Alexis Hepburn is a tattooist and painter based on the Gold Coast in Australia. Hepburn’s work couples the haptic force of traditional tattooing with subject matter and aesthetic inflections which draw on folk cultures from around the world. The resulting tattoos maintain a delicate economy of both ornamentation and impact.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My Name is Alexis Hepburn. I was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1993.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I lived in Melbourne my whole life until I moved to the Gold Coast. My parents definitely shaped me as a person and made me who I am today. Our family homes were never too far from the city, because neither of my parents ever learned how to drive a car. My mother was a librarian and my father works as a distribution manager in a shoe warehouse. I was raised on a diet of fresh vegetables and fruit, whole meal foods, music, and art. I was gifted “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie as my first CD from my dad and he later took me to see the man himself for my first concert. Most of my childhood memories have The Cure, Nick Cave, Echo and the Bunnymen, or The Smiths playing in the background.
For as long as I can remember, my father has dressed in a (self-appointed) uniform, which usually consists of a plain black skivvy or turtle neck, black Levi 501’s and black boots. He has long grey hair, a goatee and wears round black glasses. My mother was born in England and is very soft spoken and polite. She has curly gray hair and always has color-coded crystal jewellery to match her outfits. Our family homes have always been very cozy and expansively decorated with foreign and exotic objects, patterns, and artwork. My parents each used to paint leisurely; my father painted dark and eerie pictures of obscure faces, skeleton horses, roses, cats, and other twisted still life imagery. He always dreamed of being a children’s book illustrator and had even written and illustrated a few books. After taking them to a publisher and getting turned down, he sadly never pursued the dream further. My mother enjoyed painting folky floral and leafy images and often spent time decorating cards, furniture, and other decor around the house. Both of my mothers’ parents were professional abstract oil painters and my grandfather was the dean of the Victorian College of the Arts until he retired. I spent a lot of time at the cheese and cracker tables at their exhibitions in South Yarra, Toorak, and Prahran growing up!
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I recently resigned from my job at Alfred Street Tattoo, so at this stage I don’t have a permanent residency anywhere. I took a month-long break to spend more time painting and now I’m just floating around and doing regular guest spots until I find somewhere to settle. Before Alfred Street, I worked for the Braniff family on the Gold Coast at both their Crossfire and Gold Coast Tattoo studios. Prior to moving to the coast, I worked in Melbourne at a short-lived street shop called Ink Life in Williamstown, and I before that with tattoo veteran Jed Hill in Ballarat.
How long have you been tattooing?
This year marks five years of tattooing for me.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
When I was a teenager I listened to a large variety of hardcore, punk, and metal. A lot of the people I looked up to—both bands and friends I had met through the scenes—were a lot older and had tattoos. Growing up with an appreciation for many different kinds of art, I found myself drawn to tattooing because it seemed to capture and embody so many of the things I was interested in: it was personal, creative, and expressive, yet rebellious and mysterious. I began drawing tattoo flash and related drawings when I was 16, and continued to study and research the topic of traditional tattooing. A few years before I started tattooing I was selling prints of flash, custom paintings, and also doing commissioned artwork for bands to use for shirts, tour posters, records and CDs. This definitely worked in my favor when I began tattooing, and I spent my first year tattooing mostly hardcore kids or people that had supported and followed my journey from the beginning on my tumblr and Instagram.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
My journey into the tattoo world wasn’t the most conventional. When I was 16, one of my best friends Molly used to work counter for a shop in Ballarat. Molly worked for a man named Jed Hill, who at the time had been tattooing out there for almost 40 years. Jed was very supportive and helpful with my drawings, always giving me words of encouragement and tips on what materials to use. When I finished high school, I spent a lot of time visiting tattoo shops all over the city with my folio, asking for advice on how to approach looking for an entry into the industry. Taking on advice and constructive criticism, I made the decision at that point to continue working on my drawings for the meantime. I worked two jobs to get some savings behind me and painted every day.
