Les Rice recalls climbing on a young Tom Waits circa 1970s, as he sat in his father’s Liverpool tattoo studio. “Jesus Christ, we had this fantastic series of photos of my brother and I climbing on this bloke, who was a young, mid-20s Tom Waits. He’d briefly escaped from his Australian tour and dad tattooed a gypsy head on one of his arms,” he says.
“When we compare who we’ve both tattooed he wins. Tom Waits. You can’t argue with that.”
Keeping in the family, Rice began tattooing in 1993, learning the craft from his father, legendary tattoo artist Les Bowen. He worked for most of a decade at his father’s famous Second Skin Tattoo Studio. “My Dad was tattooing since the 1950s, I spent my childhood in tattoo shops. It definitely felt like a calling.”
Rice, who currently practices at King Street’s LDF Tattoo studio, has an extensive list of accolades. He has first place awards for tattoo portraiture at Australian national level, Best Large Tattoo and Best Design Sheet awards, among others.
In recent years, Rice has shifted his talents more to painting, graduating from the National Art School in 2005 with a degree in Bachelor of Fine Arts.
He says: “You’re only as good as the last painting you make. I’m phasing out of tattooing, I’ve got ten or twelve people who work for me and who have a lot of energy. I’ve tattooed for twenty years and I don’t think I have a lot to say to it right now. That might change in the future, but with painting I feel like an infant in that there’s a lot for me to learn which excites me. Painting fires me up now.”
In March 2007, Les won the Doug Moran Art Prize, he was also named a finalist for the Blake Prize of Religious Art and in 2008 was a finalist in the Archibald Prize.
The issue of tattoo culture still remains close to his heart, as does the continued popularisation of his craft: “There used to be more of a connection between self-aggrandising and traditional art, these days there are a few popular trends. People get all kinds of tattoos for all kinds of reasons. To sit here and say that it’s self-expression gives too much credit to some people who get flippant and boring banal stuff because their mate got it done. On the other hand, to say that everybody just does the fashionable shit these days isn’t giving the people who really do think it through enough credit,” he says.
The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council found that in 2012, 22 per cent of Australian men and 29 per cent of women aged 20 to 29 have at least one tattoo.
“Do it for the right reasons, a tattoo is only ever as good as the reason for getting it done. If somebody wanted to get a memorial for somebody who’s passed away recently, I can’t see you ever regretting that decision, but if you do something because you saw it on TV last week, actually I’m a hypocrite because sometimes that’s fun too!” he says.
“When you’re a tattoo collector like I am with hundreds on you they hide amongst themselves pretty well.”
Rice contributes reality series Miami Ink to the idea of tattoos becoming mainstream in society: “Those shows haven’t helped, cruising along in the ’90s there was no stone left unturned by the television business, we thought though that our industry wouldn’t be touched and now we’re completely a part of it.”
He believes opposition to his craft is healthy and necessary: “There will always be opposing views, if everybody feels positive about tattooing then they lose a bit of their power, tattoos have this ability to say ‘fuck you, I own this, I’d do this but you wouldn’t.'”
“I hate to sound like a miserable old man because a lot of young people in it are in it today for all the right reasons. They love tattooing in a different way, it’s just not the way I remember it. You do get a lot of old blokes who will bitch about young kids who have ruined the business when there were generations before the old blokes who were saying the same thing about them,” Rice says.
When asked if he has a favourite Tattoo, one in particular springs to Rice’s mind: “My brother did a sleeve on my right arm – a picture of the Passion of the Christ having been crucified. It took 70 or 80 hours, the process of getting that one done, as well as the end result, makes that one my ‘go to guy’. It’s the biggest and the best and the one that was sort of the most fun to have done.” (GF)
LDF Tattoo, 26 King St., Newtown, (02) 9550 6759; 443 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville, (02) 9559 7794, ldftattoo.com