By Andrew Goodfellow
Reblogged by: swallowsndaggers.net
There are very few tattooers working today that can lay claim to over 30 years of experience. Fewer still are those who can truly be said to have changed the course of tattooing. Bill Baker – artist, icon, entrepreneur, and now part owner of Pearl Harbor Gift Shop – is among those storied few.
In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect of my meeting with Bill when he agreed to speak with me for Swallows & Daggers. Highly regarded yet notoriously reclusive, Bill casts something of a mythical shadow over the tattoo community in Toronto. Though Pearl Harbor is among the city’s premiere shops and receives constant acclaim, he is rarely glimpsed by the clientele and is extremely selective in taking on new work. Having been tattooed there on a number of occasions, I had yet to catch sight of him even once.
Little wonder, then, that I hadn’t any notion of what my afternoon with Bill would entail. What followed was an incredibly candid and fascinating tour through Bill’s 32 year career. Part raconteur, part machine technology and tattoo history teacher, Bill has managed to remain humble and utterly genuine in his love for tattooing. I learned more from him in the course of two hours than I had in the last two years of my own pursuits in the tattoo world. I only hope that I can convey our conversation in terms that do justice to the man himself, the immense scope of his technical achievements, and to the work he has crafted since 1981. As recorded in the legendary environs atop Pearl Harbour – known simply as ‘The Hut’ – it is with tremendous respect that I relay his words to the readers of Swallows & Daggers:
“Okay, well let’s see…if you want to bust it down, I guess I’ve been tattooing 32 years. I started in ’81. So then there’s the first part, where I was learning and did my apprenticeship in Calgary.”
You did a traditional apprenticeship?
“Yeah, a proper apprenticeship in Calgary. Then I kinda stumbled along getting out here. I was gonna open in Winnipeg for a minute. And ended up opening a shop in Saskatoon while I was hanging back waiting on Winnipeg.”
Where are you from originally?
“My family moved a bunch when I was a kid. I started high school in Quebec, in the Eastern Townships, and then we moved to the prairies to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan when I was in high school. And then that led to a whole bunch of troubles and I had a problematic teenage situation there. But, I mean, Saskatchewan is pretty harsh, right? And especially at that time in the mid ‘70s. I was in rehab before everybody I knew was finished high school. So…(laughter)…fuck…whatever. I quit high school as soon as I was legal to quit, when I was 16, and I started working. So I was more or less a prairie guy. I mean, all that brain damage occurred there and that’s what I was.”
I’m interested in what drew you to tattooing initially. What was the appeal for you?
“That was a weird kind of a thing…”
What was your first exposure to tattoos?
“Well the first exposure would have been just from being around records, you know? And from seeing guys in bands who had some tattoos. Very, very, very rare to see tattooing on people at that point in Saskatchewan in the mid ‘70s. There was no fucking tattoo shop in Saskatchewan. The closest shop was Edmonton or Calgary, and no shops in Winnipeg, nothing in Thunder Bay, and heading east the closest shop would have been Toronto. And there was a shop in Halifax, a shop in Montreal, and one in Vancouver.”
A lot of people say that musicians were there first exposure.
“Yea, I mean just from the bands and stuff, and seeing pictures. But I did see the odd tow-truck driver or some hard-case would have a tattoo here or there. And some of the local guys had tattoos. They’d go to Edmonton and get em. So I was aware of tattooing. But it’s not like when I was two or three I figured I wanted to be a tattoo artist, you know? And I didn’t think I really wanted to be a tattooer either; that was just something that happened. But, you know, it was a good fit.”
Do you recall your first experiences getting tattooed?
“Well, I mean, there’s not a lot to say. I got tattooed when I was in Portland, Oregon.”
At what age?
“I had just turned 18. I was there buying car parts in the States, and just driving down the coast. I was surprised how much it [the tattoo] cost. I was surprised that it even fucking hurt – that was also a big surprise. And it just seemed like it was something that I was that far away, you know? I had gotten pretty fuckin far away from Saskatchewan. That seemed good. It didn’t seem like something I would even probably want if I could just get it around the corner, you know? So, that was the first. Then I was in rehab right after that. And people knew I had a tattoo and that I could draw real good. I could always draw real good. That’s a true thing, you know?”
There must have been a point at which…
“when the tattooing thing seemed real?”
Yeah, when you went from being interested in getting tattooed to wanting to tattoo people and realizing you could actually do it for a living.
