By Jodi Bryant

Award-winning Whangarei graffiti and tattoo artist Earnest Bradley hated graffiti as a child.

"I would wonder why people would vandal other people's property," he remembers. But then, as a teenager, he wrote his name on a wall, saw the appeal and hasn't stopped since.

But Earnest's graffiti these days is different, in fact it's welcome and, as well as being in popular demand to permanently tattoo his art on people's skin, he is commissioned by the likes of the council and other corporate companies to brighten up the city.

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Earnest's love of graffiti art began during his first year of high school when a friend created an impressive graffiti design on the cover of Earnest's science book.

"After that, I was hooked and started looking deeper into the culture."

He took a workshop which highlighted how to take vandalism to the next stage and it was there Earnest leant how to refine his work in a way to make a career out of it.

He began his official art career in the automotive industry as a qualified spray painter for over eight years before taking up at apprentice position at Immortal Tattoo Studio in the UK. From there, he travelled the world doing graffiti and tattoo art until returning to his hometown of Whangarei. As a result, Memory Lane was established in 2013 between Earnest and his equally arty father Dave.

Originally based on Water St, it didn't take long for the rapidly-expanding business to outgrow its premises. In 2016, Memory Lane Gallery and Tattoo Studio opened on John St, offering a wider variety of services, along with new and talented additions to the team catering for a range of styles from realism to mandala, to fine Maori arts, and everything in between.

Says Earnest proudly: "Memory Lane has been lifting the standards and setting the trends since we began. We are well-known for high-quality, professional tattooing and, of course, all of the impressive modern art that comes from our artists. Our team is very whanau-orientated and, between us, we have a massive support network from our friends, families and loyal customers that have become like family to us and that says a lot about the values and ethics of our team."

Along with co-director Donella Phillips, the team comprises senior artist Devon Tucker, specialising in Mandala; qualified artist Victor Te Paa, who specialises in tamoko design and one of the curators of the Memory Lane Gallery art exhibitions; and promising new apprentice Shontelle Wilson.

Joining them as one of their guest artists is Currar Whitham-Field, who brings his unique flavor of neo-traditional Japanese-inspired art to the mix; and frequent guest artist Quincy Mike, who specialises in black and grey realism portraits and lettering.

The team's skills have been recognised on an award-winning basis; last year they were winners of the Creative Northland Excellence in Creative Industries Award, as well as finalists in both the business category and people's choice at the Northland Business Excellence Awards.

"We like to talk about crazy ideas and then, before we know it, that small crazy idea one person had, has ventured into an even bigger crazy idea that we all jump onboard with and that was the beauty of the Business Awards - we definitely went in with no expectations and we knew we were the 'underdog' who 'didn't have a chance'. Yet, to get recognised in a professional capacity was amazing, and then to win it, was the absolute icing on the cake."

Earnest believes the team at Memory Lane are different, not only because they embrace the many levels of creative arts, but most of their art work is customised to their client and they are not afraid to turn a customer away if their request is not in line with their values.

"We are not your generic 'flip-through-the-book' and pick a design tattoo. Everything we do is customised to our client. We listen to your story and put our creative flair to work and produce something just for you. You can also come in with your own idea and talk it through with an artist before committing to getting a piece done. If the vibe isn't right or the tattoo isn't 'suitable', we may not necessarily do the tattoo either. Our clients' best interests always come first and everything we do is guided by our values and professional ethics. We've lost count of the amount of teenagers we've turned away because they've wanted their first boyfriend or girlfriend's name tattooed on their ribs or neck. When we ask to talk to mum or dad first, they usually change their mind pretty quick and a lot of the people we turn away end up coming back later and actually thank us. It's about having values and caring enough to not let people do something they might regret."

And Memory Lane's work isn't just restricted to peoples' bodies.

"The entire studio is oozing with vibrant art. You walk down the street, and our art is on peoples' arms and legs. You go to other local businesses, and our art is on their walls. Our creative interests are well-received and appreciated by a lot of people and that, in itself, shows that the culture and perception of graffiti and tattooing is beginning to change. That's always been a key goal of the team – keep doing what we do best and share it with our people."

Earnest's works can be found all around the world but, in Whangarei, grace the Hatea Loop, Butter Factory, Mint Floral, Port Nikau, Bowls Whangarei, You Travel and at Tikipunga High School. He has also given his time and skills to local school projects and carries out live spray painting demos at major events.

"The Hatea Loop project gave us the opportunity to work with the Whangarei District Council and express our passion for graffiti art, while sharing a vision of brightening up the city and helping minimize the vandalism and tagging by embracing local art," explains Earnest, adding that it was both humbling and a privilege to be approached.

"Our aim is to help paint a positive image of graffiti art so that the passion for graffiti is acknowledged and becomes more publicly-appreciated and accepted. We believe that working with corporate businesses helps positively influence the public's perception of graffiti and, at the same time, demonstrates to graffiti artists that, if appropriate forums are used, there are no restrictions to the potential reach an artist has. We want to show people that graffiti and tattoo art can be a career to take you around the world, and that you can work with organisations in a business context," outlines Earnest, who is currently touring Europe, doing just that.

"Just like any other graffiti artist, the main objective is to have the biggest stuff on the streets and leave some kind of legacy like the guys before our time."