Skin Deep

Christine Hennebury
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Tattooists make their art on living canvas

Happy with the finished product, the author takes a look at her new body art. Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

Alicia Simms-Young's first tattoo was somewhat conventional; she and her sister both got tattoos of the Chinese symbol for sisters.
That was just the beginning.
Since then, she has gotten another 11 tattoos - including one of Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" on her upper arm - and she has become a tattoo artist, working at Trouble Bound Tattoos on Water Street.
Tattoos are intriguing for her, no matter which side of the needle she is on.
"I always liked tattoos and started buying tattoo magazines, and it just amazed me, the things that good tattoo artists could do on skin - skin as canvas, and I never thought of it like that until I started buying the magazines at maybe 18 or 19. Skin as a medium, as opposed to just a tattoo. It became more three dimensional than flat art."
She says there are a variety of ways that people choose tattoos, from selecting an interesting design online, to finding something with personal meaning, to becoming a tattoo collector, choosing a specific artist for their individual style.
A lot of people get memorial or commemorative tattoos, while others choose a design solely for the aesthetics. "More women than men are commemorating things. Like women will get out of a bad relationship and get a tattoo," she says. "Guys don't do that so much."
Jared Reid, 22, has two tattoos on his left arm, a lotus done by Simms-Young and a dagger done by Mike Redrew (also at Trouble Bound). Both tattoos have great meaning for him.
"The dagger on my forearm was inspired by my father's first tattoo on his arm, a dagger going through a heart with a banner going across it, but the design on mine is my creation. I hope to start a family tradition with the design; I guess I'll find out if I ever have kids," he says.
"The Lotus symbolizes a growth of life, always moving forward to attain the goals I wish to reach. I had embedded the petal of the flowers (with) a reference to 'Magic the gathering' (a trading card game) where the black lotus is one of most sought after and powerful cards in the game."
Tattoos used to be associated with the rougher elements of society, or with impulsive youth, but they have become much more acceptable in the last few years.
Reid has an explanation for this: "While I like to believe that people are becoming more open-minded to the various options of self expression, I think it has more to do with today's media popularizing it with shows such as 'Miami Ink.'"
Simms-Young agrees to a certain extent, but she thinks it goes deeper than that.
"It's more widely accepted now than it ever was. Before, it was, 'if you have a tattoo and you can see it, you'll never get a job.'"
She says that employers are less likely to judge people based on their tattoos, especially in artistic careers.
"I don't think it will ever be accepted to the point that we will have CEOs with big tattoos or knuckles done or anything like that, but I don't think it is going to peak any more. I think we have plateaued, but it's a high plateau."
And she sees people of all shapes; sizes and ages come into the shop. "There's no age limit. We've done an 80-year-old on her 80th birthday. She got a Blue Jays logo, because it was her favourite team. We are surpassing that 'What happens when you get older?' sort of thing."
Tattooing is part of personal expression, just like fashion, music or any creative endeavour. And like any of those things, there is variation in how far people are willing to go to express themselves. Reid, for example, sees a difference between people who get just one small tattoo, and those who choose multiple, highly visible ones.
"To me, people who get a single small tattoo just get it for the experience; to say 'Hey, I have a tattoo,' even though it never sees the light of day and no one knows it there," he says. "People with (multiple) tattoos want them to be seen and noticed, and, again, it's really a personal thing."
That personal aspect is why Simms-Young will help people develop ideas they already have, or give them advice on placement, size or design, but she turns down requests to choose tattoos for people.
"I'll send them away; I'm not even going to give them any ideas," she says. "I can't make up their mind for them, and say 'Why don't you get a dolphin?' 'Sure!' … That's not what I do."
One of the other issues that concern people when considering a tattoo is pain. People want to know how much it will hurt.
"Depends on where it is and how long you are sitting for. Even in the least painful area, if you're sitting for five hours, it's going to suck." Simms-Young says, "Everything hurts … but some places don't hurt as much as others, so it's not that painful. It's not unbearable. It is not 'I can't take this.' It is, 'I look forward to this being over.'"
Whether someone is choosing a tattoo to commemorate something, or for the aesthetics, it is important to consider it carefully because it is permanent.
As Reid says, "If you ever decide to get a tattoo, think long and hard about it, the design, the artist, the placement, because ultimately it'll be with you for the rest of your life, and while some tattoos can be covered up, not all of them can."

Drawing Strength
My tattoo is a reminder of my goals
I had been considering a tattoo for years before deciding on something that really resonated with me, and it took me a while to get brave enough to make an appointment.
I was terrified going in to get my tattoo. I couldn't believe I was going to pay someone to stick needles into my arm and hurt me. And I was worried about making a permanent mark on my body, something that didn't have to be there. But, I had made my decision and I was going to follow through.
When I first made my appointment, I had planned my tattoo as a reward for achieving a certain level of physical fitness (a big goal for me) but then an injury prevented me from reaching my goal on time. I considered cancelling the appointment, but with some gentle encouragement from Alicia Simms-Young and some rethinking on my part, I decided to go ahead and get it anyway, as a symbol of my commitment to the process of getting fit.
The design I chose has various legends associated with it that resonate with me, but the short version is that it is a symbol of rebirth and it is tangentially related to an Egyptian goddess of great strength. And after six years of being either pregnant or nursing, I felt it was time for a personal rebirth, a time to reclaim control of my body (hence the tie-in with the fitness). And I picked green because it is my favourite colour, and because it is a colour of new things.
Alicia carefully walked me through process of what would happen and then after we got the transfer in just the right spot, she started in. It didn't hurt nearly as much as I feared. In fact, for most of the time it was an irritant rather than actual pain. My chosen location happened to be a good one for minimizing pain and it mostly felt like when you accidentally scratch a sunburn. Sure, it hurt, but it was not ridiculous, and the pain level would not be a deterrent to getting a tattoo.
I was a little disappointed that it had to be bandaged before I left (there will be some blood, and as an open wound, it should be covered at first) because I wanted to show it off. But by that evening I was showing everyone I met what an awesome job Alicia had done. The sunburn feeling continued for a few days, and then it got really itchy as it scabbed over and the top layer of skin flaked off. But in a little less than two weeks, the eye of Ra was glaring from my arm like it had grown there.
Everyone who sees it says that it suits me, whatever that means. And my friend Marla (who has a few tattoos herself) says she knows she has made a good choice when she feels like she would be happy to have been born with the design on her skin. I certainly feel that way, and when I see the top of my arm I am reminded of how much control I have of my body and my life and how I am committed to making the changes I want to.
Also, my kids think it is super cool.

Organizations: Blue Jays

Geographic location: Water Street

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