“Nah, man. It didn’t really go that way. What happened was, after I got out of rehab, I felt bad that I only had grade 10. But I was also…I was just a kid man. And, I mean, I had been drunk from when I was 15 or 16 and I didn’t fucking really even grow up properly, you know? I worked construction and I had cars and shit. And I seemed like a grownup in a lot of ways. And I just was around grownups – not even around people my own age that much. But I was kind of a mess. So I thought, well I need to go back to school. I need to amount to something. So I really wanted to go to art college. But the problem was I didn’t have high school, so I was really low on that list. I talked to people at Emily Carr, I talked to people at the Alberta College of Art, I talked to people here in Toronto. And it was the same story – ‘We only take this many kids from out-of-province but if you were a citizen of British Columbia you could get into Emily Carr next year. You have to live here for one year, and you’ll get in just because your drawing is strong. And you won’t have to have high school, you can just write the equivalency test. But you have to live here’. So it was like oh, fuck, okay. So I just came to terms with the fact that I had to move. And I figured I would and that wouldn’t be a problem. And I was just kinda deciding and I figured maybe Vancouver, but I didn’t know. Then a friend of mine asked me to do a drawing for a tattoo he was going to get in Calgary. And so I did the little drawing”.
How far back are we now?
“’81, I guess. Summer of ’81. So he went and got the tattoo and the guy who owned the shop said, ‘Wow this drawing looks pretty good. Do you think the guy that drew this would be interested in learning to tattoo?’ And my friend was like ‘Oh fuck yeah, he would totally be into it!’ And the thing is, I wouldn’t have been into it. And I wasn’t into it, you know? It was like a straight-up biker thing.”
So it just kind of came across your path?
“Well my pal was into it! He was stoked! Like, he would of done it man. There’s no question in his mind, if he coulda he woulda. So he was like, ‘Oh fuck yeah, he totally will!’ So the shop owner said he would interview me, or whatever. And he arranged everything. And I was like, oh fuck man I don’t know. And that’s like for bikers. So, I mean, we went out there, me and him. And he was encouraging me like ‘Come on, come on, it’ll be great!’. And in my mind it was like, okay, I gotta move anyway. So even if I go there and just work in the shop I can go to art college cause I’ll be an Alberta guy and I can go to the Alberta College of Art. So it wasn’t really my plan. It was kinda a half-ass plan. I knew I had to get outta Saskatchewan. That was job one. So we went there and he was on holidays. So there was no one at the shop. It was closed”.
The guy who was going to apprentice you, you mean?
“Well the guy who had said come and talk, right? And they had loosely set a time. And when we get there, it’s like a 9 hour drive, right? And the shop is fucking closed. And I’m like fuck that’s an omen man. I shouldn’t fucking do this. This is fucked. So we just turned around and drove all the way home. Normal. It’s a normal prairie thing to drive for 18 hours in one day”.
“So, you know, it said when he was coming home. So we phoned him when he was home and he was like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, come talk, come talk. I still wanna talk to ya’. So I had time to kind of really regroup and think, shit man I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think Iwanna do this. And so, I just made sure that I really figured I would make a bad presentation. But I was a pretty weird kid anyways.”
You mean a deliberately bad first impression?
“Yeah, like I definitely spent some time working on my…haircut. (laughter). And I just really didn’t look the part at all. I wanted to give him every reason to just look at me and say ‘No way weirdo! You’re a fucking weirdo and this is not gonna work!’
Just to sabotage things?
“Yeah, so that I could just say, oh well, he didn’t like me, or whatever. So we went back and I talked to him. And I’m not even lying, I had an old pair of army pants on, held up with a string. And a torn up t-shirt. And my hair was all fucked up – just chopped up punk-rock style. And I was a mess, you know? I didn’t even have shoes on. (laughter). And he hired me. (more laughter). So I was like…okay, whatever. So I went back there a few weeks later and started my apprenticeship. And no lie, the first day I showed up, he’s like ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, well I’m here to be the apprentice. And he’s like ‘WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES?’ And I was like, well I don’t even own shoes man! He goes ‘Come on!’ And I said, well I wasn’t wearing shoes when you interviewed me!’
Like, is that gonna be a problem? (laughter).
“He said, ‘You can’t be in here without shoes on man – the Health Department will go mental!’. And I said, well I ain’t got no money. So he gave me five bucks (laughter).
To go buy shoes?
“Yeah.” (lots of laughter)
And this is how you started your apprenticeship?
Yeah, so I would say.
“I don’t think he even thought I would last two weeks. But a whole bunch of shit just happened. And it was like, okay, whatever, you know? And I was in it.”
So that was it?
“Yeah I was in it. I was in the mix. That was the deal”.
And you got to Toronto in what year?
“Umm…I’m gonna have to think on days and dates….”.
Well we’re talking just prior to ‘Tat-A-Rama’, now, right?
“Okay, well I left that shop [‘Smilin’ Buddha’] after doing my apprenticeship with Paul – that’s Paul Jeffries who owned that shop – super good, super famous guy, right? And a good, awesome tattooer. And just an amazing character, too. Real clever guy with a quick wit. And Winnipeg had had no tattooing since ’62. And we had tattooed a lot of guys from Winnipeg, because it was a prairie thing and there was no other shop anywhere nearby, right? Winnipeg had been making noise about changing their laws and opening it up.”
