With over 103, 000 followers on Instagram, tattoo artist extraordinaire Teneile Napoli knows ink. As the 31-year-old founder of Brisbane's Garage Ink Tattoo, her artistic skills have left more than just an imprint on people, they've become iconic pieces that showcase her raw talent and unbridled dexterity at creating masterful art. Recently in Melbourne for The Australian Body Art and Tattoo Expo (4-6 December), she took out Best Female Tattoo of the Day on Friday, and Saturday – an impressive feat and testament to the power of her work. A potential trifecta was on the cards for Sunday, but adding to her personal collection of body art took precedence. After all, a girl's gotta look her best right?
Located in Browns Plains, "which is the outskirts of Logan, the last stop on the bus!", Garage Ink is now home to Napoli, 12 female artists, two males and an entourage of rotating international guest tattoo artists, "we've got a lot going on!" The likes of uber tattoo stars Cleo Wattenstrom, Megan Massacre and Nikko Hurtado have all graced the studio and continue to be lifelong friends to this dynamite artiste.
It's a long way from her days growing up in Palm Ridge, where Napoli reveals she "would always draw through highschool. I had a girl who was a couple of grades older than me and she was getting tattooed by Shane (Shane Little, who later became her mentor). She was like, I have to introduce you to Shane, he would love your drawings." They met one afternoon, hit it off and, "I started drawing and stuff with him. He asked me if I wanted to do an apprenticeship, and that is how it all began." However, due to other circumstances, "I didn't fully start my apprenticeship until I was about 21."
Whilst no one in the family associated with tattoos, "my dad never had tattoos, and my mum never got tattoos ... but she works for me!", she had a deep affinity with bringing her art to life. "I've always been really passionate about my drawing, it was just that I couldn't stop. I just wanted to draw; I just wanted to make stuff." Little saw this talent, and helped shape her direction as a female artist.
After the apprenticeship she gained both a Degree in New Media and Marketing, intent on doing "marketing and promotion artwork for bands, labels and stuff like that." Her direction took a slightly different route when, "I fell pregnant with my daughter at college. I finished all my modules and stopped doing my apprenticeship when I found out." She explains, "I had about a year to 18 months between that, sort of dilly dallying and just before my daughter turned one, I started back my apprenticeship. I had separated (with the father) when I started, because he didn't want me to do it." She cites this as the reason why "I stopped in the first place with the apprenticeship."
With a six-month-old daughter at her 21st birthday, Napoli resolutely decided to follow her passion and became one of a handful of female tattoo artists to break ground in Australia. "I think one of the first female tattoo artists started in 1979, it was pretty hard for me!" Now, with a little boy as well, she's living proof that women can – amidst extenuating challenges, have children, launch a career and stand strong in their artistic intent.
After tattooing in a studio with her mentor Little, "a very, very good friend of mine Tony Oliver", got her work in Stones Corner when Little decided to build a studio. "He still life coaches me, he is one of the most amazing men I've ever met. So I got to work with him, and he is incredible." When Little opened his new shop up, "I was loyal and started working back for him for a few years. Then he ended up having to retire, as he had severe emphysema. He was really sick, so when he decided to sell the studio I wasn't entirely ready to take on a business at that point." She worked for the new owners "and decided to keep the studio the way Shane always had it, which was art and about expression, no competition, no ego, never about the money. It was always about getting really cool art in, and the clients that come in."
It was during this time she faced a major decision, "I decided at that point I had enough clients behind me, and I knew financially that I was alright. That was when I decided to open Garage Ink, and it has all just really happened from there. It has now been five years, five years in May." She confides, "I never intended for it to be. I never had this vision that it was going to be a "thing", a group of powerful women." She explains that the girls are "humble, they are just here to learn and are fantastic with their clients, I couldn't be happier with the atmosphere. [It's] A beautiful bunch of girls. I am really, really lucky!"
Reflecting on not only how she, but the business has grown, she advises it takes a few key things: "Thick skin, ambition, surrounding yourself with the right people that love and support you, and also taking don't be ignorant to criticism." Napoli believes wholeheartedly that taking on criticism is very important, "otherwise you are never going to progress and you are never going to learn."
For those keen to venture into the world of tattooing, her sentiments are pragmatic and considered, "it is a hard road, you've gotta have thick skin, an open mind and an open heart. If you have your heart broken just get up and don't let that stop you. I've had my heart broken and I've had stuff flung at me, but I tell you what, that stuff that has happened, is not worth a pinch of salt compared to the support and love I have all around me." She adds poignantly, "without the fans, we wouldn't get to do what we love everyday.The clients are the ones that really deserve the recognition. They are the collectors; they are the ones that spread the love."
Whilst that road at times has challenged Napoli, her crew, clients, fans and collectors have kept her moving forward. She notes that latter category are proving to be rising trend, with tattoo shows now "mainstreaming" the culture and making it "more like fashion." Where once people were reluctant and thought society would look poorly on them, "it really isn't what it was 10 years ago."
The "tattoo collectors" now "travel the world and collect pieces of art from their favourite artists in the world." With so many elements coming together, Napoli sees this as an exciting movement and she herself has two exciting plans on the horizon for 2015. One a rather large secret she couldn't divulge, and the second an upcoming move to a new studio. Even though this high calibre artist has commended a lot of her life to luck, her story makes an inspiring epitaph to a great career and an testament to one of the last forms of raw art.