Skin As A Canvas – by V Morgan

The art of tattooing still has an old-school tradition that I find cool and… kind of terrifying. To become a professional tattooer, you have to first be an apprentice. This is what I’m doing, under Lizzie’s mentorship. When your ‘master’ decides you’re ready, you get to do your first tattoo. (And this is after a lot of time spent, you know, sweeping floors, and mastering the art of drawing on… paper.) But your first work is not on say, a trusting friend, or even a client, your first tattoo is on— your master. I know, it’s intense. Hence my slight terror. Lucky for me, apparently I’m ‘not ready’ yet. I’m totally okay with that. Pass me the broom, please.

Part of my apprenticeship is learning the origin of tattoos, their different styles and meanings. Which is kind fascinating. I come at tattooing because of my love of art, but there are as many reasons why people get tattoos as there are designs. It’s a practice that goes back as far as civilization does.

There’s a great documentary photographer, Chris Rainer, who spent twenty years studying and photographing indigenous tattoo practices around the world. His work shows tattooing is an ancient tribal ritual and art form. It was first introduced to the West in the sixteenth century by English sailors who came back sporting tattoos from Polynesia and South-West Asia regions, (Cool read: Smithsonian Magazine’s, Abigail Tucker). Tattoos later developed as an expression of subcultures, typical with bikers and street gangs. But now, it’s become pretty much mainstream. Based on a 2006 Pew survey, 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have been tattooed. That’s got to be even higher today. And you thought getting one would be alternative and badass… well, it all depends on the purpose and design of your tattoo. It could be a symbol to identify you as a US Marine, your affiliation in a street gang, your Maori family lineage, your devotion to Guns N’ Roses, or in memory of your beloved cat, Fuzz Ball.

What’s your style? There are a few main ones. The Japanese style is about storytelling, but not your story, rather the traditional tales using symbols of dragons, characters and creatures. Chicano style, of Mexican origin, is all about you and your story. It identifies your crew, your tribe or family. And then there’s the American style, which is a bit of both. The common symbols of an anchor, swallows, roses, were started by good ol’ sailors. It’s iconic, flashy and poppy, but personalized.

A lot of people come into Lizzie’s for different reasons. She runs a smaller, more personalized shop, so we get more word of mouth customers or regulars, aka ‘collectors’ who find tattooers they like and collect their designs. We get less walk-ins, but a few. People come to express who they are, to symbolize an important time or story in their lives, or to honour someone they love. But sometimes a customer just wants a cool design. There’s no apparent meaning behind it, and they’ll even let Lizzie choose where to place it. Whatever your reason, you’ll have a relationship to the physical pain of the process. You either hate it, tolerate it, or love it. The more tats, perhaps the more you love the pain.

In an era of disposability and constant upgrades, it’s the permanence of a tattoo that makes it meaningful to me. I see the body as a canvas, a map of stories, an art collection. Some of my tattoos are just for the aesthetic beauty of the image. Some have meaning. My sacred geometry ones connect me with this infinite, ancient universe we’re part of. And my newer tattoos are symbols that remind me of people I’ve crossed paths with. That every encounter with is a chance to have a positive impact on another person.

Whatever your reason, if you’re ever contemplating getting a tattoo— a word of advice. Avoid fads or following trends. Trends are about as lasting as toilet paper. But your tattoo is permanent, so make it something that really matters to you.