Big Top Ink: Todays Circus Tattoo Adventures
Under the sprawling canopies of the 2023 Perth Royal Show, two friends stumbled upon an unexpected spectacle, a tattoo parlour nestled among the traditional carnival tents and sideshows. With copious amounts of cotton candy delivered sugar and anticipation coursing through their veins they cautiously approach the tent and step inside.
It’s a furnace. Perth’s temperatures raced as high as 35 degrees for the show this year. Inside this tattoo tent, it feels every bit of that and more.
This tent is a hot and sweaty den of potential.
Tattooing returned to the carnival in 2023 as the team from Mad Catz Tattoo (@madcatztattoo) pitched their tent at the Perth Royal Show and hit the crowds to entice patrons to mark the show with some fresh ink, set out a combined array of flash designs starting from $150.
We joined the team to chat with the artists and their clients to explore this return to an unfamiliar, though well-trodden place for tattooing. What does tattooing look like at today’s circus?
Circus Tattoo Events: Where Tradition Meets Trend
The Perth Royal Show is no spring chicken, its existed since 1834 and you can find similar iterations across Australia’s states.
The show's popularity is due to its diverse range of attractions, including agricultural displays, animal exhibitions, entertainment, amusement rides, competitions, and food stalls making it attractive for young and old.
Over 350,000 people will attend the Royal Show this year.
With that 185 year plus history, the event is well suited in the context of circus tattooing, a historic practice that was in full swing in the early 1900’s with venerable names such as Stoney St Clair, Cap Coleman, Paul Rogers and others tattooing from various travelling circuses at the time. Read more on that history <here>
To our knowledge this is the first time however that tattooing has officially been conducted at the Perth Royal Show. There is no clear reason for this, perhaps simply as tattooing popularity has grown the opportunity became more palatable to the operators of the show, the Royal Agricultural Society of Western Australia, to agree to 2023 being the year for this tradition to re-emerge.
It didn’t go unnoticed though that a search for “tattoo” on the show website came up with zilch.
We were interested to see how much of the carnival atmosphere soaked into the spectacle of such a public display for tattooing, how this gang of young artists felt out of their shop environment and what their patrons were expecting from the experience.
Behind the Curtain: Challenges of Tattooing in Circus Environments
The tattooist's tent seemed like a clandestine portal to another era, echoing the nomadic spirit of circuses long past. You could say it contains a sense of authenticity that can dilute amoungst ever more commercial enterprises.
As you step inside, the hum of the fairground fades to a distant murmur, replaced by the rhythmic buzz of tattoo machines.
At least from those using coils. To maintain health requirements the majority of the artists and tattooing had transitioned to disposable, single use supplies and the near silent hum of rotary machines. In fact, the tent had to remain fairly bare for only the essentials, chairs, a make shift reception and flash display, plus an over worked fan and plenty of ice buckets brimming with water bottles.
The nature of today’s carnivals and pop-up events according to health and safety rules and requirements leaves these things fairly lean and mean and in future years we would love to see more allowance for decorations and displays to enhance the tattoo tradition vibes.
The Contemporary Appeal: Who's Drawn to Circus Tattooing Today?
The tattooists, are out and about in the crowds. A modern-day entertainment, they are searching for customers with a flashy “tattoos” sign being twirled about complete with dance numbers. Its apparent that this event is made for the younger clientele and how do you best reach them – tiktok of course.
Artist Clare Elizabeth (@clarelizabeth_tattoo) noted “Definitely more of a carnival atmosphere! Yeah, in the mornings we have to stand out in front with signs and stuff trying to get everyone in because we find the mornings have been the slowest. A lot of family time out rather than people who are looking to be tattooed.”
The MadCatz team is creating content hourly and its working. Over half of the people we spoke to had been attracted to the tent after seeing a tiktok video promoting the return of tattoo to the show. This wasn’t a day for empowering, transformative and talismanic tattoos. The clients were here wanting some fun. A marker of the day out at the show with their mates. YOLO on display.
Speaking to a trio of friends eagerly entering the tent together on why they had decided to get tattoos today.
“Well last night I was scrolling through TikTok and I saw a TikTok about tattoos here so I roped my friends together to come down.
What were they hoping to get from todays tattoo?
“Probably just a fun experience and memories. Something to do together”.
Another customer, entering the tent had a similar experience, confirming “I saw a TikTok of it, not going to lie! I thought I might as well, while I’m here just for fun.”
Others walked by and made the decision on impulse.
“I walked past and saw some of the artists I recognised from my previous tattoo and wanted to get another one. We wanted to give it a go.”
Ink Tales: Stories Behind Circus-Inspired Tattoos
Junior artist Khushi Sharma (@khushiiitattoo) gave a great insight into her experience tattooing out of the shop environment for the first time.
“At the Royal Show my experience as a tattoo artist has been completely different to what we get at the studio. The fact that we're so used to our environment and seeing all these tattooists working daily, we are kinda of in a little bubble. So coming out here and seeing people who have never been tattooed before and them seeing us as someone who is tattooed. They are now being exposed.
I relate this back to my cultural backgrounds as I come from India we don't see many people back home that have tattoos. This is like opportunity like that, coming out here and showing people that we have more to give and that tattoos are normal to have.
Every person we have come across so far has been like “Oh my god, we are getting a tattoo at the Royal Show!”. They go home and in about 10 years time there going to tell their kids about that the tattoo they got at the Royal Show. It’s part of the story behind their tattoo and that’s always fun. They will remember it.”
Curtains Fall, Tattoos Rise: Unending Body Art
Behind the curtain of nostalgia, tattooing remains at a crossroads between and amongst its history and contemporary expression. Spontaneous tattoos at the circus thrive in the carnival atmosphere. The patrons of MadCatz Tattoo stood at the precipice of a timeless decision. Should they surrender to the allure of the needle, becoming living canvases in the grand tradition of circus tattooing?
Plenty did and smiles were everywhere.