Visual Encyclopedia of Kink and Comics: Tattoo Artist Onnie O'Leary

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Visual Encyclopedia of Kink and Comics: Tattoo Artist Onnie O'Leary

In this interview with tattoo artist Onnie O'Leary he talks about the evolution of his art and why NSFW tattoos are so powerful.

In this world bearded ladies, leather daddies, bad ass Heavy Metal babes battling intergalactic monsters, and even the sexy sapphic visions of your middle school wet dreams all live in gloriously vivid harmony. Onnie O'Leary's work is dripping with the juices of a thousand horny hotties, but although it may be graphic, it isn't scatological. In fact, it's actually beautifully powerful in the way that openly embracing a deep facet of the human condition, like sexuality, can be. Body positive and sex positive to it's core, as well as super nerdy, intelligent, funny, and cute, Onnie's work is the eye catching stuff of forbidden fantasies unleashed. 

How did you get into tattooing, and was it always what you wanted to do?

I grew up drawing as much as I could and even though I went through a few career possibilities as a kid when it came time to go to uni I knew I wanted to study art. Uni was great but there was a real focus on the contemporary and conceptual practices and I was looking for something a bit more hands on and practical. After I got my degree I decided I wasn’t done studying and went to TAFE (technical college) and studied Fine Art all over again. That was amazing and I was very lucky to study there at a time when it was still heavily subsidised. I think I paid $100 a year for my education there. After I’d completed those studies I knew I wanted to make a living from making art but I still wasn’t sure exactly what form it would take. I was lucky enough to meet a tattooer who liked my work and offered me my first apprenticeship. I was working full time trying to save money to go overseas but I would be there every night from 5pm to 3am trying to learn everything I could. After a year I went to Amsterdam, but wasn’t anywhere near ready to be tattooing on my own. I was lucky to get another apprenticeship there and that really kick started everything.

Your style is immediately recognizable as your own. How did you develop your aesthetic, how has it changed over the years?

My mentor really encouraged me to find my own style. I think he recognized that the industry was changing dramatically and that having a recognizable style would mean consistent work. Developing that was a matter of looking hard within the industry to see what was being done already and what worked for tattooing so I could do something different to it all, and then outside tattooing, for ideas that could be translated into something tattooable. It was also a slow process of figuring out what worked and what didn’t and what resonated with people. I rarely delete things from Instagram so you can go back and see how the style was built over time.

What artists, films, books, movements, etc. inspire your work?

Too many things to list here, I guess you could say the '70's were a good era for me to draw from, a lot of the visuals from the creative culture then really impressed upon me. Porno comics mostly, although the sexual politics left a lot to be desired. I'm trying to readdress some of that in my work.

A lot of your work is highly erotic. Why are you fascinated by this imagery and why do you think people are down to have it tattooed even though it could be considered a taboo topic?

People love sex and people get tattoos of things they love! I think there's all kinds of reasons, it can be a good pick up line, it can help indicate your preferences without an awkward introduction, it might just be something fun and different. Sex is one of the few common experiences we have across humanity but how and with who can be uniquely personal, so there's something for everyone there. It took a while to get the ball rolling on that, but once I'd done the first one and put it online more people followed.

Have you ever had to deal with censorship? What are your thoughts on social media and its effects on the art world?

Social media has definitely changed the way we see art and interact with the artist, it's taken down the barriers of gallery and curator, so being an art collector is much more feasible for folks these days. There really isn't too much censorship when it comes to quality now, anyone can put anything online for people to see. In terms of content however it can be a little more tricky to navigate. But I think people tend to be more offended by vulgarity or crassness than by actual sexual content and so my work has actually been surprisingly well accepted by my online audience. I don't want to degrade my subjects in any way and I think that's being recognised.

Australia, in general, seems to have a really exciting tattoo community with tons of really incredible artists. What do you think is it about the culture there that supports creativity?

Certainly not our government! We've had so much funding cut from arts and education hitting tattooing with meaningless and expensive regulation that prevents us from hosting guest artists easily and it's only getting worse unfortunately. But the community itself is very supportive and tattooing especially, where many aspects are still self regulated is doing okay. Social media again is a real savior in that I can keep in touch with my international peers super easily and immediately. There are a ton of Aussies overseas who I wouldn't get to talk to otherwise!


Beyond tattooing, what are your most favorite things? Where have you traveled that was your favorite and why?

Ha! I was just saying yesterday that I love going to different countries and watching their Netflix. Super boring, I know, but I like to watch trashy TV while I draw. My real passion is that I love to try and learn new languages and cultures from the ground up and tattooing really throws me into that. I'm in Malmö currently and it's graduation week and the students all ride around town in dump tricks wearing their graduation caps that look like sailor hats and visit their parents houses to drink at each house. It's so different from Australia and I would never have known if I hadn't been here at the right time! I'm trying to pick up a few new phrases while I'm here but everyone speaks English so damn well!

Any projects, collabs, guest spots, conventions, etc. coming up that you’d like to share?

I'm based permanently at TLD Tattoo in Gymea, NSW but I'll be doing more national and international trips in the next few years. I've got the New Plymouth convention coming up in November this year and I just got a big printer so I'm hoping to have a ton of prints available for Christmas if I can get my arse into gear when I get home!

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