attoo culture is in a transitional phase. The act of repeatedly injecting ink one millimetre under the skin to permanently colour it has somehow drifted towards the mainstream. A dozen years ago, this medium was reserved for bikers and thugs, but no more. Tattoos have slid under the shirtsleeves of businessmen, onto the hips of soccer moms, and behind the ears of teenagers. With this transition, a large number of tattoo artists (or ‘tattooers,’ as they call themselves) are now looking to the future with artistic ambition.
Kyle Carter, a Victoria-based tattooer, tattooed an apple onto my upper left bicep on an overcast Monday morning in February. Tattoo Zoo—the Wharf St. shop where Carter has been tattooing for the past four years—is quiet. A velvet painting of a matador dodging a bull looks down from a wall coated in painted samples of tattoos. I’m part of the mainstream wave of the tattooed: a white, middle-class university student. It was my third tattoo and the second piece I’d had done by Carter.
Unlike “street shops” (the dark dingy shops reserved for biker gangs and drug addicts) Tattoo Zoo is equal parts serious and light-hearted. A hand-painted sign reads in a sideshow script, “No Inkin’ if You’ve Been Drinkin’.” Beside it is a saw that claims to offer free tattoo removal.
Carter is in his mid-thirties. He enjoys simple, bold tattoos. The first of his pieces I noticed was a gorilla done with thick black lines and bold purple in between. Shortly after I saw that, he tattooed a polar bear on my chest in the same style as that gorilla—a style that Carter’s boss, Bob Toner, calls, “Old-School Tattoo.” It’s what Carter does best: simple, clean, and following the fundamentals set in place by the traditional “Sailor Jerry” tattoo.
Making a Tattoo Artist
From 10 feet away, I could tell he was the product of the old era of tattoos. His thick frame was painted in over 15 years of memories. A large, densely curled orange beard hid his chin and jawline. A black flat cap covered his bald, tattooed skull. I entered the shop and he walked up to shake my hand, but what he extended to me was more of a painted leather glove than a hand. A black and blue lotus flower covered the back of his right hand, which gave way to a grey sleeve of ghostly figures. I looked up, and noticed young eyes under the cap and a slight grin from under his beard.
“I got my first tattoo at 12,” said Carter as he shaved the thin blond hair off my left bicep. “My step-dad wanted to be a tattooer. He was kinda doing it out of his place. I eventually talked him into letting me get a tattoo.” He joked that it wasn’t easy for him to convince his mom, but his step-dad wanted the experience. He still has that tattoo, kept for the memory.
Under the blue glove on his left hand, a tattoo of a ripped-up bird biting its own intestines could be seen. His grizzled and inked hands smoothed a piece of parchment with a purple outline of an apple onto my arm, and then he lightly peeled it off.
His stepdad was responsible for his second tattoo as well. Carter and a friend of his got “Misfits” tattoos (the logo of a punk band) on their upper biceps when he was 14. His step-dad had just finished tattooing them when Carter asked if he could try. “He just kind of threw [the tattoo machine] at me and said go nuts,” said Carter, “I started tattooing my toes or whatever. I did the clubs, spades, and hearts, you know, from the cards? Terrible idea. Now they kind of look like weird skin blemishes, but it got me interested.”
The familiar buzz filled the small shop. Carter dipped the tattoo machine into plastic thimbles of ink. One big, blue-gloved hand pressed against my arm; the other cradled the iron machine like a feather quill. He pressed its foot-pedal, and the machine hummed and shook excess ink from itself.
It’s a Machine, Not a Gun.
“A gun kills things and shoots people,” said Carter. It’s a common misconception, but no one in the industry uses the term ‘tattoo gun.’ It’s a term coined in the former era of tattoos, either by concerned housewives hoping to make the art form seem barbaric, or by biker-era scratchers (an industry term for an untalented tattooer).
Two electromagnetic coils run most modern tattoo machines. The needle is attached to a metal bar called the armature bar. The bar rests on a thin piece of flexible metal, which acts as a spring.
Although speeds between machines vary drastically, the needle will likely puncture the skin over a hundred times per second. It is also important to note that it is not just one needle. A needle shaft can have anywhere from one to 39 smaller needles welded to its tip. It depends on how big the tattoo is, but seven is average.
