Lighthouse Tattoo is leading a movement in boutique tattooing. Lighthouse doesn’t advertise, doesn’t give out its address and doesn’t even hang a sign outside its southeast Sydney studio. Before learning of Lighthouse’s location, prospective clients have to book a consultation with an artist.
This isn’t exclusivity or snobbery, but rather the mark of a company that takes its time, cares for the client and produces world-renowned art. Owners and founders Alex Cairns and Nathan Puata have assembled a full set of Sydney’s finest tattoo artists under the Lighthouse banner.
Cairns smiles when asked of Lighthouse’s secrecy. “The best promotion you can have is a good, finished tattoo, just walking around. You always find your customers,” he says.
He’s not kidding. Indeed, Lighthouse has no shortage of customers. Their focus on honest work and craftsmanship has paid off in spades.
Where other tattoo outfits orientated themselves towards highly visible shopfronts to draw in customers for walk-in tattoos, Lighthouse has a more considered approach. What’s the difference? “The focus on having a finished tattoo that looks good, rather than getting someone in and out for their money – that’d be the major difference,” explains Cairns. “You might get someone walking into their appointment, then if a drawing doesn’t quite work, in a place like this, it’s reasonable to say ‘I think we can get this fitting your body better’.
“The aim isn’t to turn someone away,” Cairns says about the consultations. “It’s to make sure that the difference between me and someone else doing the work is big enough.” If an artist feels the client’s design would be better suited to someone else, whether they work within Lighthouse or at another studio, they say so. Honesty and communication are paramount.
Now in its fifth year of operation, Lighthouse has six full-time staff and waiting lists that stretch for over a year for major works (the full sleeves, chest pieces and back pieces that are the studio’s hallmark). Four tattoo guns buzz at once in its communal studio space, framed by drafting tables and walls lined with the staff’s work, from photos of finished tattoos to oil paintings. At the opposite end of the floor from Cairns, Puata is carefully etching outlines onto a young man, Rob.
He lies stoically flat, eyes flicking between his smartphone and the ceiling. He’s waited over a year for the first of his appointments to begin. As Puata adds more and more form to Rob’s Japanese-inspired full-sleeve tattoo, the question arises: is it worth it?
“Yeah man.” Rob smiles. “You can’t put a price on this.”
Most of Cairns and Puata’s pieces take between 30 and 40 hours to complete. Clients come in for a three-hour session every two weeks, with complex shading and line-work taking longer. Puata works strictly in the areas he’s interested in such as portraiture and Japanese design, a by-product of Lighthouse’s growing cultural currency. “We focus more on custom work here, so customers come to you because they’ve seen your work and liked it.”
It’s this dedication to custom work that makes Lighthouse such an exciting studio. A world away from the tattooing culture that has found a grounding in reality TV and quick fix, off-the-street gratification, Lighthouse is quietly re-working the industry of body art.
Says Cairns: “Most of the work I do, it’s work I would get [on my own body].”