When tattooist Caitlin Thomas was asked to create matching tattoos for a grandfather-granddaughter duo, the job presented her with an opportunity to do what she loves most – facilitate meaningful connection through ink.
Ink and connection with tattooist Caitlin Thomas
CityMag meets with Caitlin Thomas at her Dulwich tattoo space, Banksia Studio.
She got the keys in April, and the intimate space has since been fitted out with prints, brightly coloured tapestries and plenty of plants.
With a click of a lighter, she begins to burn some incense and sets her Spotify playlist to shuffle.
“All my stuff is here,” says Caitlin, “I have a boring bedroom now.”
Walking into Banksia Studio puts you immediately at easy. It’s worlds away from the stereotypical black walls and checkerboard flooring you’d see in shows like Miami Ink.
“My favourite studios are always the ones where you have the space to yourself and have that quiet,” Caitlin says. “I’m a bit selfish with it because I want to have that as well. I do think [tattooing] is a bit more intimate than maybe people treat it sometimes.”
Caitlin entered the tattoo industry after seeing an advertisement for an apprenticeship on Gumtree. Originally a graphic designer and drummer, she’d been moonlighting as a wood burner for unique drum kits while travelling back and forth to the US.
“I just thought [tattooing] would be a really cool medium to try it for a bit. I never thought that I would do it as an actual job,” she says.
“And then it’s been like almost 10 years later and I’m still doing it, so it’s really unexpected.”
Caitlin found herself in a bikie run studio, teaching herself the trade quickly, developing her signature style of fine lines and nature designs.
“There’s a lot to learn in tattooing. That’s probably one of the reasons I’ve stayed in it because there’s just so many new little things around the corner,” she says.
“But the more that I tattoo, the more I realise it’s actually about the interaction you are having with the person you are tattooing.”
Caitlin says it’s difficult to pick a favourite design from her 10 years of tattooing, but what sticks with her is the feeling she gets when a client will tell her how her work was helped them through a tough time.
While an appointment might only last for a small portion of someone’s day, Caitlin’s work is a permanent record of their conversation and fostered connection, an ink rendering of the emotions shared between she and her clients.
“You’re lucky enough to have their undivided attention for potentially hours at a time, and you get to meet and see a whole different side than you would at a party – you get a whole deeper level of connection,” says Caitlin.
“I think naturally, or psychologically, people have this thing that if someone’s helping them with something or caring for them, then they are more likely to let their guard down.
“Hearing all these different stories and different experiences, I feel like it gives you so much perspective people in society in general.”
Canberra-based Peta Bulling reached out to Caitlin earlier this year, despite knowing the tattooist’s had no open bookings. The young environmentalist pitched an idea over email of a matching tattoo with her grandpa, Peter.
“It was such a long shot; I really wasn’t expecting her to get back to me at all. And when she did, I was ecstatic,” says Peta.
For as long as Peta has been alive, she and Peter have had an undeniable connection. A mischievous duo, they had joked about getting matching tattoos for years. They both decided to bite the bullet in June and get inked to celebrate Peter turning 90.
They opted for a Sturt’s Desert pea, a reference to the two being like peas in a pod. Each piece is a keepsake of the time the duo spent travelling across Australia together.
“We love a good road trip,” says Peta.
“One day we were on a road trip in Central Australia when I was about 12. It had just rained in the middle of the desert and all these Sturt’s Desert Peas sprung up… I thought they were beautiful, we both really liked them.
“And then we went on another road trip when I was 18… and that’s when we [had] the idea of, ‘What if we got matching tattoos? Wouldn’t that be so funny?’
“The two peas in the pod has a lot of meaning for us.”
The Sturt Desert Pea is the floral emblem of South Australia, so for Peter, who was born and bred here, the tattoo also symbolises his heritage.
“There was an added thing there for people that might say, ‘Oh, you know, silly old 90-year-old with a with a tattoo’ – and I can always say it’s the South Australian [floral emblem].”
Peter also hopes to see more people of his generation celebrate their lives and families through tattoos.
“I’d like to think that I was a leader in that field,” says Peter. “I’d like to think that I have started a trend or continuing a trend that’s already there.”
For Caitlin, opening her books to accomodate Peta and Peter was a no-brainer.
“I feel so honoured that someone would even ask me and include me in something like that. I definitely don’t take that for granted,” she says.
While the tattooist’s books are still closed for custom work, Caitlin continues to post monthly flash designs for Adelaide ink lovers and those new to the craft.
She says implementing flash into her tattoo practice helped her fall in love with work again after feeling creatively burnt out.
“I was at a bit of a crossroads maybe five or so years ago where I was just going to stop tattooing completely or I just had to flip the game,” she says.
“I feel like with flash, it’s a bit of a lesson to trust your gut.
“You can just see that sense of freedom when [people are] doing it. They’re letting themselves just be fun and they’re not telling anyone. They’re just doing it for themselves.”
Caitlin’s flash tattoos have become a hot commodity. December bookings sold out in less than a minute.
When Caitlin isn’t tattooing, you can find her playing the drums in the Adelaide-based rock band West Thebarton.
Playing international and national gigs and finding a regular spot on the Australian festival circuit, West Thebarton’s success has allowed Caitlin to realise a very specific dream she had almost a decade ago – tattooing while playing drums in a band part-time.
“Drawing and music have both been things that I have focussed on since I was quite young. I’m just really lucky that they can both be a big part of my life now,” she says.
“I’m kind of pinching myself a bit still. It takes a lot of stamina to stay in this industry.
“I think I’m still realising just how fortunate I am, but I also try to remember that I’ve worked hard to get to that point as well… It’s not something that just landed in my lap.
“I really tried and I really pushed it for so long, and it’s just finally starting to pay off I think.”
See more of Caitlin’s work on Instagram.
Connect with Banksia Studio on Instagram.