The Illustrated Man Chopper

Tony Cohen is an icon in the Australian tattoo world. He built an Illustrated Man Chopper to compliment his legendary tattoo studio.

I WAS ABOUT 14 or 15 when I started tattooing my mates. I had bought a couple of tattoo machines from a guy in a pub at Revesby. I was about to start tattooing one of my mates in the bedroom of my father’s house after I had wired it all up myself, I put my foot on the foot-switch and I blackened out the whole street with a power surge. My father walked in the door—TV gone, lights gone—and saw me sitting there with a tattoo machine in my hand, my mate with his sleeve rolled up. That was the first funny experience I ever had, although at the time I don’t think it was really funny.

I moved from the back bedroom to the back garage, pinched mum’s ironing board, went up to my local pub and told everyone to come down for a tattoo. I’d tattoo them for a whole day then go back to the pub to spent the money I made.

 I was still tattooing out at my house when a guy called Darrel Morris (now Doc Price) came out from England and saw some of the stuff I was doing. He told a mate of mine that he wanted to see me so I went over, walked in the door and told him who I was. He was a big bloke with a big beard and he asked if I wanted to learn properly. It took me about 10 minutes to pack up my stuff; a little station was set up for me at his studio.

I worked with him for 12 months then he went back to England and I moved into a little shop in St Marys for $10-a-week. Those were the days. I worked for my dad during the day and tattooed at night.

The best thing about those days was that there were no stencils—if you couldn’t draw you weren’t worth shit. I could always draw so that was a big help. My biggest trouble was doing it the right size because, when I draw free-hand, I tend to do it bigger.

I’d say I was one of the first people in Australia to do traditional Japanese tattooing. It was just something that had to be done. There were plenty of people in the States and England who were competent at doing it. I tried to go to Japan to learn the style but I got to the Japanese airport and they gave me a 24-hour visa because they didn’t like the look of me. With 24 hours in Japan, not knowing where to go or who to ask for, I didn’t bother, I just caught the next plane back to Sydney.

I bought every book on Japanese tattooing I could, studied it and picked it up from them. I also developed some very good contacts in Japan and got some great artwork from them. I now incorporate everything into my own style. It all boils down to the fact you use your own interpretations to get your own style.

A lot of the inks from the American suppliers don’t work very good in this country because of the Australian skin tones. Australians love lying in the sun. The first time I went to America was in 1970 and I saw so much big colourful work but they never see sunlight; you’ve virtually got to pay them to take their shirt off to have a look.

People who really decide to get covered in tattoos and who really appreciate them or who want to show them at shows, they’re the ones who look after them, staying out of the sun, and that’s when you see what quality you can get into skin. The best people I have ever tattooed were Welsh coalminers. It is just like drawing on white paper; they have beautiful skin.

Any ink that anybody’s got to sell, I try. I’ll use them once or twice to see what they’re like. I still make up my own lights but there is some really good colour out there now, and if you know where to buy it, it’s a lot cheaper than buying 10 pounds of pigment off someone, then you’ve got to try sell it to get rid of it.

The Illustrated Man started in Melbourne. I liked Melbourne because it was busy and I tattooed a lot of people, but the family wanted to come back to Sydney, so we evacuated and headed up the Hume Highway—two cars, a motorbike, two dogs, a budgerigar, and all our shit in two cars.

I got the cheapest shop I could find; I think it was about 1988. There were three shops in Kings Cross, and then there was me, about 200 yards down the road. I put a little sign in the window saying Tattoo Artist. Fortunately, it was a real good spot because all the sailors from the ships in Woolloomooloo would walk up the street to the Cross past my little sign. The first week I was there I was flat out. 

Eventually, I got the shop next door and was told not to knock a hole in the wall, so I knocked a hole in the wall and put someone else on.

Then I got to the stage where I started employing more people. I had Fran, Joel, and Terry Roberts who came over from England and took a lot of the weight off me. I was there eight years. It was good rent too but then the Asians bought the place and kicked me out.

I didn’t know where I was going to go from there but the City Council put me in here and I’ve been here for many years.

I have six tattooists on now; seven including myself. Every now and then someone might come out from the States and I give them a go to see how they like working our Australian skin. They keep looking at the guns thinking they’re not working properly (as the USA in on nuclear power).

I have the kids working with me now. Brooke is my receptionist and Brett has been working with me since 1991. Brett has his own style. He doesn’t get into the details I get into but they’re big and bold and look really good. I’m very, very happy with them. Every tattoo you do is a recommendation to someone else. There are plenty of people who only want to get tattooed by Brett, which is a good sign.

There is plenty of work for Brooke too; she doesn’t stop. When it’s quiet and she is sitting there doing nothing, she gets the shits, but when it’s busy and she is run off her feet, there is too much to do, so there’s no in-between. You’ve got to keep people in your shop—not like the old days when we were the only shop in Sydney for 20 years and people would hang around. Brook keeps them in my shop and she does everything on the computer and there is a lot of that work.

I’ve been in the Mobshitters for 40-plus years.

It’s a good club. I still do most of the rides. I do at least two or three big rides a year like to Melbourne or Adelaide or somewhere. I ride to work everyday unless it’s raining.

I’ve met some fantastic people. Almost every bloke in the Mobshitters is probably in his 50s; we haven’t got that many young members. We’re not a club that attracts flashy tattoos and we’ve never worn a back patch. During the last 40 years a lot of things have happened, seen a lot, lost a few, but we’re only a small club and we’re all pretty tight. 

Garry Unger is a well-known seat builder from Metcruze and he built the bike. I’ve had several choppers before this one. I even had a Honda choppers once. I was coming leaving the high-flyer pub on it and ran up the back of a Volkswagen and that was the end of that. I had to push it around the corner before anyone saw me.

I’ve had a hot chopped Sporty and things like that over the years too but I’ve always had this thing about doing a chopper for The Illustrated Man, a show bike. I wanted it to be long, low, and have a big front-end and San Francisco style pipes; all the rest was the way Garry wanted to do it.

With the paint, I rang Little Mick and chatted for about 15 minutes about what I wanted.

He said he knew exactly what I wanted and mentioned an old tattooist who had passed away who had done some amazing ship-style tattoos.

The motor is 94 cubic inches. It had just been reconditioned and it runs pretty smoothly.

The whole frame is modified and stretched; it’s about a foot longer than a normal bike and it’s nice and low, just how I wanted it.

The handlebars where a surprise. Just the way he did them suits the nautical theme right down to the ground.

I wanted a couple of tattoo machines on the tank but thought someone would come along with a screwdriver, scratch them off and take them home to tattoo their mates in the bedroom.

Big back tyre was a must. It feels good, rides good and looks sensational.

Garry and Little Mick built one hell of a bike and I thank them a hell of a lot.

I have two bikes; the other one is a Night Train which is my going-away bike.

My wife Jenny loves the chopper which was surprising because I thought she would be more comfortable on the Night Train, but no, she loves sitting on the back and she hasn’t belted me in the back of the helmet once on the 800 km she’s been on it, which is a good sign. We’ve got one of the genuine Arlen Ness, made-in-China, stick-on buddy-seats for her which is a bit more comfort than sitting on the guard—she might scratch the paint otherwise.

The Illustrated Man Tattoo Studio of Fine Art, 1/230 Elizabeth Street, Sydney NSW 2000; 02-9211-3761.

Photos by Wall 2 Wall; words by Tony Cohen

Make sure you check out the photos of Vanity-Lee at Vanity-Lee Purrs Like a Kitten.

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