In an airy Plateau studio space perched high above Saint Laurent, Instagram dreams come true. It’s clear from the neon sign, white walls, and minimalistic furniture that Black Rose Tattoo is a millennial haven. Laden with house plants, it bears a closer resemblance to a trendy open office space or an aspirational Pinterest apartment than a tattoo studio, albeit punctuated by the persistent hum of tattoo gun.
A relative newcomer to Montreal’s growing tattoo scene, Black Rose exemplifies the changes the industry has gone through in the last decade. Founded in 2017 by Christina Fleming ( @christinastattoos ) and staffed mainly by women, the friendly and decidedly unintimidating studio is a breath of fresh air, and a marked departure from a subculture that has not always welcomed outsiders.
Sabrina Avakian ( @sabootattoos ) was the first artist at Black Rose alongside Fleming. Avakian believes that Montreal’s art scene influences its growing tattoo scene.
“[Montreal is] a very artistic city,” Avakian said. “So [when] tattooing started shifting into a more artistic, more contemporary [space...], the cultural view of tattooing [became] completely different, and I think Montreal brought that to be.”
Shops like Black Rose, with its bare walls and pre-drawn flash designs on Instagram, are relatively new entrants into the tattooing world. The prototypical tattoo shop of years past was likely street-level, humming with music, and welcomed walk-ins. Its walls were invariably lined with flash art, likely in an immediately recognizable style. Traditional flash images, vibrant with warm yellows, reds, and greens and bounded by bold black outlines, are deeply ingrained in the visual culture of tattooing—think skulls, snakes, panthers, a heart on the bicep, or a pair of swallows on the upper chest. Though these bold, iconographic traditional motifs are most strongly associated with the idea of a tattoo, they are likely not the ones dominating your Instagram feed. Some of the most popular tattoos on the internet right now, paradoxically, are barely perceptible. Single-needle designs—like the one famously etched on Kendall Jenner by JonBoy, who infamously charges a $300 minimum for dime-sized ink—are everywhere.
Subtle tattoos are a relatively new concept, and these fineline designs have gained traction alongside, and in part due to, a general spreading of tattoo culture to a broader demographic. The act of permanently marking the body, which would have been unthinkable for broad swaths of the straight-laced middle class 10 years ago, is no longer as surprising: Justin Trudeau holds the highest office in Canada and has a large Haida tattoo on his bicep. The subtly tattooed mainstream population, however, tends to favour simplistic designs heavy with ascribed meaning.
For fans of the traditional tattooing subculture like Liesl van Wyk, U2 Engineering, the rise of so-called ‘acceptable’ tattooing is bittersweet.
“Anecdotally, [when] I talk to people about their tattoos, a lot of the time they’ll have a really intense meaning behind them,” van Wyk said. “While that’s not at all a bad thing, I think sometimes [meaning] can be [seen as] necessary to make it acceptable, like a rationale for [getting tattooed.]”
Van Wyk developed an interest in tattoo culture through Instagram, but gradually became fascinated by its history. Though there is evidence of tattoo traditions in nearly every culture across the world, the traditional tattoo style prevalent in the Western world traces back to sailors who collected tattoos on their travels. When European sailors made contact with indigenous peoples, they noticed distinctive tattoo traditions, such as Maori tā moko face tattoos, thin black lines that spiralled across the face and resembled filigree work, and Samoan pe’a tattoos, which covered men’s bodies from the waist down. Thus, the colonial tattoo tradition was born: European sailors began to collect tattoos as symbols of their travels, and the art of tattooing spread through imitation of these styles.
Since it originated as an iconographic tradition to distinguish individuals and mark belonging, the traditional tattoo style has always prioritized legibility and visibility. Its bright but limited colour palette makes tattoo subject matter unambiguous. Traditional motifs convey meaning with the clarity of a traffic light. In a broader sense, traditional tattoos have retained much of the stigma that once clouded tattoos as a medium. While a delicate wave tattoo on the ankle or an infinity symbol on the wrist became synonymous with both suburban moms and beachy California girls, bolder, traditional tattoos, particularly on women, still draw stares. This stigmatization harkens back to cultural conceptions of what types of body art fall within the tasteful, subtle aesthetic bounds of middle-class femininity. For van Wyk, this stigma is still palpable.
Since it originated as an iconographic tradition to distinguish individuals and mark belonging, the traditional tattoo style has always prioritized legibility and visibility.
“The stigma around tattoos has lessened, I think, but it’s [still] more of a shock to people to see women getting traditional tattoos,” van Wyk said. “The experience of getting traditional tattoos is definitely a very male dominated experience.”
Despite a persistent sense of public disapproval that remains around tattooed bodies, the internet has had a transformative effect on the world of tattooing, at both ends of the needle. While many artists still keep traditional flash books, maintaining an Instagram feed offers a unique immediacy to the practice, placing a polished, chronological portfolio right at potential clients’ fingertips. With the ubiquity of the Pinterest tattoo board, more people are searching for artists and ideas online.
