When Geoff Ostling and I met in Sydney this year, he had just returned from the Middle East with a new tattoo. It’s of a Jerusalem cross which he explained to me he’d chosen because of its personal significance and association with the Crusades—his mother’s family can trace their ancestry back centuries to the Knight Templar. He showed me other new tattoos of lighthouses that are on the inside of each wrist: one refers to the famous candy-striped Hornby lighthouse at the entrance to Sydney Harbour and the other to a twin lighthouse at Nidingen in Sweden which has family connections (his great-great- grandfather was a Swedish lighthouse keeper). And on the back of his hands there are flowers he commissioned on the occasion of his sixty fifth birthday—a waratah that reminds him of his father is on his right hand and on his left is a Queen Elizabeth rose that was his mother’s favourite flower. Ostling made it clear in our conversation that his tattoos are part of an elaborate, self-conscious personal narrative and that they have an important commemorative function. He also expressed some ruefulness that, as he put it, “there’s no room left.” Indeed, the only blanks spaces remaining on his body are his scalp, face, palms of his hands and soles of his feet.
"...his tattoos are part of an elaborate, self-conscious personal narrative and that they have an important commemorative function."
However, it is not for his individual or recent tattoos that Ostling has come to be known. Rather, it is for his full body tattoo, which is the outcome of a long term project he initiated in 1988, and which has now effectively concluded. While he was aware of the traditional Japanese art of the full body tattoo, known as horishi, he explained to me that his inspiration for a full body tattoo came from an example closer to home; that of his friend the late Mervyn Chapman, whose body was tattooed by Sydney tattoo artist Max Chater, and others from around the world. Chapman had some good advice for Ostling, telling him not to follow fashion and to choose designs that were unique and had personal significance. He therefore settled on ‘a garden of flowers’ which owed some debt to Hieronymus Bosch’s painted triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–04). Ostling’s tattoo garden initially comprised Australian natives, banksias and waratahs in particular, but in the quest for more colour it was later extended to incorporate such exotics as azaleas, rhododendrons, orchids and Hippeastrum (a South American lily). The other dominant imagery, which appears on his back, is of instantly recognisable Sydney landmarks, the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, and a number of teddy bears that have personal significance to Ostling and his partner.