You might have noticed a new little shop with gold lettering at upper Willis Street over the road from restaurant 'The Bresolin’. The shop is that of Craigy Lee - a tattoo artist of 8 years. The dapper Craigy Lee specialises in custom art tattoos. His is also one of only a handful of tattoo shop in Wellington on a ground floor level. This is no accident. When Craigy established his shop late last year he wanted was to make it accessible to the public so people could walk by and see the artists at work. This openness and lack of b***sh*t for the shop set-up reflects the the openness and lack of b***sh*t of the man himself. Delightfully descriptive and friendly as hell, Craigy strikes a nostalgic figure in his pressed shirt, waistcoat and bow tie, complete with twirly moustache. His tattoo philosophy is ‘less is more’. However, his ‘less’ approach creates more and more customers, all fans of his unique pieces. He has a strong following of his work, leading Wellingtonians to wonder 'Who is Craigy Lee?'
"Delightfully descriptive and friendly as hell, Craigy strikes a nostalgic figure in his pressed shirt, waistcoat and bow tie, complete with twirly moustache."
Craigy Lee is an adopted Wellingtonian. Born in Surrey - half an hour south-west of London, he describes his childhood as being unremarkable. “Long summers - that’s probably what I remember most. Long periods of time off, four brothers, peddling around on your bikes. It was kind of like suburban country. We were a ordinary, suburban middle class family. We used to go to the woods, build tree houses, ride our bikes - stuff like that. With the art side of things, that was the only thing I was good at school”.
Indeed, school was a challenge for Craigy. He was dyslexic - a condition where writing and reading is naturally much more difficult for a person - but wasn’t diagnosed until University. He enjoyed English because he had a good imagination, but was terrible at maths and science. Craig focused on Art as the only thing he knew he could get a good mark in. Music was also a way of escape. “I remember the first or second gig I ever ever went to - it was in 1999. It was System of a Down. They played at the Astoria in London. I went with a friend of mine from school. We would have been 16 or 17. We were just watching them, and he turned to me and said ‘no-one from school is doing anything like this tonight.” This combination of art and music set the steer for Craigy’s education.
"We were just watching them, and he turned to me and said ‘no-one from school is doing anything like this tonight.”
As the eldest of four boys, some expectation was placed on Craigy to attend University (“but then none of my brothers ended up going!”) so he studied a degree in film at the ‘Surrey Institute of Art and Design’. At the same time, Craigy began playing in a punk band called ‘Sucka’. After that, the band evolved (in the mid-2000’s) into another iteration called ‘Her Enemy’. “We were more Brit Rock at that time - we took it more seriously and did an album and stuff” Craigy remembers.
Buying a van for the band to tour kicked off a new journey into music for Craigy. For the next two years after University, he worked as a tour manager. Craigy admits it was a bit of a dream job in his early twenties - especially for someone who naturally likes driving as “a way to switch off”. “From about 16 I had always gone to gigs around England” Craigy recalls “so it was great”. A friend had asked him to be the roadie for another band about to go on tour. After that tour, Craigy met someone who was doing another tour. “And then it just snowballed from there”.
A highlight for Craigy was touring with blues artist ‘Seasick Steve’. The timing was perfect - Craigy began working with ‘Seasick Steve’ just before he appeared on the ‘Jules Holland’ show. “After that, he blew up” says Craigy. This led to Craigy getting work with more important bands. “When I toured him, I would tech as well. It is pretty incredible - to sound check in front of about 50,000 people”. Craigy did major music festivals, including Reading and Leeds. “Over the summer - there was about one every week. Backstage at the big festivals there was, you know, like proper catering and stuff - I would be having dinner and the girl from Smashing Pumpkins would come down and sit at the same table. I was like, ‘This is surreal’”.
Touring was never going to make big money, however, Craigy admits. “My parents were like ‘When are you going to get a proper job’. But I knew though I didn’t want an office job like everyone else. In between tours, which sometimes there were one or two month gaps between, I was doing furniture delivery to get by.” Almost by accident, Craigy stumbled on tattooing.
