IT MAKES sense that lush Queensland would be home to a tattoo artist renowned for inking brightly coloured native plants, birds and critters – sugar gliders, black cockatoos, banksia, bottlebrushes and eucalypts among them – but Drea Darling is partial to hooning around the Brisbane car scene, too.
This article was first published in Street Machine's Hot Rod magazine #20, 2019
How did you get your start in tattooing?
I’d been drawing flash since I was a teenager and I took some to a shop. I didn’t realise at the time that it was the best shop in Brisbane! They warned me that when you’re a tattooer you’re up all night drawing and you don’t get to party much. Sixteen-year-old me was like: “Hmm. That doesn’t sound cool.” So I floated around for a few years after school because I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was always painting, but I believed that bullshit narrative that you could never make a living as an artist. That makes me really sad. Thankfully, a few artists gave me kind words of encouragement when I came back to the idea a few years later. I got a job at Sin The Skin in Hillcrest as a receptionist. Eventually I got an apprenticeship there.
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Being an apprentice is tough, right?
Definitely tough! If you’re a uni student at least you can get help with food and rates and whatnot. An apprentice generally doesn’t get paid, so I had three jobs. I worked at Woolworths deli, and doing real estate office work, then at the tattoo shop.
And after a few moves you’re at With Love Tattoo. What’s your set-up like there?
My station has my trolley, a chest of drawers to keep supplies in. I’ve got a beautiful vintage crystal vase with dried banksia seed pods and other native flowers. I’ve got taxidermied butterflies, a Keith Weesner hot rod print and a skate deck with pinstriping from [Brisbane’s] Stanton.
How has your work evolved?
My earliest work was nautical stuff, pin-ups, roses. Then I noticed people were asking for a lot of deer, foxes and wolves, which didn’t make sense to me because here in Australia we don’t have them around us. So I started drawing more native animals, birds and plants, because they were both familiar and also different, in that I didn’t see them tattooed very often. They are the plants and animals we all know, love and grew up with, so I found people really took these designs to heart and it’s now most of what I do.
You’re known for car culture tatts, too.
Recently I did a Chevy Nova with a really cool diner scene in the background. I’ve done a lot of Rat Finks and done a Rat Fink pin-up, and I do a lot of spanners and sparkplugs.
What’s your own ride?
I have a two-door 1962 Ford Falcon with a very lived-in look. It came from California and it’s got a Californian sunburn on it. People come up and ask if I’ll do it up; then there are the others who come up and say: “I’ll murder you in your sleep if you ever paint that car.”
Well, you’re a regular at the Asphalt Demons Invitational, so it would be hard to keep clean. How are you at drag racing?
I’m pretty terrible, and my car’s only a six-cylinder! We tried to do a burnout and couldn’t even do that. It’s fun to slide around in the mud but I’m happy just cruising, too.
You were one of a group of female Brisbane tattooists who donated a day of flash last year to domestic violence charities. There are also a few female tattooists around the world who make a point of working on women who have experienced domestic violence, and you’ve done that, too.
There was one woman who was having a really hard time because of domestic violence and had all this scarring on her leg that was a constant reminder. She wasn’t working at the time, so I offered to do it for free, but she actually refused to let me and somehow scraped the money together. We’ve been friends ever since.
Why do you think the 1950s was such a lasting era for influencing tattoos?
It was right after the war, so everything was pretty tame before then because there weren’t many resources. The 1950s was the start of commercialism and they started to make designs really beautiful.
How do you feel about the hand poked trend that has crept in of late?
You see some terrible ones coming in that we’ve got to fix. They’re usually pretty dropped out, which can be easy to cover. It’s when people get the machines off eBay and go to town you get the ones that are really deep and hard to cover.
With all the reality shows about ink, does everyone suddenly fancy themselves as a tattooist?
Aw yeah. People come in and say some relative says they’re great at drawing and they’d love to be a tattooist. My favourite one is when people say: “Yeah, I’d really like to be a tattooist part-time.” They don’t realise you come home and eat and then you draw until you go to bed. You generally work on Saturdays and it affects your relationships, so people are always burning out. It’s great that they’re interested but it’s hard to articulate: “Oh man, you have no idea what you have to go through to get to this point!”