So tattooing was illegal at that point?
“Yeah. It was just kind of this prohibitive law that was worded I think basically like ‘you can’t tattoo in the city of Winnipeg unless there is a duly qualified health practitioner present’. Which…duly qualified meant…whatever…you could have had a surgeon present and the city would have said he’s not ‘duly qualified in our opinion’. There was just no way. They didn’t want no tattooing, and that’s why it was word in that legalese. But they realized that it wasn’t helping anyone to have that law because there were people tattooing in houses. So they had to pull it together and get proper laws in place.”
“And I helped the health department a bunch with that stuff. Just by a bunch of coincidences, the guy who was the head of the health department knew my dad and so there was a little bit of an in there. And I talked to him and he asked questions about the process a bit and I answered them. And I kinda did what I could to clear up how the process worked.”
You mean getting tattooed?
“Yeah. So that they would have an easier time writing and drafting their legislation. But that’s a city kind of thing. That municipal bylaw dragged on. They didn’t completely change that for a long time. In the meantime, I just figured I’ll just open up back in Saskatoon. I had left Paul’s shop, and our agreement was 500 miles. I couldn’t work within 500 miles of him. The day I started, that was our deal. Like ‘I’ll teach you how to tattoo, blah, blah, blah, but you can’t work within 500 miles of me ever again…unless you’re paying me split.”
“So I was like, sure, okay, I’ll follow that. But you know, also, at that time, my brain was still not even fully formed. Most of my teenage years were just like…(laughter)…uhh…so I was just like yeah, sure, whatever. I’m gonna go to art school. Which…(laughter), I did go to art school actually, and worked at the same time, but that’s a complicated mess (laughter). But the Winnipeg thing was dragging on – it wouldn’t pan out, it wouldn’t pan out. So I made a trip out to London, Ontario, cause my friend had a business there. And he was like ‘London’s a great town man, it’s not that bad’. So I went and looked at London and was like yeah, this is kinda cool.”
So the apprenticeship is completely over at this point?
And how long was it, total?
“5 years – proper apprenticeship style – like everything. Hardly no pay. The problem was, when I got to London, I thought I’d probably just get there and do okay and then I’d wanna move to Toronto. So I started looking at Toronto. And then just decided, okay whatever, I’m just gonna go to Toronto.”
Just skip the middle step there?
“Yeah, I’m just gonna go to Toronto. And I didn’t know anybody in Toronto.”
And what years is this now? Cause you opened ‘Tat-A-Rama’ in ’87?
“Yeah, it was ’87. And I really had a hard time finding a place here. Nobody would rent to me. You know? It was just like ‘ohhh tattooing…’.
How many shops in the city at that point?
“There was ‘Beachcombers’ in Parkdale, just kind of on Queen near Brock. And ‘Adventure’ had a shop around Queen and Bathurst. And ‘Lower East Side Finesse’ was out on Kingston Road – that was Bruce and Stu. And ‘Midway’ was there around Queen and Beaconsfield, which was half way between ‘Adventure’ and ‘Beachcombers’, and that’s why ‘Midway’ was called ‘Midway’, cause it was half way between those two shops. And there was a beef between those two shops and ‘Midway’ was kinda the mitigator. If you had a message from one to the other, you would go to ‘Midway’ and then they would transfer it, so nobody had to deal with each other between those two places. It’s interesting”.
Yeah, this is definitely some of the stuff that I’m interested in getting at. Like if we could just step outside the chronology for a second and talk about what the culture of tattooing was like in Toronto in the late ‘80s.
“Well you know who knows that stuff really good, too, is Bruce Smuck, who’s tattooing in Scarborough right now. He was working at ‘Midway’. And that dude was just a rock-n-roller!”
Wow, there aren’t many people from that era that are still working these days.
“Yeah. Well he is, and he, by that time, when I got here, he had already hooked up with Stu and started ‘Lower East Side Finesse’. But he had come out of ‘Midway’. I mean, when I came here, I just couldn’t really get a grip on the city either. The spots that seemed reasonable to me, people wouldn’t rent to me. And the other problem was that, traditionally, and properly, to show respect to guys who are already in a town, when you’re coming in you give them space. Especially knowing that I was like young, and could draw good, and was tattooing in a style that was infinitely more in tune with was happening than what those cats were doing. So I knew that if I opened anywhere near them, I would just blow them outta the water. And I didn’t really want to do that.”
“So I made a map and I gave everybody a mile. And when I gave Beachcombers a mile, it went right over all the way to fucking ‘Adventure’. And when I gave ‘Adventure’ a mile that put me all the way back on Queen to fucking Parliament St. and then I was down into the lake and up to Bloor St. And I didn’t really want to change how I felt ethically about that. So I was looking at this map at all these weird spots, like Yonge St. was open but it was priced way outta my range.
And were you solo at this point when you were looking for places? I know you had partners at ‘Tat-A-Rama’.
