In a blinding-white back room near Richmond and Church, Isabelle Pelletier sits upright in a plasticky medical recliner, the kind you'd squirm around in while getting dental work done. She's holding a bandage to her right arm, pinprick dapples of blood leaching through it.
"She's one of our hardcore clients," says Mike McLaine, who owns the place.
Pelletier carefully lifts the arm bandage, revealing the outline of a mermaid - not being inked into her flesh, but zapped out of it. With a laser. She likens the pain to "being hit over and over with hot bacon grease."
"I would like to get married again," says Pelletier, who's been coming to Precision Laser for two years to get the image erased. "And I don't want to have a big tattoo on my arm."
Pelletier is, as they say, the exception that proves the rule. The arrival in Toronto of at least a dozen tattoo removal clinics speaks not to the decline of body art but to its entrenchment.
Inking has loosed itself from any connotations of outlaw culture or boozy freshman year indiscretion. Thanks in part to the popularity of reality shows like Miami Ink and its half-dozen spinoffs and knockoffs, tattooing has been normalized.
But along with its popularity have come stresses and strains that may shake up this ferociously independent-minded industry.
Earlier this month, the Toronto Board of Health finally officially recognized the sprouting of tattoo shops across town, and for the first time the sector will have to cope with scrupulous external monitoring and regulation.
"Toronto Public Health identified some serious concerns," says Richard Mucha, acting director of Toronto Licensing Services, who is spearheading the enforcement of the new licensing standard. "If we raise the benchmark, we create a higher standard."
As of July 1, tattoo parlours and other personal service settings are graded using a red (fail) / yellow (conditional) / green (pass) system. Consider it DineSafe for body modification.
Beyond this, the success of many artists has led to anxiety within the craft about the overexposure of a once underground art. Even academics have taken an interest; their attempts to account for the inking craze are maybe the ultimate sign of the new seriousness with which the art is regarded.
In these more rigorously theoretical contexts, sociologists are exploring factors from globalization (see the popularity in the last decade of tattoos depicting Japanese kanji characters, Celtic knots and North American native "tribal" designs) to a capitalist appropriation of the body as a commodity to be cosmetically redecorated (see also piercing, plastic surgery, steroidal enhancement - basically any kind of body modification).
In Toronto, evidence of the mainstreaming of tattoos is everywhere. Where tattoo parlours may once have signalled roughness or disreputability, a well-appointed inking establishment is now part of any developing neighbourhood's gentrifying model, as telling as an espresso bar or haute taco joint. At Jinks Art Factory in Parkdale, you can get a tattoo and a cappuccino. And vintage jewellery. I heard a joke once that you need at least 12 tattoos to get a job slinging salads at Fresh.
All those tattoo removals - some undertaken just to clear real estate for new tattoos - are part of the industry's boom. The relationship between guys like McLaine at Precision Laser, and Toronto's tattoo artists isn't antagonistic so much as symbiotic, like the tick bird on the rhino's back.
McLaine says Precision Laser processes 12 to 20 clients a day, each requiring five to a dozen-plus sessions (he's careful to manage client expectations) to get unwanted tattoos obliterated. He's seen the baddest of the bad: a gremlin Santa Claus smoking a joint, two female demons performing cunnilingus on each other, an incorrectly dated wedding anniversary, and plenty of cartoon Tasmanian devils. ("We do those all the time.") He's also done a pro bono job removing visible gang markings from a 15-year-old boy.
"I'm not anti-tattoo," McLaine stresses. Averaging 16 clients a day at $228 a half-hour session, about three times the average rate of applying a tattoo, why would he be?
It's 8:30 pm on a Wednesday at Great Canadian Tattoo on Lake Shore West in Etobicoke. Shop manager April O'Dell is printing out a copy of a Toronto Star article published July 6 headlined: "Tattoo, piercing technicians often lack hygiene training."
According to O'Dell, the story doesn't reflect the best practices prevalent in T.O.'s tattoo operations. It came on the heels of those new Board of Health moves (also covering body piercing, acupuncture, electrolysis, hairdressing and other body care service facilities) that call for licensing and conformance with a more uniform set of hygiene standards.
A licence will set shop owners back $319.88 (and $210.30 for annual renewal) and also require them to maintain "comprehensive insurance of at least $1 million against personal injuries." A city staff report from November 2012 notes that many owners of personal service establishments have resisted the increased costs of licensing, renewal, and especially insurance. In the case of tattooing, the report also notes that many artists believe "their service is an art and this should not be overly regulated."
