Video: MCW x ‘Gummy’ Johnston
MCW x ‘Gummy’ Johnston Is a renowned & respected Australian tattooist who’s been in the business for over a decade. His traditional style, bold lines and knack for creating a ‘timeless’ piece for his clientele is one of his main drivers. ‘Gummy’ has been mentored and taught by some of the very best within the field. This has seen him carry on their legacy and carve a name for himself within the tattoo world.
We chat to ‘Gummy’ about his creative beginnings, his introduction into the tattoo game and how the industry has transformed in becoming more widely accepted.
Full transcript to Gummy’s interview:
“When I create a tattoo I want to make something that is timeless something that the client can be happy with the day they got it, and then down the track when it’s 20 years old they could still look at and be happy with it. It’s got the right foundations to age well and everything about it still looks good.”
What age did you realise your creative flair?
When I started realising my creativity and art itself was through my Nan. She was a prolific artist down in Dubbo, NSW where I was I born. When she babysit me and Mum was working a lot she would always bring out the pencil and paper and would draw. I was quite young at this stage.
I moved to the Sunshine Coast when I was 10 from Dubbo. In Grade Six I met my teacher Miss Bergs. She was really open to me drawing in class. Miss Bergs would have me draw the Christmas and birthday cards for the class. She realised I wasn’t the greatest at learning the ABC so she pushed me more towards the creative direction.
How were you introduced to Tattooing?
Where I was from in the Sunshine Coast it was quite small. There weren’t a lot of shops and a lot of opportunity to become a tattooist. One of my good friends and future mentors, my boss; Corey Mckenzie had some in’s and he was a really good artist. He got into a studio and started tattooing which opened us up to the industry and access of getting tattooed. With him being there it gave me the opportunity to realise “Oh wait I might be able to get into tattooing as well.” Beforehand, I had no idea of how you’d even get to know a tattooist or even find out the secrets they kept very close to them.
He’d left that studio and started looking at opening up his own, which is where I was properly introduced to owning a shop. During this time I was helping him out in the process of building the business through business planning and assisting with the lease requirements.
At this point I was doing a lot of tattoo flash; drawing and painting it. I wasn’t really doing this with the intent to become a tattooist, it was more because I thought it was cool and I enjoyed it. When he opened the studio, he had no intention on putting an apprentice on, especially not so early on however based on circumstances he needed me to help out.
Tell us a bit about your experience working at your first Tattoo shop?
As the apprentice at the studio I worked at (which was a street shop), as a street shop tattooist you need to be able to perform pretty much all styles to a degree. If a job comes in and you are not able to do it, you can’t make the money. There is no point being there! At the end of the day tattooing is definitely an art form but the bills need to be paid. That’s where the work comes in.
Traditional is probably the only thing that wasn’t really solid in our shop so he basically said to me “You need to start pushing that traditional stuff you do, you know you’ve been painting and drawing it for a long time, why don’t you start pursuing it and stop doing other styles.” This is the point where I was pushed more into the traditional style.
After your first Tattoo gig where did the journey take you next?
I went to America for three months. Basically turned up to LA where I really didn’t know many people; went down to San Diego got tattooed by a guy called Marcus Kuhn and he sort of gave me a few people’s contacts. I met a bunch of young crew that were just full time convention dudes who travelled around everywhere and owned shops all over. They were really nice people.
I was meeting them at one convention and then someone would mention heading to the next; “Philadelphia convention is next weekend. You should try and get there.”I went to Philadelphia and by associating with people at the convention I met a guy named Antonio who managed a studio in New York. He gave me the opportunity to come work at his studio.
So this was halfway through the trip but already through meeting one person would lead to meeting two people and so forth. The network became deeper and deeper, everyone was so supportive, friendly and willing to help. This gave me a lot of insight into the American tattooing industry. It provided me with a lot of opportunity to develop my style and work with some great artists that I hold in such high regard. I thought I’d never have a chance to ever meet but you meet these artists and they just become good friends and they’re just great people. It keeps you stoked on the whole idea of the tattoo game.
