Winnipeg Free Press: Tattoos have city buzzing

Check out this great article featuring the Winnipeg Tattoo Convention by Melissa Martin of the Winnipeg Free Press!

For years, the dream followed Rich Handford through hotel rooms and exhibition halls across Canada. The dream squirted out when he squeezed bottles of bright ink, and buzzed in his mind with every sharp stroke of the machine.

Tattooing had been good to him. As a teen growing up in Thunder Bay, he curiously poked ink into his skin. Years passed, and he learned the trade. He opened his own shop. He tattooed at massive conventions in Paris and Berlin.

It was always another Canadian city’s first, Handford realized. He rattles off the list: in 2003, he went to Art Tattoo Montreal. As the scene grew, he tattooed at inaugural shows in Vancouver, Calgary and Saskatoon.

Yet at home, where Handford built his reputation as owner of Kapala Tattoo on St. Anne’s Road, there was no similar event. Across Canada, tattoo conventions were exploding into marquee events, but Winnipeg was left out in the cold.

Now, the city is finally joining the fold. The dream Handford nurtured for a decade is weeks from becoming real.

More than 220 artists and thousands of fans are set to converge on Winnipeg this summer when the inaugural Winnipeg Tattoo Convention rolls into the Red River Exhibition Park Aug. 18-20. (Early bird tickets are on sale now for $20 a day, or $50 for the weekend.)

Among the invitees are some of the top tattooers in Canada. That was Handford’s dream, and yeah, he’s excited.

“It’s going to put us on the world stage,” Handford says, as he settles into a couch at Kapala. “I don’t know if there’s been a gathering like this in our community’s history. To celebrate that and host it in Manitoba is an honour.”

When Handford unveiled the lineup in April, it spurred a flurry of excitement. The list includes Calgary icon James Tex, of Deadly Tattoos; it includes whimsical Vancouver tattooer Katie Shocrylas; and Quebec veteran Jay Marceau.

To those uninitiated in the eye-popping world of tattoo celebrity, those names won’t mean much, but they are the faces of Canada’s blossoming tattoo scene. These are artists people travel thousands of kilometres to see.

And they’re coming to Winnipeg to perform their art for an audience that has waited a long time.

Why the wait? For more than a decade, tattoo studios in Winnipeg have been bound by unusual strips of red tape. In particular, two provisions in the city’s body-modification bylaws long tangled up the possibility of a convention.

One provision requires tattoo stations to be separated by partitions, each artist sequestered in their own space. Another requires separate sinks for each body-modification work station, a significant plumbing investment.

These regulations are not common. From Los Angeles to Regina, most tattoo shops are open concept; several Canadian tattooers told the Free Press they have not encountered another jurisdiction with Winnipeg’s legal quirks.

Early this year, artists and health authorities worked out an interpretation that opened the door for a large-scale tattoo convention. Handford, seizing the moment, began eagerly texting his artist friends: if he built it, would they come?

Their answers came back quick. Absolutely, they told him. They’d come to Winnipeg, just tell ’em when.

It was an “overwhelming” response, Handford says. By mid-April, tattooers had snatched up all 220 open spots in the show; the majority are visitors from across Canada, even the globe. Another 80 vendors and sponsors are signed on.

For Winnipeg, this could be big business. Handford estimates the show could attract up to 14,000 fans, including many from surrounding provinces and the U.S. (Tickets are on sale at tattoo shops in Regina and Thunder Bay.)

To some, these numbers may be surprising. Tattoos themselves are visible, and their growing popularity is too; in 2010, a Pew research poll found 40 per cent of Americans under age 30 are tattooed, and that’s likely rising.

Yet it’s much less common, in mainstream dialogue, to discuss tattooing as a multibillion-dollar industry. This is a booming sector, buoyed by social media. It’s competitive, it produces its own celebrities, it churns out new trends.

This is, in short, one of the most vital art forms in the world. For years, local artists have travelled abroad to take part in that global conversation. Now, for the first time, Winnipeg is about to become the heart of the action.

In the spring of 1993, Steve Moore inked his first tattoo on someone else’s skin. It wasn’t a masterpiece — just three tribal-style sharks, their dark silhouettes swimming in a circle — but that was the image his friend wanted.

Growing up in British Columbia, Moore was always drawing and trying his hand at artistic things. So one day, his friend urged him to buy a machine and start tattooing. “Why not,” Moore thought, and that’s how his career began.

Today, from his solo studio on Vancouver Island, Moore has become one of the best tattoo artists in Canada, and the world. Insofar as that’s a subjective designation, there is some evidence: for one, he has 83,000 followers on Instagram.

There is also the fact many of his clients are fellow tattoo artists. They travel to see him from all over the world. Tattooers are discerning collectors; when they surrender precious skin space, it’s often to one of their heroes.

Moore’s specialty is vast pieces, entire legs or backs consumed by haunting fantasias. His tattoos are saturated with colour; figures of gods or sea creatures emerge from his needle, their bodies bathed in lurid orange or blue light.

