Words: Chelsea Parkinson / Photos: Janine Kropla
Two weeks ago, we had an easy chat with tattoo artist Bram Adey.
Easy like the way a good drink goes down.
In the same way surprised laughter boils up.
Or how your backside goes down into the right chair.
What you read here is just one conversation, in which we took things very easy. To know Bram and his work - on paper, film, and flesh - you must experience them first-hand.
You can read his spoken words here.
But in order to see what he sees, you will have to go out there.
Muddy Water: How does one become a tattoo artist?
Bram: You're best off finding someone to teach you, and there are different ways that people can go about that. But the short of it is that I found somebody to teach me how to do it.
MW: You were in school for fine arts. How did that lead to your career as a tattooer?
B: Yeah, I was in Fine Arts at the U of M from 2001 until 2006, and that was great. I wanted to be a tattooer and I could tell that going through school was a way of being productive in the mean while. I could also tell from trends in tattooing that it was going to be something that people valued - that customers, later on, would value my having a fine arts degree.
I basically always wanted to be a tattooer. One way to get into it is to pay someone to teach you, and that's something that I wasn't really willing to do. I could tell that for me, the correct way was to find someone who would value what I was doing enough to teach me, because they thought I could be an asset to their shop.
So when my first son was born, I decided that it was worth making a concerted effort to try to find that person. And I found somebody right away who was willing to teach me how to tattoo. I started working at the shop in 2009, and in 2010 I started tattooing.
MW: How did you find your mentor?
B: Magic (laughs). It was just magical. The person who taught me to tattoo was someone I had seen around as a skateboarder, and I saw him at an art opening where I didn't know anybody. I thought, “Oh I've seen that dude around.” So we said hey, and you know, I'm tattooed, he's tattooed. We just got to talking about it. And he was like, “Well, I own this tattoo shop. You should come around.”
My son had just been born and I had recently gone on parental leave. I knew I had about 35 weeks where I would be supported by the government. I could have the time to do this and potentially set myself up so that once my leave was over, I could be tattooing full-time. And that was, in fact the case. I was able to observe, and able to learn quickly enough that I could go right into it. I've been tattooing ever since. It's cool that it worked out that way. I left my old job and never had to go back.
MW: What was the learning curve like?
B: There were a few months of not tattooing at all. But then I had lots of people who were willing to be tattooed by me when I was first learning. I got to do quite a bit of tattooing for a young tattooer, though 'a lot' can mean one tattoo a day.
MW: Did you do hand poked tattoos?
B: Yeah, and I love that style of tattooing. I do as much as I can. I've used the hand poke technique in situations where I think it's appropriate in this commercial setting. I'm not going to do a tattoo that takes super long that way, but I will do small stuff that wa, because I think it's a valuable experience for people.
MW: Do clients often request it, or does it come out of a conversation between the two of you?
B: Usually it's me who is initiating that. Normally that's my call.
MW: How is the experience different for the client with a hand poking technique, versus a machine?
B: It's quieter. There are fewer barriers between the artist and the client. It's a much more direct experience. We can hear one another breathing. We can feel one another better. You can't hide behind technology when you're doing that kind of tattoo. And what you get out of it looks different also, which is a great part of it (for me). You don't get something that looks at all mechanized. You get something that looks handcrafted, the same way that when you get a pair of shoes or a jacket, you can tell that it is something that someone created in that way.
MW: Does it take tattooing back to its origins, in a way?
B: I don't know much about traditional tattooing techniques, but I do feel when I'm doing hand poke tattoos, like we're tapping into a vibe that tattooing can have, that was what it would have been like for a long, long time. A vibe that now, we might not be as in tune with because we do use machines, which give a distinctly different feeling than having ink applied manually.
MW: How would you describe the vibe you get while tattooing from both the tattooer's and the client's perspectives? Are there emotions that arise consistently?
