INTERVIEW by Leticia Nguyen
PHOTOGRAPHY by Gary Parker
Ben Ross has lived a life less ordinary and has the kind of stories that his children and their children will froth on in the years to come.
His colourful life journey has seen him go from coastal grom to expat, to nurse, to tattooist and everything in between. His story is one of many that demonstrates that the path to pursuing one\’s dream is not always as straightforward as it seems.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood?
I grew up in Mulgulga til I was 10 and then we moved to Angourie.
What did a typical day in the life of a young Benny Ross entail?
Oh shit…anything to do with the beach and the bush. Pretty simple, like, really simple. There were no shops or anything around for ages, I used to just hang out with a group of mates all of a similar age, and we’d hang around the rocks and do anything to do with the ocean. We’d put on heaps of old wetsuits, helmets and shoes and jump off rocks into the water and get slammed around, that was really fun. We’d dare each other to swim around little Isle and y’know, there wasn’t much to do so my parents were cool with me hanging out at the beach all day. We used to hang in the bush a lot, go camping and ride motorbikes through the bush.
Who was someone that was influential to you when you were a grom?
My good friend Sam Carrier, who is a couple of years older than me, was a very influential person. He was a madman, eh. His nickname is ‘Crazy’. He would just get into the coolest situations and was always doing cool shit. We hung out heaps and he was pushing the limits the whole time, which was pretty cool. He surfs all the time, I’ve never heard of him not going out. He always goes out, no matter what. But even just all other crazy shit, y’know. Where we grew up there was only a dozen houses and then after a few years, more houses were getting built and we used to steal the keys when it got to lock up stage and then we just had all these holiday houses we’d go and hang out in, watch movies and eat all their food and fuck around. It was really fun, but I wouldn’t have done that shit without him. We were like burglars, but we wouldn’t steal anything, we’d just use the house, so it’d be fun. We pretended to be ninjas at night and run around terrorising the joint—typical boys’ shit, I guess. We used to do it all the time, ‘cos there was nothing else to do. We thought we were getting away with it, but I know all the oldies would’ve been pretty onto it. We were in contests a lot, getting coached off the same surf coach at the same surf institute.
“I went to London and everything just got me and I was hooked. I never went home and pretty much and just blew the comps.”
Later on in life, teenage years to present time, Baddy was another character that was a big part of my life. His knowledge of the ocean is incredible, he can read weather maps really well and read the ocean so good, I can trust him anywhere. In a boat, fishing really close to the rocks and the swell’s up and you don’t worry at all, it’s all cool ‘cos he knows his shit, for sure. I’m sure he’s got a gill somewhere! He was really influential and Sam also looked up to him. He got the nickname ‘Baddy’ because he has a really crazy laugh, and did what he wanted and didn’t conform too much. He and a fair few other guys pioneered the way of moving up here, moving out of the city and locking into a place like Angourie and setting up. They were seen as just bums and dropouts, but really, they were living the dream and looking after the area and the environment and stuff. Baddy went from being one of the first paid surfers in Australia, to dropping all that and moving up here and just living really simply—fishing and surfing and hanging out, shaping boards and is still doing it today. He influenced a lot of crew from up there—young and old. He’d drive us all the way down to Sydney, where we’d get knocked out the first heat. We’d be driving all the way home and he never said ‘don’t do the contests’. He was also a big influence on my brother, egging him on to compete and do well and encouraged him to make the pro tour.
What was it like in your grom hay days and being part of a surfing fraternity?
It was awesome looking up to your peers and hanging out with the older crew and listening to their stories. Their stories are insane! Being under the wing of Roachie and a bunch of other guys, that was the best thing.
On the cusp of entering the world of professional surfing, you decided to go to the UK. Tell us about that…
I was a junior, I was 16 at the time and I was ranked in the top 5 juniors in Oz and I was sponsored and ready to have a crack at competing and travel the world doing it. I hated school and dropped out, and I didn’t pass year 10 at all. Then I got an opportunity to travel to England to stay with my grandparents. It was meant to be for 2 weeks, during my break between contests. I went to London and everything just got me and I was hooked. I never went home and pretty much just blew the comps. I’d been competing for 6 years, since I was about 8 and I just thought there was more to life than doing that and I chose to take a different path, I guess. It was very spontaneous and wasn’t planned at all. I was only young and I’d never been overseas anywhere before. I took off to London, met my grandparents and after 2 weeks, I just ended up staying.
Ben working in a studio in Geelong not long before moving up the coast.
How long did you end up staying and what did you do with yourself?
