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Body of Work: The art of Tattoo

Author: Jesse Ziter
Photographer: Jesse Ziter
6 years ago
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Zack Kassian is talking about his body.

“Your elbow hurts a lot,” laments the Edmonton Oilers grinder and Essex County native. “Your wrists. The ribs suck. When you’re younger, you try to tough it out, but the pain aspect, it’s not fun.”

Listed at 6’3” and 209 pounds, the 27-year-old-winger is nobody’s vision of a shrinking violet on the ice. But he’s not talking about hockey today.

Zack Kassian

(Zack Kassian, NHL Edmonton Oilers)

“Anyone who says getting a tattoo feels good is lying to you,” stresses the well-inked NHLer. “The back, particularly along the spine, or when your bicep meets the inside of your arm—they call it ‘the ditch’—none of it really feels good while the inking is happening, to be honest. But when it’s over, it’s that feeling: ‘It looks good; what can I get next?’”

Kassian’s refreshingly machismo-free outlook speaks to a salient truth about the place of tattooing in contemporary masculinity: increasingly, opting to subject yourself to a tattoo gun says very little about you, at all. Even committing to a full sleeve no longer connotes toughness, mystery or some sort of inarticulable otherness. These days, it’s just the art that matters.

A former Spitfire and Canadian youth international, Kassian belongs to a generation of Windsor-Essex inhabitants increasingly comfortable with going under the gun. According to him, the Venn diagram overlap between hockey culture and tattoo culture is not unlike a crunching body check along the glass. Kassian reckons the average NHL locker room might have only a half-dozen unmodified bodies

“In society nowadays, in our generation, a lot of people have them, whether it’s a full sleeve or just something small on your back, chest or whatever,” he shares. “There are a handful of guys on any given NHL team who don’t have any tattoos—and a lot of those guys like them. They just don’t know what to get.”

Kassian’s first tattoo, a large cross, commemorates his father’s death. (He died from a heart attack when Zack was eight.) It’s kept watch over his back since he was 17 years old. “I was fairly young, and it was fairly small,” he recalls. “Obviously my mom at the time controlled the size. Numerous people told me if you get one you’re going to get another one. I didn’t really believe them, but I guess that old thing is pretty true.”

While he still accepts his mother’s counsel—“No hands and no neck, and I think that’s fair”—Kassian has spread his wings somewhat since. “At 20 or 21, I really felt that sleeves were coming in,” he outlines. “It wasn’t such a stereotype as it was back in the ’60s or ’70s, when you looked like a convict or criminal. That’s when I started to piece together some stuff that, ultimately, I’d like. That’s when I came up with my first sleeve. It took over a year to finish.”

For Kassian and many others, tattoos are a way of subsuming fears, by literally embodying and containing them. “I’m scared shitless of sharks and snakes!” shares Kassian. “This tattooist in L.A. drew up a really cool shark and snake with a skull on it. I get a lot of compliments on that. It’s like an angel on my shoulder.”

Of course, Kassian couldn’t help but incorporate a decidedly hockey-centric iconography. “At the end, we had a little bit of extra space,” he explains, “so we decided to put in a pair of teeth, because I’m missing my front teeth.”

Amidst the body art boom of the last couple decades, it’s easy for a transient professional like Kassian to ensure he’s taken care of. He’s been inked everywhere from Chatham to Los Angeles. “I kind of go wherever,” he admits. “There are so many good tattoo artists out there now, in whatever city I’m in. Obviously, I like to know whom the artist has tattooed before, because it’s going to be stuck on you for life. People like to tattoo athletes to get their name out there, so there are a lot of tattooists who get excited.”

The only constant is that Kassian’s body art is unified by a monochrome palate. “I have no colour tattoos,” he explains. “I’ve heard over time that colour fades, and you have to do a lot of touch-ups. But more important, I like the grey and black; it’s a very traditional, simple, original style.”

Now a resilient veteran, Kassian occasionally finds himself doling out body art recommendations to younger teammates. His consistent advice: “Take it easy. Let it sit with you for a few months at least, because once you put it on, you’re never going to take it off. A tattoo should represent, I feel, something in your life: what you feel, what you like, something to do with you.”

At times, his toughest opponent is his wife, Cassandra. “She doesn’t have one tattoo,” says Kassian, almost incredulously. “She hates them, but then every time I come home with another, she likes it. But it’s one of those things. I think enough’s enough for her. Just because you like them and have so many doesn’t mean you should just pile them on.”

He laughs. “She’s the one who has to see me all the time!”