A couple of years down the track, I took the train out to Ballarat to visit Jed and collect a tattoo from him. We sat down over a cup of coffee and my folio and chatted for a while until Jed sprung this one on me. He said “Alexis, you’re not going to get a tattoo today, you’re going to do your first one!” And after much deliberation he guided my anxious self through my first tattoo. Doing my first handful of tattoos with Jed was wild: he had a very old school way of going about things. That chapter didn’t end as I had hoped and I wasn’t there for very long, but I am still eternally grateful for Jed for believing in me and giving me a foot in the door.
My best friend at the time saw how shattered I was about losing that position. She peeled me off my bed and drove me to almost every shop in Melbourne searching for somewhere to take me on. After getting politely turned away by every shop, I ended up getting a position at a brand new shop which was owned by someone who didn’t tattoo. The turnover rate was high with the artists there and I never had a proper mentor. A few months in, I begun to work with a man named Lucky Diamond Rich. Lucky was (and still is) the Guinness record holder for the most tattooed man in the world. Although he wasn’t my mentor, he taught me a lot. Lucky was a well-traveled man. I remember him telling me he had been around the world nine times! I learned a lot about the wider world of tattooing from him.
Learning to tattoo mostly through my own trial and error wasn’t ideal. Although I am so grateful to be where I am now, I sometimes wish that I had held out and done a proper guided apprenticeship. My tattooing developed ten-fold once I moved to the Gold Coast and begun working with the Braniff family in busier street shop environments. Instead of sticking mostly in the comfort zone of my preferred style, I was doing more walk-in style tattoos. That truly refined my skill and broadened my understanding immensely.
"A couple of years down the track, I took the train out to Ballarat to visit Jed [Hill] and collect a tattoo from him. We sat down over a cup of coffee and my folio and chatted for a while until Jed sprung this one on me. He said 'Alexis, you’re not going to get a tattoo today, you’re going to do your first one!'"
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
Apart from doing studio art in high school, I have never had any formal training in art. For my end of year art project in year 12, I submitted a tea stained A2 flash sheet (which my parents have on their walls), an aerosol crying baby on canvas (which I’ve heard is still on display at my high school), and a painted mannequin which I covered in traditional tattoos. I had deeply considered going to university after high school and doing an art degree, but decided I didn’t want to rush into such a financial commitment. My teachers were quite disappointed in me—my math teacher always dreamed I would become an engineer.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
Due to my influences being so wide and varied, I find it hard to narrow down to a pigeon hole or category. My art has always been a big mash of inspiration from traditional tattoo imagery, my taste for folk art and religious/cultural imagery (which I inherited from my family), Mother Nature and all her incredible creations, and most of all the music I listen to. Even before I started tattooing, the ideas for my drawings often sprouted as a visual interpretation of the music I was listening to at the time. Excluding my custom tattoos, this is still the case for most of my paintings.
I have always been deeply fascinated by Hindu and Buddhist artwork, and have certainly drawn inspiration not only from the subject matter but also from the loose decorative nature and patterns involved in each.
Although my subject matter strays a little from that which is generally portrayed in standard American traditional tattooing, I guess aesthetically you could label my work as folky traditional. In the tattoo world, my influences have often been trad and in my earlier years I spent a lot of time studying and admiring the works of artists like Theo Mindel, Stuart Cripwell, Bailey Hunter Robinson, Tom Burrey, Capilli, and Simon Erl.
What do you look for in a shop?
One of the most important things for me is working with level-headed and likeminded artists. Unfortunately, in the past I have worked with a few people who have had misogynistic, homophobic, and racist tendencies. Not only do I have zero tolerance for it, but I would be (and was) extremely embarrassed to have to expose my clients to such a toxic behavior.
Receiving a tattoo can make you feel quite vulnerable. Being in a space where you feel comfortable and where you can be surrounded by positive energy is crucial for any healing to take place on an emotional level.
If I’m being picky: having vast vegan food options nearby and being close the beach is the ideal situation. Nothing better than an açai bowl to kick off the day and a swim at sunset to end a long day of drawing and tattooing!
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Painting is definitely my main hobby. It’s not tattooing per say, but it ties in pretty tightly. Painting has always been a huge means of emotional release and expression for me.
