When I was 19 years old, I got my first tattoo. The artist’s name was Shawn Thompson and the studio was Strange City – an Edmonton body modification studio in the bustling and artistic Old Strathcona neighbourhood on Whyte Avenue. Thompson could tell I was a dumb kid, nervous about having someone draw on me with needles and not quite sure what I was getting myself into. I kept my eyes closed and breathed slow as he drew on my forearm. He encouraged me to just keep doing what I was doing because I wasn’t squirming at all and making the process easier for him, and in turn, easier for me too. Thompson tattooed me two more times. I explored a few more artists and you can tell the quality difference. Thompson’s tattoos look like they’re only a few months old still – even after seven years of sitting in the sun, learning I was allergic to a few different soaps the hard way, and other harsh experience that would have turned Thompson’s signature thick, comic-book like black outlines blotchy and faded; yet the outlines are still thick, deep, and powerful.
I learned recently that the staff of Strange City are in a labour dispute with its owner.There’s a Tumblr site dedicated to the progress the staff is making throughout its struggle and gives a detailed background as to how it got to this point. You can check out that blog here.
Being a third party, it’s hard for me to tell what the whole story is. It seems like each party has something to gain, and therefore, a reason to bend the truth. But, this is far from the first time I’ve seen issues like this in this industry.
In Edmonton, there are constantly new tattoos shops opening and just as frequently closing. The body modification industry has been plagued with fly-by-night businesses that take no responsibility for any of its actions. From the locally infamous Zips Tattoos to the tiny shops in shady neighbourhoods none of us have ever heard of, body modification still has a stigma of being an industry run by wannabe rockstars and bikers who can’t be trusted. With some of the tattoo and piercing horror stories (many of which are currently on my body) it’s no wonder that many still don’t trust it.
But, for every shady tattoo parlour in Edmonton dealing as much coke out the back door as they are tattooing, there are just as many great artists who love what they do for work and want to work so they can support themselves and those they love. They’re working toward legitimizing the practice and making the practice safer and more welcoming for people: tattoos aren’t just for bikers and sailors anymore, and the general public has a right to be safe.
Walking into Strange City felt like walking into a doctor’s office. You can smell the sanitation products, the floor were pitch white, and the foyer had clean, comfortable couches making for an inviting environment that felt safe. I was never worried about hepatitis whenever I went to Strange City.
In my first year of my university writing program, I wrote an essay advocating for a proper oversight and certification process for body modification professionals. Knowing the fly-by-night businesses and poor reputation for the industry, I thought that certification in field such as general practice (i.e. use of the needles and inks), sanitation practices, and customer service would vastly improve the industry both for the professionals (making them more reputable and accountable) and for the clients.
Though the whole story will only ever be known by those who experienced it, the Strange City staff have a legitimate argument on their Labour Dispute Website. It’s worth taking the time to review it and offering support to the artists and professionals who made Strange City a safe environment to explore what the body is capable of.
Despite there being no union or certification body of oversight, there are still labour laws protecting the artists from illegal business practices.
Public support is still needed to make sure these artists and professionals can get back to work and keep supporting themselves and those they love.
Take the time to review the Strange City Labour Dispute, form an opinion, and be aware of how this practice works and the next time if you decide to modify part of yourself, know who’s working on you and how that affects the practice.