Scarification, African tribal tattooing, lip plates, etc… Body art has been a part of human culture for thousands of years – be it to symbolize bravery, victory or coming of age. The beauty of body art in Western culture today is that it can take on any meaning one wants, making every single piece incredibly personal. What can be better than treating one’s body as a giant work of art?
Over the buzz of the needle and an increasingly numb upper thigh, I managed to get some insight on this art form from local tattoo artist SmAshley Dale of Slick Styled Steel.
Nadia Blostein (NB): How long have you been tattooing for? And how did you begin?
SmAshley Dale (SD): It’s been just over four years now. When I got to cégep, the natural thing for me to do was to pick something that involved art. I actually only got the idea of what I wanted to do after I started going Dawson – being disciplined and being up against amazing artists really showed me how to push myself – I learned what it is to create a composition, what it is to work with colour theory… And my mother, covered head-to-toe in piercings and tattoos, immediately saw that as something that I should probably be pursuing. I was really unsure about tattoo art at first but definitely fine arts is what helped me realize that I wanted to pursue an artistic career.
NB: And what kind of training does a tattoo artist need to go through? Are there any schools for it?
SD: Unfortunately, there are a few tattoo schools nowadays. From what I can see, these academies are just people that try to bank on the fact that tattooing is so socialized now that there are many people who want to learn how to do it. The problem with that now is that you’re kind of making it for everyone – which isn’t really an issue because I am not saying that I deserve it more than anyone else – but I think people don’t understand where its origins are from and how important it is to go through a traditional apprenticeship. It’s hard to just sit in a classroom and try to take in what you see as information when really, if you have one person who is devoting all their time and energy to you and is willing to pass down their wisdom. You are going to get a much better training, just because that person knows a lot better how you learn and they can keep an eye on you. I think with something like this, especially if it’s so permanent, you really have to teach each person individually so that they can each advance with their own style, because no two artists work the exact same way.
NB: How did your tattoo apprenticeship go?
SD: I never had a traditional apprenticeship; I really wish I would have. I worked at a shop that helped me get a lot of practise really fast but the unfortunate part is that I was getting trained by an entire shop, as opposed to one person. So you know, I did my drawings, I tried to observe tattooing as much as possible, tried to absorb whatever I could from getting tattooed myself, but as I said, it was really difficult because I did not have one person focusing on what I should be doing or what I should be advancing in, or my strengths and weaknesses as an artist. However, I certainly wouldn’t take anything away from the place that taught me and I would not be where I am today had they not given me the opportunity to learn. I was really fortunate when at the place I was working at, for the last six months of my so-called apprenticeship, an artist by the name of Billy Gray took me under his wing. He couldn’t devote all the time he wished he could have to me, but he was the one person who really wanted to make sure he oversaw all the work that I did. He really had no problem telling me if my work was shit – which was really hard at first because I used to have an attitude and or say, “It’s subjective. You can’t tell me this, you can’t tell me that,” but I very much appreciate and realize how much that criticism helped me. Not everyone is going to understand my art, but there are fundamentals that I need to learn. It’s kind of about learning all the rules so that I can learn how to break them, and Billy Gray is the one who taught me how to follow the rules so that I could approach my career in whatever way I felt best.
NB: And recently, you’ve been developing your stippling technique, haven’t you? Tell me more about that.
SD: Well, when I started tattooing, I didn’t see dotwork anywhere. It was something that I learnt to do in my fine arts program in college. It was only when I started following artists in Europe, fully getting into tattooing, that I was seeing what was actually done in many parts of the world. When I saw that something I enjoy so much at school can be applied to the skin, it was game over – that was exactly what I was going to specialize in. It worked out well considering I absolutely love intricate detail. Something like this which can frustrate a lot of artists because it is very tedious and time consuming, but is something that I adore doing and it kind of makes me stick out since it isn’t something you see very frequently in the Montreal area.
NB: And how is applying stippling to human skin different from traditional tattooing?
SD: Well, I’m going to tune my machine a little differently for stippling. Essentially, I’m trying to recreate in slow motion what a tattoo machine is already doing. The machine’s going in and out a thousand times per second and it’s actually stippling but because I pull the machine in a smooth motion, it results in a really smooth line and shade. With stippling, I try to exaggerate the dot work so I’ll either slow down my machine so that you actually see the dot within each line motion, or I’ll keep my machine at the same speed and I’ll just dot the skin by eye.
NB: And what did you start tattooing before tattooing people?
