The Dragon Lady’s colourful life

Fran Bowden, 63, has been tattooing for more than 43 years. (Pictures: Damjan Janevski)

When Fran Bowden decided to try her hand at tattooing in 1979, female tattoo artists were few and far between in Australia. Over the years Fran has fine-tuned her craft, leading her to a female-owned shop in Brooklyn. She chats to Jennifer Pittorino about her colourful journey.

Fran Bowden, also known as ‘Dragon Lady’, always knew she was going to use her passion for creativity and her fine art skills in her career.

Forty-three talent-filled years later, she has one of the most recognisable tattoo careers in the country.

When an optimistic 20-year-old Fran started looking for work in 1979, she hadn’t settled on anything concrete, so she decided to stumble into some tattoo shops to try her luck.

“I always knew my job would involve something creative and artsy, I just didn’t know what,” she says.

“I had always been drawing so tattooing seemed like a good next step, people were something new to draw on.”

In the ’70s there were only three or four other female tattoo artists in Australia, so getting work in a tattoo parlour was no easy feat for Fran.

“I walked into many tattoo shops with some of my drawings prepared, and all I wanted to do was learn how to tattoo people,” she says.

“I received many negative remarks because at that time having a woman tattooing was very different, it was a fairly male-orientated industry.”

Fran’s obstination and ‘won’t take no for an answer’ attitude, eventually got her her first job in a little shop on Elizabeth Street in Sydney.

“Eventually I walked into a shop and showed the manager my work, he said alright let’s see what you can do.

“I think I was very lucky to have been given that opportunity, I got on very well with people and my career escalated from there.”

Fast forward 40-odd years to find Fran now living in Geelong with her husband of 18 years.

Fran has continued her love affair with tattooing at Rogue Ink, a small tattoo shop in Brooklyn, owned by Jessica Gronow.

Jess herself has been tattooing for 11 years, facing similar struggles to Fran when trying to break into the industry.

“There weren’t very many females around tattooing when she started and even when I started the industry was still primarily run by men.

“There were a lot of sexist remarks and a lot of sexual harassment when I started, now we see more young people and even more females running the show.”

Before making the move to Victoria to care for her late mother, Fran had opened three shops, married three times and had three children – all boys.

“I got to travel around doing work in New South Wales, some in Western Australia and eventually in South Australia where I opened my shops,” Frans says.

“South Australia was my favourite state to work in , I met so many nice people and had a great time there.”

Fran worked and worked, getting better jobs, leading her to better shops , eventually allowing her to open her own businesses which she said was hard work.

“It is very difficult working for yourself , having your own tattoo shop is especially really difficult,” she says.

“I was fortunate my husband was the shop manager at one, which helped me with a lot of things.”

Like being a hairdresser, Fran said people tend to open up to tattoo artists when getting inked, which happens to be her favourite part of the job.

“One of the highlights is definitely meeting lots of new people, you meet all sorts of people, some even famous,” she says coyly.

Fran has been working at Rogue for more than two years working on her colourful, fantasy pieces.

“She has mastered her work with colour over the last 40 years, she is extremely well known for her colour work and her fantasy art,” Jess says.

Fantasy art, day of the dead, Neo-Japanese, Celtic and knotwork, tribal, black and grey, traditional Americana, dragons and fairies are some of Fran’s specialities that she has mastered.

Jess speaks of Fran with great fondness, describing her as a great asset to their team and a mentor for the seven who work at Rogue.

“Her main skill is her quickness, she is one of the quickest tattoo artists I’ve ever seen,” she says.

“It is very insightful working with Fran, she is extremely friendly and all she wants to do is put her head down and work, it’s very refreshing.”

Fran is a life member of the Professional Tattoo Association of Australia (PTAA), which has been running for more than 40 years, winning several awards for her tattoos.

“I have tattooed people just about all over the body, there is a trophy for just about every body part,” she says.

In addition to working at Rogue, Fran happily spends her spare time painting and drawing, she is also in the middle of a graphic novel which she is compiling.

After 63 years, Fran is entirely covered in tattoos including two full arms, two full legs , her back, chest and some on her face.

Her advice to younger generations is to think really hard before getting any tattoos.

“It might be fun now but 20 years down the track it might affect you more than you think,” she says.

“It’s been really difficult for me to get a normal job because I am heavily tattooed, tattooing has truly been my whole life.”

Following the advice she imparted on to young readers, her advice to her younger self was on par with her outlook on life.

“I would tell myself, you have to take life as it comes , do your best and you will get there in the end.

“Look out Fran, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”