les Bowen reflects on 61 years inking bodies and change from underground to art form – ABC News

A few sewing needles tied to a cork, a bottle of Indian ink and plenty of ego gave Les Bowen his start as a tattoo artist.

It was 1959 and the then 17-year-old was practising tattooing skulls and letters on his friends.

"You go around and graffiti all of your friends and get banished by their parents," he laughed.

Sixty-two years later, Mr Bowen is one of Australia's most well respected and awarded tattoo artists with honorary membership to international tattoo associations including the exclusive Japan Tattoo Club.

Despite six decades in the business, his passion for tattooing has not faded and his skill is unwavering.

"I'm still fascinated by tattooing.

"I always wondered whether I would, as I got older, have shaky hands, but it has gone the opposite way I think, I'm more steady in the hands than I have ever been.

"I have been in control of the movement of my hands for so many years that I can keep them very still indeed."

In 1960, the tattoo industry had a pretty seedy reputation, tattoo artists were very secretive and parents warned their children job prospects would dry up if they got a tattoo.

It was in 1960 when Mr Bowen ordered his first proper tattoo equipment from an American mail-order catalogue.

He had no knowledge of how to use it and tattooists were tight-lipped about the trade but Mr Bowen used his skill as an illustrator as a bargaining chip.

"I ran into another tattoo artist who started talking to me about the actual process of tattooing which was a thing that tattoo artists didn't do at the time.

"I used to draw designs for him, because I was one of the few tattooists that could draw and he used to impart little snippets of information to me."

Mr Bowen was living in a house next to the Brisbane showgrounds, and the day before show day he put a sign out advertising tattoos.

"The sign hadn't even been out there an hour when there was a knock at the door and there were about 100 people at the door every sideshow and ride operator from the showgrounds had seen the sign and passed the message on.

"And there I was, with no knowledge or skill but plenty of ego so that's really how it started."

When Mr Bowen opened his Second Skin Tattoo shop in Townsville in 1980, tattoo studios outside capital cities were rare.

He said he had seen tattoos change from the realm of "gangsters and knockabouts" to an accepted art form.

Despite many positive changes, he laments the loss of the underground mystique of the industry.

"I sort of miss the bad boy thing, I miss the design sheets on the wall, I miss the simplicity of it, it has become a very complicated business.

"At the time when I started really artistic ability wasn't a pre-requisite, now it is pretty much a pre-requisite to be a good or at least a reasonable artist because demands are so high for the quality of the artwork."

Mr Bowen has worked on many famous bodies including Australia's most well-known tattooed woman Cindy Ray.

He has several pieces on Tom Waits and does not deny the rumour he has tattooed former AC/DC frontman Bon Scott.

"I pick and choose what I do now, I only do the jobs that I want to do and I pick the people that I want to tattoo on.

"I feel I am semi-retired but I could never walk away from it completely."

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Tattoo artist Les Bowen reflects on 61 years inking bodies and change from underground to art form - ABC News

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