Tony Cohen: Tattoos, Tradition, and the Human Condition

An Australian native, legendary tattoo artist, author, and owner of world-renowned tattoo shop, The Illustrated Man, Tony Cohen has an incredible collection of stories that are almost as extensive as his portfolio. As a steely-eyed standard of inspiration, Tony’s name is to the tattoo business what Hubert Givenchy is to the fashion industry. Not only is he a hardworking man with more than 30 years of professionalism under his belt, a lover of Harley Davidson motorcycles, and a cowboy action shooter, he is also a man who has seen it all, heard it all, and possibly done even more. He lives every day as a walking timeline, a man who bridges the generational gap between memories of old-school tattooing traditions and modern-day techniques.

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Upon visiting The Illustrated Man for the first time, I learned that Tony works out of a small, second-story room, his own private den of creativity. As alpha artist and leader of the pack, his self-imposed disembodiment from the rest of the staff (which includes his shop manager and daughter, Brooke, as well as tattoo artist and son, Brett), serves as a reminder of his ranking among the rest of the group. Surrounded by books and artifacts that present themselves as silent monuments to his adventures both in and out of the tattoo business, Tony sits comfortably in his chair and, with quiet conviction, explains how tattooing was always something he was programmed to do.

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“I was a workaholic for twenty-five years and I’ve been going to tattoo conventions since 1972. Ah, it’s just… I haven’t done anything else, really, since I was about sixteen. Now my daughter’s got an interest in it. We went to the Reno convention about a year ago and had a great time. I got my son into tattooing when he was fifteen. All he basically had to do was teach himself how to draw. Now they’re both here in the studio with me and it’s definitely a thing that going to be passed down. Anyone who wants to work for me has got to have at least ten years’ experience before they want to get a job here. And the first shit tattoo they give, they‘re out. No second chances.”

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When asked how society has shifted in its views of modified people since the beginning of his career, Tony responded, “Stick your head out the door, anyone who’s breathing has got a tattoo. Y’know, if we didn‘t do it, someone else would. I remember when I was the only shop for three or four miles for twenty years, now there‘s a couple within spitting distance. It doesn’t bother us, this shop doesn’t stop. We‘ve got the reputation, we‘re known everywhere. Since 1970, I‘ve got a virtual photo album from every year that has the work I’ve been doing.”

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It’s that kind of resolve that keeps Tony’s hands firmly gripped to the machine and his mind unwavering about his standards for the business. Despite the rare status of fame he has achieved in his career, a customer’s happiness is still one of the most rewarding aspects of his job. “That never gets old, seeing people walk out the door with a smile on their face, and at my age, it might be a bit too late to go and do anything else.” This last remark warrants a bemused smile from behind his alabaster beard. “I mean, I’m old enough now, I do what I want. We could spend all day fixing up other people’s tattoos if we like. But if they have a real piece of shit on them and you make it look nice, y’know, spending three or four hours fixing up a piece of crap, then it becomes art. But the people that work here, I very rarely like to see them rework other jobs.”

Being heavily tattooed himself, Tony admits to his own laundry list of alterations, accompanied by a discerning smirk that only someone who has gained wisdom through hard-nosed experience can give. “Wherever I was at the time, I’d get something done. I mean, whenever I started getting tattoos, they were only five shillings. You used to have to get there at 7:00 in the morning to get in line. The first one would be done and then I’d think hell, I’ll get three, four, or five more tattoos. A lot of those ones have been covered up now, thankfully. But yeah, a lot of them are pretty old. I have had a few recent ones, a few on my legs that were done by people I’ve given jobs to. I don’t enjoy getting them as much as I used to. I’d much rather give them to people now.”

“THE TATTOO” BY TONY COHEN

“THE TATTOO” BY TONY COHEN

After the interview, Tony steps outside for his routine smoke break. Cigarette in hand, he stares out at the unfolding metropolis of Sydney from the comfort of his studio sidewalk. As the potent Australian sun shines like a beacon above his braided hair, I can picture Tony riding on his beloved Harley, smooth and silent, across the open roads of nowhere, Australia. He is a man who has gathered several lifetimes of human experience only to gain a courageous badge of self-sufficiency, and somewhere in between, managed to become a walking testament to his own illusory reputation.

darah Darah is BME’s parable jockey, designated leftover-food finisher, and self-proclaimed nerdbomb.

Photography by Megan Dejmal.

16 thoughts on “Tony Cohen: Tattoos, Tradition, and the Human Condition

  1. man, that could’ve been a really cool article. he is such a neat dude. i would like to see someone interview him in more depth.

  2. Darah amazing work bub, I can’t wait to see what you write for me if that ever sees the light of day.
    Meg super awesome photos, cuddles await you my dear. Love you both.

  3. I really enjoyed how this was written.
    I hope your posts continue to be this eloquent. Proficient writing would be something I could really get used to finding more often on this blog.

  4. We also did a long video interview which will be posted if we get the audio corrected. It’s a lot harder to work 11am-8pm interviewing people and then come home to a hostel where the 5 of us are sharing a room and edit video, photos and write articles. We’re working as we go and we’ll probably start to get into a rhythm soon enough.

    We’re at the airport on our way to Melbourne now!

  5. I said it privately to Darah but I want to say it publicly as well. That final paragraph of her interview moved me. I think her writing is so wonderful and unique. I don’t know Darah at all. I’ve never met her. So this isn’t any kind of show on my part, if I didn’t like it, I’d probably just stay quiet but the vivid imagery in that final paragraph just blew me away. I think she’s off to a great start and I look forward to seeing how her interviews evolve!

  6. “riding on his beloved Harley, smooth and silent”

    Protest! Harleys are not silent! Quite the opposite, those machines sound like a giant farting loudly and constantly. They’re the most anoying motor vehicles due to their noise.

  7. Pingback: BME: Tattoo, Piercing and Body Modification News » Editorial ModBlog » Where in the world is BME?

  8. Pingback: BME: Tattoo, Piercing and Body Modification News » Editorial ModBlog » Where in the world is BME?

  9. sory… but iv seen this “great” guy smoking and eating lunch while tattooing clients, dissapointed to see him featured on bme as much as he is a pioneer for Australia he sets a poor example for the Australian industry. He has tattooed a number of my friends and honestly… it seems he survives on reputation alone, kudos to the person who has written the article (I genuinely mean that you have done a good job) but your subject choice is somewhat lacking (ask anyone in the know from Sydney).

  10. tonys a great guy and i was the one getting tattooed by him in the interview.

    its only cigs he lit up during a break while i was getting the tatt, its no issue to me
    the main thing is the tattoo turned out amazing and i plan on making future additions with tony

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