Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Phat tats: Artists build bodies of work as ink is injected into the mainstream

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When Kelly McRae started inking folks back in 1996, Winnipeg had half a dozen tattoo studios.

Today there are 37.

No doubt nursing homes of the future will be much more colourful places as a one-time act of rebellion becomes an increasingly popular (and permanent) act of self-expression.

Everyone -- male, female, young, old -- is going under the needle. It's no longer a question of whether or not you're going to get a tattoo, it seems, but of what, and where exactly it will be located on the living canvas known as your epidermis.

Before you make an indelible impression, however, keep in mind that fashion trends come and go under the skin as well.

McRae, 41, can still recall back in the early '90s when tribal lower-back tattoos were all the rage for women.

"They were huge until around 2001. They started phasing out when people started making fun of them," says the artist-owner of Skin Dimensions on Corydon Avenue. "Same with arm bands. Now, when anyone walks in asking for one of those, I automatically charge them extra just based on non-originality," he jokes.

The rib-cage tattoo is the "new tramp stamp," according to McRae, while "Rihanna stars" -- the singer has a spray of them cascading down her neck -- bird silhouettes, Roman numerals and the written word are among the most requested designs.

"I'm a human typewriter on Saturdays," says the artist, who is booked up months in advance but welcomes walk-ins on that day.

McRae admits he's living proof of the importance of checking your work when you're writing in permanent ink.

Fortunately the woman who walked out of his shop with a "Mommy's Little Angle" tattoo came back and he was able to fix it.

Nadine Mitchell, a tattoo artist for 20 years and owner of Metamorphosis Custom Tattoo & Body Piercing since 1998, says there seems to be a growing trend where people get inked to commemorate a tragedy or loss.

"A lot of people are using tattoos as a way to feel and express their pain," Mitchell, 43, says. "Memorial tattoos have always been a thing, but they're even more popular now.

When it comes to text tattoos, she prefers to do "power words" (i.e. love, peace, beauty) and refuses to inscribe anything derogatory or offensive.

She advises potential customers to "really research" the words and/or images they'll end up wearing for the rest of their lives.

"There's two parts to getting a tattoo: there's the marking of the body -- the act itself and going through the pain -- and there's expressing yourself," Mitchell says, "and I think people sometimes get swept up in the act part.

"You can take down the print that you picked up at IKEA anytime, but this is something you're going to pay for and you're going to live with forever. And it's going to age. Over time it's going to shift and change, so listen to your artist's advice about sizing and spacing and body flow."

McRae, on the other hand, says his job is to tattoo people, not counsel them on their choices. Nothing is off limits, he says, although he does require a waiting period for customers who request tattoos on their face or hands or who want a spouse or lover's name written on their skin.

"I do have a conscience," he says. "If someone wants to get a flaming swastika tattoo, I make sure they're aware it's a political statement. For many people, it's just for shock value."

He may not censor, but McRae, who has around 20 of his own tattoos, does refer to hand, face and neck tats as "job killers" and reminds the would-be tattooed that you get what you pay for.

"Cheap tattoos aren't good and good tattoos aren't cheap," he says.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 D11

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