B: Yeah. I would say that it's an intense experience on both ends. A tattoo is a situation where there is a serious trust relationship being exercised between two people. The client has to trust the artist to do a good job, and the artist has to trust the client to like what they're doing, and want to be there, and feel confident about their decision to be there.
Artistically, it's an intense experience in that when you begin a tattoo, you must finish a tattoo. So when you're first learning to tattoo, for me at least, that was the hardest part. You have to be the type of person that is willing to get into something and no matter how it's going, you're going to see it to completion. And on both the tattooer's end and the client's end, you're going through this experience of, am I doing a job, and are they doing a good job. When I'm tattooing people I like getting to where they're kind of in that place of, “Oh my God, what am I doing? This sucks. Why am I here?” That, to me, is the whole essence of the experience. It's a transformative experience, and that aspect is more important than what we think tattoos mean.
MW: Getting to a place of open vulnerability?
B: Yeah. Getting to a place where you're allowing yourself to be transformed psychologically, by what's happening.
MW: Do you tattoo your friends and family?
B: Yeah. It's stressful (laughs). Now that I've been tattooing for a while it's less stressful. I have siblings who are tattooed, cousins who are tattooed. I've tattooed my mom before.
MW: Sometimes as an artist, it can be hard to revisit old work. With your tattoos being present around you on your loved ones, do you ever find yourself critiquing that work that you had done in the past?
B: I don't tattoo my family members enough that I have to sweat that, really. My sister has quite a few tattoos from me, and for sure I would never do them exactly the way that I did them. But you know, you put enough work out in your life that you know that's always going to happen. Like, I'll probably feel like critiquing the tattoo I do today in less than a month (laughs). So I don't really sweat it at this point, because I've put out enough work to know that I don't have to be a tortured artist. I can just enjoy it.
MW: Do you have a wish list of things you would like to tattoo, and you're just waiting for that right person to walk in?
B: For sure. I get a fair amount of freedom. I have clients who are open to getting whatever, and I do get to do tattoos like that every once in a while. Something that's good about this job is that there's a big focus on preparing designs beforehand for people to pick off the wall. I've sold things that I've wanted to do that way, by painting them and hanging them there in the lobby.
MW: Is it a recent trend, that people have such very specific ideas and intentions for their tattoos? Wanting them to be unique, to be placed very specifically…
B: That's a trend that's been happening for a few decades now. And it's all right. Generally speaking, I think you're better off choosing something off the wall than coming up with your own idea. A tattooer once described it to me by saying,“Do you want to design your own pair of vertically striped pink and purple jeans and wear those every day, or do you want to buy a nice pair of Levis? You're going to want those fuckin' Levis, if you have to wear them for the rest of your life.” So, you're better off, generally speaking, choosing something off the wall.
That being said, I do almost exclusively custom tattooing, and I do like it that way. I have a certain comfort zone where I'm happy to do custom, but at the same time, if you want lady head or something, you might be wise to pick off the wall. That is a pretty recent thing, the whole super custom tattooing idea. In general, more typical archetypal tattoo ideas are better than custom ideas, I think.
MW: They've been proven to work.
B: The more iconic the image is, the more successful it is as a tattoo. As far as representational tattoos go, the more identifiable it is, the better off you are. No matter who you are, if every day for the rest of your life you're hearing people go, “What's that?” you're annoyed. But if every day of your life people are going, “That's a super nice dagger on your forearm,” you're hyped.
MW: For sure. Few would want to have to go around explaining themselves forever.
B: (laughs) I'm starting to feel self-conscious because so many of your readers will have these tattoos, but I can say from experience that you don't want a quote on your forearm because it makes you want to cut your own head off after a year or two of everyone around you asking about it. So more iconic imagery is better. Imagery that's easier for people to take in works better. That's how tattooing has been for ages, you know? Generally speaking yeah, it's in the last forty years, in the west, that people are doing custom tattooing. More traditional cultures of tattooing have set images that you get. Everybody knows what they mean, so it's really straightforward. And there's a lot of trust in those tattooers, that they're going to do a good job because (they) know what the tattoos mean.