SD: I started off with fruit – some other guy that I worked with at the shop suggested that I do that. He told me to grab a grapefruit because the texture and pores of the fruit are actually somewhat reminiscent of skin because of how imperfect the surface of a grapefruit is. It’s very rare to find a perfect surface of skin, other than on the back, which is relatively flat – but still, there are always going to be imperfections and different shapes that will obstruct the way my wrist wants to move naturally. Thus, tattooing grapefruit was a great way to learn how to handle a machine – not about seeking perfection in my line work on it, but just about learning how not to go too deep or too shallow in certain areas just because my wrist had to move in an awkward motion – not to mention you are holding a machine that is vibrating while you’re trying to pull a straight line. So the fruit was really just an introductory way to learn how to handle a machine.
NB: And from there you moved on to people?
SD: Pretty much. I mean a lot of people I know have gone to latex skins before they moved on to people, but I was informed that although I could do that, latex skins are just another method of learning how to handle your equipment. So I was really fortunate (and still am very fortunate) that a lot of my friends are heavily tattooed so when it came time to needing, you know, my best friend was the first person to say, “Hey, I would love your first tattoo actually.” At first, I’m thinking, those people are crazy. Who in their right mind would let me practise on them? But it really took the edge off having my best friend being my first “skin donation”, because the idea behind her getting the tattoo was not seeking my most perfect picture or my most perfect anything. She just wants my first original tattoo on her. And hey, it works for me because she has enough tattoos that it will not be an eye sore sticking out. Thankfully it’s hidden.
NB: Have you ever tattooed yourself?
SD: Yes, I did, and it actually wasn’t for practise purposes. I know other people who have learnt by tattooing themselves first. But the guy who taught me, Billy Gray, told me not to and I didn’t understand because so many of my girlfriends had tattooed themselves. He explained to me that I would either be focusing too much on the artwork or on the technique – and it’s hard to harmoniously work the two in together while inflicting pain on myself. I unfortunately did not listen to him and after my first six months of tattooing, I decided to tattoo my foot – an already difficult area to tattoo on other people, let alone myself. So to this day, my foot’s been unfinished and it’s in dotwork – and I’m really nervous about letting other people finish it because it’s not going to all look the same…
NB: And what are your thoughts on the currently pretty experimental UV ink?
SD: I actually have a UV tattoo on my arm that I always forget about unless I go to Laser Quest. I feel like it’s a shame because it is only visible under a black light, like the whole hype of having an “invisible tattoo” sort of wears off pretty fast. I kind of look at UV ink in the same way I do with white ink tattoos – I mean, to each their own and I’ll never intentionally badmouth someone who chooses to get these tattoos – but I feel like the level of satisfaction that you’re going to get from these discreet tattoos is certainly nothing like the satisfaction you’re going to feel with – for a lack of a better term – a “real” tattoo. I’ve only saw one tattoo to date that I felt was the most practical use of UV ink, and it was actually this guy that had a whole carnival scene on his outer forearm. In daylight, all you see is the carnival and when you get in UV light, the Ferris Wheel and everything gets lit up, which totally plays into the theme of it. It was the most sense I’ve ever seen used from that ink.
NB: What do you think of the fact that tattoo art is currently becoming so mainstream?
SD: I think there are pros and cons to everything. I think that tattoo art is a lot more socialized today because ink is glamorized in TV shows – making tattooing a lot more socially acceptable as an art form than it was, say, 20-30 years ago. The trade-off of that is that unfortunately, people feel like they have to get tattooed. When people come in, they’re inquiring about getting a tattoo and by the end of that conversation, they’re actually inquiring about how removal works. If someone’s inquiring about removal, there’s no way I want to touch them with a ten-foot pole – I’m not in this so people can get my shit covered up or removed. I’ve already noticed that workplaces accept tattoo art a little more but I hope that with the years to come, the socialization of tattoo art will have more of a knowledge base where people aren’t imitating what they see on TV. I don’t like it when people are all about “monkey-see, monkey-do”, I’m just hoping that with the years to come, it’s going to be more “do your research” and “find an artist that you like.” Don’t just walk into a store and go “I want a sleeve” because you’ve seen it done in an hour-long episode of Miami ink… I just hope people realize that they aren’t necessarily getting all of the necessary information from TV. With future generations, I think that tattoos are going to 100% become more socially acceptable but I’m hoping that with that, people are really going to take the time to really see that every artist tends to specialize in something and with so many artists readily available, there’s no reason to settle or think that you need something now or never. Let the TV shows entertain you but do not let them persuade you that you know how everything works.
After two and a half hours, my tattoo is finally finished. It wasn’t so bad. There is something really addictive about tattoo pain, in a way. Have you ever met someone with only one tattoo? I only know people with none or more than one. However, the most painful part will be the next day, when I have to pull off the sticky plastic protecting my gaping wound for the first 24 hours. Pulling it off in the shower is a relief – you finally get to rinse off all the blood and excess ink oozing out of the piece. But boy does it hurt – imagine tearing the sticky part of a band-aid off a gaping wound. Entirely worth the pain though. The result is achingly beautiful. It will always symbolize a period of one’s life, and an immense source of artistic awe.