2 years. I got into an art school and there’s a pretty long story to all that. I was the youngest person in the course. About two weeks into the course I got a letter about the fees and they were so expensive and I started to think I’d have to go home. I thought, fuck it, I was pretty amped to go home and do the comps, but a bit bummed about leaving England ‘cos it was so cool and fun. I had an aunty who became my legal guardian and took me under her wing, and then I became a citizen of England and she pretty much came up with this bullshit story to tell the dean of the school. She exaggerated on the ‘bad home’ sort of thing, and told a few lies that I’d come from a really hard background. Full-on sob stories! I ended up getting the fees paid by the school, so that was pretty cool and I ended up staying there. I lived with her for about 3 months and then moved into a pub, where I had to work and I had to make some money, so I was a kitchen hand in there for a year. I did really well the first year of my course and the second year, I joined a band and was living it up in the pub a bit too much, so I started to drop. And then I became the head chef of the pub that I was in, so I started cooking, but I was always still doing my art. I finished the course, but I just didn’t finish it as well as what I would’ve liked to have. But I had a fuckin’ ball.
Did you get to do a bit of travelling too?
I did a bunch of travelling on a shoestring, I hitch-hiked down to France when I was 17 and slept down on the beach in Hossegor for a couple of months…that was pretty cool. I caught up with Sam over there and he still lives there now, ‘cos he met a French girl from that trip and ended up marrying her.
Did you miss the surf while you were in England?
At times I did, but not really. If it was in your face, I would, but there was no internet, so it was out of mind, out of sight. I was so into the music scene, I was going to heaps of bands. It was so fucking cool.
What were your first impressions of England?
Cold and bleak and just, what the fuck am I doing here? I flew in during winter, and I guess it was such a novelty, coming from such a warm place. I just loved it, I loved all the people, all the culture, especially for my art and being creative, it was perfect.
What sort of band were you fronting?
I sang in a hardcore band and played bass in a couple of songs, but I couldn’t really play it that well. The band was called ‘Pound for Pound’. It was really fuckin’ fun, eh. We played at the Marquee club, at the uni battle of the bands and other gigs. It went really well for about 10 months and the other guys in the band were in quite successful bands and they wanted to do a side thing and we all used to hang out, so we’d get gigs under Concrete Garden, which was this band that was getting really cool headline acts. They’d play half a set and then we’d get on and play Pound for Pound. It was really fun times, the last thing I was thinking about then was surfing. It was so cool.
What were some standout moments from your European travels?
Just the whole deal…I did it with no money, so the whole thing was an adventure. Living in the forest in France, on the back on the beach was a really cool time. I met lots of really cool people, lots of talented people, lot of creative people and we were just chilling, just cruising and there was not a worry in the world. I’d like to say food was a highlight, but we really couldn’t afford to eat, so we were eating in supermarkets twice a day, stealing food. I got caught shoplifting over there. It was pretty full-on, actually, but it was really fun. The next time I go back, I might take a credit card.
Did your travels encourage your passion for art?
For sure. Before I went to London, I was really into my art and took it quite seriously and it was probably on par with my surfing. I used to spray a lot of surfboards and did some t-shirt designs for a few of my sponsors. It was sick being in Europe and having access to all galleries and seeing art works that are 100s of years old and all the old architecture. And all the tattoo shops in London, they were a lot friendlier than the ones back home. I tried to get an apprenticeship here in Grafton before I left and pretty much got told to fuck off. It was all pretty bikie run and they didn’t want to know about me, which sort of turned me off it, but when I got over there, I was starting to hang out in a couple of tattoo shops. Not that they’d show me anything, but you felt comfortable and they were much more approachable.
What was a pivotal moment for you and the idea of being a tattooist?
It was at Expo ’88. I ended up going to that with my aunty and my favourite thing I saw there (apart from the guy high-diving into the little pool every 1 o’clock everyday), was the Polynesian/Samoan island stall and all they had was a grass hut with some mats laid out and this guy was hand-tapping a traditional piece on this guy, around his waist and stuff and I just thought, ‘Fuck, that looks mad’. I’d never really seen a tattoo before, I sort of knew of them, but this was the first proper one I had seen and this was being done live, in front of me, and I thought, ‘Fuck, I wanna learn more about that’. My aunty kept trying to pull me away from it and I just wanted to stay there and I ended up sitting down and watched for ages. I thought, I wanna get a tattoo, I wanna do a tattoo…I just loved it. It was really cool and was just very powerful at the time. Coming from such a small place, I knew that one day, I’d get a crack at it.
So you pursued tattooing from there?
