by Heather Holditch
Standing in front of my bedroom mirror, I felt more naked than usual as I envisioned the bare areas of skin between freckles and moles that I might want to have inked (as the cool kids call it): the centre of my back, the top of my foot, a band around my arm, a banner across my collarbone. But these were just fantasies—there was no way I would ever get a tattoo, even if I really wanted one. They hurt. They are only for tough people. They are permanent!
I have always been attracted to tattoos in the same way one is attracted to skydiving, surfing, or Christmas Eve shopping. There is a certain tough-guy appeal to this adrenaline inducing behaviour; but in the end, looking in the mirror, I know I could never pull off this tough persona. It would look unnatural on my small frame.
However, my curiosity persists. The bravery of being completely exposed, showcasing your inner thoughts and desires, and making that commitment still held my attention.
I have passed a number of tattoo shops in my life, but never one with a barber chair in the window, so naturally I walked into RED9INE at Danforth and Woodbine. Apart from the tattoo table on a raised platform in the back corner, this room could be a masculine, warmly decorated living room of an urban apartment with its deep-red walls and black leather couches. Victoria Chan, co-owner and manager, stood at the front desk laughing with customers while the other co-owner and main tattoo artist, Jesse Shearman, tattooed a returning client, Tom Comeau.
A young couple who opened their tattoo shop three years ago, Victoria and Jesse have been enjoying a very steady and loyal clientele. “We definitely have a lot of repeat customers. Some people prefer to work with an artist they feel comfortable with, similar to a doctor/patient relationship,” said Victoria.
Victoria and Jesse break the stereotype of tattoo artists and shop owners. RED9INE harkens back to the history of tattooing with the addition of the barber chair in the storefront (tattoo shops were traditionally run out of the back of barber shops), and limiting their work to custom pieces, ensuring that their patients make mature decisions about their tattoos and don’t shop impulsively. For slaves, tattoos were labels. For sailors, they were cartoonish. For Jesse and Victoria, they are works of art.
While talking with Victoria, there is the constant hum of Jesse’s needle tattooing Tom’s back. Tom is a Toronto Police Officer, four years with 51 Division: certainly a tough individual. But the artwork decorating his arm and back tells the story of a family man who is proud of his Japanese heritage. Tattoos in Japan are mostly about telling a story and the decorative value of the art. “My Japanese heritage is important to me,” says Tom, while Jesse draws the needle back and forth.
In speaking with Tom, Victoria, and Jesse, it became clear to me that the stereotype of the tough and unsavoury tattooed person has gone by the wayside. Tattoos now represent a form of tenderness, caring about something enough to have it always be a visible part of you. This, of course, did me no good because now my petite stature and timid personality was no reason not to get a tattoo.
My close friend Sara Moggy recently got a tattoo: a heart on her hip. I always assumed this to be a spur-of-the-moment, impulse buy because of the simplicity of the design. Though the tattoo was an impulse (she realized that since she was nineteen she could get one, so she did), the reason behind the tattoo was very near to her heart: “It resembles very closely the only piece of jewellery my father ever bought me, closely after my parents’ divorce. My tattoo symbolizes love and family, it reminds me of the special gesture my father made by giving me the necklace, a kindness at a time that was very hard for me and my family.” After wiping away the appropriate tear, it occurred to me that if I were ever to get a tattoo, it would have to be something important.
But Victoria cautions against this philosophy. Tattoos don’t necessarily have to represent something of huge significance. If you want a tattoo, it can be something as simple as wanting to wear a beautiful piece of art. This decision, however, needs to be a mature choice. “You need to know what you want—what you are comfortable wearing for the rest of your life.”
Unity with her family wasn’t the only reason for Sara to get her tattoo. “It felt like an adventure and a way to take control of my body and have something on it that was deliberately put there by my choice. It is mine. A selfish and liberating indulgence.” Sara’s feeling of control follows a new trend in tattooing. More and more women are being tattooed to claim control of a body society does not want them to possess. Tattooing as feminist practice? I love it!
Tattoos can show many sides of a person: rebellion, strength, tenderness, compassion, unity. But still I am hesitant. Perhaps the answer to the question of tattooing is that I am not in a mature-enough frame of mind, that I am not ready to make that kind of commitment. As Victoria said, tattoos are like “an illustrated roadmap of the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen, the emotions we’ve felt, and the people we love.” I may not be ready for a tattoo, but that is only because I haven’t reached that point on the map. I still have some distance to travel.