Going Out

PROFILE: Talking Tattoos with Four Local Artists


This is a longer version of an article published as part of Exposed!, a collection of articles about everything under the sun, which was printed in the Summer 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine. This includes a web-only gallery of the artists’ work.

Ottawa tattoo artists, from left: Sarah Rogers, Tiffany Thornton, Rhonda Mulder, and Kaylie Seaver. Photo by Remi Theriault

This summer you’ll be seeing more tattoos than ever. Fine art, custom designs, and new technology have all played a role in the rise in popularity of the ancient art. But so has the number of women who have fought their way into this traditionally male-dominated industry. Here, four Ottawa female tattoo artists speak about their craft, current trends, their best — and worst — experiences, and whether the attempt of Algonquin College this past year to garner interest in a tattoo program was misguided.


Sarah Rogers of Five Cents Tattoo. Photo by Remi Theriault


Influences on your art? 
I am inspired by everything around me — Renaissance painters, Japanese woodblock prints, Civil War-era textiles, architecture, sculpture, music, and mythology.

Common motifs?
I very much enjoy flora and fauna and the classic elements of Japanese tattoos and printmaking. That being said, I have a range of skills and appreciation for many styles of tattooing, be it American traditional or pet portraits.

Differences between what women and men ask for?
I find that now, more than ever, there are no true gender-specific requests. Perhaps 10 years ago or more, you could say that there was female- or male-specific subject matter that was dictated to clients through pre-drawn “flash” on shop walls. With the growing trend toward custom work, I feel our clients have more freedom to express themselves beyond gender expectations.

What is it like being a woman in this traditionally male-dominated field?
I have been tattooing for nearly 15 years, and I get this question a lot. If I’m being honest, I would say that being a woman in tattooing certainly was — at some point — a challenge. When I started, there were not nearly the numbers of women in our industry that there are today, and our part in tattoo culture was often overlooked or minimized simply because we were so few in comparison to our male comrades.

Sarah Rogers’ tattoo was done by Saskatoon artist, Craig Fenrick. Photo: Remi Theriault

Current trends?
Designs? Innovations? Right now, it seems like there is a renewed interest in naive- or folk-art-based work, which has a more illustrative feel.

How has the art of tattoo changed?
With the amount of imagery available via social media and the internet, it has altered the way we do our business, how we create artwork, and how we put ourselves out there in the world. It’s a double-edged sword because on one hand, it makes the world very small, and if you are savvy, you can reach thousands of potential clients. The other side of that coin is a bizarre popularity contest that doesn’t hinge on talent but rather that will see the death of creativity and individuality because everyone wants the things they see on Instagram and not something that truly speaks to them.

Apprenticing versus schooling?
Traditionally, tattooing has been learned through an apprenticeship. The apprenticeship process can vary from tattooer to tattooer, but the bottom line is that this is how we learn our craft. It’s bad enough that over the last few years, we see many self-taught so-called tattooers opening studio after studio. They are making a mockery of our industry and disrespecting those of us who aim to elevate our craft. I find it incredibly offensive that a college might try to create a program that would simply over-saturate our industry with poorly educated tattooers who have no respect or understanding of the history of tattooing and the sacred tradition many of us have sacrificed a lot for and love dearly.

About her tattoos
“The tattoo on my neck was done by a great artist from Saskatoon, Craig Fenrick. I come from a family with military history, and so I chose poppies to pay homage to them and have them close to my heart.”


Tiffany Thornton of Hellhound Tattoos. Photo by Remi Theriault


Influences on your art?
Different, simple, common things. The way light hits stuff. I like people’s faces. I find even unpleasant, disturbing things inspiring.

Common motifs?
Portraiture. Realistic stuff. I do a lot of floral work. Any bone structure, especially human skulls.

Differences between what women and men ask for?
Yes and no. I guess tattoo location is what sets them apart. Men get half sleeves, shoulder blades, back calf. Women are mostly wrist, ankles, thigh, and rib cage.

What is it like being a woman in this traditionally male-dominated field?
There is definitely a stigma to it. I get “That’s really good for a girl” a lot. I also get customers seeking out female tattoo artists because they think women are more patient and attentive to detail.

Current trends? Designs? Innovations?
A lot more fine art is being put into tattoos. People are getting larger, more complex pieces. There are a lot of tattoo artists who have a fine-art background now.

Tiffany Thornton’s Grim Reaper was done by artist Jimmy Gobeil, owner of A Dark Cloud. Photo by Remi Theriault

How has the art of tattoo changed?
The normal person who was coming in and getting a small butterfly on her ankle is now getting a half sleeve. Everything is just much prettier these days. It’s not like you just come into a shop and just point at the thing on the wall you want anymore.

Best experience tattooing?
I met my now fiancé eight years ago when he came in to get tattooed.

Worst experience tattooing?
Honestly, the first thing I think about is that I had a customer break wind in my face while I was doing a hip piece. Enough said.

