Toronto’s top contemporary tattoo shop Ink & Water celebrates their one year anniversary this month. Founded by the Instagram-famous Prairie Koo (aka Mr. Koo) and Michael Pecherle, this team is doing things very differently. Located at Bloor and Lansdowne, Ink & Water excels at creating quality tattoos in a clean, safe, and welcoming environment.
Ink & Water has softened the look of the archetypal tattoo shop. Semi-jokingly, the walls boast neon signs of “even grandma approves,” but it’s true. Very much suited to their fine line masterpieces being sported by tattoo aficionados and first timers alike, Ink & Water is championing the world of salons 2.0 – ink being the new form of expression and adornment in the in the realm of beauty.
Tattoo artists usually have many paintings in their portfolio. But who sees them except for those checking their Instagram accounts?
Toronto-based illustrator Emily May Rose decided to display the paintings of her favourite tattoo artists on the walls of her gallery.
“I just want to showcase the variety of different styles that we have in the city in terms of tattooing,” she said. “The artists in the show are insanely talented and not the type of artists that you’d find on gallery walls.”
The exhibition playfully asks the question: Does It Hurt?
Tattoo and graffiti artists, illustrators, hip hop musicians, barbers, and their clients gathered at Northern Contemporary Gallery last Friday evening. Beer, donuts, and hip hop quickly turned the exhibition’s opening into a party. The wind kept the door open, and the warm weather brought in groups of people from outside. Some were talking about their art and drinking. Some turned on the music on a speaker and started rapping. The others started dancing.
A man, who happened to be the tallest in the room, in a grey tuque, stood in a circle of people discussing tattoos. “I love it. I’m obsessed,” he said. “I go to sleep and wake up thinking about tattooing. I dream about tattoo.”
The twenty-eight-year-old calls himself ‘a baby in the tattoo world’. That man, the curator of the event and a tattoo artist, was Jonny Cakes.
Cakes came to Toronto from Switzerland in 2000 with a background in graffiti and started tattooing just three years ago. The new passion emerged after his three-year trip to Spain. His roommate in Barcelona wanted to get a tattoo, so she and Cakes would always look at different pictures of tattoos to choose from.
“When I look at Instagram photos, I don’t only look at them, but I scan them. It helps me to pick up the tricks from different artists, but it also tells me what not to do, how to be different,” he said. “It’s nice when you can get a bunch of different people, different shops and styles in one room and kind of realize that we are all doing the same shit.”
Cakes was one of the 12 artists in the exhibition. His tattoos are all black and grey, but as a graffiti artist, he has some colourful works in his portfolio. His painting of a purple rose was one of the featured exhibits.
Alanna Mule, who owns Bellwoods Tattoo studio on Ossington Avenue, displayed the three paintings of mandalas on wood panels. The complex abstract designs go in perfect circles and repeat each other.
Mule’s tattoos flip-flop between black and grey illustrative and black and grey realism. Some of them look like soft ash and others have many sharp lines and details.
“It comes from art books and other artists’ styles around the world until you make your own,” she said.
After a quick look at the featured pictures, the tattooed guests became exhibits themselves. That was a great chance to listen to super funny and meaningful stories behind people’s tattoos.
“I got it matching with three of my friends,” Rose showed a tattoo of a bird on her arm done by Spencer Harrington. “A woodpecker flew and died in front of us. We took a picture of the bird and showed it to Spencer.”
Rose also has tattoos by Mule, including a portrait on her thigh and a lion’s head on the back of her calf.
Martin Ferreira, a barber from Scarborough, got a 24-carat gold bar on his stomach.
“It’s like your soul,” he said. “If you know what you have, don’t let anybody tell you that it is different.”
Cakes said he tattoos his body himself. It helps the artist to figure out how deep he is going and if he needs to slow the machine down when he works with his clients. Having his sleeves, chest and legs tattooed, he is still complaining that they’re “not enough for a tattoo artist”.
“I have a little bit of colour on my leg. Everything else is black and grey. One leg is dedicated to skulls. The other leg is all girls,” Cakes gave a tour of his tattooed body. The lines printed on his business cards match the lines tattooed on his fingers.
Mule said she is creating an art gallery on her body by collecting tattoo pieces.
“I travel around the world a lot to get a tattoo,” she said. “I try not to do anything that I design, so it’s like getting a piece from another artist. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m getting. I just sit there and then I get what they wanna do.”
Cakes said that he is astonished by the level of trust in those who come to the artists and give them the privilege to mark their bodies for life. That adds to the pressure in the job, especially in the beginning.
“Everything you do has to be good. You can’t have a bad day because it’s [a tattoo] on someone forever. So that’s stressful at first. But then you get used to it and it’s like second nature,” said Cakes.
“Sometimes people want different designs which are not your style, but you have to do it because you are trying to build the portfolio.”
However, nothing could compare with the joy that comes from interacting with people. Cakes’ clients vary from sixteen-year-olds who come with their parents to eighty-five-year-olds. He tattoos friends, drug dealers, and police officers.
“I used to be crazy with cops just because I have a graffiti background. So I used to avoid getting caught,” he said. “But when you tattoo them and hear different sides of things, then you realize they are just people. They have their job and acknowledge certain things. It just gives you a different perspective.”
Tattoo artists mediate people’s public and personal lives by listening to their life stories and those behind their tattoos. “It’s almost like being a therapist. People tell you a story that nobody should know. And then they leave with a cool piece and their eyes are all lit up, and they are all happy… But you don’t tell anyone because that’s your own personal story with that person.”
Jams Blackmore and Russell Pulkys, the owners of Waves Apparel shop at 7 Labbat Avenue showed their T-shirts, hats, and postcards. The high-quality items contain printed images by Toronto graffiti artists and homeless youth whose creative skills Waves Apparel encourages to develop. “We aim to give artists the medium to spread their art and design,” said Blackmore. “The artists in Toronto are incredible. We are planning to focus on one artist in one month in the future.”
Cakes said he likes to see more and more street culture elements get recognition in the city. Tattooing has even more power than graffiti: “You mark something and you leave a legacy. Like you can be gone and it’s still there. Painting can get cleaned the next day, but tattooing… You tattoo people and you can be dead tomorrow, but you live on for as long as the last person you tattooed. It’s like a life contract. It’s cool. I like it.”
The exhibition is on view until December 6, at the Northern Contemporary Gallery, 1266 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario.