The body is life's canvas

THERE'S a taxidermy moose head on the wall, but it's the bloke sitting in the corner who's making me nervous.

It's got nothing to do with his heavily inked shins, the dress he's wearing, or the 9am beer he's nursing.

It's the fact he's not wearing underwear.

Behind the counter, Jimmy Myatt notices my trepidation, and offers reassurance.

"Don't worry," he says, looking up from a sketch.

"That's just Mal. He's our mascot. He just hangs around here."

Then, loud enough so Mal can hear: "He's all right when he behaves himself".

Mal takes a swig and heads outside to light a cigarette.

It's a standard Saturday morning at the Of Kings and Gods tattoo studio - the business Myatt started in George Street in2011.

Myatt has been tattooing for 15years, though he is solid enough to pass for a bricklayer or security guard.

The 45-year-old has five clients today, about the same as employees Chris White, 29, and Daniel "Baz" Barron, 31.

All three men agree that Saturdays are the most energy- sapping day of the week.

"Saturday isn't necessarily the busiest," Myatt says.

"But it is when we get our most interesting characters in."

Myatt's first client today is a man he has inked several times before: 28-year-old baker Nick Stratton.

Stratton has just finished an eight-hour shift in the kitchen - and he will spend the next four hours having two fighting wolves etched into his back.

He has been coming to Myatt for tattoos since he was 21: swathes of ink covering most of his arms and hands, with a swallow also drawn onto his neck.

Stratton says the reason for his wolf tattoo is simple: it just looks good.

"I knew I wanted something with wolves, and I found this picture that I really liked.

"I gave it to Jimmy to see what he thinks, see what he can add."

Stratton takes his shirt off and Myatt applies the carbon paper template to his back.

Myatt examines the fleshy canvas, pauses, then fires up his machine.

The high-pitched drone spikes as the needle hits the skin.

"The shading usually feels OK," Stratton says.

"It's the outlines that are a bit rough."

Myatt says tattooing is a levelling experience.

He says no matter the client - be it a brawny footballer, bookish hipster or brash punk rocker - all revert to their true self under the tattoo gun.

"Once they're in the chair, all the bullshit gets washed away," Myatt says.

"Our waiting room is always filled with people who, in real life, would probably have nothing to do with each other.

"But when they're preparing for this experience, they've got a common bond.

"We're putting something permanently on their skin, and they've got to trust us to do a good job."

Then there's the pain - Myatt says everyone handles it differently, depending on where they're getting inked, and their own threshold.

"Helping people through the tattoo is a big part of our job," Myatt says.

"Some come in with a lot of bravado but go to water at the sound of the machine.

"Others are quiet, and unassuming, and they got through the whole thing without batting an eyelid."

Sarah Ferguson certainly has no fear, despite picking a sensitive spot on her ribs for today's design.

"Yeah, I've had a child," the 26-year-old says. "I'd say nothing here today will compare to that."

Ferguson wants to ink a treble and bass-clef onto her side, to represent her love of music.

She also wants to incorporate a famous Maria von Trapp quote: "Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens".

Ferguson's first tattoo was done on the inside of her wrist when she was 18.

It's a friend's name she wants to get removed.

On the left-hand side of her waist is another quote: "Never a mistake, always a lesson".

"That one was a bad break-up," she says.

Dress-wearing Mal pipes up.

He offers to go down the street for coffee if everyone chips in a couple of dollars.

It's one of several errands he runs for loose change.

"I lent Mal $20 the other day," Chris White says.

"I told him that I'd take out a restraining order if he didn't pay me back within a week.

"He made the deadline by a couple of hours, which was good of him."

A minute after Mal returns he bums a cigarette off White's first customer for the day: James "Jock" McLelland Swanston Foran.

Jock, 53, was born in Scotland, raised in Launceston, and is more than happy to help Mal light up.

Jock got his first tattoo when he was 16 - an eagle and a dragon on his shoulder - which has faded significantly.

Three short, coloured stripes, representing Great Britain cut into the hairline above each temple.

Today he's going to add an Irish harp to his colourful left forearm, which already contains a Scottish thistle, two sparrows and a rampant lion flag.

"The thistle is to remind me of my mum - I went up and left one on her grave the other day," Jock says.

"The sparrows are for mum as well - they remind me of her smiling face.

"She always used to feed the sparrows in the morning."

Myatt says there are many reasons why people get tattoos.

Self expression. Aesthetics. To remember someone. To remember a lesson. To mark a milestone.

"Whatever it is, it obviously means a lot to that person at that point in their life," he says.

"At the end of the day we want to give people the best looking art possible.

"If they walk out of here happy with what we've done, then they are pretty much a walking advertisement."

The doors burst open, and White bounds in with a grin on his face.

"Mal's just gone out the front and chucked a brown eye at someone."

Myatt shakes his head and laughs.

Email adruce@examiner.com.au

Twitter @AlexDruce1987

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