“I had two other tattooers who came from out West with me when we opened ‘Tat-A-Rama’. And, eventually, anyways, when we got that spot in Etobicoke, it was really a tough call for me. Cause I realized like I am off the fucking beaten path!”
Especially back then.
“Yeah. Well I knew guys too, and was friends with some guys in California, and they were moving all their shops. And all those shops were coming out of the rough-n-ready downtown spots and they were moving out to the suburbs where the kids were. You know? Like a good friend of mine, Leo Zulueta, he was working in Garden Grove – a straight up kinda suburb, you know? And they were doing good. They were killing it. So, I kinda figured, okay, well maybe Toronto’s not ready for anything this modern. So I’ll do it. I couldn’t get a spot in Toronto anyways. And I was also adamant that I had to live there. Because I didn’t have no dough”.
You mean live in the shop?
“Yeah. (lots of laughter).”
With your $5.00 shoes?
“I always had a nose for value, I’ll tell you that! (laughter). So, that spot was choice. It was still on the subway line, last stop.”
Bloor West, right? All the way?
“Bloor and Kipling, yeah. So that’s the last subway stop. So I was on the subway line and I figured okay. But I’m not even joking it was hard. It was a hard fuckin go at the start. Nobody could understand why there was a shop there. But people would come and they would get an awesome tattoo and they’d be stoked. And in the end it really, really worked. Because we were just away from everything. We weren’t a part of any one crowd or any one scene. You had to GO there, to get tattooed.”
So that kinda became like the ethos of the place, in a way?
“Yea, you weren’t just stumbling upon it. That place was like going to another planet. And the stuff that was going on in that shop didn’t have nothing to do with anything outside of that shop. And that was partly just sort of my trip and partly just the fact of where it was, you know? And it was also cool. Like when I went to get my first tattoo I WENT somewhere and got it. Like anyone who got tattooed here at that point at that time – who got tattooed at ‘Tat-A-Rama’ at that time – actually WENT there. And they never had been on the subway that fucking far. Like maybe to High Park, but, fucking Kipling?!”
So it’s not as though it was attracting any foot traffic.
“Yeah, they’d be out there just freaked out!”
Well, you gotta make the journey.
“Yeah, and that was the deal. And by the time that shop was four or five years in, we were really doing it. It was six guys working on split-shifts and it was just go-go-go, busy.”
So when you say that you were doing stuff that was more advanced than the other guys in Toronto at that point, what was happening in Toronto? What was the style of tattooing that we’re talking about that was prevalent in the city?
“Well they would have been tattooing in a style that really wasn’t even super-traditional anymore.”
Yea, that’s what I’m trying to get a sense of.
“It was like a style coming out of the ‘70s. They would have flash on the wall about streaking. (laughter). Like, you know, it was weird. But it was ‘70s stuff. It had a strong line. But it was kinda like a Cheech Wizard kinda thing, stoned out on a bong or something. But we were using a thinner line – there was no question. And we could draw better. Now was it better tattooing? I don’t know that it was better. I would tell you that it’s not better tattooing, because we also were coming from a place where we were breaking new ground. We didn’t know what those tattoos were gonna look like when they were 7 years old or 10 years old. And our line weight wasn’t there. You can see stuff that I did and that the crew at ‘Tat-A-Rama’ did during that time, where, at this point, the lines are gone. They just weren’t tattooed in properly.”
“But we were also capable – or at least I was – of doing big work, like sleeves. When I came here, nobody had sleeves. Like there was no way. People were amazed, even downtown on Queen St., that my arms had that much colour on them. They were done in like ’81 or ’82. They couldn’t understand how they could just be so colourful. And I would say, like they were done 7 years ago. And they were like ‘what the fuck?!’”
“And, also, when I went into those shops I got treated bad. Like just hardcore carny style tattooing. I’d say, how much is that? Trying to get a grip on what they were charging, you know? Cause it was really cagey. And they’d go, ‘is that the one you’re getting?’ And I’d be like, well I don’t know if I’m getting tattooed today or not. And they’d ask ‘well then why the fuck are you asking me what it costs?’ And it would be like, whoa! (laughter). I’m not gonna have trouble [being successful] in this town. Like who the fuck would put up with this? Normal customer, no way! Right?”
“So I knew once we got the doors open that we were just approachable and it was like ‘Yeah, you want that? I can draw that. I can do that. It’s gonna cost this much.’ As opposed to that older carnival style of tattooing – which is not wrong, you know? And in a lot of ways now I kind of miss it, you know? But it was never my thing, anyways.”
Yeah, I’ve heard that era referred to as the rebirth of tattooing.
