Cross Words

Steve Cross is a multi-talented artist, working across many mediums, including spraypaint, pencil and tattoos. Originally from Perth, Wild Western Australia, he now resides in Melbourne, where he co-runs Korpus Tattoo Studio. We caught up with the all-round b-boy for a chat about his murky past and inky fingers.

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Tell us about your studio, Korpus…

Korpus was founded in 2007, in Brunswick, Melbourne. My good friend, Brian Graydon, and I came up with the concept of an art studio that would also run as a tattoo studio. We figured that if we exposed new images, ideas and concepts to people, we’d break away from that clichéd idea of what a tattoo and a tattoo studio should be. We hoped customers would respond with more of an open mind, which, in turn, would expand the possibilities of what they would want, and what we could illustrate on them. To start with, it was tough, as, initially, we learnt how to tattoo for 12 years, but now we were thrown into the business side of things. Five years on, we have great artists working with us, and we’ve had some amazing people come through. All the people who work, or have worked, at Korpus have been artists that Brian and I have looked up to and wanted to either nurture or learn from.

More jump off after the jump off!

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How did you get into tattooing? Did you practice on pig skin when you started, or just go straight for people?

There was no pigskin in sight when I started, thankfully! I apprenticed in Perth, W.A, after a long 4-5 years travelling over East trying to sell my own tattoo flash, and basically trying to get any response or attention from any tattooist in Australia! It was a pretty hard slog. Some of the people I met were friendly and some definitely weren’t. It never bothered me though, I knew I had to start from the beginning and took it on the chin. In those days I was doing lots graffiti, playing in a band, and working for Juvenile Justice, writing and running art programmes for kids in and out of jail. I was also delivering pizzas. It wasn’t until 1997, after a whole lot of hard slog, that I finally got the chance to apprentice at a studio in Perth. The old blokes I ended up working with were rough – real rough! But it was cool as! The shop was a murky soup of chaos – we had white supremacists getting tattooed one side, and prostitutes and sailors on the other. The problem was, it wasn’t a book – it was real!

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There seems to be quite a bikey element to a lot of the tattoo studios in Sydney. Is it the same in Melbourne?

Melbourne’s quite different to the rest of Australia – there are heaps of top-notch independent studios, specialising in custom tattoos.

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What’s the worst tattoo you’ve ever had to do?

I’ve been tattooing for 17 years now, so I’m pretty sure there are some stinkers out there of mine! I don’t feel I can judge peoples decisions about what they want on themselves though. I mean, sometimes I don’t like people’s fashion choices, but it’s their decision to wear things, and who am I to judge? It’s the same with tattoos – I feel I’m there to make sure the job is done correctly, so customers walk out of the door with a good tattoo. If it’s of a dolphin jumping over a rose, then it’s going to be the best dolphin jumping over a rose that I can do!

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Hahahaha! You work with needles and spraypaint, which do you prefer?

One is not above the other, in my eyes. I honestly love them both. With tattooing, you work small, with graff you use your whole arm and body. It’s awesome to switch it up, painting one day, then tattooing the other. I love the contrast, but with both I still practice the concepts of design. Oddly enough, there is quite a strong relationship between the two – there are a lot of writers that have become fantastic tattooists.

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You started off painting graffiti in Perth before you were tattooing. What drew you to spray paint?

Being born in the South Eastern suburbs of Perth, with no transport out, life was pretty hard if you weren’t a bogan. So when the breakdance scene was exposed on TV, around 1982-83, I became obsessed with it. I used to watch any movie from America to see if there was graffiti in the background. It had a real appeal to me – I’m not sure why. I still remember when I first started seeing tags go up around Perth. I had no idea why they were there, and who was doing them, and that idea of finding out what it was about was exciting to me. It seemed so rebellious. It gave me a personal journey at an age where shit was always going on in the suburbs. It was something I did by myself, just like every other writer in the world.

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Have you always loved the whole Hip Hop, B-boy aspect of graffiti?

Yep, when I was young, whenever I saw a Dirty Harry, or Charles Bronson, New York City cop film, I would sit and wait to see tags and b-boys. American cop films were always against gang members – to me that meant graffiti, thugs and breakdancing. I still hit up clubs to see Hip-hop DJs and MCs, and I still go to breakdance and graffiti events. Living in Melbourne, there’s lots going on, and even though I’m getting on a bit, I still go to something at least once a week.

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It seems like you’ve always been attracted to the underbelly, the darker, more underground side of life, is that a conscious decision?

I was born when the Vietnam War was happening, and it had a profound effect on me. Videos were invented when I was a kid too and I got to see the outside world brought to me through films. My older brother was obsessed, and still is, with big cities, and how they work. As kids, we would study books about these amazing places, and wonder how many people lived there and how did they survive? The older I got, the more I realised that in those places, there’s always an underbelly; a dark side that has its own rules and laws. It was the darker side of life, the behind-closed-doors stuff, the secret handshakes; that has always interested me. So when I found the graffiti scene, I just fitted in. I didn’t have to be someone I wasn’t. I could work independently, but within a group. It’s the same with tattooing. And with the transition into the tattoo community, I already knew the score about how some of it worked – keep quiet, keep your nose clean, and show respect to your peers.

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Your animals have a kind of twisted, cybernetic element to them, I guess this is similar to the mechanical extension of your tattooing, where the machine is an extension of you. Do you see that as a reflection of yourself?

I don’t really analyse the animals I paint, draw or tattoo. Most characters are spontaneous. I do like a twist in them though. I like creating something new; a new character, a new creature with a history, with a past of some sort. I read a lot about illustration and use these tools in all my mediums. Lately I’ve been tattooing like I’m drawing in my sketch book, trying to forget that tattooing has rules and using the machine like a carbon pencil. It’s opened my eyes to new possibilities. I’ve already scheduled customers this year to illustrate this style on. It’s going to be exciting! I’m feeling pretty good at the moment with all my mediums – graffiti, tattooing, painting and drawing – and none feel more important than the other. I can’t wait to exhibit some of my new work later this year.

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I know you’re a big fan of Mode 2, what artists are you most inspired by in your work?

I study everything I can – the work of oil painters, watercolour artists, architects, jewellery designers, even plant forms and human anatomy. Pretty much everything I see! So, as far as inspiration goes, I can’t only pick people. But if there has to be a list, these are some people I’m totally into at the moment: graff writers such as Mode 2, Insa, Solo1, Dvate (SDM), Aryz, Days One, Peque, Gents, Giant, Sofles, Twoone, and definitely Kid Zoom. Street artists like Swoon, Os Gemeos, Roa, Conor Harrington, C215, Jaz, Meggs and Conrad Bizjak. As for Tattooists; George Campise, Geordie Cole, Adam Kitamoto, William Yokohama, Owen Williams, Alvaro Flores, Victor Chil, Henry Lewis and Pari Corbit are all doing amazing work. Painters I’m into also include; Martin Whittfooth, Aaron Horkey, Ken Taylor, Robin Eley, Jeremy Mann, Richard Schmidt and Aron Wiesenfeld.

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Anyone you’d like to shout out to, or thank?

The people around me that inspire and help me out through my life, thanks! And of course to VNA – without people like you, art would be forgotten.

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Mr Steve Cross

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Korpus