Celebrity Ink is a franchised chain that started out in Phuket, Thailand, back in 2013.
It has grown rapidly since then, with seven studios in Australia (headquartered on the Gold Coast), six in Thailand (including three just in Phuket) plus sites in the Philippines, India and Vietnam in addition to Herden’s shop in Legian.
And business is good. Though Herden says there are as many as 1000 studios on the island, he’s opening a second studio in nearby Seminyak next year.
“It’s a saturated market, but the Australian clientele see the value in travelling to Bali and Thailand as well,” he says, “because if we do a leg, say, in three to four days, in Australia it might take you five to six months, because the artist would only do a few hours at a time. While the Balinese they will sit longer here, do a sitting for nine to 10 hours.”
Customers are always tattooed at the end of their holidays, he says, so the new art doesn’t get damaged by sun, salt or chlorine and to avoid infection.
Horror stories about infections such as hepatitis or even HIV arising from a Bali tattoo gone bad aren’t hard to find on the internet, along with stories about dodgy, diluted ink and reused needles.
Studios such as Celebrity Ink, Rob Garcia’s West Coast Ink and many others – including Two Guns, Get Inked, Prime Ink and Charlie Rose – try to get ahead of those concerns by emphasising they comply with Australian hygiene standards, use imported ink and never reuse their needles.
“We treat it like an [medical] operation, like an open wound. We wrap it, like you would put a bandage on it. Then we give them aftercare instructions like a doctor would,” Herden says.
“Everything is one touch. If it gets touched, gets used, it gets thrown away [afterwards]. Once the artist sits down he has an assistant to help and he stays at his station.”
The floors in the studio are mopped regularly and the place is spotless, with beds and pillows wrapped in plastic and sanitised.
Clients spend anywhere from $80 to $3500 on a tattoo, Herden says, and the studio charges per piece, rather than by the hour.
In Australia, a top tattoo artist can charge up to $300 per hour (compared to perhaps $120 per hour in Bali), he says, but labour, studio rental and other overheads are all lower, even though establishing a business in Indonesia involves a lot of red tape.
Herden talks about a client who wanted a full sleeve tattoo. He was quoted $7000 for the work in Australia, but it cost $2500 at Celebrity Ink.
“So he flew over in business class, stayed in Hard Rock, had lobsters on the beach, stayed for four or five nights and got tattoos for the last three days … he gets a better tattoo faster and the fancy holiday for the same amount he would’ve had to spend in Australia.”
In the last decade, Herden says, the industry has exploded in popularity and Bali has been at the forefront of that.
Meanwhile, “the whole culture of it has changed, like it is no longer frowned upon when a woman has a full sleeve tattoo. Over 50 per cent of our clients are women, they might not do the big pieces like men do but they will do 5 – 6 little ones.”
Sydney man Jayden McDermott said he chose Celebrity Ink because he had spoken to people had had work done and knew it was high quality.
“I contacted them and said I wanted to do a full sleeve a couple of months ago. They quoted me $2400 for it, in Australia it would cost me at least double. I booked the appointment, I was going to come just to get a tattoo for three days then go back, but I managed to save enough money so I added a five days holiday in Bali before I got it done,” he says.
McDermott’s partner Tamara Smith, who had her favourite passage from the bible (Proverbs 31:25) inscribed, said she had been concerned about hygiene but “you can see how clean everything is”.
Gede Supala, one of Herden’s senior artists, has worked in the industry for two decades, working in and even owning a studio at one point. His 21-year-old son has followed him into the business and the same studio, too.
West Australian man Rob Garcia, the co-owner of West Coast Ink, has taken a similar approach to Herden since setting up his studio 15 months ago.
He imports all his ink and needles from Australia with a special import licence and stresses that “hygiene is paramount. We work with a local clinic to dispose of our needles, just like medical waste”.
And business is booming for Garcia, too. He estimates 85 per cent of his clients are Australians and he raves about the quality of the work produced by his artists, too.
“Tattoos in Bali are quite a bit cheaper then Australia, but I believe the artists are better too,” he says, “I believe because of the culture, that they are more artistic and quicker. In general in the competitiveness within the industry, you have to be better at it.”
Familiarity with Australian culture is a part of his success, too.
“For example they might want a Ned Kelly design, they speak to me, to someone who knows the culture, they are more at ease.”
The combination of a holiday in Bali and a high quality tattoo is proving to be a winner for West Coast Ink, Celebrity Ink and many other Australian-owned studios in Bali.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.
Amilia Rosa is Assistant Indonesia Correspondent for Fairfax Media.