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Expressing himself through ink

A career in the arts isn't a typical choice for an ex-soldier. But for Rob Douma combining his natural talent for art with his passion for tattooing, as well as a qualification from TAFE Queensland, has led him to become both a successful artist and an owner of his own tattoo studio, Death Proof Tattoo.

As a child, Rob had a natural tendency towards creativity and art.

"I've always enjoyed being a maker, but for me art is more of a mindset. I think I've always employed that creative mindset throughout all the different industries I've worked in," Rob said. 

Rob has tried his hand in several different industries before deciding to pursue a career in the arts. 

"After I left the military I attempted to get into tattooing but that didn't work out. Then I worked in mines rescue before I found myself working in Afghanistan for a couple of years as a security consultant. I then transitioned to oil rigs and worked as a technician," he said. 

It was during his time working on oil rigs where Rob really started to pursue his passion for arts more seriously, painting and drawing at every opportunity he got.

His early work was well received, and he was asked to participate in A Permanent Mark, an exhibition focused on the impact of tattooing on contemporary art. It was at this exhibition that a chance meeting changed the trajectory of his career forever. 

"At that stage, I'd had no formal training, I had all been self-taught and just been lucky to be offered that opportunity. I was at the opening exhibition in Townsville where I met the lead vocational trainer for the arts department in TAFE Queensland, Donna Foley," he said. 

"That evening we discussed my artwork, my concepts and my practice, and she asked if I would consider formal education to further increase my skills. It's something I definitely thought could help and it just happened to be the right place, right time," Rob said. 

TAFE Queensland certainly ended up being the right choice for Rob. After completing his Advanced Diploma of Visual Arts (CUA60715) he decided to continue his studies, enrolling in the Bachelor of Visual Arts (308JA.1) offered in partnership with the University of Canberra. 

"A few years ago, I wouldn't have imagined doing a diploma. Now I've been offered the honors program at TAFE Queensland through the University of Canberra and I've got my sights set on a PhD," he said. 

During his studies, Rob loved being able to collaborate with his fellow artists.

"It's a large open studio space at the Pimlico campus, so you can work alongside artists that are working in different mediums and on different subject matters. There's that opportunity of seeing what they're doing, having a chat with them, and then perhaps applying that to your own practice," he said. 

And when it came to his degree, as well as developing his artistic nous, Rob also found it gave him essential business skills needed to succeed in the industry.  

"The Bachelor of Visual Arts had quite a lot of business-focused, very realistic modules that are applicable to the art industries, rather than purely just making art," he said. 

During his time at TAFE Queensland Rob heard about a program offered by the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. The intense, two-week program consisted of life-drawing from live models, 12 hours a day. The prestigious program is only offered to a select number of international students and Rob was one of the lucky participants.

"It really accelerated my own personal arts practice. Again, it was having the strong basis in formal arts drawing and the strong portfolio, having gone to TAFE Queensland, that really helped my successful application to that school," Rob said. 

Rob credits his time at TAFE Queensland for helping to take his career to the next level. 

"As my practice developed through being at TAFE, I started getting identified by curators locally and in Queensland to participate in other group shows. Once you're in that TAFE network and have those qualifications, then that's seen very favourably by curators. That's opened doors for me in terms of being able to get invited to participate in other exhibitions around Australia," he said. 

Once he completed his studies, Rob wasted no time in making his next move, opening up his own business, Death Proof Tattoo

"I think the most important thing I've taken from my time at TAFE Queensland to apply into my career as a tattoo artist would be the conceptual development of my artwork," Rob said. 

"I think what makes a difference, compared to other tattoo studios, is the ability to communicate with my clients with a really strong knowledge of art history. That's the feedback I get from my clients that have been to other tattooers," he continued. 

Now, as a business owner looking to employ his own apprentices, Rob can see the importance of being formally qualified. 

"I think that's very important for the future of tattooing to have a lot more qualified artists actually in the game. One of the things that any of my apprentices has to do is also go to TAFE or have been to TAFE," he said. 

In the future, Rob plans on expanding his tattoo studio and progressing his artistic career. 

"I've gone from being in small local shows to already now being approached to be in national-level touring shows. Most importantly, I'm actually getting paid to participate in these shows. It's a matter of continuing that trajectory, continuing to enter and be accepted into higher-level competitions and exhibitions," Rob said. 

Looking back on his journey so far, Rob can see the difference that his time at TAFE Queensland has made to his career. 

"I was given some advice a long time ago that if you wanted to be a practicing artist, then you should go to TAFE. It wasn't until I'd actually been to TAFE that I realised that person was correct," he said. 

"I'm a very strong believer that you want to be an actual artist or practicing artist, that having time at TAFE is crucial because it really gives you those core hands-on skills in arts and arts-making that are required for any artist."