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Women are tougher than men, and other life lessons learnt by tattooist Leslie Rice

There are many life lessons that Leslie Rice has learnt after more than two decades as a tattoo artist. 

Colourful story: Tattooist and fine artist Leslie Rice.
Colourful story: Tattooist and fine artist Leslie Rice.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

Number one: "Women are tougher than men," he says.

"Women and men have a very different approach to traumatic things like getting tattoos. Women are far more willing to accept it and go with the flow, whereas men will try and fight it, so you end up in this horrible situation where men end up vomiting and passing out and falling on the floor, and the women don't tend to do that.

Going with the flow: Tattooist Kian "Horisumi" Forreal gives Elkie Lewer a full back, neck to knee image of a tiger.
Going with the flow: Tattooist Kian "Horisumi" Forreal gives Elkie Lewer a full back, neck to knee image of a tiger. Photo: Fiona Morris

"Women's approach wins hands down," he says, unsurprisingly.

Rice and his team of tattooists from his two LDF Tattoo shops, in Newtown and Marrickville, will be imparting their wisdom and showing off their skills at the Australian Tattoo & Body Art Expo this weekend. At last year's event, more than 16,000 people turned up.

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Rice, 39, has a particularly interesting skillset in that as well his tattoo trade, he's an award-winning fine artist who also teaches painting at the National Art School. 

After graduating in fine art from the art school in 2006, he went on to win the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2007 and 2012, and has been a finalist for the Archibald and Blake prizes a number of times.  Melding the two areas he says is a "really nice relationship" in balancing commercial demands with creative freedom.

He grew up in a tattoo family – his father, Les Bowen, has been a tattooist since 1959 – and headed to art school to improve his drawing before being pulled into the world of painting. 

"When I left art school, I set myself up so I could use tattooing as an avenue to use the skills I already had to fund something which might be completely different. 

"The nice thing from owning the shops and the tattoo trade is I don't feel the need to make paintings sell, they don't have to be commercially viable, they can be whatever they have to be."

In addition to Rice at the Expo, Ed Hardy's tattoo artist son Doug will be there alongside other big names, including Angry Anderson's tattooist Tony Cohen and Kian "Horisumi" Forreal from Surry Hills studio Authent/Ink. 

The Australian Tattoo and Body Art Expo is at the Royal Hall of Industries, Moore Park, March 13-15, see tattooexpo.com.au

Five life lessons learnt as a tattoo artist

1. Women are tougher than men 

Women and men have a very different approach to traumatic things like getting tattoos. Women are far more willing to accept it and go with the flow, whereas men will try and fight it, so you end up in this horrible situation where they will end up vomiting and passing out and falling on the floor, and women don't tend to do that . They will just accept what's happening while men will battle it every step of the way. Women's approach wins hands down, there's no question about that. 

2. The value of freedom in your work.

If you don't have any freedom in your work, then you can't enjoy it. Work can and should be enjoyable on some levels and tattooing is really good for that. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to work with guys who will tell you, you don't have to do everything that comes in the door if you don't want to do it. You don't have to do anything that you don't feel comfortable doing. I've always said that to my staff as well, because if I worked in a place where I had to do everything I was asked to do and I had no freedom to decide for myself, that would cruel life a tiny little bit. A lot of people are forced to do that, whereas a little bit of autonomy at work is good for yourself.  

3. Perimeters or limitations on creative expression are helpful. 

If you're completely free to make anything it can be stultifying, you don't really know quite what to do. If you have limits and boundaries on creativity that sets you in motion, you can actually make something of any kind of worth.

4. You need a work ethic if you're going to be an artist. 

An artist requires a work ethic. This idea that expression and inspiration is something that kind of rolls in when you're lounging around sipping coffee in a cafe, it doesn't work that way. In order to create something and be inspired and expresss yourself, you need a work ethic. You need to roll your sleeves up and get it done and tattooing is very good for that. If the customer is waiting, it focuses you to pick the pen up and get started. 

5. The insidious nature of fashion.

The logic of fashion has infiltrated everything. In tattooing it just does not belong, but sadly it's here whether we like it or not. Fashion and tattooing are the world's worst bedfellows because fashion is that thing that every six months you have to change for some arbitrary reason, but a tattoo is something that can't be changed. A lot of people are approaching tattooing from a fashion angle and 6-12 months later you can look at their tattoo and tell exactly what month it was done because you know when that was hot, and that's a sad thing.