Like most people, I love food. Going to the organic farmers market first thing on a Sunday and gathering some fresh, seasonal, and local produce gets me excited for all the yummy things I can create throughout the week. I think I like cooking more than I like eating to be honest. I’m not a fussy eater, although I’ve definitely become more aware of my health and I’m particular with what I fuel my body with.
Living on the Gold Coast has definitely turned me into a beach person. If I’m being honest, I’m not even a particularly strong swimmer but you can’t beat the feeling of the cool water on your skin and warm sun glowing on your face! Free diving and snorkelling in the seaway here seriously makes you feel like you’re in another world. And watching the dolphins and whales from the shore is the wildest thing! Whether it be walking along the shore, jumping in the water, stretching on the sand, or lying in the sun—the beach gives me energy to live. Some of my other pass times include meditating, reading, hiking, tending to my plants, and altering my clothes.
What inspires you generally?
Hearing a song that makes you wanna’ dance or cry. Feeling the sun kissing my skin with its warm glow. Seeing the pretty colors in the sky when the moon rises over the ocean. Smelling the scent of fresh flowers as they sway in the wind. Touching a tree that has stood firmly in that one spot for 100s of years. Floating in fresh water that has traveled to the clouds and back to form one giant body. Looking up at the stars at night and thinking about how big the universe is. Most of all: watching someone look at their new tattoo in the mirror and uncontrollably smile.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I feel like I am very fortunate to be tattooing in this age. I feel very privileged to be in the position I am in. Although I feel that I haven’t been tattooing long enough (or am old enough) to answer this question with the right perspective. My whole career was born within the “Instagram era” of tattooing. Although I’m not as familiar with the industry before that era, I do feel very fortunate to work in this age—doing the style that I do and having steady clientele.
I wouldn’t entirely label Instagram as a challenge per say; however it has definitely become the most predominant tool for marketing and networking for the industry. It created a new chapter in the timeline. The world of tattooing has evolved: whereas historically customers would often walk into a shop blindly with an idea, now people thoroughly research their chosen styles and artists through Instagram before booking in. A lot of the time people won’t have even stepped foot in the shop before their appointment. This means that if you don’t keep up with your online promotion, your business can suffer for it.
One downside of the rise of social media is that creative jobs like tattooing have become very desirable and seemingly accessible. As a consequence, the industry has become oversaturated. There are a lot of subpar artists undercutting the rest of the industry, creating the impression that professional prices seem unfair. Unfortunately, sometimes people base their decision solely on the price, not the quality of a tattoo or the artists’ work. It blows my mind that people will sometimes go to someone’s house or a shop which obviously has a less professional or dodgy vibe just to save $50. Sometimes people don’t consider they’re penny pinching and compromising on something that is going to be with them—visible on their bodies—for the rest of their lives.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
Whenever I think of the future, personally I don’t like to have expectations. I like to have an open mind and deal with the changes as they come. Having expectations sometimes makes you exhaust your effort and energy into something that might not necessarily happen, preparing for either better or worse. It definitely seems like tattooing is tending more and more towards a custom, appointment-based industry, rather than a walk-in -based industry. In the future, this might mean more private studios and less street shops.
I feel like health and safety standards are ideal at the moment, yet there are still unnecessary attacks on legislation. One time in New York the government tried to enforce “single use ink sachets,” which would have been extremely impractical and wasteful. In places like Korea and Japan, you have to have a doctors licence to tattoo. I hope this never has a domino effect, because I really believe restrictions like this would suck the soul out of tattooing.
I hope technology doesn’t advance so far that we develop some sort of crazy automated machine that can apply a tattoo in a matter of minutes. I feel like a large part of the charm of tattooing is that it’s done by hand and involves an interpersonal exchange. Of course, if this did happen, there would still be a market for those who wanted a handmade tattoo for the experience, but it would definitely cull the industry a fair bit.
You can find more of Alexis Hepburn's work on Instagram (@disintegrationxvx) or online (alexishepburn.com).