About her tattoos
“The artist who did my tattoo of the Grim Reaper on my leg is Jimmy Gobeil, owner of A Dark Cloud. We worked together, I really liked his work, and so I asked him to tattoo my leg. Didn’t really matter what — I had no specifics. Because I’ve come up with a lot of ideas and drawings for others over the past 10 years, the last thing I want to do is design my own. Takes the fun out of it. So we bounced some ideas off each other and ultimately that’s what he came up with.”


Rhonda Mulder of Five Cents Tattoo. Photo: Remi Theriault


Influences on your art?
Folk/naive art, tattoo artists from the turn of the 20th century, antique scientific etchings and drawings.

Common motifs?
Flowers, animals, skulls, hearts.

Differences between what women and men ask for?
In general — but not exclusively — guys tend to let me use bolder lines and more black.

What is it like being a woman in this traditionally male-dominated field?
While it might still be viewed as a male-dominated industry, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there has been a female presence in tattooing throughout its very long history, across various cultures. So I’m a part of that lineage. On the day-to-day level, I don’t think about being a “woman tattooer” — I think about trying to be a “good tattooer.”

Current trends? Designs? Innovations?
There is nothing new under the sun. There are so many styles of tattooing now that there is something for almost any taste.

The woodcut/engraving look seems to be quite popular at the moment, but it will evolve into something else in time. Subjects that are a hit at the moment: palm trees, The X-Files, old-timey crescent moons.

Rhonda Mulder’s hobo fox tattoo was done by co-worker Sarah Rogers. Photo: Remi Theriault

I definitely benefit from how far the industry has come in the past two decades in terms of the availability of higher-quality inks and equipment. I never had to toil away making needles or mixing pigments. Older tattooers would say my generation is soft because of that.

Apprenticing versus schooling?
I’m against teaching it in school. Tattooing is a very intimate thing. It is very up-close-and-personal. And that is the best way to learn it. Even just figuring out one’s path into the industry is a big part of learning about the industry.   Potential tattooers would be better served by taking some drawing and business courses, getting customer-service training, getting tattooed a lot. And then learning the craft under a skilled artist with significant experience (like 10-plus years), who they will hopefully work with for several years as they develop.

About her tattoos
“Done by my excellent co-worker Sarah Rogers. I associate with foxes for a really silly reason, my last name being Mulder (X-Files). And I’ve just always liked hobo imagery even though I’m a total homebody. I moved a lot as a kid, so I always feel a little disconnected from the type of society that stays in one place — always looking for a place to call home but never quite finding it. But I don’t even really like to travel!”


Kaylie Seaver of Inkspot. Photo by Remi Theriault


Influences on your art? 
I’m influenced pretty greatly by music, old woodcuts, religious imagery, tarot cards, Hieronymus Bosch, Egon Schiele, eclectic musical instruments, the occult
in general, DIY culture, and everyone in this city who is making things and being innovative.

Common motifs? 
I realized recently that I’ve been subconsciously working a lot of bones and spines into my artwork. I collect skulls and bones, and I think my interest in that stems from having scoliosis and having had corrective spinal surgery in high school. With tattoos specifically, I include a lot of hands, flowers, and witch symbols.

What is it like being a woman in this traditionally
male-dominated field?

I’ve only been in this industry for a short while, and I’m also coming into it at a time when women have way more freedom and opportunities than my predecessors. I have no doubt that women are still struggling to be taken seriously as tattooers and artists, and I’m sure it was very difficult for a lot of them to even have made it into the field at all.

Kaylie Seaver’s hand tattoo was done by co-worker Samantha Read. Photo: Remi Theriault

Current trends?
Designs? Innovations?
It seems like, with all the new technology around, the art form is practically limit- less. Customers are coming in with cooler and more interesting design requests every day — from photo-realism to watercolour to geometric to neo-traditional.

Apprenticing versus schooling?
When word of the tattoo course at Algonquin first came out, it was kind of like a slap in the face.

I had just spent the last two or three years trying to get my foot in the door, sometimes working for free while working two other jobs and putting myself through art school. And then the prospect of 50 kids landing in this program and then surely flooding into shops asking for jobs and possibly getting them was like someone telling me that I had just spent three years doing nothing.

Any intelligent shop owner would still want them to apprentice. So the whole point of the program would be null and void, which leads us to believe that the whole thing was just a money grab.

About her tattoo
“This was done by my super-talented co-worker Samantha Read. I had the idea to do a hand based on a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo that shows her wearing a hand earring. Frida is a big hero of mine, and the hand as a religious folk charm in Mexican culture represents maintaining the ability to work with one’s hands, which I think is pretty appropriate for me. I asked Sam to redraw the image in a woodcut black-work style because it’s one of my favourite styles, and she pulled it off so delicately and beautifully.”


Gallery of the artist’s work
All images supplied by the artists