Has the government city of Ottawa finally embraced the tattoo culture that has become mainstream?

From teenagers to adults, the phenomenon of tattooing has spread rapidly in popularity to people from all walks of life.

In fact, according to a 2014 poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 40 per cent of households have someone with at least one tattoo living in them, a number that has doubled since 1999.

But where did this practice come from?

Some date the first recorded tattoo back to ancient Europe, with a 5,200 year old tattooed iceman being discovered on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991.

But in terms of North American history, First Nations people in Canada used tattoos to represent various aspects of their life. These ranged from representations of spiritual beliefs to tribal symbols.

Following the settlement of the Europeans and the rise of the popularity of tattoos across the world in the 1800s, the art form became more common among travelers and military men.

Fast forward almost 200 years later, and the art of tattooing is still evolving and growing in popularity here in Canada. The nation’s Capital has witnessed the many changes that have accompanied the art form first-hand. But what exactly does Ottawa’s tattoo scene look like today, and how does it reflect evolving attitudes towards body art?

The industry

Kathy McGuire, the owner of Living Colour Tattoo Studio on 412 Dalhousie Street, has been a tattoo artist for almost two decades, and has seen the industry change a lot since she got started in the 90s.

McGuire broke onto the scene by working with her husband, who switched from a career in engineering to tattooing. Her love of drawing and painting helped her draw tattoo stencils for her husband to use.

After working for six years in the front of tattoo shops and designing tattoos, McGuire did a two-year apprenticeship under her husband. When McGuire and her husband started out, the pair were tattooing out of their apartment before taking over a shop on Gladstone and Kent.

McGuire explained that in those days, the process was pretty primitive. People would come in for a tattoo and pick a pre-drawn stencil. Customized work was practically non-existent, which dramatically contrasts the tattoos being done today.

“Before, people would come in and choose a drawing off the wall,” said McGuire. “Now people come in and want customized tattoos, which is a lot more work for the artists because of the time it takes to … research the art and the styles the customer wants.”

McGuire’s work, for example, centers on realism, which allows her to create a realistic replication of a photo on someone’s skin.

In this sense, tattoo artists today have to invest more time inside and outside of work in order to research the art, learn the style, find references, and meet expectations. Tattoo artists, while they all have their own specialties, are also tasked with learning new styles and techniques to be able to create that ideal design that their clients are looking for .

When McGuire and her husband first started tattooing in the 90s, business boomed during the summer months, since people didn’t have to cover up to protect themselves against the frigid Ottawa winters. However, it was significantly less busy during the remaining months of the year.

That was before the television show Miami Ink premiered in 2005.

Following the release of the TLC reality show, McGuire and her husband noticed a strong increase in business.

McGuire believes it has something to do with the fact that the show was finally able to demonstrate how much could be done with tattoos and tap into the vast possibilities people had at their disposal when trying to decide on a design or concept.

“After the show came out, it never stopped. We weren’t only busy in the summer, we were busy all the time.”

As the art form continued to grow, tattoo technology continued to update as well.

“The original machines used were based off of 1800s technology,” said McGuire.

As technology advanced, coil machines were invented and have become the machine of choice for many artists.

Rotary machines are quieter and operate using a small motor that moves the needle up and down. Alternately, coil machines use electromagnetic currents that pass through a set of coils to activate an armature bar, which then taps the needle.

Outside of technology and technique, the demographics of the tattoo industry have evolved as well.

Traditionally, tattooing was a male-dominated profession and McGuire noted that there was definitely a boys’ club mentality surrounding the industry when she started out.

“During the 1970s and 80s there were very few female tattoo artists. As the mentality changed more women have started to tattoo. Here in my shop I have four female artists, one female apprentice, and three male artists.”

Working professionals like McGuire have contributed to the tattoo industry, reinforcing society’s movement towards gender equality in the workplace.

The tattooed workforce

University students may be more interested in getting a tattoo since they are generally more accepting of the practice to begin with.

This is true at the University of Ottawa campus as well, since psychology professor Elizabeth Kristjansson has noticed that tattoos are becoming more and more common among her students.

However, since she started teaching at the U of O in 2003, Kristjansson believes that the same can’t be said for her co-workers. She attributes this reluctance to the widespread lack of acceptance toward tattoos in a professional setting.

“Tattoos have become more accepted in some regards, but generally I think tattoos are not accepted, really, in many fields.”

In fact, according to a recent study from the Illinois-based skincare boutique Skinfo, 42 per cent of the people surveyed feel that visible tattoos are inappropriate for the workplace. To make matters worse, the study found that 37 per cent of hiring managers cite tattoos as being the third most likely physical attribute that limits career potential.

This may be disheartening to hear, especially for students who want to commit to body art and keep their future job prospects open at the same time.

While reflecting on this, Kristjansson stressed that “Tattoos, much like any other aspect of someone’s appearance, should never be a reason to discriminate against someone in the workplace.”

While tattoos seem to be a preference among the younger generations, there is an increasing number of adults getting inked as well. McGuire’s shop sees a range in clientele, including students, teachers, mothers, fathers, and occasionally lawyers and dentists.

“There is still a stigma and negative connotation around tattoos and the type of people that get them. But as more and more people get tattoos, that’s changing,” said McGuire.

Traditionally, Ottawa has been more conservative in terms of prevailing attitudes towards tattooing, and the small-town feel has made for slower progress in popularity, styles, and trends, according to McGuire.

For example, McGuire said that cities such as Montreal and Toronto saw a much earlier increase in full sleeve tattoo pieces than Ottawa did. McGuire mentioned that it now seems to be at a point in Ottawa where the reception towards tattoos is improving and the techniques and styles are more rapidly reflecting other cities.

Igraine Da Silva, a third-year political science student at the U of O, has seen a difference in the Ottawa tattoo scene compared to what’s happening in her hometown of Mississauga.

“The amount of tattoo shops downtown outnumber the number of shops I’ve seen in Mississauga,” said Da Silva. “I think people get tattooed here because of the number of options available, the excitement of seeing your friend with a tattoo, and the interest in wanting permanent body art. Tattoos are also all over social media, so that offers a lot of inspiration.”

In her second year, Da Silva got her own tattoo, a homage to her favourite book Le Petit Prince.

“I always liked tattoos from a young age—I loved that art could be on someone’s body. I wanted to find something that inspired me so I could turn it into a work of art.”

So far, Da Silva has not faced any difficulty finding employment with her tattoo and said that all of her previous places of employment had no rules against the visibility of tattoos. However, she hopes to be a lawyer one day, and worries that if she decides to get work done on a more visible parts of her body she may face difficulty in finding employment.

“I got the tattoo on my ribs because I wanted it to be hidden. I’m waiting until I figure out exactly what I want to do with my career before I get more visible ones, due to the fact that there are some fields of work that are more hesitant in accepting visible tattoos.”

Letting the ink dry

Regardless of what you’re looking for in terms of tattoos, rest assured that the nation’s capital is full of many talented artists that can turn your body into a living piece of art.

While some employers may continue to be a little hesitant when it comes to accepting body ink in the workplace, Da Silva believes that “the younger generation seems to be fuelling the movement of tattoos and their acceptability in the work environment.”

The question of how opinions will change regarding tattoos in a professional setting remains to be seen. But as the conversation continues, tattoos will continue to challenge what is acceptable in professional environments.

With Ottawa-based artists like McGuire at the helm, the tattoo industry is continuously evolving, and it is  definitely an interesting time in the history of tattoos.