While the industry has largely regulated itself, it's easy to spot the focused attention to hygiene. At Great Canadian, sterilization records issued by independent laboratories like IDEXX are stacked on a wall adjacent to the front counter, proudly displayed like a doctor's various degrees. The shop is cleaned in a half-hour sterilization process between sessions, a full-shop cleaning happens two to three times a week, and a sterilization room is cordoned off from the tattoo artists and piercers - standard practice at any shop worth its salt.
Great Canadian's co-owner, "Psycho" Dave Naughton, is an expert, having tattooed professionally for almost two decades. He's also a veteran of life. He used to play with local rockabilly band Elvis Manson, currently sings with a band called Brass Knuckle Therapy and rides with a certain notorious motorcycle club.
Tall, built like a Mack Truck and sporting a hand-tapped Bornean tattoo on his throat, Naughton exudes a kind of unfuckwithable seriousness. I mean, he's called "Psycho Dave." To guys like him, hygiene is a matter of good business, as important as his reputation. He worries that over-regulation introduced by the new licensing bylaw will backfire, driving the tattoo scene back where it started: underground.
"In the late 80s, I was just fucking around," says Naughton, sitting at a patio table in his shop's back yard. "Before I got into it, a lot of guys who got into it were punk rock guys who started tattooing each other in the basement. Then along came certain guys like Bill Baker and Crazy Ace. They saw that a lot of these guys had a talent, and they'd scoop them up and say, ‘Come do an apprenticeship.'"
Baker, who currently works out of Pearl Harbor Gift Shop in Kensington Market, and "Crazy" Ace Daniels, who passed away in 2010, are regarded as legends in the local tattoo scene. Before them, says Naughton, "the main shops were dingy, biker-run underground places. It was scary to walk into those places. But it was a rite of passage."
By the mid-90s, improvements in equipment made tattooing more accessible to aspiring artists. "That's when you saw the switchover from the old biker style to newer tattoos: lots of colour, crazy designs - even the tribal fad started then." Also those ubiquitous Taz tattoos that McLaine and other laser removal specialists have been scrubbing out of history. ("We were doing Taz on roller skates, Taz in a fire hat, Taz playing the drums. That was a 90s thing, man.")
Baker and Daniels offered education opportunities for younger artists, happy to impart their wisdom to what Naughton calls the "aimless punk rock, street kid, metal kid" scene. Before, pro tattooing was a closed shop. If you went to one of those dimly lit biker shops to ask questions about the art or practice of tattooing, you were likely to get tossed out on your ass for snooping.
"They'd tell you to fuck right off if you went in there nosing around for stuff," Naughton explains. "Back in those days, guys wouldn't tell you anything. And if you were a female, they'd kick you right out."
In 2013, things are different. The tattoo explosion has opened up the culture. The internet offers all kinds of DIY instructions for building homemade tattoo machines. And the profession's as likely to attract serious artists as hard-ass bikers and wayward youth.
Joey Nicholson tattoos at Adrenaline at Queen and St. Patrick, plop in the shadow of OCAD University, where she studied fine art.
"I'd been at OCAD about a year, and I applied at Way Cool Tattoos, which was looking for a counter girl," she says. "I was 18 and wasn't smart enough to know that filing things and fetching coffee for 7 bucks an hour was kind of a shit position. I thought it was incredible. I think they saw that."
After doing her time at the counter, Nicholson began apprenticing under Way Cool owner Carl Carscallen. Like "Psycho" Dave Naughton, Carscallen also trained under Crazy Ace, another offshoot of the same artistic genealogy. At Way Cool, Carscallen stressed the value of self-sufficiency that still defines tattooing in its more serious quarters.
"Carl always said he wouldn't teach me anything unless I was showing him that I wanted to learn," says Nicholson. "The first thing he had me do was put back together a tattoo machine he'd taken apart. I worked on this thing all day and I didn't even come close. It was hilarious. He wouldn't show me anything further until I figured it all out."
Carscallen also made Nicholson lay out a sheet of flash - those tattoo designs you see adorning the walls of every shop, basically a given artist's portfolio - and told her she couldn't tattoo anyone until a customer bought one of her designs. "At the time, zodiac symbols, stars and tribal designs were really popular," she says. "So I made tribal zodiac signs with stars. It worked!"
Though she belongs to the same tradition as Naughton, Carscallen and Crazy Ace, Nicholson represents the shift in tattooing culture. For one, she's a woman. And while she has all the markers of punk credibility - piercings, pilled Nausea T-shirt, lots of tattoos (naturally) - she's also sensitive to stuff like the politics of cultural appropriation, be it kanji characters or native American designs.