There are two main types of tattoo machines: liners and shaders. Liners move faster and are better suited for outlining the piece. Shaders can make lines as well, but they move a bit slower. They’re better suited for colouring in sections of the piece.
Carter’s machines are all handmade. He has no patience for factory-made machines, as they don’t work as smoothly as something hand-tuned. What Carter appreciates about the handmade machine is that someone put their heart and soul into it, and it can cater to your style. The coils of one of his shaders are wrapped in gold leaf and fitted onto a gold coloured iron frame; another machine of his has a navy blue frame with “The Lad” etched in cursive on the side. Each one is unique and bears an authenticity in its construction.
[pullquote]“He basically just flat out told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a tattooer,” said Carter. “You know, typical biker-put-down stuff. Which is fine.”[/pullquote]
Tattooers in a Dangerous Time
“The name of the shop was Metal ‘n’ Ink,” said Carter in reference to the first shop he worked at in Hamilton, Ontario. “People came in on the day, and they want something then. Very street shop. At the end of the month there was welfare checks; we got a lot of the junkies…When I was there, it was pretty gritty.” The liner injected the outline of my tattoo just below the epidermis and into the living dermis layer of my skin.
Being an army brat, he moved around probably a dozen times as a kid mostly throughout Eastern Canada, and for a short time in Germany. He started at Metal ‘n’ Ink as a “bar helper” in Hamilton, doing the menial tasks of the shop when he was 15 going on 16.
“Just dropped out of school and started working full time,” said Carter. His stepdad, the aspiring tattooer, worked there as well, but Carter didn’t get into tattooing so easily.
“I showed interest in being a tattooer, but the boss was kind of fifty-fifty on it. He was just like, ‘If you want to learn how to tattoo you gotta learn how to pierce’ type of shit. I wasn’t even into piercing at all, but I thought, ‘Well if that’s my gateway to get in, then I’ll fuckin’ do it.’ Hated every moment of it. It was like the worst time ever. I got too big of hands…It just wasn’t for me.”
Carter’s “too big” hands curved the machine up around my shoulder blade to make the stem of the apple. He left a small nub on one side of the stem, a nub that theoretically once held a leaf. It was just a small detail. It would’ve still resembled a stem without it, but Carter took the time to place it there.
“He basically just flat out told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a tattooer,” said Carter. “You know, typical biker-put-down stuff. Which is fine.”
He worked at Metal ‘n’ Ink for five years. Most people that age wouldn’t wait that long for an employer to make up their mind, but Carter on several occasions mentioned a pride he found in his loyalty. When Carter approached his boss he did not receive the answer he sought. “He basically just flat out told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a tattooer,” said Carter. “You know, typical biker-put-down stuff. Which is fine. It didn’t bother me that much. It just felt like all that time I dedicated there meant nothing.” Carter leaned back and dipped the machine’s needles into the black ink. He paused. “I just said fuck it and moved here. I didn’t know anybody or nothing—just took a chance. Pretty good risk—it worked out for me.” I caught a slight smile hiding under his beard before he refocused his energy into the outline of my tattoo.
Some Experience In Getting Tattooed
As he switched from liner to shader, I asked Carter what advice he’d give to those looking to get inked. “I want a tattoo to look like a tattoo,” said Carter, meaning the old-school tattoo look. “A lot of people say it’s easy but I think it is super hard. It’s probably the hardest style, I think, cause your lines are so dependent… I know a lot of portrait dudes who can’t do super crisp one-hit lines ‘cause they’re so used to finicky little lines.”
I love that old-school look because the deep injections from the liner machine hold so well over time. A photorealistic tattoo looks great fresh, but when it heals, it usually looks muddy and hard to render due to the lack of black ink.
Eyes of an artist, hands of a tradesman
I knew I’d come back to Carter after he tattooed the polar bear on my chest. His rough tradesman’s hands become precise instruments under his detail-oriented eye. The clinching moment was when he added the smallest dot of red to the corner of the bear’s eye: hardly noticeable, yet beautifully purposeful.
Carter has been tattooing professionally for almost a decade and he has been working with his hands since he dropped out of high school. In that time his tattooed hands have experienced some wear. A former co-worker of Carter’s, Douglas Melanson, told me Carter had been experiencing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome but opted out of surgery. “He got a bunch of Tibetan Prayer symbols put on the fingers on his knuckles and he says it’s been better since then,” said Melanson. It may not be a modern approach, but Carter is not a modern guy.
