TATTOO TALES: The Untold Life of Aussie Tattoo Legend, Des Connolly.
Introducing 'Tattoo Tales', a series where we endeavour to uncover the lives, craftsmanship and fascinations that have come with ages of tattoo history throughout Australia and beyond.
We begin by embarking on this historical adventure with a look back at the life of Desmond "Des" John Connolly…
Des Connolly is an Australian tattoo legend who played an integral role with some of the biggest names in tattoo history. Working from his Melbourne studio with Alf Mingins, creating tattoo machines with Sailor Jerry, witnessing Japanese tattooing by Kazuo Oguri “Horohide” with Don Ed Hardy for the first time and establishing the Australian Tattoo Club, Des was at the centre of a cultural and technical growth explosion that helped shape tattoo as we know it today.
Unfortunately, there is little documentation on the life of Desmond Connolly. This was not uncommon as tattooists and machine craftsmen of this era and before the time of social media - kept their cards close to their chests to protect their trade practices from the competition. This, as well as the sad fact that Des passed away so early in his career and life (in 1985 at the young age of 42) means little is recorded on his story.
We seek to honour Des’ contribution to this world. With the help of members of the tattoo community who shared a love for Des Connolly and his work, we put together the pieces of his story, uncovering what has - to this point - been missing.
The Back Story…
Des started tattooing in the early 1960s from his mother's house at 113 Derby Street, in the Melbourne suburb of Pascoe Vale, mainly from a caravan parked in the driveway of the home. It is here he is listed as a working artist by the Tattoo Club of America (TCA) in their October 1966 Newsletter. At this time, Des would have been in his early 20's - young, eager and passionate about this exciting world of tattoos he was officially getting started with.
Moving on from his family home to Lalor, and after a short time working from Melbourne's Coburg Market and opening a shop in Port Kembla NSW, Des set up his studio at 102 Sydney Street Brunswick. A large enough shop to accommodate two artists, it was several years later at this property that Des was joined occasionally by his tattoo hero and friend, Alf Mingins.
Des’ Tattoo Hero
It is no surprise Des respected Alf Mingins’ career success. All local and visiting tattooists at the time were tattooed by Alf, many sporting multiple designs from the man. He was considered the best in Melbourne at the time and particularly respected for his portraits of women's faces.
Alf Mingins came from a very well-respected tattoo heritage. His father was a famous British tattooist, Alfred Hunter Mingins. Alf's brother, Richard "Rich" Mingins, Alf, and their father all worked together from their Cumbria UK studio before relocating to London.
To strike out on his own, Alf migrated to Australia in 1958 to work as a Melbourne tattooist. Between his time working as a gardener with his local council, Alf tattooed at night from his home in Collingwood. He formed a working relationship with Des Connolly and tattooed Des' chest with the Pharaoh's Horse design, and his back with a large Battle Royale work. Alf agreed to work occasionally with Des in the Brunswick studio. At this time, in the very early 1970’s Alf had arthritis preventing him from more regular tattooing and so worked at the studio a few days each month.
A Trusted Circle
Perhaps the quietness in Des’ publicity to this day can be attributed to the working style himself and Alf Mingins preferred to take.
Alf Mingins was notoriously silent in his work and rarely shared techniques or information outside his trusted circle. It should be noted however that this characterisation may not be entirely clear-cut, as Alf Mingins did have a stutter and was also considered hesitant to talk in that respect, often communicating by notes and letters.
One person Alf and Des did share information with, was that of confidant and global tattooist Norman Collins (known better as Sailor Jerry).
His International Collaborations
Sailor Jerry was one of the greatest innovators of tattoo machines, parts, and equipment. Jerry noted, "I make my own equipment because I demand a lot from my equipment and the only way you get it out is to put it in when you make the machine. This involves almost pure iron for the frames which I get from BHP in Australia".
As the relationship between Des and Jerry grew as did the mutual respect for each other’s work, it extended into a strong relationship with potential collaborations. This included swapping ideas, designs, pigments, and machines throughout correspondence.
It is from Jerry that Des could source the extremely rare purple ink pigment that Jerry had. Sailor Jerry tattooed Des on his leg during one of Des' visits to Honolulu, with a lady design resting on a large bunch of purple grapes which he proudly showed off to many tattooists at home who had never seen the colour used in a tattoo before. Des used this ink sourced from Sailor Jerry in his own tattooing, astonishing other tattooists in the country when he incorporated this precious pigment into his designs as no one else knew how to secure it or if it was even possible to tattoo with purple!
Another of their collaborations materialised into Jerry's machine building, where Des provided many of the initial casts and moulds from Australia for Sailor Jerry.
The pair’s ventures even went as far as proposing they form a supply company together to be called "Collins & Connolly." During this time, Des travelled from Australia to Hawaii to meet with Jerry in his Hawaii studio, which also included machine discussions and more upcoming collaborations in machine designs and the tattoo supply business.
As their friendship grew to a very close, trusted bond, Des and Jerry continued with further collaborations as the technical and artistic nature of tattoo expanded during this time.
Joining the Council of Seven
Created in December 1972 by Norman Collins (Sailor Jerry), the Council of the Seven was the first international tattoo convention on American soil. Jerry dubbed it "The Council of the Seven" with a grand total of seven invited attendees.
Membership consisted of "Shanghai" Kate Hellenbrand, Don Ed Hardy, Mike "Rollo" Malone, Kazuo Oguri Horihide, Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins, Des Connolly, and Mickey Lighter, Sailor Jerrys' first female apprentice. The group all met together in 1972 in Hawaii for the well-known "convention" discussed by Ed Hardy in the documentary "Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry".