Despite her reservations about certain aspects of tattooing's artistic traditions (and trends), Nicholson feels very connected to the ethos of what she deems a "skilled trade." Like a lot of young artist/tradespeople currently in the biz, she favours the neo-traditional designs - "bright colour, bold lines."
"Those images are pretty tried and true," says Andrés Merrill, co-owner of TCB on Queen West. "In their simplicity they convey a lot. There's a real beauty to [traditional tattoos]. You can take clunky, simple designs and modernize them and not make them so clunky and simple."
Unlike Naughton, who seems genuinely happy to see different kinds of people getting into tattoos (and tattooing), Merrill has misgivings.
"I've only recently been really disappointed in what it's become," says Merrill, who began tattooing in 1992. "I was getting tattooed for a long time before I started. Then, if you were heavily tattooed, you really stood out. It wasn't every douchebag on the street. People's first tattoos weren't sleeves. You get these people now where their first is a beautiful sleeve that they flew to New York to get. It wasn't like that before."
The emergence, or re-emergence, of the traditional style (lots of wolves, daggers, panthers, Grim Reapers, skulls, sailors and winking pin-up girls, the kind of stuff you'd see on old-school flash walls, but inked with greater attention to detail) points to the strange modern place of tattoo culture and the anxiety about that shift that guys like Merrill feel.
The revival of an old-school style seems consistent with a culture that privileges nostalgia, where everything old - from cuts of jeans to semi-ironic Steely Dan appreciation - is new again. The attractiveness of such designs proceeds from their connection to the art's more distant past, away from Tasmanian devils and faux-tribal curlicues - a pining for a simpler time.
Talking to Naughton and Merrill, you get a sense that tattoos used to connote something beyond themselves. A conspicuously placed dagger through a heart, snarling panther head or ring of barbed wired around the forearm were like slapped-on suitcase stickers signifying inclusion in a loose guild of punks, bikers, metal-heads, weirdos and other miscreants.
Now, at the more mainstream level, tattoos signify that you have a lot of tattoos. And maybe that you work at Fresh.
If the Board of Health's licensing bylaw has the effect that seasoned artists like Naughton, Nicholson and Merrill anticipate, tattooing in Toronto may quickly return to its seedier past. There may be more shops than ever in Toronto, and more public interest in tattooing, but that doesn't mean owners (or artists) are necessarily raking in the dough. Places like TCB and Great Canadian are profitable, but their owners worry that the increased burden of licensing and swollen insurance premiums may dent their bottom line.
The city is less concerned about preserving tattoo culture than about educating and protecting the public. "I'll be honest," says Mucha. "You seldom have people in any case happily coming in to get licenses and permits. It's not a matter of going out and hammering anyone. We're here to help. I understand that they're artists, but when you're breaking the skin, there are risks associated with that."
Discouraged by annual licensing fees, jacked-up insurance premiums and the restriction of what they rightly consider as much an art as a skilled trade, tattoo artists may well go underground, their livelihood vested with an old-school illicitness, back to stick-and-pokes and homemade needles.
Out-of-towners trolling Queen West, U of T frosh kids and other dabbling mainstreamers will still have plenty of options for a walk on the wild side at shops offering all the dolphins, Chinese characters, Tinkerbells and Tasmanian devils that seem fated one day to be laser-removed.
The more hardcore ink addicts - the ones who can spot a Bill Baker on sight and swear they've never seen an episode of Miami Ink - are likely to follow the talent wherever it goes: to the dingy holes-in-the-wall, the basement apartments, the cigarette-smoky kitchen tables, the cloistered crags and hollows where the subcultures thrive.
FLASH (noun) Sheets of tattoo designs that usually adorn shops, basically amounting to an artist's resumé.
THE WORKS (noun) Slang for an artist's tattooing gear: the machine, needles, inks, etc.
SIT (noun) The process of being tattooed, i.e., "I have a three-hour sit booked to get the ink on my thigh finished."
DITCH (noun) The inner crook of the elbow (or back of the knee), a particularly tender place to get tattooed.
INK (noun) A tattoo; (verb, transitive) the process of tattooing or getting tattooed, i.e., "I'm getting inked later."
TAZ (noun) The Tasmanian devil from Looney Tunes. A popular tattoo among lawyers and golfers and other dads who got a tattoo while white-knuckling through a midlife crisis. Literally the worst tattoo you could ever get.
TRAMP STAMP (noun, pejorative) A lower-back tattoo, usually on a woman, associated with sexual promiscuity.