Against the Grain: How Tom Tom Founded Sunset Tattoo from a Self-Made Accident

Meet Auckland's fearless young creatives, doing epic things on their own terms, with our Against the Grain series.
Kyle Bell
Published on October 06, 2016

Whether it be our isolation from the rest of the world and hunger to jut above the pack, or the humble quality of calling things how we see them, New Zealand is full of sparkling individuals taking the reins and living on their own terms. With that in mind, and in partnership with Budweiser and Monster Valley, we're delving into the lives of local leaders of independent thought, who make up the rules as they go and use their creativity to produce world class original ideas.

The first of four Auckland-based talents in our Against the Grain series is best known as Tom Tom, aka Tom McMillan, owner of one of the country's finest custom tattoo studios, Sunset Tattoo. Opened in 2014 with his wife and well-known artist, Misery, the studio specialises in blackwork, western traditional, Maori and Japanese tattooing. All while providing a relaxing environment that welcomes a positive work-life balance. Go on, meet Tom.

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Before using the human body as a canvas, Tom dove head first into the all-encompassing culture of skateboarding. The discipline's ethos of doing whatever the heck you want particularly struck a chord with him, and led to an epiphany that, "Rules and institutions don't matter at all if you don't let them."

He also discovered that skateboarding culture wasn't about the end result, but about what you did that day and how you went about it. Tom puts it candidly, "Everything I've done has been because of skateboarding." And if he wasn't running a business where his hands were everything, he'd still be doing it now.

From skating he made the progression to graffiti art, channelling that same DIY philosophy.




Similar to his plan of being self-made, Tom admits his tattooing career was started by accident. After getting his first ink, he was offered an apprenticeship at K'Rd street shop Uptown Tattoo under the guidance of one Doctor Damian Roberts, OHMS. Initially skeptical of the idea, it wasn't until Tom stumbled across some old Japanese art that he became completely obsessed with tattoos.

The drawings saw him develop his own style and an opinion that new work should be about respecting traditions and using them to your advantage to make something new. With his own unique take on western traditional and Japanese tattoo styles — from large-scale full body tattoos to palm size one-shot tattoos — he started to look out of New Zealand as a way to find inspiration, finding work in some of best tattoo studios abroad and closer to home. "I'm trying to do tattooing that will stand the test of time, that won't go out of style, and keep the wearer happy, while having a bit of my own illustrative style/energy in there. "




After ten years of studying the art, Tom floated the idea of starting his own shop. The idea was to start a small and intimate studio with a friendly vibe. What better place to start than a rugged, derelict old building set off the street and with no signage?

The building on Cross Street was the perfect setting to make a somewhat exclusive studio modelled on similar Japanese offerings. It was started from scratch with no money and initially gained business via word of mouth. In the process of the build he took up a tattooing residence at Sacred Tattoo Shop.

In line with his personal mantra to constantly progress everyday, Sunset has since been enhanced from a rugged building with a hard-to-miss bright yellow paint job and a mural from acclaimed street artist Askew. Though admittedly, he's still "winging it as he goes".




Work-life balance is an important part of Sunset's culture. To keep a strong workplace culture, Tom regularly does things outside of the shop with staff, whether it be going out for a drink or dinner after hours. The family vibe is also present in the studio with his wife Tanja sharing the space for her successful art project Misery. The pair's children can also regularly be found hanging out.

Beyond dedicating his life to family and "working way too much", Tom is most interested in travelling the world. He adds that the whole point of running the business is so that he can spread his travel wings. Like the age-old skateboarding ethos, "all the funnest and crazy things happen when you have no plan."

Read more Against the Grain articles:

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Published on October 06, 2016 by Kyle Bell
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