The art of ink and line is Kat Ratcliffe's chosen form

The art of the line: Kat Ratcliffe at her Ballarat workshop. Photos: Kate Healy.

The art of the line: Kat Ratcliffe at her Ballarat workshop. Photos: Kate Healy.

We may not like to think about it but essentially, whether we are human or any other form of vertebrate creature with skin for a covering, we are a potential parchment, alive or dead.

An artist trained in tattooing, Kat Ratcliffe has taken the dried, tanned form of the skin and turned it into a canvas for her designs. Using the same tool with which she once created art on living skin, Ratcliffe now painstakingly inks everything from traditional tattoo designs to intricate geometric patterns onto leather items she has handmade. 

Ratcliffe resists the term tattooist or tattoo artist.

“I’m an artist, and I'm using the tattoo machine as a tool,” she says.

Ratcliffe says she once worked as a tattoo artist but finished about two years ago, giving her the freedom to pursue her artwork.

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Kat Ratcliffe in her Ballarat studio

Originally learning the skills of tattooing involved a four-year apprenticeship.

“I was at the (tattoo) shop for seven years. I was limited to what I could do; all my time was spent working for other people,” she says.

“Now I can produce items with my own artwork, as well as doing commission pieces as well. At the moment I'm creating leather items and I'm tattooing them with my own images and artwork.”

Just looking at that line that's coming up, and knowing that you can’t muck it up. You do get into the rhythm of it and listen to music; it's never stressful. I'm just used to doing it now so I’m not worried about making mistakes. I'm not worried about how it's going to look. I know it's coming out the way that I want it to. - Kat Ratcliffe

Given that leather is a tanned form of our hide, albeit much thicker, Ratcliffe says the process is surprisingly similar to tattooing human skin.

“It's probably a little bit harder,” she says. 

“Once you mark the leather, it's done. If you make a mistake you have to start again, regardless. And you are limited by the types of leather and the types of inks that you can use as well.

“I make up my own needles, so it was a lot of experimenting to get the right gauge of needle for the leather. Each hide is a little bit different and it can get blunt quite quickly, or it may last a long time as well, depending on the thickness of the lines.

“There’s a different grouping of needles for the shading as well.” 

Kat Ratcliffe works on all-natural leather sources from local tannery Greenhalgh’s

The art of the line: Kat Ratcliffe pictured in her Ballarat workshop. Picture: Kate Healy.

The art of the line: Kat Ratcliffe pictured in her Ballarat workshop. Picture: Kate Healy.

She uses mainly kangaroo leather and experiments with deer and cowhide.

“I use a lot of recycled leather when I can – that's mainly from op shops. I scavenge bits and pieces, old bags and items like that. I have tried a few leather coats; I've got a few of them that I want to try to get finished for the Design Exchange in November. I've got a stall there.”

“I love experimenting, that's what happens a lot of the time. There are a lot of fails,” she laughs. 

Ratcliffe’s designs are delicate, and her line work is minutely detailed and fine. She reproduces traditional images such as swallows and skulls - staples of historic tattoo art, with corresponding symbolic messages; increasingly she is using her own abstract art as well.

Her thought and feeling about the design she uses reflects directly to the piece she has created.

“So if I’m making a passport cover I'm using compasses, and especially the old world engraving and that type of thing, to sympathise with the item,” Ratcliffe says.

Her knowledge about the symbolism of each image is encyclopaedic. A swallow can represent having traversed the equator, but tattooed between thumb and forefinger it signals the bearer regards themselves as a willing and capable fighter.

Kat Ratcliffe will be represented in the upcoming Romancing the Skull exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

“There are lots of skulls involved. I made a lot of wall hangings for the gift shop, and was lucky enough to be asked to put a piece in the exhibition itself. It was a scientific skull; everything revolves around death.”

Once you mark the leather, it's done. If you make a mistake you have to start again, regardless. And you are limited by the types of leather and the types of inks that you can use as well. - Kat Ratcliffe

The inking of each piece is a meditative process for Ratcliffe, one that she gets lost in each time..

“It’s a lot of concentration,” says Ratcliffe.

“Just looking at that line that's coming up, and knowing that you can’t muck it up. You do get into the rhythm of it and listen to music; it's never stressful. I'm just used to doing it now so I’m not worried about making mistakes. I'm not worried about how it's going to look. I know it's coming out the way that I want it to.”  

Personalised pet collars are another item that Ratcliffe has turned her talents to. She likes the idea of people being able to return a lost creature simply by by reading her ink work.

“Just so our furbabies can get home to people when they are lost,” says the owner of Marli, an affectionate but surly-faced British Blue cat.

“It makes it a lot easier then getting microchips scanned or having to call up the council.”

Patience and planning are Ratcliffe’s strengths, honed through long hours carefully guiding the needle to completion.

“I'm looking at my artwork from walls to fashion and furniture. So I take my own images, my abstract art and see if I can translate them on to the leather and then get them made into furniture, shoes, bags and that type of thing.

“I’d like to get into the furniture side of things, use images that directly relate to that piece of furniture and the era it was made. So that's a little bit further down the track, but it’s where I'd like to get to.”

“At the moment I’m making everything myself so it's a really, really long process. That's where I’d like to take it.

In the meantime, she plans to get her art displayed as an body of work - not just a craft but a legitimate form of artistic endeavour.

“I’d like to do an exhibition because it's something that's rare. There's no one else in Australia doing it. It's just a different and unusual sort of thing, to use the tattoo machine as the tool, not to do it on the person but to produce something else that can be used every day,” says Kat Ratcliffe.

“You don't have to like tattoos; it doesn't have to be a tattoo image. It can just be used as a paintbrush.”

This article is part of a Courier series on Women in Design, focussing on women making creative paths for themselves in Ballarat. More, including multimedia, at thecourier.com.au

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