While I was away in America, Rhys Gordon (http://rhysgordon.com) touched base with me. He mentioned his studio he was opening in Bondi Junction might have a space available for me. This led my wife and I to Sydney.
This opportunity brought you back to Australia. What came of this?
This gave me the chance to work in a really great studio. A big change in my life moving to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast. Living here I realised that I needed to hit the streets and start making some contacts. After completing a few jobs around town, this allowed me to build a small clientele and get back into the groove. Throughout my time in Sydney I was presented with an opportunity for me and my friend (current business partner); Rick Vaughn. We had the chance to buy a studio that’s been in Sydney for 25 years, on Oxford St, Darlinghurst. The studio had been through many different hands. We bought it off a guy who was working there for 18 years.
That’s where we’re at now. This is where we produce our magic every day and have some fun while creating tattoos.
What an interesting path. Let’s move into the history of tattooing. Can you briefly explain where the tattoo art form derived from?
Tattooing has always lent itself to a lot of folk art; it comes from the Carnie folks. Every design that you see in the old school traditional sense, generally has originated from another form. An example of this may be from an old advertisement back in the day for a hair care product displaying a woman’s face.
I love going through old books and children’s nursery rhyme books as well. Furthermore I find artwork that can be applied to a tattoo so easily and could have been looked at a million times but no one has placed into a tattoo yet. That’s a cool thing that you can do and find little references along the way.
Do you think the perception of tattoos has evolved & is considered more acceptable?
Back in the day sailors, prostitutes, criminals and bikies were getting tattoos. If you had a tattoo(s) you definitely would be typecast. Nowadays it’s definitely perceived a lot differently. You’re tattooing barristers, doctors while you’re still tattooing criminals and people on the bad side of the tracks.
Yeah it is definitely cool and evolving and you’re not judged as much. The clientele is so diverse now, compared to what people went through back in the day when they were wearing tattoos.
What do you set out to achieve with your studio; Thanks Tattoos?
Everything from our studio was always to have a basis of traditional tattooing in it. The solid lines and black contrast is the main thing in everything I do. It always has a foundation of traditional tattooing even if it is a totally different style from traditional, it will have foundations to the design. Tattooing is something that I’m always striving to be better at and using different reference materials allows me to achieve that.
Where or who do you seek your inspiration from?
Recently, I had the opportunity to hang out with an old tattooist from Australia; Greg Ardron. He owned Sleeve Masters in the Cross for 18 years. He is one of the most prolific artists I know and is such a hardworking and talented artist. His volume of reference is amazing and he can make a tattoo very quickly in the way of knowing where a particular book is, that has a certain style of face or hand. The way he references his work really inspires me a lot.
I constantly am looking through books; finding other styles of tattoos, both old and new. I like seeing how people wore tattoos and that sort of stuff.
What’s the best/most memorable piece of advice you’ve received?
The best advice I’ve received from anyone; is about listening. ‘Shut up and listen! Most importantly, you’re not going to learn anything unless you listen. You are in the presence of some people that can teach you a lot and not many people have access to.’
Having a mentor around like Rhys Gordon, who is one of my good friends and someone who really inspires me and helps me with my tattooing. He told me “When you are in a room and you’re with these people that are quite well known tattooists, who are someone you could really learn a lot from; Don’t talk to them, listen to them.”
“My creative way is to strive to leave behind a body of work that I could be proud of. I want to leave behind a legacy that future generations can hopefully take from; give back to tattooing. Tattooing has given me the world. Give me opportunities to travel and meet really great people.
I want to be able to give back to tattooing as much as I have taken from it. The day I finish and put down the machine for the last time, I hope people can appreciate my contribution to the industry.”
Marcus ‘Gummy’ Johnston