“[Instagram has] made [the art of tattooing] more accessible to a lot of people,” van Wyk said. “People can argue whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I think it’s a good thing to have [it] be more accessible and through that, be more accepted slowly.”
Apprentices entering the tattoo scene today enter into a culture inseparable from the online realm. Dina Ivanova ( @dinovink ), who works at Black Rose, mentioned the transformative effects of this shift on the industry.
“From what I’ve gathered, [social media] changed the tattoo industry in a way that almost nothing else has,” Ivanova said. “All of a sudden, you could see all these artists from all over the world [...] You now have that selection at your fingertips of essentially the entire world [...] It kind of just cracked the whole thing wide open.”
For Ivanova, a former McGill student, her tattoo apprenticeship allowed art to become her career. As an artist with a budding interest in tattooing, Ivanova initially studied management with hopes of one day opening her own shop.
“I realized [...] the only thing I actually wanted to be doing [...] in that moment was art, not waiting until I finished a business degree and then starting. I was like, I need to go do this now,” Ivanova said.
Despite having adapted to new mechanical and social technologies, the apprenticeship process remains a hallmark of the experiential learning required by a profession that requires muscle memory alongside artistry. Ivanova described drawing continuously to develop a portfolio, and slowly moving up to practice on fruit, and later, friends. In an age of immediacy, clients can call up a never-ending stream of tattoo posts from artists around the world, each of which is the product of hours of work. As such, it can be easy to forget the hours of sketching, needles on skin, and trial and error that go into these carefully composed online portfolios.
“I’m still learning and developing, everyone in the industry is,” Ivanova said. “A big thing with Instagram is that you see art from all over the world—and that’s amazing, but at the same time, it can also be overwhelming [...] especially when you’re [...] starting out. It can be a little disheartening [...] just scrolling, to see hundreds of new stunning pieces of art every single day on your timeline. Because you see the post, [but] you don’t see the eight hours of work that went into it.”
Ivanova has always been part of a tattoo scene that lives halfway on the internet. Because Black Rose is a private studio, most clients who come through its the doors made their way there through Instagram. Besides being an integral part of the booking process for many artists, particularly those who work in private studios, the Internet gives artists a newly global reach. In allowing artists and shops in different cities to follow one another’s work, social media more easily facilitates international guest spots, wherein artists travel to tattoo in shops around the world. This worldwide scope has transformed the creative landscape within which artists operate.
Ivanova has always been part of a tattoo scene that lives halfway on the internet.
The mononymous Fanny-Jane ( @fanny__jane ) began tattooing in 2013 in London—where she initially moved to exhibit her paintings—before the influence of social media had taken hold of the industry. Fanny-Jane was initially apprehensive about her return to Montreal in 2015; she was worried about losing the client base she had built up in the United Kingdom.
“I was like, ‘No one will want to have tattoos from me,’” Fanny-Jane said. “And actually because of Instagram, people already [knew me.] So when I came back, I already had a few people to tattoo.”
For emerging artists, the internet has been omnipresent, a tool nearly as integral to their process as the coil machines themselves.
“[Instagram is] how all of us have our portfolios now.” Ivanova said. “The only way you can really get tattooed by anyone [at Black Rose] is [by contacting] us through [Instagram], or [...booking] a flash [from] Instagram [...] [without it], we wouldn’t have any of that.”
Conversely, many established artists have seen the scene change around them throughout the course of their careers.
“A lot of tattoo artists have become like social media moguls now, [so] it’s a weird transition,” Avakian said. “We’re in the middle of it because [...] literally a couple years ago, people were still going into shops, consulting, looking at books.”
Fanny-Jane’s style, for instance, is indivisible from the body and thus better displayed on Instagram than within the paper confines of a traditional flash book. Her personal style—a tangle of free-flowing lines that inherently contrasts with the medium of permanent ink under the skin—has kept her work in high demand in Montreal among fans of this style.
“I would say [my style is] human based, organic, and airy, spacey,” Fanny-Jane said. “A lot of my tattoos are also freehand, so I really need a human to do what I love [...] It’s always based on my vibe with the person [...] The placement on the body becomes so essential and everyone’s different so [that] does really influence my drawing.”
For artists like Fanny-Jane, the internet is an indispensable tool. Though, at times, it can stifle creativity by blurring the distinction between inspiration and copying, online platforms like Instagram have expanded the industry beyond its previous bounds. Its unique power to connect people from around the globe and broaden the scope of artists previously hindered by geography has transformed the space of tattooing for both enthusiasts and artists.
“For once, [the] internet is not a bad thing,” Fanny-Jane said. “It gave to the tattoo world the opportunity to show people that you can get very personal with what you want to have. You don’t have to get only one style. They [started] realizing that you can go everywhere with this.”