words by Meena Chopra | photo by Sandeep Chopra | oct 27, 2016 | sassy
This was the question from her client on her first day at work.
Fran ‘The Dragon Lady’ has been tattooing for over twenty five years, drawing for over thirty, and has created many beautiful dragon designs across her career. In this short piece she shares with Meena Chopra the story of her life on what it takes for a woman to be in a male dominated profession alongside playing the role of a wife and a mother.
Can you describe yourself?
I would say, I love nature, and animals, and I’m quite soft-hearted. I spend most of my time drawing, painting, drawing, drawing, tattooing, drawing.
Can you elaborate on your childhood days?
I grew up in New Zealand and I spent most of the time running around the backyard – we had a big backyard – climbing trees. I was in Sydney in the seventies and the eighties, you know, all the bands. But mind you, I started tattooing when I was eighteen so I was more or less working most of the time. I’ve been drawing since I was five, because that’s another thing, I was a lonely kind of child. Even though I had a brother, he was older and so I just drew most of the time. If I wasn’t outside with the cats, I was drawing. I loved animals.
Why do you think people get themselves tattooed?
I think there are lots of reasons people get tattoos. I think, one, because they just like the picture, I’ve had that quite a lot. Two, because it means something to them, it’s like a specific memory; maybe they get maybe a rose or a heart for their mothers. It’s not taboo.
Does culture have an implication in the tattoo world?
Culture plays a part. It’s also a sense of belonging to something. You know, like with tribal tattoos, guys can belong to a tribe, an urban tribe. Maoris, Polynesians and Hawaiians have their cultural tattoos, and they all mean something. That they’re all about how and what they’ve done, where they are in their families, etc.
And with Europeans, a lot of the time, we don’t have our own culture. If we don’t really have one, we try and seek a culture and, you know, grasp it.
Why do you think young people like getting inked and are there a specific body part for them?
When young females come in for a tattoo it’s often peer pressure, or everyone else is doing it, or they see a band with them, they see it all around them. If they want tattoo done on their arms or anything, we’ll say no. And they might argue, but we just say ‘If you want it that bad, go somewhere else – But we won’t do it.’
Even if they’re over 18, if they want it on their lower arms, I won’t do it. You can’t hide it there. Cause even at 18, you’re still a baby. You don’t know where you’ll go in life, if you’ll end up with a really straight man who doesn’t like tattoos, and you’ve blown your chances on a stupid tattoo. It can be removed, but it’s very expensive and very painful.
Can you tell us something about your family and how have they supported you in your journey?
I am extremely grateful to be alive. My mother was in a prisoner of war camp for five years, and almost killed. She was blown up, and so I’m extremely grateful that she survived. My father died when he was 45. I don’t really have a lot of memories, because he was a businessman.
My third husband now, he supports me in tattooing. The last two were uh….Very bad. I met my second one when I started tattooing him, but he eventually turned into a woman, which sort of changed our lives. And my first husband, well, he started me off in tattooing, but later turned out to be a drunk. The only conflict I have with my current husband we currently have is about cats, I wanted about twenty more, but I think if I brought home another one, Peter would be out the front door. But no, we think very much alike, I think we’re very much twinned spirits.
What is your association with ‘Dragon’?
I suppose I associate with the title ‘Dragon Lady’ because I don’t back down. I’ve been through so many situations that, well, if it wasn’t the dragon helping me out… I started drawing dragons twenty odd years ago. I think it symbolizes courage, definitely, and strength. I’d say more the dragons are my pets.
I am the dragon master!
Does Tattoo have any medical repercussions?
Tattooing doesn’t lead to skin cancer, but if you don’t go to a reputable person, if you go to a backyard person that doesn’t sterilize or bad shops – Like in Bali, there’s a lot of shops that don’t. You can catch diseases then. People need to be aware of hepatitis.
Can tattoo be part of the arts subject at school?
They teach art in school and not everybody grasps it and it’s not for everyone – Not every artist can be a tattooist. I’ve come across a lot of brilliant artists, but they can’t deal with tattooing. You have to be a good communicator as well as an artist. It’s a whole package.
