For a growing number of people, getting a tattoo is a rite of passage, but for Belgian migrant and talented Noosa-based tattoo artist Jeffrey Robinson, his dream to be on the other side of the tattoo gun was an opportunity worth crossing oceans for.
The buzz of the needles, the smell of rubbing alcohol mixed with the faint scent of ink – there is something oddly electric about the atmosphere in a tattoo studio.
As Divinyls frontwoman Chrissy Amphlett once sang, “It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain”, and those who have experienced the bite of a tattoo gun know the truth of this statement only too well.
It’s the reason why getting a tattoo is a bucket list experience for so many and why people often return for more time and time again, with the surge of adrenaline and the thrill of having their own personal piece of permanent body art enough to counteract the discomfort of the process itself.
But for some, their love of ‘ink’ runs far more than skin deep. For some, it’s a passion that’s seen them instead get behind the tattoo gun – as is the case for Belgian migrant, Jeffrey Robinson.
While few can say they’ve truly given up everything to pursue their dream, Jeffrey has done just that, and although it’s been a hard journey, he has emerged triumphant.
Art has always been the passion that drives Jeffrey. From when he was a child right through to when he was choosing his career path, it spoke to him, resulting in him undertaking a Diploma in Graphic Design. But when the Global Financial Crisis hit, Jeffrey found his plans derailed.
“I started working in restaurants because there wasn’t any work in anything else,” says Jeffrey. “I started out as a dishy, then became a second hand cook, and worked my way up to being a self-taught chef.”
While Jeffrey says he loves cooking, he found himself growing more and more discontent. But it wasn’t until he went through a rough break-up that he realised just how much he’d let his dreams go.
“I was trying to please everybody else, so once I realised there was no one else to please, I asked myself, ‘What will make me happy?’.
“I realised I had lost the artistic side of myself so I threw myself into that. Art is a good way to learn about yourself because you have to dig deep,” says Jeffrey.
“I had a friend who was a tattoo artist and he was the one who planted the seed in my head (of becoming a tattoo artist), and from that point I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I decided to start again from scratch. And when that clicked, everything just fell into place – it was like a red carpet rolling out before me and there were no other options for me – I had to follow it.”
Knowing the likelihood of finding his desired work in Belgium – a country he says lacks love for body art – Jeffrey moved to Australia, but it wasn’t an easy path; he spent a year trying to convince his mentor to train him and nearly two years as an apprentice, during which he had to take up a second job as a chef to make ends meet.
I realised I had lost the artistic side of myself so I threw myself into that. Art is a good way to learn about yourself because you have to dig deep.”
Yet Jeffrey is grateful for the experience, and credits leading Gold Coast tattoo artist Marco Ventura with honing his skills by pushing him to achieve greater things.
It was during this time that Jeffrey finally experienced the rush of giving his first tattoo, along with another first – body art of his own. His left leg – the only place where his ink is visible to others – is a canvas of his work.
“I’d never had a tattoo before, so I thought, ‘I have to know what I’m inflicting’,” he says, pointing to his first attempt, a stylised portrait of Bill Murray on his ankle. “I felt like I owed it to the customers. If I made a mistake, I wanted it to be on myself.
“I can’t remember a day I was more nervous than the day I first tattooed another person. It’s not even just the first one – it was more like the first 10 or 15. Even now I still get a bit nervous. If someone trusts me enough to offer up part of their body, I think I owe it to them to be just a little bit nervous. Every tattoo has to be important.”
Since his leap of faith coming to Australia four years ago, Jeffrey has become a licensed tattoo artist and met the love of his life Valerie, tying the knot earlier this year. And having achieved his goal with the opening of his own studio in Tewantin in September, Jeffrey has now set his sights on improving the public’s perception of his industry.
“A lot of people see tattoos and automatically judge, but you don’t fully know a person’s story until you talk to them,” says Jeffrey.
“That’s what I find exciting about this job; you hear some incredible stories. My oldest customer to get their first tattoo was a 74-year-old great grandmother and she was a great laugh. I’ve also done cover ups of mastectomy scars for breast cancer survivors – my mum died from breast cancer when I was 18, so that’s close to my heart.
“If you form a connection with the customer, naturally you feel involved and you better understand what they’re looking for. And in our industry, there is as much diversity as there are artists; that’s why it’s so important for customers to find an artist they have a connection with.”
In the words of LA Ink star Kat Von D, “I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading,” and while Jeffrey Robinson’s story is already a detailed tapestry, this tenacious yet humble man has plenty more canvas left to fill.