“Yeah…well…I don’t know…you’ve got that whole Ed Hardy talk about the tattoo renaissance. And, you know, if you talk to Lyle Tuttle – and he knows everything – he says that tattooing came apart in 1970. And he might be right. But by ’81, whatever had really started in 1970 was up on its feet and waving its arms around (laughter), and it was something. Tattooing was different in ’81 and ’82 then it had ever been before. And the number of people interested in getting tattooed was phenomenally greater than it had ever been. And, I mean, it wasn’t just sailors and military guys and bikers. And that had really been the mainstay of it until then.”
Did you feel at that point that you were part of a heritage – something to look back to – and that it mattered or affected your craft in any way?
“Nah, I mean, we were really insolent. And we just kinda thought those guys were kinda fucked up. Like all that old guy stuff was just crazy shit. They must have been drunk to draw that bad, you know? I mean, I came out of Paul’s shop where the thing that was admired was Ed Hardy, 1981, San Francisco, realistic. And that stuff was just so shocking to see on the skin. And Ed could DO IT. And we could only kinda fake it. He could do that stuff and it would last and look great on the skin, and we were just trying.”
Okay, so you’ve got Ed Hardy. Any other influences at that point that you can totally say changed the way you tattoo?
“Well, [Jack] Rudy and all those guys in East LA had been doing black and grey. So everybody, by ’81, had started to figure out how to kinda do some version of black and grey. And I say everybody, but I mean everybody who was in-the-know and going to those conventions. And that would mean Paul Jeffries. So I was allowed to know what he knew because I was his apprentice. So, I mean, these guys out here they had maybe seen it. But you gotta understand, there was no internet. There had only been a handful of tattoo conventions at that point, you know? You had Houston – that was basically the first big one. And the Reno and Sacramento. So that would be like ’78, ’79, ’80.”
“Then Nashville started having them. Then there was the Queen Mary in ’81 or ’82. I think it was ’82, the Queen Mary. That was a huge convention I went to. But that was that for conventions – one a year. And there were no tattoo magazines. I mean, I remember Easy Riders had three or four pages here or there with like action shots from Sturgess where you might see a tattoo or two. And then they put out a kind of a greatest hits thing – and I think that would have been in ’85 or ’86 – where it was just one issue of just tattoos. And it was like what the fuck?! This is amazing!”
Yeah this is something I want come to about where we’re at now with pop culture’s interest in tattooing, but I suppose let’s come back to that…
“Yeah there was no ‘Much Music’, there was no ‘MTV’.”
So it was still a fringe activity at this point?
“Yeah. There was no internet. There was no way. If you didn’t see that tattoo at the bar, you weren’t gonna see it. You weren’t gonna see it anywhere. And so, what people understood about what tattooing was, was just so formed by their location. You know?”
Yeah that’s why I’m wondering if it was kind of impressed upon you, in some way, that you were a part of that heritage. Or whether it was abstracted because you didn’t have the kind of access we do nowadays to information, to look things up, and look this guy up or that guy up.
“Well, you know, Paul was really, really regarded as the best tattoo artist in Canada. There is no question. He was widely recognized as that. So to be his apprentice, was a position of real responsibility. Whatever I was doing, if I made myself look like an asshole, I made Paul look like an asshole. And I had no right to do that. And I understood, there was no way I would ever learn to tattoo [without him]. Most guys tattooing at that time wouldn’t even let me in the shop, you know? But he – because he had been in California – he knew that it was changing. And he saw that those guys were peculiar in a way. Like in a way that he could see and understand, but just couldn’t really relate to.”
“And that’s why it took him so long to find an apprentice. He could have got any number of biker guys who were willing to learn how to tattoo. But he wanted somebody who could draw good. And also, John the Dutchman had been in his shop just before – on Ed’s advice – and Paul had been looking for another guy who could bring that shop in a new direction.”
This is at Smilin’ Buddha?
“Yeah. So John the Dutchman had been there only for one year. And that was the deal he had made with Paul. So he came and went. Then Paul was like ‘Okay, yeah, I totally get it now. I need someone can draw real good’. And he didn’t mind if I was weird.”
“Well, actually, the shoeless thing seemed to surprise him a bit (laughter). And, you know, I could go into that whole shoeless thing, but I don’t even care (laughter), most people would not have apprenticed me. Not at that time, there was just no way. But my drawing was strong and I was definitely coming from a place outside of the norm, but not the one he was used to.”
So you kind of provided him with an interesting perspective; something fresh.
“Yeah. But there was also a lot of punk rock stuff starting to drift into tattooing, and he knew that and could see that. So it was good for him to see it and appreciate it, right? So, that was the deal though. You couldn’t see tattooing except in your home town – bottom line.”
Alright, I want to talk about your time in the South Pacific. Was it ’92 that you went and spent a year there?
“Yeah, when I sold ‘Tat-A-Rama’.”
Alright, there are three things I want to touch on there: What was it that drew you to that experience? What was it like? And what effect did it have on you?
Did you go there specifically with the intent of finding out about traditional indigenous tattooing?
“Oh yeah totally”.
Or was it just a trip?
