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Body of art

With the inaugural tattoo festival drawing more than two dozen artists from near and far to Halifax, Sean Flinn fleshes out the weekend’s activities.


Amber Thorpe stares—absorbed—at the work of another tattoo artist on a monitor in her Quinpool Road tattoo studio. “As an artist, I feed off other people’s ideas,” she says. Professional tattoo artists such as Thorpe look closely at each other’s work, something that will happen a lot during the first Maritime Tattoo Festival, a Halifax event Thorpe has organized for this weekend.

“For me, it’s about tattoo artists coming together under one roof, competing and putting their artwork on display,” says the southern Ontario native, who worked for several years in Calgary. “You’ll never see a tattoo artist’s work in a gallery.”

Twenty-eight artists will compete for awards in 16 categories, from small tattoos and black-and-grey ink work to large, custom-colour tattoos and cover-ups. Seven of the nine Nova Scotian artists come from Metro, and they’ll be up against artists from Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia and three from the US.

According to Thorpe, competition is good for business and the profession. “We’re starting to weed out the people who aren’t artists, who can’t custom-draw a tattoo or haven’t trained or apprenticed.”

She adds that “the business, even though it’s growing, is becoming harder and harder to get into on a professional level...anyone can buy a machine off eBay and get one of those bad starter kits. Those are the people who will always wonder, ‘Well how come it didn’t look like I thought it would look?’”

Since many of the artists are booked to give tattoos at the festival, the event has provided Thorpe with the chance to discuss health-and-safety practices—just days after a man had a portrait of a local news anchor tattooed on his arm in a bar. From biohazard waste containers placed at every booth and the availability of on-site sterilization, to rules posted “according to health code standards in Alberta,” guidelines will be demonstrated and enforced.

The Nova Scotia government still has no set of enforceable health guidelines or inspections and this clearly frustrates Thorpe, who wants to eradicate the stereotypical view that all tattooing is unclean and dangerous. “It’s going to be a totally clean show,” insists Thorpe. “It’s a mainstream thing. It’s not something people have to be afraid of anymore, as long as it’s done in a proper environment.” Artists will be briefed on “blood-borne pathogens” before bringing needle to skin. “We also want to give everyone a taste of what the lifestyle is like. We’re not the ‘big, scary bikers’ or whatever.”

While the festival includes the Rob Hill Side Show (Thorpe worked with Hill, the ringleader in what the festival website calls an “international freak show,” in Calgary) and a performance by Pink Velvet Burlesque, it will also have face-painting, the kind popular at sports events, amusement parks and hospitals. “You’ll see a lot families there,” Thorpe says.

Karla Corbett specializes in face, body and mural painting and will offer her skills as part of the festival. “It’s unlike any other venue that I have face-painted for. My regular clientele consists of toddlers up to tweens and the odd teen,” she says.

“In the UK, body painting is very popular and they’re way ahead when it comes to body art and design,” Corbett says. “I’m glad to be part of a show that encourages body art of any kind, permanent or not.”

Besides working, Corbett looks forward to “seeing people with cool tattoos. I appreciate the artwork in all of them.”

She has a tattoo herself, but it’s hidden by clothing. “I plan on getting the next one somewhere where others can see it. Each person has their own reason for getting a tattoo and these reasons are so individual.”

Thorpe says more people are seeing the potential and potent self-expression of tattoos, starting with decisions such as colour versus black-and-grey. “Colour’s going to be a lot brighter and bolder on skin. Black and grey’s going to be softer.” Each offers a different tonal quality to the image, she says.

“Tattoos are getting bigger. And the bigger the better—the more detail you’re going to get,” Thorpe also says of one of the more encouraging trends in the work. Tattoos are being made to be seen more and more.

Maritime Tattoo Festival, May 19 through May 21 at the Holiday Inn, 1980 Robie (at Quinpool). Go to: for ticket prices and schedule.


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