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Fred Harris - Sydney Tattoo Studio

Geoff Barker


Tattooing a mans head with a butterfly, Fred Harris Tattoo Studio, Sydney, 17 December 1937, photographer Ray Olson

Sometime around 1916, Fred Harris opened a small tattoo shop in Sussex Street and for the next 28 years he dominated the trade in Sydney.  

In 2019 the State Library completed the digitisation of over 9000 negatives from PIX Magazine bringing to life, in vivid detail, images previously only seen reproduced in half-tones in the published magazine. Amongst the negatives in this collection are these images of Fred Harris and his clients taken by  PIX photographer Ray Olson in  December 1937.

Tattoo designs often reflect the culture of the day, and Fred's small parlour was an important barometer for some of those trends during the interwar years.

According to Fred, 1923 was the year women joined the craze to get tattoos. While butterfly and flower designs were most popular, not all of the designs were so discreet - one woman asked for three horses heads, a rosella parrot, a stag,  and a bunch of pansies, all in one sitting. Another popular trend was for women to have their legs tattooed so the designs could be seen through their stockings. Butterflies were popular with men as well, although  Fred’s tattoo in the picture on the right could hardly be described as discreet.

By 1937 Fred was one of the cities best-known tattoo artists and was inking around 2000 tattoos a year in his shop. Sailors provided most of the canvases for Fred's skin paintings but he also tattooed horses on jockeys, flowers on legs and provided women with beauty spots. Among the more popular tattoos in 1938 were Australian flags and kangaroos for sailors of the visiting American Fleet.

Sailors have had a long tradition of adorning their bodies as they travelled the world and some of these designs were handed down from old sailing superstitions. A pig or a pig’s head, for example, was thought to guard against drowning, eyes on the nipples would sharpen sight, a ship's propeller on the buttocks would improve movement and hinges on the elbows would increase strength.

With the declaration of war in 1939 Fred’s business experienced a boom in patriotic emblems and tattoos of soldiers names and regimental numbers. But it was the Australian flag, sometimes linked with the flags of Britain and France which replaced hearts as the most popular tattoos. He also experienced an increase in the number of people wanting tattoos of foreign flags covered up. After December 1941 there was a brisk trade in American sailors requesting Fred’s trademark dagger under which was inscribed “Remember Pearl Harbour, December 7, 1941”. 

In late 1944, after nearly 35 years in the tattoo business, Fred passed away.  

Fred Harris Tattoo Studio, 1937. Pix Magazine Photographs.