“No, no, no. That was only tattooing. By that point, man, honestly.”
The purpose of the endeavour was completely tattooing?
“I was in the shop in ’81, was in art school in ’82, was tattooing as well as trying to go to art school – I did that for two years. And Paul sat me down and said “What are you fucking doing that for anyways? ” And to me, I was hung-up. I wanted to have a degree. I really thought that that mattered some.”
“And everybody admired Hardy so fucking much. And everybody knew this guy’s got an MFA. Motherfucking guy, he had everything, right? And so he had set that bar so high, and I thought I really wanted a degree. But Paul just said, ‘Don’t be dumb. You should be tattooing, and that’s what you need to get good at. So you gotta stop going to art school and you gotta focus on what’s happening in this shop. Or you just gotta stop being in this shop’. So I was like, okay dude, no way. I’m going to just do that. And so once I had made that commitment, I was in, locked-down. Like that was for real. That’s all I really cared about was tattooing from then on.”
“So, by the time I went to the South Pacific, the only thing I cared about was tattooing. It was as simple as that. So the other thing I was going to say was that, if a customer came in with a weird tattoo, Paul could tell where it was from. And I was good at it too after a few years. Like he could say, ‘Oh I see you’re from Toronto”. And the guy would be fucked up like ‘How do you know that?’. And Paul would say, ‘Well I can see you got some work on you from D.’ And he’d go ‘Yeah!’. But, that was because there was such a strong localism. And that’s the worst thing that happened with the internet, you know? That doesn’t exist anymore. Everybody’s world is bigger and more open, but you don’t see those weird styles, like ‘Whoa I see you got some work on you from circus Leo’. You used to be able to tell. You could tell where a guy was from. And that was awesome. So yeah, I had a real sense that I was involved in something that was super awesome. But also that I was involved in something that had a history that was in all different places.”
So that’s what led you there?
“To the South Pacific?”
“Well, no. That was more the influence from Leo. Leo became a pretty good friend. And he ended up being in Calgary for a little bit when his son was born. And, again, on Ed’s advice, I guess, for the most part, and through connections through Ed and everything, Leo ended up at Paul’s shop. So I kind of became friendly with Leo. And Leo’s influence on that – the graphic sensibility there. And, I mean, also, the first issue of Tattoo Time was introduced at the Queen Mary. That was just so shocking to see. And I was there. And the tribal stuff was so different. It wasn’t like anything else. And it also like really caught-on, like immediately, in the punk scene. Because it was so different. It was non-representational. It was not like Dad’s tattoo at all.”
“So I was interested in that. And I was interested in the history of where that came from. And I had read a bunch. And that had all come from the South Pacific. And that’s why I really thought that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go there and see what those guys might have been thinking. And I had this weird hope, you know, cause tattooing was so totally ingrained in their culture, it was so connected to every part of life in the South Pacific, the tattoos they had, and what they got tattooed on them. It was just kinda all willy-nilly, and you get whatever, like it was here.”
“And the thing about tattooing in North America, when you start to trace its history back, I mean, the biggest part of it really was carnival stuff in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And that was the big bulk of that big body of work that persisted through the Second World War, and up until the ‘50s. The biker thing changed it a bunch in the ‘70s. But our history here was still really that. And the South Pacific history seemed to go back as far as you could remember. And the Japanese history as well. The Japanese aesthetic really didn’t appeal to me though. It just seemed so foreign to me – all the mythology and all the questions I had about, well, is this valid imagery? Or isn’t it? Is it our culture? Or is it their culture? But I mean that’s true of the South Pacific, too. You know? But I had a lot of romantic notions about the South pacific, like I guess everybody does…well I shouldn’t say everybody. But it was easy to have them.”
“And when I was there I travelled around by freighter. And I mean, honestly, I paid my fucking $15 and got deck passage on a freighter from Papeete to Bora Bora. And you fucking plough through the ocean all night and you get to Bora Bora around 10a.m. in the morning. And you can see it on the horizon. And people are talking. And there’s kids playing fucking ukuleles on the deck. And there’s a pig in a wood box. (laughter)…that was the best!”
You had gone through the rabbit hole.
“It was crazy man. And it was just so fucking good! And everybody had tattoos down there. It was shitty stuff though. It wasn’t the big renaissance of South Pacific tattooing. But they had Marquesan designs behind their ear or on their hands. And bits and pieces. And you saw itall the time.
Did you have…
“I had my sleeves at that point. My sleeves were done.”
Did you have a connection when you went there – someone you knew?
“No, no. Not a single connection. I just went. Start at one end and go dude.”
That was it?
