Rob Mopar (@rwmopar)
November 14, 2019
Words by Rob Mopar, edited by Emma Clayton
Traveling has brought Rob Mopar to a variety of impress studios across the world. He now finds himself residing at Sacred Monkey Tattoo, in Victoria, Australia – which he owns. As well as a tattooist with a strong affinity to Japanese style, Mopar is also a painter, considering this medium as an important tool in communicating with a client his ideas for a tattoo design, rather than something primarily to be exhibited.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Rob Mopar, I was born in Australia in 1978.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
My father was in the Navy so in my early life we moved around a lot. We eventually settled in a place called Frankston. Frankston in the 1980s and 90s was a bit of a shit hole. It was the butt of many jokes at the time. It was known to be quite rough and riddled with unemployment, junkies, and crime. I couldn't wait to get away from there. I moved to Melbourne city when I was around 19-20 years old, where I enrolled into art school and started playing in underground punk rock bands.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I currently own and work at Sacred Monkey Tattoo. I have been lucky enough to travel and tattoo; I've worked at Idle hands in San Francisco, FTW in Oakland, Faith in Santa Rosa, Frith Street in London, Rain City in Manchester, and Wild Rose in Seoul, to name a few.
How long have you been tattooing?
I’ve been tattooing for around ten years now.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I think I was initially inspired by seeing some of the old Navy tattoos on my dad’s work mates. I remember one guy in particular who had a body suit from Pinky Yen. After that, in my early teens, I got into heavy metal and punk rock. I used to try and draw the tattoos I saw in the magazines. I couldn't wait to get tattooed–I got my first tattoo when I was 15 or 16, and by the time I was 18 I had a bunch. The tattoos themselves were not bad, but the decisions were terrible.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
The way I began to tattoo was this–an old friend of mine was doing a bit of tattooing from his house and lent me a machine. I did a few really terrible tattoos on myself and on some friends, but pretty quickly realized it was a terrible idea, and that I needed to find an apprenticeship. After many closed doors and a couple of bad experiences, I was offered an apprenticeship by Vond Barta.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I have a diploma in Visual Art and a degree in Fine Art, and have been part of several group exhibitions. I feel that formal art training is by far not a necessary prerequisite to tattooing and in fact everything will be taught to you in a good tattoo apprenticeship. Having said that, having a degree or whatever formal training you can get definitely won’t hurt. I think every skill you learn on your path can and will reflect in your tattooing.
Can you describe the type of art you make? How does your process of making art differ to the process of tattooing?
I’m not sure that I really consider what I paint these days to be art in the sense of Fine Art to be exhibited.
Everything I paint these days, in my mind, is to suggest to the viewer a tattoo. However, that being said,
people buy prints and original paintings from me to hang on the walls of their houses. I guess this is why I feel there is a real cross over from tattooing into the fine art world, regardless of whether it is the intention of the maker.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I feel that my style changed the more I have started to travel. I started to strip things back and cut out things I saw as being unnecessary tricks. I wanted things to be bold, and recognizable from across the street. I definitely spent my first six to eight years as a strictly traditional tattooer, and I feel that this has carried through into the way I see Japanese tattooing. I really love the old photos of Japanese bodysuits and the simplicity that was required of this work, due to the limitations of their tools and pigments. This is something that I try to replicate.
Where did you first come across Japanese tattooing? Who are some of your main influences?
My first introduction to Japanese tattooing was from my mentor Vond; he really opened my eyes to it. Vond has tattooed my leg, sleeve, back piece, hand, neck, and the top of my head all in Japanese style. From there, I began to admire the work of tattooers who could do both Traditional and Japanese style; artists like Andrew Mcleod, Jason Phillips, Theo Mindell, and Ben Cheese. It was these guys that inspired me to move towards Japanese style.
For my tattooing, I try to draw my biggest influence from the woodblock print artists, such as Utagawa Toyokuni, Hokusai, Utamaro, Torii kiyomasu, and so many more. I still have so much to learn about the origins of the families. I feel I have only found the tip of the iceberg.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I have, with help from my mentor Vond Barta, apprenticed two people; my Wife Edie Mopar, and Sarah Etheridge.
What do you look for in a shop?
Sacred Monkey Tattoo is a cross between a Japanese styled building mixed with an American traditional tattoo shop. We have a hand crafted feel, with original painted flash on the walls, hand painted signs, and some neon, with natural old wood and Japanese key patterns. But, the heart of any shop is the people inside it. So really, I just look for tattoo artists who are passionate about their work. I look for people who have a friendly and humble nature. I guess you could say that we have a no bullshit policy.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling is really important to me. I try to do guest spots as much as I can. I have worked in the USA, England, China, Korea, and throughout Australia. In my first years of traveling to work in America and England, I was lucky enough to work in well-established shops with great reputations and with tattoo artists that were at the top of their game. I learnt so much about how to tattoo and paint flash by working alongside people at such a high caliber in their craft. I feel like, to do Japanese tattoos or to do American tattoos, I needed to travel there and feel the air, visit the museums, and see cherry blossoms and maple leaves for real, or see old folky American eagles above doorways–small things like that. This all helped to inspire my work and I am really grateful to this side of tattooing and to the life it has provided.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think one of the main challenges of tattooing today is the pace in which it is moving. Everything seems to be happening so fast. It’s so hard to stay relevant. You see some people gain what seems to be quick "fame" and have a new take on something, then they seem to disappear just as quick. The need to have a brand or identity is really strong. Perhaps one of the challenges is to not get caught up in that. I have seen artists become so consumed by it, that it has made them depressed and want to quit. I have never seen myself as someone that is trying to discover the next big thing, or be the next big thing. I am happy in trying to consume myself in just trying to pay homage to the work that has already existed; simply to make a dragon just look like a dragon. I feel very fortunate that I caught the last of tattooing before the internet age. back when it was still magazines and walk ins and word of mouth.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I'm interested to see how technology, pop culture, and the arts will continue to impact tattooing, and how tattooing is in turn affecting them. The mainstream culture has been creeping in for years, taking from, and adding to, tattooing in ways we never imagined. So many tattooers are successfully crossing the line between what was always considered low brow or outsider, and bringing it into the fine art world and the mainstream.
What do you think the importance of low brow or outsider tattoo art being brought into the fine art and mainstream world is? What are the positives and negatives of this?
Ok, this is a hard question and I definitely do not feel qualified to answer. I think at every stage in history there has been the new guy breaking in, the outsider or whatever. Be it impressionism to realism, or jazz to classical, graffiti made a big breakthrough years ago. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream. I think it’s always important to shake up the norm. I guess the upside is people have become so educated on their own tattoo work that the skill level of tattooing is now out of control and is showing no signs of stopping. The down side is, for me, I got into this thing because it was outsider art–a place for lost souls and pirates. I was happy to be covered in tattoos that weren't for you. I liked having a line drawn in the sand.