An underground icon: Part One

• An underground icon, Ricky Luder has been at the centre of Fremantle’s tattoo culture for nearly 40 years. Photo by Steve Grant.

IN some ways, tattooist Ricky Luder’s new studio on Fremantle’s main street is symbolic of the artform’s mainstreaming in the last decade.

When he first started tattooing gruff wharfies and smirking ACDC wannabes in the early 80s, Mr Luder’s parlours were small, discrete shops just off the main drag; around the corner from His Lordship’s Larder, across the street from the workers’ club.

Fashion-conscious

But these days the wharfies have made way for a stream of fashion-conscious young women coming across from Notre Dame uni – the nurse you may one day rely on to save you in a medical emergency or the lawyer representing you in a tricky legal case.

In keeping with his new clientele and the art form’s elevated stature, Mr Luder’s new studio is front and centre in High Street in the West End, its big windows an ever-changing display of his incredible tattoo memorabilia.

“These windows educate so many people about tattooing,” Mr Luder said.

“You watch fathers and sons stopping and talking about them, and then fathers dragging sons away, and sons dragging fathers away.”

Probably the most topical is a piece of skin tattooed by one of Mr Luder’s first bosses in Fremantle, Bobby Thornton, which the owner donated so it could be preserved.

Mr Luder says Thornton was one of the best tattooists he’s ever come across, but a right scallywag to boot who honed his craft behind the walls of the Fremantle prison. Apart from decorating fellow inmates and the odd screw with freehand designs, Thornton decorated his cell walls with large murals which have been preserved to this day.

“Bobby had Southside Tattoo in Henry Street and he had five or six artists there. Bobby was a WA master and he was running the shop nearly every day,” Mr Luder said.

Another notorious inkster provided the inspiration for Mr Luder’s career; Brisbane’s Billy Phillips, a Vulture Street drug dealer and gun runner with links to the Whisky Au Go Go bombing. His crazy life ranged from working as a Queensland government cartographer to seeing his wife’s hands get blown off by a mail bomb, possibly in revenge for his snitching to bent cops.

Showgrounds

“My old man was a journo in Queensland and in the mid-to-late 60s worked out of a brick building on the Royal Showgrounds,” Mr Luder said.

“Next to the kiosk was Billy Phillips’ tattoo tent, and before the end of the show I’d become the coffee runner.”

• Continued next week

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