Cityscape caught up with legendary Christchurch tattooist Steve Johnson’s former apprentice Josh Ross – now one of the city’s most in demand tattoo artists – at City of Ink to talk about his career path and what’s up in the tattoo world.
How did you get into tattoo artistry?
I got into tattoo art growing up in a heavily tattooed environment. My mum and dad both had tattoos and were into the car/motorbike/rock music cultures; this allowed me to pay attention to not just the amazing art they worked hard to earn on their bodies, but also the personalities each image represented. As I grew older I experienced a lot of people passing away in my life and acquired tattoos as a bookmark for each occasion – that way I could represent these role models that meant so much to me and gave me the strength to push through the fire of life. While lost for direction at the age of 18 I was lucky enough, through a series of random synchronicities, to meet Steve Johnson and work under a man more masterful than I could’ve ever imagined. Forty years of solid work under the belt is a difficult personality to understand at such a young age, and has now set a par in my life for me to work just as hard as Steve, and understand more the dedication it takes to commit to such standard in the craft.
How did that shape the tattooist you have become and what was the best advice Steve gave you?
Tattooing under Steve was a big challenge at first. But eventually it became one rule and one rule only: only the tattoo matters. No matter what anybody says towards the stigma behind the industry, their personal opinion on what’s considered ‘art’, or the way the environment in the tattoo shop feels, a solid tattoo that meets the client’s requirements is all that matters. “Your work does the talking.”
How has the industry changed since you started out?
I think it’s just become a lot more digital and certain traditions are being weeded out as the elders move on. Reference is rarely gathered from books like it used to be, apprentices for the most part get paid for their work instead of working for free, and bring more uniqueness to the designs offered as opposed to repeating the same amazing designs created by the masters!
Describe your tattoo style.
I tattoo black and grey realism and try to add my own illustrative twist to a more traditional Japanese style.
Tell us about your favourite work/proudest moment.
My proudest moment and greatest work was on a man named Steven Inkersell from Timaru. He was so trusting and allowed me to draw on with sharpies a whole leg sleeve to rib panel design without even knowing what it was going to be. In 2015 and 2016 we took out the Best Leg award at the New Plymouth tattoo convention, one of the biggest tattoo shows in the southern hemisphere.
What’s the secret to creating a killer tattoo?
I would say timelessness in the design idea, readability from a distance, and matching the image to a client’s personality. The goal is for the tattoo to feel natural on the body, not like a blemish that comes across as damaging to the person’s image.
What’s the one thing people should never get tattooed on them?
I would say your own first name or your partner’s name.
Who does your tattoos, what’s your favourite and is there a story behind it?
I have a collection from friends, but I’ve recently started a back project with Dean Sacred at Sacred tattoo in Auckland and can’t say enough about his tattoo skill and the respect Dean has for the industry. The reason I wanted to start my back is to understand what my clients have to go through; it’s been a very humbling experience in identifying the inner strength that’s needed to get through such a large project.