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CRUSHING ON: Barby World

CRUSHING ON: Barby World

We sat down with Madison-Lee, the tattoo artist who goes by BARBY WORLD and a co-owner of Karangahape tattoo studio BRUCE, to talk about her creative practise. This comes after Crushes has put out a collaboration of her most infamous and celebrated tattoo designs on a collection of vintage deadstock tees, which you can browse here.


Q. When did you start tattooing?

I started tattooing in covid lockdown. I had tattooed myself here and there before, but when I properly started it was in lockdown when I was stuck with my husband and tattoo artist, Tom. 

Tom always said that I would make a great tattoo-er for all the little ways I would show my creativity, like my retail shop displays. I thought that was a weird cross over but he believed in me and said “I believe you can do it”

I have always doodled, and did a lot in lockdown (to distract myself from uni), and I used to embroider (which leans itself well to stick and poke by the way). So where other tattoo artists might have had an art practise before they tattooed, I went straight to tattoo-ing. I had always struggled to find purpose for my drawing, so when I found tattooing I thought, this is interesting. I was drawing for people and for skin I guess, instead of paper or paint.  

So I began stick-and-poking, and then I picked up a machine. 

Q. What were you doing before that?

I have been studying towards a BA of Criminology and Criminal Justice. I finished last week!

Q. What is the Karangahape tattooing community like?

The Karangahape Road tattooing community is incredibly diverse, the tattooing community itself is really supportive. Like when we got our shop robbed, the way that the community came around us to support us with machines, etc. It says so much about the community itself about what it is: it’s about each other. There is so many tattoo parlours along the road, but it’s not competitive, because everyone has their own thing to offer, like a signature.

Q. What’s it like to be a female tattoo artist?

Being a female artist in the tattoo world can be really intimidating, but in a lot of ways, these days there are a lot of amazing female tattoo artists. It’s nice to be a minority doing really well in an area, which is what is happening for a lot for non-binary and women. For so long it had been a male dominated industry which is not the case any more, which is amazing. Being a wāhine in the tattoo world gives you the confidence, because there is so many people and we all hype each other up!

Q. What’s a really special piece you’ve created or something you’ve made?

I had an amazing experience yesterday, Tom referred the client to me because he thought it would be a good idea. The client had an idea of an awa (river). There wasn’t a lot of details about what kind of river, but as soon as we started talking we realised it was the river from my home town. We grew up in the same city, she works at a job that I used to work for. So there was a lot of connections which made it feel really special, so we made this tattoo together. It’s why I love tattoos, it’s collaborating, it’s not like you’re getting my work or I’m doing your work, it’s a combination of ideas that ends up on them forever.

Q. How would you describe Barby Worlds style?

I see myself as someone who is so inspired by a lot of things, so I don’t know if I have a single style. But I like to use traditional motifs but make them commercially viable with size. I make them cute. I'm inspired by my whakapapa, which I’m leaning in to. I’m inspired by folk, and herald-y delft (dutch) tiles. There’s lots of things I’m inspired by, so my style is: just me.

Q. What have you been learning about your toi māori practise?

The way I have been approaching my toi māori angle of my work is very much a  representation of my learning. What I discover, I bring in to my work. Once I understand it, I feel like I can start drawing it, and bringing it in to life in my own kind of way. So it represents my journey.

Currently it is a similar pattern, but as time goes on, I hope to draw in that information and it will be reflected in my art work. But going back home was a huge inspiration and going back up the east cape. I think I’m on a journey with that and a decolonisation moment and finding out what actually is me.

Q. You now co-own BRUCE with your husband. What is that like?

It’s really good. You think that working with your loved one could go one of two ways, but it definitely works. We just leave each other to it in a lot of ways. It’s easy. He’s always been my biggest supporter, he pushed me- or gently encouraged me to go to uni, and then to tattoo.

I got a lot of tattoos before I became a tattoo-ist so I have always been part of the industry in one way or another and knew what I liked and what I didn’t like. But what I liked in tattooing was all the experiences which I didn’t think wasn’t good or could be done better, which is bed side manner in a way. I’ve had so many dumb experiences, but I was like ‘not in my house’!

Q. From experiencing bruce for over the hour, it feels very uplifting, and everyone is open to learn. There's no pretension. Is it always this collaborative? 

We are always learning off each other. Tom is the one we are all looming over to learn stuff from. But everyone has something to offer as we are all doing different things, with different people, because we have different stories. We’re always chatting, it’s really great.

But no one day is the same, we are doing something different. Someone might pick a design online but when they get here it could be a completely different thing when we put it on the skin. It’s really nice how things progress from the moment you’d decide to get a tattoo, how it falls in to place, if it works with your body, or if it’s your first tattoo.

Q. What would you advise for someone who doesn’t have a tattoo?

If you’re looking at getting your first tattoo, you want to find someone you can connect with and like the art work of. That is open to your ideas and in a way where they know a lot of what they are doing, so someone you can trust. It’s not just about getting the tattoo but the person doing it. Especially because your first one will mean a lot, so if it’s done by someone not so great, then it will have a reflection of that forever, so choose your artist wisely. I think there is a lot of energy behind tattoos.

Q. Tell us about Lara Croft:

Lara Croft is our mascot and shop manager. She’s a Shih Tzu/Maltese. When I had my home studio, she was there. When I had my guest spots, she was there. And now she is the front person of Bruce Studios he’s the first person uvula meet when you walk in. She’s admin-reveal. I get a lot of people saying they come back for Lara. She’s a huge part of the Barby world brand.

Q. What do you think about your Crushes x Barby World tees?

OMG. My crushes x Barby world tees are everything I could have imagined really; In terms of doing a collaboration with a wāhine-run, local business. Crushes did so well with what I drew and then putting it on what you offer. It’s a really nice combination of two really hard working businesses coming together and they look really cute.


You will be able to shop our Crushes x Barby World tees here

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