Gemma Dudley’s Artistic Journey from Air Force to Fine Line Tattoo Mastery in Whangārei


At her home studio’ Salt and Ink’, Gemma Dudley is a Whangārei tattooist who specialises in fine line work. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Te Tai Tokerau is abundant with many talented artists from various disciplines, but what makes them tick, and who are they? Reporter Brodie Stone finds out, talking here with Gemma Dudley.

Ten years ago, Gemma Dudley didn’t even know she could draw. That’s the story she proudly shares as she illustrates her journey that led to a career in tattooing.

Dudley specialises in botanical fine-line tattoos in her home caravan studio ‘Salt and Ink’ in Whangārei.

Botanicals are something she said is a typically feminine tattoo choice and one that involves what she calls “finicky” work that she loves.

“What I like about botanicals is that you can create meaning behind the tattoos. So birth flowers, star sign flowers… people can create an emotional tie to flowers,” she said.

“And I like that they’re not perfect. So, for me as an artist, it gives me room to play and create.”’

Gemma Fudley is a tattooist who specialises in fine line work at her home studio 'Salt and Ink'. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Gemma Fudley is a tattooist specialising in fine line work at her home studio ‘Salt and Ink’. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Salt and Ink is a small, light and welcoming space that differs from many typical tattoo studios, which she said are typically filled with art, rock music is playing, and you’re surrounded by others getting tattooed.

“I wanted to create a beautiful space that’s just one-on-one.”

Salt and Ink tattoo studio is a space for people to feel welcome and comfortable.
Salt and Ink Tattoo Studio is a space for people to feel welcome and comfortable.

She said that her clients come with “heartbreaking” stories, and creating a space where it is just her and them is therapeutic.

“It’s nice just to be us. It’s quite therapeutic for them. No one else is listening; your body is out, and it’s just you and me. Some of the stories are so sad I cry with them. So it’s nice to have this space.”

Her journey towards becoming a tattoo artist certainly wasn’t linear. She had already spent time as a professional indoor track cyclist for New Zealand and then as an Air Force medic.

“While in the military, I just started doodling on a pad in my barrack room. I wouldn’t say I was artistic, creative or anything. But I would draw, and I was like, ‘Oh…this is actually kind of cool’.

“I started drawing for my family for Christmas presents, and then it grew from there,” she said.

Gemma Dudley creates delicate pieces of art that adorn her clients body forever.
Gemma Dudley creates delicate pieces of art that adorn her client’s body forever.

As she honed in on her drawing skills, a passion for floral work grew, and after coming across tattooing on Instagram, she suddenly imagined her art as tattoos.

“So then I bought this cheap machine for like 200 bucks, and I practised on fruit and pig skin and fake skin, and I just loved it.”

It was something she says she took her time with; during her time as an Air Force medic, she would work and then tattoo in the evenings.

She started posting on social media that she wanted to do tattoos cheaply as a learner so she could work four days a week as a medic and spend Fridays tattooing.

It wasn’t until her partner got a job in Whangārei that Dudley realised she could take her work full time.

She purchased a friend’s old caravan, spent four days refurbishing and building it up with her carpenter father, and then her graphic designer sister re-branded the studio to ‘Salt and Ink’.

Her little studio has become her livelihood, and people wander from far and wide to have their skin permanently adorned with her delicate art. She now juggles motherhood alongside her work after the birth of her son, Ardie, a year and a half ago.

Gemma Dudley is a self-taught tattoo artist based in Whangārei. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Gemma Dudley is a self-taught tattoo artist based in Whangārei. Photo / Michael Cunningham

A career highlight has been participating in a flash day at Whangārei tattoo shop Mokofusion, something that came out of a need to step out of her comfort zone, she said.

“I’d never worked in a studio with other artists, and I’m self-conscious because I’ve taught myself.

“There’s a real stigma with tattooing that you should go down the passage of doing an apprenticeship.”

But she was reassured on the day she booked out within half an hour of the day starting – illustrating just how desired her art was.

She said it’s “terrifying” to think that people are walking around with her art permanently on their bodies, but it also makes her “really proud.

“If you’d asked me seven years ago, “Are you going to be a tattoo artist” I’d laugh,” she said.

“I couldn’t tattoo … but I was like … I’m going to do this.”

“I believe that people can do whatever they want in life. If you want something, you can do it.”

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