Not quite… I was a nurse for a few years. I’d done a myriad of jobs from labouring to hospitality and knew I didn’t want to do that forever, but it was a means to an end at the time. Then I thought nursing would compliment the tattooing, just all the health aspects to it and I just needed a challenge, needed to stimulate myself. I never finished school, so I thought ‘Fuck, I wanna prove to myself that I can do something like that’. And I always thought I’d tattoo at some point, but it started to become a distant dream. I started tattooing pretty late in the scheme of things, at the age of 27. It would’ve been nice to start doing that at 18/19, and it’d be a whole other ball game. Nursing was really fun, really exciting, but really full-on. I reckon heaps of crew should have to do it. I’d never go back to it. Never. Never. Never. It was awesome at the time, but I don’t know how I did it, when I look back at some of the shit I had to do. Yeah, pretty full-on, but it’s made me a stronger person, I know that. I knew that having 2 boys, it would be handy having first aid and knew it was all going to be relevant, not a waste of time.
So how did the dream of tattooing finally come to fruition?
It was during a night shift at nursing where I met a girl whose friend was a friend of a tattooist and I ended up getting a foot in the door through that contact. I went down to Hell Bound tattoos in Seaford to work for Jenny Roach, who is a renowned tattooist. I was lucky enough that I just walked in and showed a folio of drawings, airbrush pieces and personal self-tattoos and she was really stoked on the drawings and put me straight on. I started off doing one day a week and after about 3 months was fulltime. I was like a mature age student, so it helped to be a bit older. I had kids and she was a single mum. She knew I wanted to put 100% into it and I appreciated being given the chance to do it, and I think she was really excited about that. It ended up being a really good few years, while I was there. It was really cool and she ended up being like my mother. We bounced a lot of ideas off each other. There were about 4 other tattooists, but they weren’t as hungry as I was, I guess.
So it was nursing that eventually lead you to tattooing?
Yeah, it was the right thing, doing nursing. It lead me to tattooing in the end. Nursing and tattooing go hand-in-hand. You’re doing a surgical procedure on someone and just having a bedside manner to make people comfortable while you’re doing that and just knowing different parts of the body and how people react to pain and all that sort of shit is pretty handy to know.
What is it about your medium/media that appeals to you?
I’ve seen some pretty crazy rigs and working on people’s bodies appeals to me; fat, skinny, short and tall, the human race is my canvas. You get to interact on an intimate level with all walks of life; the good, the bad and the ugly.
What is something that sucks about your work?
Tattooing hung over…any other job I can do hung over, but not tattooing. Other than that, I like all the aspects of it.
Now you’ve returned to Yamba where you and your wife have set up a tattoo/art shop called Squall & Anchor Tattoo. What’s it like being back home?
Everything’s pretty much the same, just a little busier. The vegetation has changed, they’ve stopped clearing the land and everything is growing back. It’s all the same, like I haven’t even left. The boys are freaking over it…we can never peel them away from the ocean, which is pretty cool.
Why did you decide now was the time to return to your roots?
We moved for the boys, ‘cos I grew up here and really loved the fact that everyone looks out for you up here. You don’t have to know them that well or get on well with them, but everyone seems to look out for everyone. For the kids growing up, it’s a pretty cool environment where you don’t have to worry about a whole lot. It’s not a fantasyland where nothing can go wrong, but it’s pretty nice. It’s healthy for them.
The ocean has always been a significant part of your life. What does the ocean mean to you?
It’s such a good cleansing tool. I don’t meditate or stretch, or anything like that, but whenever I’m near the ocean, it just relaxes me, makes me think clearly, just feels like another parent. That’s what it was, in a way, when I was growing up. My parents were going through a bit of shit, so I’d just go surfing. At home sucked, but out in the water was awesome. It was such a cool place to be and to be able to share it with friends was fucking insane.
Do you think your ocean environment will influence your tattooing style?
Anything that is a little more ocean related is a little more exciting, but I love doing anything, really. I’ve been getting a lot more ocean requests up here, and the shop is trying to steer towards the love of the ocean. I guess I’ve developed a bit of a style, but I’m still experimenting. I’ve only been tattooing for about 7-8 years, which is not that long in the scheme of things. I’ve still got a long way to go with it, but maybe the ocean might come out in my work, as I get older.
What can we expect to see in future from Ben Ross?
I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve, just need time and space to execute them. I’d like to fill in the gaps, travel more often and collect body art from around the globe. Squall & Anchor Tattoo www.squallandanchor.com Located at: Room 3 (upstairs), 14 Coldstream Street, Yamba NSW
Some of Ben’s recent work