“Yeah! So I had sold the shop to the other guys that were at ‘Tat-A-Rama’. And I had said to them, I’m not interested in being an absentee shop owner. If I’m not in here putting on work, I don’t deserve to take two cents out of it. And that means I don’t deserve to own it. You guys can buy the shop. Or I’m just gonna close the shop. And I don’t care. But if you buy it, then you don’t have to find a new job. And, I mean, we had people lining up. That shop was fucking busy and popular. So, I mean, basically I gave them the shop. I said okay…the shop is yours. I’ve never been very good at business (laughter). And that’ll be proven later in the story (more laughter). That’s the fucking truth man. But, I mean, whatever. That’s really not where my head is at.”
Well it shouldn’t just necessarily go to the highest bidder, I can see that.
“Yeah. And I didn’t want to kick them all out of their jobs. And they been tattooing long enough and they had clientele, and seemed clear that that was the best way to do it. And I didn’t feel like I should profit from their effort while I’m not there. And I also didn’t feel like I should profit from the sale of that shop really significantly either. So that was just what that was.”
“Anyways, I was in the South Pacific about a year. Just ravelling around by freighter. And any time I moved to the next major group of islands I’d fly. And then just kinda settle in and find my bearings. And then poke around and find out who was tattooing.”
Did you have someone at this point that kind of showed you the traditional methods? Is it called ‘tatau’ – the tapping method they use?
“Yeah, well in each language there, I mean everybody speaks English and each island group has their own indigenous language. But the languages there are all very similar.”
Like different dialects.
“Yeah, like the word for ‘hello’ is almost identical. As well as the really insulting slang term for a white person…which you learn, like within four hours of landing. At that time anyways – they maybe have toned it down a bit since then. But man, they just didn’t really care nothing for white people. But I was just being respectful. And I had a legitimate reason to be there. I wasn’t going to Club Med. I wanted to know what was going on with their tattooing. And I had tattoos. So, right away I wasn’t as bad as some. And I was being respectful. No matter what, I knew how to behave proper. I just would find my way, look around, and see who was tattooing.”
And were they receptive to that? Were there people there that actually did show you what they were doing?
“Yeah. Some of it was total crazy bullshit (laughter). And some of it was authentic. It was weird though cause in some places there was no tattooing going on anymore and in some places there was a lot. Like in Samoa – a lot. And it was really great. And I connected to a really good tattooer there and watched him work every day. I got tattooed by him, too, with the pig’s tooth and the little mallet. But a lot of my romantic notions about it being tied to their culture…it’s bullshit man. Just bullshit.”
So you became disillusioned with that?
“It was just like here (laughter)”.
Did you come back with the sense that that experience had changed the way that you tattoo? Or change the way you conceive of tattooing?
“Oh fuck yeah! You know, it’s hard. Because I had already started Eikon.”
Okay, this was the next thing I wanted to talk about.
“The deal with Eikon was…”
I hadn’t realized you started it before you left. I thought it was after you had returned from the South Pacific.
“Oh yeah. It was before. It was part-and-parcel of why I went and where I was going with it. I mean, those ideas I had were so far-reaching. Like I honestly believed, like, maybe I’ll never have to come back. Maybe I’ll just live in the South Pacific, and not have to fucking deal with this.”
I think a lot of people might have thought about that.
“Well, you gotta understand, tattooing has blown up a few times. Like tripled, almost overnight. Like Lyle will till, 1970 was one of those times. Like let’s say you had 10 tattooers, man, bang, one day had 30. And that happened again in 1990. And so for me, when that shop was on its feet, and were busy, and we were being recognized for being able to do good tattoos that people liked, for me it had the most to do with the tattoo magazines and MTV. And it just blew up. And it tripled again in like a 7 month period. And, what happened was, there wasn’t enough tattooers. There were too many customers all of a sudden. So, in my opinion, basically what happened was a whole bunch of tattooers just said to a whole bunch of customers, ‘Okay, now you can be fucking tattooers’. And the customers were like stoked – ‘fuck yeah, fuck yeah!’. And that changed everything. All of a sudden, how I got brought into it, that didn’t count for shit anymore.”
The traditional apprenticeship approach?
Yeah. There was no time for that. No time for that! ‘We gotta make money right fucking now! Everybody wants to get tattooed’. So you customers who had these misguided notions about rock and roll and being cool and ‘fuck the old style, this is groovy’. And whatever it was. It was just a mess. And people who never would have got tattooed, never would have come in the shop, were lining up to get tattooed.”
Yeah this is something that I had wanted to ask – do you feel that it gets diluted every time it expands like that?
“It just changes.”
We’re in a period like this again now.
“Where it has tripled again!”
Yeah, where pop-culture is infatuated with it.
“And has just rolled right over it!”
Do you feel that something gets lost when that happens? Or does any good come from that growth? Progression, let’s say.
