Sharpies, or sharps, are the darlings of Australian gang fashion. They started out in the 1960s when groups of working-class teenagers in Melbourne, and to a lesser extent, Sydney, came together over cars, tattoos, fights, and “dressing sharp.” While US-style motorcycle clubs evolved around leather jackets, Australian sharpies defined themselves by Conny tops, Staggers jeans, and chiseled shoes. But like bikers, sharpies placed a similar value on loyalty asserted with violence.
Nick Tolewski was in his early teens in the late 1970s when he and his friends started taking photos of the Thomastown Sharps, one of Melbourne’s largest sharpie groups in the city’s north. A few years ago Tolewski self-published some photos of the period in a book titled Once Were Sharps. Now, with a second book on the way, we sat down for a chat.
VICE: Hi, Nick. Tell me about growing up with these guys.
Nick Tolewski: A lot of them lived on the same street. As a young kid I would see them at Andy’s Pinball Parlour, the roller disco on Settlement Road, the swimming pool, the youth center on a Friday night, or at the Main Street Recreation Reserve. Then I got to know some of them through my love of pigeons. I used to breed pigeons when I was five and so did a bunch of the Thomastown Sharps. So we used to go to each other’s houses and check out what we each had. But see, I was eight years younger than a lot of them. I used to run around like a little mascot to them. When I was 13 I started boxing with Squirt, who was similar in age and part of the sharpies because his brother was Thomastown’s main guy.
Apparently sharpies were like Australian skinheads. Were they racists?
Nah, they weren’t. The Thomastown Sharps were all different nationalities. They had all religions, races… it was all mixed. A lot of the ethnics had been in Thomastown for 20 years. The rest of the city was still getting used to the influx of migrants that arrived in the 50s and 60s, but Thomastown had racial harmony.
But they were definitely violent?
Oh, sure. The Thomastown Sharps had five big names: Big Louie, Blacky, Mitcho, Big Ears, and Wayne. They were all the big blokes and got in a lot of brawls, but Big Louie was definitely the toughest. He didn’t fear anyone. He knew Chopper Read the best out of Thomo boys and they spent some time together in Pentridge Prison.
There are a lot of tattoos in these photos. Tell me about what tattoos meant?
To get inked back then made a statement. Some of the boys got the names of the core members tattooed on them. It was like a badge of honor and a distinctive statement that showed you didn’t care what others thought. The boys couldn’t always afford to get them done properly, so they’d jerry-rig a tattoo gun with pen ink, wire, and a small motor. Snatch tattooed “fuck off” on Pee Wee’s lip. The Pink Panther and a bluebird were also iconic tattoos among the sharps.
That takes me to my next observation: There’s not a lot of girls in these photos. Did anyone ever have a girlfriend?
Yeah, there weren’t too many girls in Thomastown, but there were a few scattered across different sharpie gangs. They were tough and held their own. No one did them any favors because they could do it for themselves. But a lot of the guys had girlfriends. Snatch had a fair few. He was seen as the ladies man among the Thomo sharps. He used to pull in the sheilas.
What happened to the Thomastown Sharps?
In the early 80s, they started using guns. Places started getting shot up and the whole gang thing was taken to another level. Also drugs got in the way. Blokes were getting on heroin. They were ten years older and everything changed.
So what are these guys doing now?
One of them works for the local council of Whittlesea. One is a schoolteacher in Daylesford. Another is a builder in Bundoora. A lot of them became panel beaters. But the majority of them don’t work these days. And a lot of them have passed away from overdoses or car accidents.
What do you think of modern gangs?
No good, mate. Too much violence with knives and guns, which leads to killings. The Lebanese Tigers and Black Dragons used to do their karate, but most of the fights back in the day were fists and feet. Also, gangs now take all types of drugs that make them go mad. It’s not good.
So what do you still find appealing about the sharpies?
The look of them. With their hair, tattoos, clothes, and how they hung out as a gang. They were tough, you know. And as a little kid, coming from a working class family, you looked up to those guys. They gave me a sense of belonging and purpose.
Interview by Dan Nulley. Follow him on Twitter