Rob Brown - Sanctuary Tattoo

(Rob Brown – Sanctuary Tattoo)

Rob Brown, owner of Windsor’s Sanctuary Tattoos, is something of a wise old oracle in local body art circles. He set up shop in Windsor in 1999, having learned his trade in Guelph, Port Credit and Mississauga for the better part of five years.

Long familiar with Baby Boomer–driven discomfort towards tattooing, Brown had an inkling he’d chosen the right line of work when he inked one of the most vocal skeptics in his life: his own father. “I thought he was joking,” recalls Brown, who sat his old man down within the first few years of his career. “It was a small, simple tattoo design, but it meant a lot, because it was the symbolic acceptance of what I’ve chosen to do. He was a big baby. You can put that in there.”

Brown has seen plenty of change since then, most of it positive.

As he understands it, Windsorites’ access to excellent technical tattooing has never been better. “We have a remarkable talent pool,” he emphasizes. “There are a lot of really amazing young artists. At last count, there were around 85 to 90 people tattooing in Windsor-Essex. There obviously are people who are operating at different levels—just like in music, or sports, or any sort of talent-based field—but there are kids in this industry who’ve been doing it for half the amount of time I have and are way further along than I was when I was their age.”

Part of that is owed to the availability of first-rate equipment. There are more suppliers operating in the tattooing space than at any time in history. “Little Billy or Suzy who wants to learn how to tattoo can do it with really good equipment,” says Brown, “and do it competently, and not stumble through the darkness like people probably did before. I could go online with you, and we could find 30 or 40 [companies] just in the province of Ontario who are selling equipment—and the equipment has changed a great deal.”

Perhaps more significantly, modern technology also makes it easier for clients and tattooists alike to absorb information. “There’s social media, which has made the world so much smaller, and television,” says Brown, who points to the 2005 debut of Miami Ink as a seminal moment for the trade. “If I want to watch a video of somebody getting tattooed in Australia, it’s right at my fingertips. Anybody who has a bit of creativity, who thinks they might be able to put this feather in their hat, it’s becoming more attainable for them. Back in the day, if you didn’t know somebody that knew someone, you were in the dark.”

From this starting point, more craftsmanship begets better craftsmanship. “When I was getting tattooed,” Brown relates, “there was one guy, and his protégé. Now, you can meet 20 different people in an afternoon, and they’ll all do the same thing, but they’ll do it a little differently. I think that is allowing the industry to evolve and develop at a really remarkably quick rate.”

In Brown’s view, this phenomenon is not limited to tattooing. “I was having a conversation with a friend who is a karate instructor and does a lot of mixed martial arts stuff,” he outlines, “and the same thing is happening there. As we start learning more, this snowball starts gaining momentum. It’s almost like we learned a lot of the stuff they should avoid or stay away from, and now they’re able to just deal with the meat and potatoes that really allows them to advance at such a remarkable rate.”

Now a quarter-century deep in the body art business, Brown has noticed an influx of increasingly younger clients. Thanks to social media, the average person who walks through the door is better informed and more specific in his or her instructions. “At one time, a lot of people would thumb their nose at the readymade, ‘flash’ studios,” Brown recalls. “But now, everybody has the biggest flash wall in the world, in their back pocket. They come in armed to the teeth with ideas.”

For Brown, this is something of a mixed blessing. “It helps you cut to the chase, but in many ways it’s a bit more difficult. Because, can you make me look like Bono? No. It’s not going to happen,” laughs Brown. “I can just tattoo; I can’t do any magic, I guarantee you!”

In fact, virtually every day, Brown finds himself in the ostensibly unenviable position of turning away eager business. “I think that might have been one of the reasons why I was successful in the beginning,” he muses. “Because I wasn’t afraid to tell somebody, it’s not going to work. I would rather they leave feeling disenchanted than to leave disappointed with something they’ve got marked permanently on their body. The longer you do it…it’s easier for you to say, Hold on, cowboy. You don’t want that spiderweb on your ear, or your girlfriend’s name on your throat. Ninety-five percent of the time, people appreciate sincerity and honesty.”

Now well into his forties, the Gen-Xer can’t help but allow a small sliver of cynicism to seep in when discussing the state of his industry. “I think there is a mystique that’s maybe gone,” he postulates. “Before, it was so mysterious, and fringe-y. I remember as a young kid going into tattoo shops and not being old enough to drink, and I would spend hours looking at drawings, and looking at the walls, and taking in the smells and the sounds and everything else. I can’t really describe it to anyone, because I don’t think that will ever be around anymore.”

Not that Brown’s complaining. “I’m sure there are guys who’ve got 20 or 30 years on me,” he clarifies, “who’d be, like, cry me a river. It’s evolution.”