If given an opportunity will you like to teach tattooing?
I don’t think I’d really want to teach people. I think that it’s something that if someone wanted to do it, they’d have to seek out someone that would teach them. The current situation is just too much of a hotspot – with all the changing laws – to think about teaching somebody myself.
Do you have any other interests apart from tattooing?
I’m actually cutting down my hours here, and I’m starting to work on things I’ve been working on for a long time. I’ve got three books and some ethical T-shirts that I’m working on, which I’ll sell on the dragon lady website. One is a dragon colouring in book, one is a collection of all the dragon art I’ve done. Tattoos – A layout with a picture of the people with their tattoos alongside the sketch for the tattoo. The last one is a biography of my life – I’ll leave that one for a little while, because a few people have to actually die.
I’ve tried to limit myself to a year for the dragon colouring in book, the others I’ve been working on for the past twenty years. It’s just a matter of time – I’ve never had time to work on them full time. I’ve been bringing up kids and moving shops and having divorces – I’ll have time soon.
Do you have children, if yes, how do they perceive your profession?
I have three boys. My eldest has no tattoos at all, he’s very straight, and I told him to mind his own business a long time ago. I am what I am, like it or lump it. He’s eventually gotten used to it, he’s married now. The other two, they’re supportive, they grew up like Heckle and Jeckle. Always planning and conniving, but supportive.
I think being a mother is harder than being a tattoo artist. You can never take the mother out of the woman, it doesn’t matter how old they are or how young they are, and you’re always thinking of your children. There’s always going to be trials and tribulations. It’s just life. When you’re tattooing in the shop, you’re not thinking about so much – You’re just thinking about the work you’re going to do. At the end of the day, your children are always in your mind.
Do you think home responsibilities are confined to women?
In terms of the woman running the house in life, I think it really depends on circumstance. Some men are hopeless, and they have to be organized, and if the woman isn’t there to do it, they fall to pieces. I think a lot of men can say what they like, but at the end of the day they’re looking for a mum. As well – I’m all for women’s rights, but I think if you get married, you should expect that you’re going to be looking after the house, raising kids and all the rest – Or don’t get married! Simple. I think that’s all part of it, if you want a family. I mean with Pete and I, it’s all 50/50, he does all the cleaning and I do all the ironing and washing and cooking, we both do the shopping – we’ve worked out our jobs. I think a good marriage should be about balance, you balance out the work and the good times, stuff like that.
What is your message to the young generation?
My message for young people coming in for tattoos is: Really think about what you’re doing. I know that it’s a really free and easy world out there, but it’s really not. People are very judgemental, and getting a job – If they can see the tattoo, it might just make that difference between getting one and not. If you’re going to get a tattoo, get it where it can be hidden. This sounds very old fashioned, but it’s the truth. You can always change your clothing, can’t change your tattoos.
If you’re thirty five and you already know what you’re doing with your life, and you’ve got a job, you’re settled and your brain is a lot more settled, too. Wait until you’re a bit older – Nothing to stop you then.
What does it take to be a Woman of Worth?
I think that worthiness is really something that you find in what you’re doing – Well, to me, I do all these pictures and tattoos, but I get to talk to a lot of people and sometimes just a few kind words makes a big difference. So to me, that makes me feel worthwhile. Sometimes guys just don’t know how to talk to their wives, they’ve got something bugging them, who are they going to talk to? They talk to their tattooists or barber. I think that women have a really hard time in life, in this male dominated society. It’s a shame, there’s so much more women could give, and their intelligence is constantly being put down because they’re a woman.
A long time ago, in the eighties, it happened to me. It was still very male oriented, tattooing – and I’d have people say ‘Can you draw me this and this, but you can’t tattoo it because you’re a woman.’ And -Well, I’d go off the handle. I said ‘Oh, really? Well, I guess I won’t draw you this, then! You’ll have to miss out!’ I found it was very degrading. They’d still want the artwork but because I’m a woman, no tattooing.