Talked into her first tattoo at 19, a sideshow attraction by her 20s, a Hall of Famer in her 60s. Maryrose Cuskelly meets local legend Bev Nicholas.
In body art circles, Bev Nicholas (until recently known as Bev Robinson) is a legend. She has been described as "the grand old woman of Australian tattooing". Bev was one of the first women in Australia to be heavily tattooed and toured the country as Cindy Ray, "the classy lassie with the tattooed chassis", in the 1960s. That was decades ago. Most of her working life has been spent tattooing others.
In 2005, Bev was inducted into the Lyle Tuttle Tattoo Art Museum's Tattoo Hall of Fame in St Louis, one of only about half a dozen people judged worthy of the honour. Not that she goes in for that sort of stuff much. She was gracious enough to attend her induction but all that attention is not really her cup of tea. "I don't like people making a big fuss of me," she says. Kenny McPharlane, who took over Bev's Moving Pictures Tattoo Studio in Williamstown three years ago, reckons she's probably more famous internationally than she is in Australia. "She's an icon. We get a lot of tattooists from all over the world coming in just to meet her. I think any self-respecting tattooist would know who Bev was."
Bev turned 65 recently and the grandmother of two still works most Sundays at the studio in Williamstown, the suburb where she was born and grew up with her brother and three sisters. She remembers a much different place, where the rifle range was still open and hardly anyone came near the place at the weekend. Her father was an engineer, working for the Myers' Maintenance Department in Footscray. One of his regular duties was installing the city store's famous Christmas window displays.
Bev's not sure what it was that convinced photographer Harry Bartram that she would be up for his money-making scheme, or for that matter, why she let herself be talked into it. He spun the 19-year-old key punch operator a tale of the fortune she could make as a tattooed woman touring the country. Despite the fact that no one in her family had tattoos and that getting tattooed "just wasn't done", she got four on the first night. Her parents were disgusted, although some time later her mother did allow Bev to practice her tattooing on her. "My father hit the roof," Bev recalls, and the little duck tattooed on her mother's arm was hidden forever.
Bev's still self-conscious about her own tattoos, and will cover up if she's out. "I've always got something in the boot of the car with long sleeves no matter how hot it is." She thinks it has a lot to do with her late father's attitudes to tattoos. "He was always saying, 'Put a long sleeved jumper on. Don't let anyone see them'."
Back then, the brazenness of the young women today who casually display their large and elaborate tattoos was unthinkable. "They're gamer than me," Bev says. She admires much of the more contemporary style of tattoo, "If I did decide I was going to get tattoos done again, I wouldn't go for all the coloured stuff. I'd go for the wash work (a style of tattoo that uses only black ink). I think that looks really lovely."
Occasionally Bev will find herself discouraging potential clients from getting tattoos. Like most tattooists she's very reluctant to tattoo anyone's hands, necks or faces and she's always sceptical of anyone who comes into the shop with a pack of friends. "I think, 'Hmm, peer pressure'." If they tell her they've only been thinking about getting a tattoo that day, she tells them to go home and think about it some more.
Bev is now tattooing the squealer's sister, who keeps jerking backwards, making it almost impossible for Bev to finish the outline of the tattoo "That one's a wriggler," Bev says, "every tattooist's nightmare."
"Don't suddenly do that jumping business," she scolds the woman, who complains its worse than getting an injection at the dentist.
"I don't even have injections for fillings," Bev says. "I can't stand that numb feeling."
She applies more anaesthetic gel to the woman's lower back. It takes effect and the woman visibly relaxes, allowing Bev to repair the uneven outline. "Thank God you can fix a stuff up," Bev says out of the corner of her mouth. A bit later she muses, "I wish I'd felt like that when I first got tattooed; I would never have got any."
Yet three weeks ago, Bev did get another tattoo, her first in 17 years. She pulls up the leg of her tracksuit pants to reveal a simple design of just three words above her knee: "My Son Craig", and beneath it the dates of his birth and death. He passed away in July after a long battle with cancer. Bev, who also has an adult daughter named Leah, plans to have a pair of hands added: one reaching up to another reaching down to meet it. "I fell in a heap," she says, recalling her loss, but she continued her regular Sunday tattooing shift at Moving Pictures. "At least it's getting me out of the house one day a week." One weekend, about four weeks ago, Kenny rang ahead with a warning, "Now, don't yell at me when you walk in the shop. There's a surprise down there."
The surprise was a huge mural on the back wall of the studio based on a photo taken of Bev when she was Cindy Ray, "the girl who put the oo in tattoo". It shows a young, pretty blonde woman, a shawl draped modestly around her shoulders with a winged woman tattooed on her upper chest.
Kenny commissioned the mural as a tribute to Bev; a way of paying his respects and to ensure her name and reputation carry on. "It's probably been the highlight of my tattooing career to have met Bev and to have actually worked with her. To buy her studio was just the icing on the cake." There's just one more thing Kenny would like to do. "I have to get a tattoo done by Bev. That's a must."