(One of his most ambitious works was a set of four spectacular back pieces, themed around the seasons. Handford and fellow Kapala tattooer Dan Fletcher each wear one; all four recipients will be at the Winnipeg convention.)

Unlike some elite tattooers who travel often, Moore describes himself as an introvert; he only goes to three or four conventions a year, he says. But when Handford asked him to come tattoo in Winnipeg, Moore quickly agreed.

Mostly, this was a bit of professional karma; Moore has known Handford for years through the tattoo circuit.

“Out of all the artists I know, Rich always seems to have his finger on the pulse,” Moore says, chatting over the phone from B.C. “He always seems stoked, whether it’s just the artwork, or the artwork and the tattooing.”

Moore had never been to Winnipeg and wasn’t sure what to expect from local fans. But within hours of Handford announcing the convention lineup, Moore’s inbox was swamped with queries from hopeful subjects of his art.

In the end, he picked three of those local clients, one for each day of the convention. (Some artists, including James Tex, will be offering pre-drawn art on a first-come, first-serve basis; others still have spots for custom appointments.)

“I was really blown away,” Moore says. “There was a really strong instant response.”

It’s easy to understand why: the convention marks a rare chance to be tattooed by this man. In tattooing’s elite ranks, supply is often dwarfed by demand; there’s only one Steve Moore, after all, but tens of thousands of fans.

On an average day, Moore estimates he receives about six serious pitches from hopeful clients. Given that large pieces can require at least 20 hours of tattooing, or more, Moore has to turn down the vast majority of queries.

He feels bad about it sometimes, he says. “If I said yes to everyone, in a week I could be booked for a year, and in two weeks I could be booked for three years,” he adds. “There’s a reality that you just can’t do all of that.”

Instead, choosing clients becomes like “an all you-can-eat buffet,” Moore says. He browses emails, and picks a few proposals that strike him as the most creatively fulfilling. To those who make the cut, it’s like winning the lottery.

This speaks to the surging growth of the industry. Top custom tattooers are often booked for months or years in advance; another convention artist, Calgary dynamo Sam Smith, has closed her appointment books until the summer of 2018.

More customers means more jobs for artists. In 1998, one survey found Calgary had 12 working tattooers; that may have been a low estimate. Today, city guides list more than 70 tattoo shops, which employ hundreds of artists.

As the market exploded through the last two decades, so has the art. When Handford started tattooing, most clients picked pre-drawn art off the studio wall; though that tradition still has a place, today’s artists can afford to specialize.

Now, there are artists who specialize in black-and-grey portraits, in colour portraits, or in geometric designs. There are artists who specialize in irezumi — Japanese tattoo art — or the bold, simple tattoos of European naval history.

Around the world, particularly in Europe, tattooers began pushing boundaries of how ink replicates physical paint on the body, creating tattoos that look like watercolours. They launched entire subgenres of postmodern art.

“There’s always been a lot of competition, even within a shop. It’s just that now, the pool is so much larger,” Moore says. “(Clients) are so much more educated than ever before.

“There’s this realization that to get a particular product, you have to go to a particular person.”

This is a bustling marketplace, full of rapidly shifting dynamics between art buyers and artists. It is also one of the few ways an artist can make original art for a living wage — or far better. (Elite tattooers can cash in for six figures.)

“We are blessed,” Handford says. “To be a tattoo artist is the best profession you can have as someone who is interested in illustration. It offers you the opportunity to take people’s ideas and bring them to life on a daily basis.”

Why now? Why, in the 21st century, is this particular form of art having the brightest moment of its long history?

It’s not that tattooing is “trendy,” exactly. Its popularity waxes and wanes over very long time frames. Eons ago, our ancient ancestors realized pigment on broken skin left a stain; since then, it has been practised on every continent.

Yet in recent centuries, tattooing retreated from mainstream view in much of the Western world. It became the domain of soldiers or sailors; it became enmeshed with a stereotype of criminal elements. That’s changing fast.

In this rejuvenation, Moore sees something beyond the art. He sees an unspoken longing, for older traditions.

“It’s very rare now in the world that you can go somewhere, and have something specifically designed for you,” he says. “At one time it was commonplace: if you wanted to have a dress made, or shoes. That’s almost extinct.”

In that light, he muses, tattooing calls back to a more bespoke culture, one where your things were yours, made by craftspeople and not worn by others. They may not be perfect, but they were created for the life of the owner.

So that care, that sense of connection is what will be on display in Winnipeg in August. For first-time convention-goers, Moore stresses it’s not an intimidating environment; it’s a chance to meet or even simply watch artists.

One can get a tattoo — it’s suggested to check out the event website at, and email the interested artists — or just browse. Most will have prints or other artwork available for purchase.

And for the artists themselves, it’s a chance to get out of the shops and build a connection: with their fans, with the general public and with each other. “For us, it’s really about collaboration and interaction,” Handford says.

“You get to see what people are doing, the effort that goes into it. For the public, it’s a lot of things. It’s a celebration of the art and the culture. You’re immersed in it, and it’s a spectacle I think will be interesting to any person.”