“That was it - I was like ‘This is what I need to be doing'"
Although he had had tattoos from a young age the journey from being a band manager to a tattoo artist only happened because he drove a band called ‘New Bruises’ who were touring the UK from Florida. Due to a missing bass player, a friend who was a tattoo artist stepped in. After the tour ended, the tattoo artist, Jonny, suggested that Craigy might like to come and visit. Craigy accepted, flew to Florida and got intimately acquainted with the feeling of being in a tattoo studio. “That was it - I was like ‘This is what I need to be doing’”. He started working on his portfolio, emailing Jonny every couple of days. After about 6 months Jonny suggested Craigy should come out, stay as long as he could and he would teach him to be a proper tattoo artist.
Craigy saved up and decided to dive right in. “I did my last tour and then two days later I started my apprenticeship in Florida for 3 months. I started doing flash tattoos and simple tattoos. When I came back to the UK, I knew I had to finish my apprenticeship up - so I went around shops seeing who would have me.”
Determined to get in somewhere, Craigy phoned a shop in Ealing, in London, who were looking for a tattoo artist. The Head Artist saw his work and gave him an apprenticeship on the spot. While working on his apprenticeship (which wasn’t paid), Craigy worked at McDonald’s, delivering food at 4:30 am for about 8 months until he could do enough simple tattoos to get paid work.
After that part of life came to an end Craigy knew he didn’t want to work at another shop in London (the Head Artist had left and the vibe of the shop had changed) so he made the decision to travel with his girlfriend India. They arrived in Perth in 2010, got linked up with other tattoo artists and started travelling around Australia doing tattoo conventions. They went to Brisbane, worked for a while, visited Cairns and then went back to Melbourne where they had been for a convention. Then it was off to New Zealand to tour by camper van. “We came to Wellington and worked at a shop on Cuba Street for a week. I then visited Auckland and worked at ‘Two Hands’ then did a tattoo convention at ASB showgrounds.”
The pair travelled through Thailand, then flew back to England. They continued to travel through Europe, via tattoo conventions. In 2012 they got married and started to look at tattoo shops in Cornwall in England. Unfortunately, that fell through. At the same time, there was another tattoo convention on in Taranaki. Craigy arranged to visit Wellington. He was offered the opportunity to stay and work longer at a tattoo shop in Wellington again. “That was 2012 - and we are still here”.
The shop closed however. Craigy and India briefly returned to the UK but then came back to New Zealand to settle down and start seriously looking for premises for a tattoo studio. It was the kick they needed.
Craig and India stumbled upon the site of their little Willis Street shop - but it didn’t work out at first. Craig knew he wanted to have a ground floor tattoo studio. A friend of Craigys, Bundy, from Boar and Blade on Egmont Street, suggested he get in touch with a real estate guy - Rex. Rex helped the pair out and they ended up getting the original place they wanted - where the shop is today - in December 2015.
The studio is now home. “It’s nice having your own space” Craigy says. “I can make it look how I want. I wanted to have a really nice drawing area so I can prep for tattoos. I’ve got a small library. It has magazines my work has been in, books and other stuff, like this new lino cutting kit I’ve got recently.” People come and seek the studio out, which is something Craigy likes. “This area is up-and-coming. In the old days, tattoo shops were always in the outskirts of town. This is kind of going back to the roots”. It’s un-intimidating look means people often just pop in out of curiosity. Such is the Wellington way.
“Life’s all about timing - it’s like a chain of events - being in the right place at the right time”
Craigy and India are in Wellington for good now having bought a house in Island Bay. Craigy rates Wellington for the quality of life where rugged coast is only a 20 minute drive from the city. He also likes that the stores are independent and that when people spend money on Cuba Street, it goes back into the local economy. Craig doesn’t think Wellingtonians will let the city become too commercialised. After all, there isn’t the space to build a mall, he points out. He also likes that his customers are all friendly and “get good tattoos”. “Life’s all about timing” Craigy says “it’s like a chain of events - being in the right place at the right time.” It seems timing has worked in Craigy's, and our, favour.