“Definitely some good has come from it. But it gets harder to hold on to some of those old values. And it gets harder to wade through what’s still valid and you need to pull along, and what’s irrelevant, and you need to just let it slide back. Or to find out, okay this is new and fucking awesome, like we can integrate this. You know, it’s like music, right? People get tired of listening to me talk about how it’s like pop music. But, I mean, fuck, it’s like when people say ‘everything’s been done, everything’s been done, everything’s been done’. Well that’s not true. It’s just not fucking true. Somebody can always take something that someone else has done, reinterpret it, turn it around, and it just sounds fresh. And it means something right fucking now. But then you get a bunch of old guys and they’re like ‘I’m gonna play the same song again that I always play.’ And nobody cares. And why would they?”
Yeah, and in tattooing there’s definitely an element of that. And that’s one of the main questions that I want to ask you. What’s your impression of why it is that traditional tattooing – whether it’s Japanese or American – has persevered? The images are so lasting and so enduring, that people today identify with them. Like, I’ve got them on me now. Is there something that you think is ingrained in them that is representative of life? Or what is it about them?
“Well there’s a very real emotion tied up in the imagery, right? Some feeling of the sense of self. But also the way the work is drawn and codified has stood the test of time. You look at traditional Japanese tattooing, it’s been going on a long, long time. So they went through certain isms and phases, and certain masters were making their wind swirls bigger and smaller until they kinda dialled it in. It’s been distilled down until it’s like, that is the stuff that looks awesome when it’s 50 years old, that’s the way we do it because we know this works for the whole life of the tattoo. Same with the South Pacific. That had to have visibility from a quarter-mile away. And they just sort of dialled that style in until they had it nailed. The same with American traditional. The weight of the line. The amount of black in it. The colours. Okay, I’ll give you that, the colour now is better than it was then. They had a very restricted palate. But there was just something about it that looked really great on skin, with the skin-tone being the fourth or fifth colour. You know? And it’s just been distilled down into that point where it just ages great.”
But it also still holds this appeal. People have a connection with these images that seems almost timeless.
“Well there’s something about the drawings that leaves a slight amount to the imagination. And that’s not to say that everybody adheres to it, can appreciate it, or even understand it. But when it’s drawn in a simplified style, that could be representative of your sweetheart. But that’s not a portrait of her. We don’t need to be that literal. This just means true love. That means that I think there’s a woman that’s beautiful, and I love her. But it’s not an exact portrait. It’s not that specific.”
So, because it’s not directly representational, it’s not literal, people can see in it what they want.
“Exactly. Yeah. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation. That’s like if you read something in a book or in a description, you can picture what they’re writing about in your mind, you know? And that’s the thing that’s really amazing about good writing. And that’s the thing that’s really great about a good tattoo. It sort of pushes you in the right direction, but it doesn’t spell it out for you. It’s not a diagram. It’s the idea that’s strong. The idea is first and foremost. I think people’s motivation for getting tattooed, well it’s partially aesthetic – they want something to look a certain way – but apart from that, the reason, in my opinion, should be stronger than the look. And I mean that’s it in traditional tattooing, the reason is first and foremost.”
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s what I think.”
I would agree with a lot of that. And I’m definitely interested in you interpretation and happy to hear it.
“So, the South Pacific thing, there’s not much else I can tell you…(laughter). I was there a long time and I got tattooed there. And I don’t know. I think really those are the three basic styles of tattooing that have endured. That kind of tribal or black graphic style of tattooing, the Japanese style of tattooing, and the traditional American style of tattooing.”
I’m interested in hearing about the origins of Eikon. I didn’t realize that it had come about before you left.
“Yeah. I mean, Paul had been taught how to tattoo and Paul was a very naturally gifted tattooer. I’ve always been pretty inquisitive. And with me it was always like, well how come? And people would always just say ‘Fuck it. Why are you asking how come?’. And I’d look at them thinking, yeah but I’m not sure this makes fucking sense. And at that time you couldn’t just buy a machine. Number one, you had to get referred to buy a machine from a guy outside of ‘Spaulding’ or ‘National’ or ‘Guideline’. There were only those few companies that you could call up and order and they would come to your door. But those machines were well known to be improper in their setup. And you had to adjust them or modify them in some way to make them tattoo at a professional level.”
“So, under Paul’s guidance, cause I was his apprentice, I had access to better machines and whatever knowledge we had there. And he was a smart guy mechanically. But I was also more inquisitive and I would work on machines man, fucking around with them, fucking around with them – in no way was it making it better. But I was just trying to figure out what the machine was doing, how it was working, and how I could be in charge of it. Cause those things were mysterious. There was a lot of stuff going on there that was certainly unknown. I mean I could know how to put on a tattoo and get paid…but did I really know what I was doing? No way.”
The mechanics of the gun?
“Yeah. So when I sold that shop, what had happened for probably a solid two years prior to selling that shop from 1990 to the end of 1991, was I was buying needles. We had to solder our own needles. You couldn’t buy a premade needle at all. We had to take loose needles, solder them together, solder them onto bars, and make the setups for colouring, shading or outlining. And every guy had their own secret way of doing it. But I had kinda stumbled on different needles and different profiles and realized early on, wow this really changes things.”