In our Tattoo Culture Abroad Series, we've so far explored the tattoo cultures of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Today we're putting the spotlight on the tattoo culture in Canada, where the history of tattooing has closely mirrored that of the U.S. for more than a century. Read on to learn about the progression of tattoo art in Canada over time, who's who among Canadian tattoo artists, what you should know before getting a tattoo in Canada, and more.
A Brief History of Tattoos in Canada
Tattooing was practiced in North America long before European settlers "discovered" the art form. It was common for natives throughout North and South America to tattoo themselves for spiritual reasons, to commemorate victories in battle, for beautification, and to show tribal affiliations. Interestingly, though, it wasn't the North American natives who first inspired U.S. and Canadian settlers of European heritage to adopt the art of tattooing. In fact, many early European settlers found the tradition of tattooing among Native Americans to be foreign and strange, as illustrated by this statement written by Gabriel Sagard-Theodat in 1615 after witnessing a Native American tattooing ceremony:
"But that which I find a most strange and conspicuous folly, is that in order to be considered courageous and feared by their enemies, (the Hurons) take the bone of a bird or of a fish which they sharpen like a razor, and use it to engrave or decorate their bodies by making many punctures somewhat as we would engrave a copper plate with a burin. During this process they exhibit the most admirable courage and patience...they remain motionless and mute while their companions wipe away the blood that runs from the incisions. Subsequently they rub a black color or powder into the cuts in order that the engraved marks which one sees on the arms of the pilgrims returning form Jerusalem."1
Despite being exposed to tattoos during encounters with Native Americans, early North American settlers didn't adopt the tradition until they had greater exposure to the art form's prevalence in other parts of the world. Sailors had more of an impact on the spread of tattoo art throughout western civilization than the natives of North America. After traveling to Polynesia and seeing the heavily tattooed natives there, many European and North American sailors came back with tattoos of their own and shared the tradition with other military men. Outside of primitive cultures, tattoos remained most popular among sailors and soldiers until the mid-1800s, but they exposed many people to the tradition along the way.
The development of the first rotary and coil tattoo machines in 1851 started making tattoos more accessible to other people in the western world, but it was an expensive hobby that was really only affordable for the upper class. Aristocrats in the U.S. and Canada developed an insatiable appetite for Japanese tattoos in particular, which lured legendary Japanese tattoo artist Hori Chyo to leave Tokyo and travel to Vancouver, where he tattooed heads of state and crown princes in the 1890s. From there, he went to New York and setup shop permanently.
From the early 1900s until the 1970s, tattoo flash art was the most prevalent type of tattoo art in Canada and the U.S. People favored traditional tattoos like flags and pin-up girls comprised of simple images and bold lines that artists could churn out quickly when trying to serve long lines of soldiers and sailors. Portrait art and other more detailed tattoo art didn't start gaining popularity until the 1970s and 1980s. In the years in between, the North American mainstream became very anti-tattoos, associating them with carnies, sailors, and other "undesirables". However, over the past 30 years or so, tattoos have become increasingly popular in Canada and the U.S. Today, North Americans of diverse races, ages and socioeconomic statuses have tattoos, and quality tattoo shops can be found all over Canada and the U.S.
This August 2013 excerpt from the National Post e-article, From counter-culture to mainstream: Why the red-hot tattoo boom is bound to end, illustrates just how popular tattoos are in Canada now:
"Last month...Toronto launched a red-yellow-green scoring system for tattoo parlours, similar to one for restaurants, and a York University sociologist this week revealed an archive for tattoos that memorialize loved ones. A special tattoo edition of Toronto’s alt-weekly NOW magazine described such academic interest as a sign of the 'new seriousness with which the art is regarded,' and the spread of tattoo parlours as an indicator of urban gentrification, like espresso bars."2
Today's Top Canadian Tattoo Artists
Canada has produced a number of world-renowned tattoo artists over the past century. "Doc" Forbes, "Speed" Robinson, Susan Diaz, and Curly Allen were some of the great Canadian tattoo artists of the mid- to late-20th century. Today, you can find talented tattoo artists in nearly every major Canadian city, and some of the best of the best are known around the world. Here are a few of the Canadian tattoo artists who made Complex.com's 50 Tattoo Artists You Need to Know earlier this year:
- Steve Moore - This Vancouver tattooist is known for his bold, colorful tattoo sleeves.
- David Glantz - If you want a tattoo inspired by comics, graffiti and Art Nouveau, this Toronto tattoo artist is the guy to see.
- James Acrow - James was first known for his awesome artwork on Battle Axe Records' album covers, and his tattoos share that same flavor. He's also exceptional at bird tattoos. You'll find him in Vancouver, but you may want to make an appointment before making the trek.
Nick Wasko may not have made Complex.com's list of top tattooists, but he's another Canadian tattoo artist worth knowing. He works out of SacredHeart Tattoo and Body Piercing on Davie Street in Vancouver and is known for his traditional tattoos that were so popular in Canada and the U.S. in the early to mid-1900s.
These are just a few of the many talented tattoo artists you'll find in tattoo shops throughout Canada. Whether you're in British Columbia, Vancouver, Quebec, Ontario, or another part of Canada, your search for the right tattoo artist is as simple as going online, looking for tattoo shops in your area, reviewing artists' portfolios, and choosing the one whose work really speaks to you. If you have your heart set on working with an international star, that's possible, too. However, you may have to request a spot on their waiting list and/or travel a distance to meet up with them.
Getting a Tattoo in Canada
As in the U.S., getting a tattoo in Canada is a pretty fail-proof endeavor as long as you choose a reputable tattoo shop. Just make sure the shop you're considering can answer "yes" to each of these questions:
- Do they use an autoclave to sterilize reusable tools? There are other safe alternatives, like dry heat sterilizers and chemical baths (when used properly), but an autoclave is an even better sign that the shop you're considering takes sterilization seriously.
- Do the tattoo artists all wear gloves and use other protective gear, like tattoo machine bags and clip cord bags? It's important that any equipment that can't be sterilized is covered appropriately, and tattoo artists should change gloves as necessary throughout the tattooing process.
- Do the tattooists remove tattoo needles, disposable tattoo tubes and other disposable tattoo supplies from sterile packaging in front of their clients? If not, you may want to look for another shop.
If you're a tourist considering getting a Canadian tattoo souvenir, you should also think long and hard about the design you choose. Don't just pick a Canadian maple leaf or another common symbol off a flash rack; be creative! Unless you go through the costly, uncomfortable process of tattoo removal or get a cover-up tattoo later, you're going to have this tattoo souvenir for life, so it isn't a decision you should make in haste. Talk to your chosen tattoo artist about your tattoo ideas, and give him or her some creative license. Hopefully you chose a particular artist because you really like their style, so take advantage of the opportunity you have to work with them and see what their spin is on your tattoo idea.
1North America's First Nations Tattoos Article on VanishingTattoo.com
2From Counter-Culture to Mainstream: Why the Red-Hot Tattoo Boom Is Bound to End Article on News.NationalPost.com
Tattoo Historian Follows Ink Trail of Art Article on Canada.com
50 Tattoo Artists You Need to Know Article on Complex.com
Canadian Tattoo History Thread on LastSparrowTattoo.com