Portrait

Tattoo pioneer Cindy Ray got the ink but not the riches. By Fiona McGregor.

Painted lady

Bev doesn’t care about the pioneers. She got where she is by grit and accident. Born in 1942, a working-class girl who left school young, lucky to get a government job as a key-punch operator. Then she got pregnant. She knew she’d get the sack. She wanted to keep the baby so she answered an ad in the paper for a job as a photographer’s model. 

Harry Bartram from Heidelberg made a mint from Bev. Renamed her Cindy Ray, had her tattooed all over by Danny Robinson, photographed her and arranged sideshow tours. It was hard work. Bev didn’t like being gawked at all day like an animal in the zoo. She married Danny and settled into motherhood. Then one day Danny broke his hand and, with clients due at his shop on the waterfront, Bev was forced to pick up the iron.

“ ’e says, ‘You can do it; you’ve been watching me for years now.’ And I says, ‘No I can’t!’ And ’e says, ‘Yair you can!’ ”

And that is how Bev became one of the first female tattoo artists of the modern world. She grew to like it, wrote her autobiography, wrote a tattoo manual consulted across the globe by masters such as Filip Leu. She travelled with Danny and met all the legends – Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle who tattooed Janis Joplin. She still corresponds with many, along with her fan base. The old guard is fading. Danny is in a wheelchair.

“And I’m the one still doin’ the occasional tattoo,” Bev says, more surprised than anyone.

We’re eating toasted ham sandwiches in her kitchen in Williamstown, south-west of Melbourne’s CBD. Bev’s sleeves are always down. Slim, with straight, grey-blonde hair that swings elegantly about her shoulders, she doesn’t wear make-up, favours jeans and sloppy joes, the gaze beneath her fringe bright and direct. She’s telling me about the wedding of a young tattoo artist she went to last night.

“There they all were, walkin’ around in their dresses with their tattoos showing! And I thought, ‘Aw goodness, imagine me doin’ that a few years ago!’ It wouldn’t’ve happened. And there were so many of them!”

Rain splatters the window. In the corner of the living room, the television is on. A tiger-skin rug covers the brown tiled floor. Everything looks exactly as it did when I first came here, except Bev’s son Craig has died. He was so ill then I was surprised to be invited, he and Bev both extremely hospitable. I was humbled by their easy grace. Craig’s death has left a hole.

Bev still has Hondo, a huge, docile Alsatian who interjects occasionally with a yip. Bev’s pretty lively but walking Hondo has given her a rotator cuff injury. She only works one day now. People come from all over the world to meet her. The famous like to drop her name. One Dutch artist on a recent visit, like a colonial potentate, sent Bev a message relaying the time she would be available to meet her. Bev ignored it. She shows me a magazine article Tuttle just sent, about his trip to Antarctica. Tuttle looks extraordinarily robust for a man over 80. Bev is nonplussed. “He only went there so ’e could say ’e’d tattooed on every continent!” she chortles.

Bev remembers a bloke right at the beginning of her career, hollering to his mate, “It’s a sheila what’s tattooin’ in there!”

Those were the days of criminal association, only a handful of shops in Melbourne, nothing remotely hip about it. The crims did indeed come for Bev’s services, she realised later when seeing photos of the Pettingill brothers in the newspaper. She grimaces to remember them waiting loyally outside.

Bev’s sleeves stayed down so her daughter’s friends wouldn’t see her tattoos, lest she be banned from their company, as happened to another tattooed friend. Bev never thought things would change. In 2005, she was flown to the US to be inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame, a great honour. eX de Medici, well known now as a fine artist, always tells me how undervalued Bev is here.

“So you’re not interested in all the girls tattooing nowadays?”

Naoo.”

“What about getting into the Hall of Fame?”

“Aw I don’t mind … Hondo! Whattayou doin’? Hondo!”

Bartram also marketed tattooing equipment under the name of Cindy Ray, including innovations by Bev herself. His photos of Bev are iconic, as postcards, in TASCHEN coffee table books, all over the internet. Cindy Ray sparkling in bejewelled horn-rims and fitted frocks, décolletage alive with pictures. Cindy Ray’s legs. Bev never saw a cent. Copyright passed to a collector after Bartram’s death.

“Yairs, a lot of people had fun makin’ money from all of that, didn’t they.”

Tuttle and his ilk globetrotted searching for ancient tattoo culture, unearthing other iconic photos, such as early 20th-century Inuit women tattooists. Bev knows all that. Still, she would’ve stayed as a key-punch operator “if I’d had any sense. I’d be retired now, leadin’ a life of leisure.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "Painted lady". Subscribe here.

Fiona McGregor
is the author of five books.

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