“Shanghai” Kate Hellenbrand referred to the meeting as indeed the first time a group of international tattoo artists got together in one place to discuss the bizarre enterprise they were all struggling to define in their minds.
The group sought common ground in securing the sharing of knowledge and technique in tattoos with the artist's respect and providing further legitimacy to the trade recognition and history of tattoos at the time.
The E-Coil Machine
As mentioned, Sailor Jerry admired Alf and Des’ work and machine knowledge. From here, the men exchanged ideas and talked collaborations, including an "E-Coil" thin armature bar machine made by Alf and Des.
Alf and Des ended up producing many of these "E-Coil" machines which has been well investigated and documented by Colin Creed. Among them included a number that were provided to and used by Jerry. These are now retained in several museums in both America and Australia.
Brett Stewart’s Tattoo Museum in Australia holds a few of these machines on which "Alf Mingins'' is stamped on the sidebar.
The Bulldog Frame
With unprecedented construction of tanks, munitions, vehicles and train tracks, WW2 depleted many countries’ volumes of raw materials. As a result, the world faced a shortage of high-quality iron and steel during the mid-1900s increasing its cost and sourcing difficulty for tattoo machine makers.
Australia was a natural, global source with its high-grade iron and steel available.
Living in the US, it is from here that Jerry looked to source the steel purity he wanted and worked with Australian Artists such as Des Connolly to do so.
Des Connolly was technically a Pattern Maker by trade, and as such, he used this skill to create many patterns needed by Foundries to cast various items in metal, such as tattoo machines. As he developed his machine-building skills, he would seek the advice of Melbourne local tattoo legend Chris Higgins aka "Spider Webb" who was well respected for his machine knowledge and relocated from Sydney to Melbourne in the late 1970’s.
Des made several machine casts for Jerry, specifically from the Melbourne foundries in the 1970s. Investigative work by Colin Creed also confirmed how close Alf Mingins was involved in this machine collaboration between the trio.
As Jerry, Alf, and Des exchanged frames and ideas in the years around the late 1960s and early 1970s (Jerry passed away in 1973), they swapped more frames and machines in addition to the “E-Coil” machine previously mentioned.
Three key frames were cast from Australian steel for Sailor Jerry:
- The ‘Straight Arm’
- The ‘Bulldog'
- The ‘Streamliner’
These machine frame casts were then sent to Jerry, who would arrange for them to be milled and complete the machine build. The frame geometry was revised and refined between casting batches adjusting the length and height, weight, sidebar width, and coils in a process that could only have been achieved with the strong bond and trust these men shared.
Some of these frames survived Des as he had made a quantity of the frames which were retained after his passing in Australia and were referred to as the "Collins-Connolly frame" and later named the "Bulldog frame", more on this later.
Later Years - The Australian Tattoo Club
After travelling the US, at some point, Des moved the Sydney Street Brunswick studio which himself and later Alf had been working from, to Saxon Street Brunswick.
From here, Des Connolly and Alf Mingins established the Australian Tattoo Club (ATC), which Des predominantly ran up to the time of his passing, acting as president.
At the time, tattooists were busy, and travel was limited, so the club was generally operated with those close to the area or in correspondence with each other. However, Des did work to promote the club globally and published 12 newsletters for members.
Alf Mingins also contributed to the club's management and running. The club crest and member certificate artwork were all created by Alf Mingins. These cards were printed and individually signed by Des as club president and can still be found in the drawers of many tattooists working from that era today.
The Saxon House ATC card:
The years went on, and Alf Mingins retired from tattooing. Des continued to operate the studio with just himself, eventually creating his very own Tattoo Museum which he operated until his passing in 1985.
Continuing Des’ Legacy through the Bulldog Frame
Following Des's passing, Steve Paul assisted his family with Des's estate and his machines and art. This included a decent quantity of frames cast that Des had retained in Australia.
In the late 1980s, a number of these frames were provided to Mike “Rollo” Malone, Scott Sterling, and Kandi Everett. The frames were built on by both Rollo and Scott Sterling and sold as "Sailor Jerry" machines. At this time, the term "Bulldog" was applied.
The nature of the collaboration remains recorded in the artists' correspondence. The Bulldog frame and machine design are largely attributed to having been created during this time to its design we see today. Although it was not called "The Bulldog" at the time it was cast and built by Sailor Jerry and Des, this name came later after both had passed, from Rollo who noted machines from the design were hard-working and "goes at it like a bulldog".
Machine designs vary and there are plenty of great builders and innovators, past and present. It is in this era that some of the most iconic machine designs emerged that remain a staple for tattooists today.
Almost without exception, a tattooist familiar with coil machines will know and appreciate the Bulldog, and amongst all his achievements, it is in that machine Des Connolly remains forever cast in tattoo history.
This article could not have been possible without the assistance of so many people, all of whom shared their love and recollections and pictures of a man and history they clearly held close to their hearts. We are incredibly grateful for the assistance of the following (in alphabetic order);
Tony Burnett, Colin Creed, Chuck Eldridge (The Tattoo Archive), John Entwistle, Brandyn Feldman, Lucky Supply (Jimmy Whitlock and Katelyn Guillette), Ricky Luder, Chris “Crash” Midkiff, Bev Nicholas, Steve Paul, Brett Stewart, Scott Sterling, and Noel Wilkinson.
Machine imagery collectively published with permission from Scott Sterling, from the book 'A slice of Insight on Sailor Jerry Tattoo Machine Innovations' by Sterling & McCloud.