I asked him about his finger tattoos and he told me they weren’t quite Tibetan, but he did poke the ink into his skin dot-by-dot. This is a style known as hand-poked, which Carter offers on top of regular tattoos. Three of his are alchemy symbols: Iron to represent his tattoo machines, and Wood and Lead to represent a pencil. Two blackw triangles are there to remind him to remain grounded. Another group are Reiki symbols which are a Japanese Buddhist meditative power symbol (the tattoos that Melanson mistook for Tibetan prayer symbols.)
[pullquote]When people ask him if a tattoo is going to hurt, Carter simply responds, “I don’t know—I’m not the one who will feel it.”[/pullquote]
Tattoos according to Carter
Carter has been offering hand-poked tattoos for a few years now. He initially offered hand-poked when he realized a lot of young kids were getting a hold of needles online and trying to tattoo themselves at home. “So it’s just my way of being like, ‘Hey, I can do it too and cleaner, a bit more professional,’” said Carter. “You don’t have to worry about a cat jumping on you or something.”
Carter began to laugh quietly to himself. His customer base for hand-pokes has not been teenagers as he thought. Instead, it’s been mostly soccer moms. “It’s so strange,” he said. “I never thought I’d be doing hand pokes on soccer moms, on the back of their necks and behind their ears and stuff. It’s been a pretty big hit.”
Sometimes people would walk into the Zoo and ask for hand-poked tattoos without knowing that it’s inserted dot-by-dot, which can cause quite a shock for many people. Proper research is key for anyone looking to get any tattoo.
When people ask him if a tattoo is going to hurt, Carter simply responds, “I don’t know—I’m not the one who will feel it.”
“Just walking by, and being like ‘Hey, I see a tattoo shop. Now I want a tattoo.’ Some people can get away with it pretty well but I find that it’s very…” He paused. “I’m trying to think of the best word to describe it without being a dick. It’s like almost rushing on a permanent thing, you know? Sometimes it’s almost worth waiting a few days or doing some research. You can get a tattoo anytime.”
What about which places hurt the most? During my polar bear tattoo from Carter, he told me that the skull, kneecaps, behind the knees, and any place that is less exposed (inner arms, ribs, and between the legs) hurt the most. That being said, everyone’s body and pain threshold is different. When people ask him if a tattoo is going to hurt, Carter simply responds, “I don’t know—I’m not the one who will feel it. People say, ‘I fall on my butt all the time so a butt tattoo must not hurt.’ It hurts. I’ve tattooed people that have said that and they’re clinching their butt cheeks every 10 seconds.”
The Victoria Tattoo Scene
“When I first moved here I didn’t get a job tattooing right away. At the time there wasn’t 15 shops like there is now. There was like five.”
Carter isn’t lying about the number of shops. There are 15 in Victoria and 25 in the Capital Region District. Twenty-five shops for a population of 344 000 is a testament to the growth of this industry. But, as mentioned, there were only five shops in Victoria when he finally fled Hamilton.
“Eventually I landed a job in Nanaimo at Black and Blue,” said Carter. “I worked there for eight years or something like that, but wasn’t for me.” Nanaimo was too small and rural for Carter.
One day Carter heard that Universal Tattoo Shop in Victoria was hiring. He hopped onto a Greyhound bus and went to the shop right away. They asked him if he wanted to do a guest spot first to see if he’d fit in. “I was like ‘nah, it’s OK,’” he laughed, “I think I’ll do OK.”
Carter has settled into Victoria nicely. He’s married. His wife, Chelsea Owens, is a rockabilly/punk singer. “Probably one of the coolest things I can say about her,” said Carter, “is that she got to play with the Misfits.” He didn’t talk too much about his home life, other than mentioning that he and Chelsea have a short-haired tabby, and that he tries not to do much painting while at home. He reserves his painting for the office.
Tattoo Zoo has since moved to Fort St., and Carter has returned to Universal. He has adapted to new settings and scenarios his whole life. In this growing industry he will need to continue to do so, but something tells me he will always remember his fundamentals.