Patricia Burkow (she prefers “Pat”) has made a habit of turning heads during the warm-weather months, when long sleeves and pant legs make way for some surprising artistry. “Absolutely everyone is surprised to see a tattoo on me,” she says with a laugh. “I have been told numerous times that I am the least likely person they would expect to see sporting a tattoo, let alone five of them.”

You see, Burkow is in her seventies.

While each of her pieces has been done by a different tattooist, Brown inked her latest a few weeks ago. He came highly recommended by both her daughter and Burkow’s nephew’s daughter. This one is probably her last, but you never know.

“I found Rob to be very personable and caring for my comfort,” Burkow shares. “He was interested in my ideas and allowed me to be part of the process of its design. I have to say it was actually a fun afternoon!”

Burkow is in a good position to speak about body art’s decades-long creep into the mainstream. “Today, tattoos are considered works of art,” she notes. “Each of my tattoos has a special meaning to me. They are sweet, constant reminders to me of my family, my faith and my struggles. In my youth, tattoos were seen mainly on members of the Armed Forces, ex-cons or the tattoo lady at the circus.”

Refreshingly, Burkow’s own experiences have been positive. “No one has ever said a derogatory remark about them to me. In fact, many have said they wish they had one. And these are women in my age group.”

Dan Topp is a prominent criminal lawyer working in downtown Windsor. Rather than signify some sort of alternative, outlaw identity, Topp’s first tattoo—an Old English D on the inside of his left arm—represents the most mainstream of interests. “I’m not originally from Windsor, but I’m a big Detroit guy,” he explains, “and I love my Tigers.”

He committed to the piece over a decade ago, when he was in his twenties. “It was something I thought about, but because of my job I wasn’t sure,” he recalls. “It’s not visible unless I want it to be visible.”

So, considering his profession, does the ink occasion much surprise? Topp shrugs. “A little bit, sometimes. Not really.” Still, Topp, who also has a Bob Dylan quote written across his ribs—“he not busy being born is busy dying”—recalls when one might call themselves “tattooed and employed.” Needless to say, it’s an outmoded expression

Topp has since added a complementary skull-and-crossbones piece on the opposite inside arm. “It’s kind of related to my job,” he explains. “Criminal defence guys are the pirates of the courtroom.”

Peter Baillie, POP Hair Gallery Ink with John Alvarez from F&B + Grand Cantina

(Peter Baillie, POP Hair Gallery Ink with John Alvarez from F&B + Grand Cantina)

Windsor’s John Alvarez got his first tattoo after he almost died

Alongside his business partner, Tom Scully, Alvarez owns Walkerville’s F&B and The Grand Cantina in Ford City, the latter of which has been Windsor’s restaurant opening of the year. Instantly recognizable by his well-manicured trademark mustache, the slight-of-stature chef is quickly becoming a culinary giant in Southwestern Ontario

During the run-up to The Grand Cantina’s opening, Alvarez’s appendix ruptured. “I had some pressure in my lower abdomen,” he recalls, “but I have a high pain tolerance, so I didn’t really notice.”

In time, he sure did. Alvarez eventually found himself hospitalized. Sepsis. Bilateral pneumonia. Strep B. This was two weeks after the organ burst, a circumstance that can be fatal within three days.

It’s easy to read the celebrated chef’s new ink as marking a new chapter in his life, re-establishing him on solid ground; for many, ink has a way of anchoring oneself in place. In Alvarez’s case, he had been considering a tattoo for a long time, but after his brush with death he realized he couldn’t wait any longer—for him, it was now or never

Alvarez’s piece centres on a Maryland blue crab, an iconic image that tethers him to his hometown of Baltimore. It also incorporates the black-eyed Susan, the Maryland state flower. “I wanted something that reminds me of where I came from,” he explains. “My grandfather recently passed away; he used to always have these flower gardens in the front yard.”

A few weeks before committing to the design, Alvarez found himself in conversation with a guest at F&B on the topic. “He just assumed that I already had a tattoo,” Alvarez recalls. It was a reasonably safe assumption: Most cooks below a certain age tend to have tattoos, and a clean-cut open kitchen can almost be disappointing in certain hipster sets.

Alvarez went under the gun of Peter Baillie, a friend-of-a-friend and F&B patron, at Ottawa Street’s POP Hair Gallery Ink. The work adheres to what Alvarez understands as an American traditional style.

And as for the suggestion that one tattoo begets more tattoos? Alvarez laughs. “I already have a meeting scheduled with Pete. The plan was always to get three-quarter sleeves—nothing past my elbows because I tend to burn my forearms in the kitchen.” If you work in a kitchen, some forms of body modification are going to happen whether you like it or not.

And the next time you see him, ask him to show you that second tattoo.

the art of tattoo

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