MW: Do you have to say no to certain tattoo ideas?
B: Not too often. Sometimes if I know that somebody is getting a tattoo that I'm going to regret doing, I just let them know that I'm not comfortable doing it. No one ever gives me a hard time about that. As long as you're nice to the person, and let them know that it's simply an issue of not being comfortable doing it, there's not much they can say anyways. Quite often I turn people down and have them thank me later.
The instances I'm thinking of are people who came in thinking about getting one thing, which I was not willing to do, and talking them through doing something different. They'll say, “You know I'm really happy I got this, and not my original idea.”
MW: That sounds like the dynamics of a really healthy relationship.
B: For sure, for sure. That situation is almost always someone's first or second tattoo, and the relationship between the person getting the tattoo and the person giving it is important. The desire to be tattooed is a completely natural part of our humanity, and so the way that people are introduced into being tattooed and brought into the world of being tattooed is really important. People have been tattooed forever. To want to be tattooed is such a natural state to be at, and it's important to me to bring them into this world of tattooing with care.
It has to be a positive, transformative experience for them, because there are a lot of taboos about being tattooed, and almost everyone I know who is tattooed feels the effects of those taboos in our culture. So there is a lot that we can learn from one another, as tattoo artist and as people being tattooed, to help us move forward culturally, past all of that.
I think that everyone who wants to be tattooed should be tattooed as much as they want to be, in short order. (To me) sometimes that means doing a little tattoo, or maybe three or four little tattoos to ease that person into figuring out how they like to be tattooed, what they liked about being tattooed, what's a good pace for them to be tattooed at. All those things are important.
MW: Do you find that most people know, even before getting their first tattoo, how tattooed they would like to be?
B: Absolutely. Most people know from the time that they're adolescents whether or not they'd like to be tattooed. And it would be pretty easy, just by having a conversation with anyone who did want to be tattooed, to figure out just how tattooed they'd like to be. Though maybe they've never intellectualized it, (most people) have a sense within themselves of where they want to be with that. I find that across the board. It's pretty easy for me to look at someone and figure out where they'd like to be in these terms by the time they're, say, forty.
MW: That's a cool skill to have.
B: It's of the essence for this job. Also, it's about growth throughout your life. Most people have a rhythm at which they like to be tattooed. As I've said, the act of being tattooed is a transformative act, and tattoos are markers of transformation. Most people have a certain rhythm at which they like to mark themselves. For some people it's every three of four months, for others it's ever second or fifth year. And if I know that this person is getting tattooed every two years, they're probably going to want six tattoos on their arms, and four tattoos elsewhere, and that's pretty good. They're good on that and I can plan for that. But if I know somebody who loves getting tattooed, who is coming every three months, then I plan for that too. I think, this person probably wants full sleeves, probably wants their full front tattooed. Creating that culture, that dialogue and that relationship between the client and myself - of being able to think, where is this person at - that's a big part of this.
MW: Do you think that the desire to be tattooed comes primarily from seeing and admiring others who have tattoos? Is that how it came about for you?
B: Oh yeah, I'm sure of that. When I was a child, my father got tattooed. I had never met anyone with a tattoo before. I think I was eleven, maybe ten, and my dad showed up with a tattoo of a dragon on his forearm. And I was like, oh, this is it, this is it. That was the first tattoo I ever saw. And it was on my father, whom I loved. And it was a good tattoo. It was right on his forearm, and I could touch it and see it up close - it was settled in by the time I saw it. It was very powerful to see that tattoo as my first tattoo.
MW: Is there anything you would say to those who discourage tattooing?
B: No, I don't care much what they think about it (laughs). Just being able to talk about tattooing is valuable, I think. Considering it a cultural art is important. I'm always just shooting to emphasize the relationship that you have to build between people tattooing and being tattooed. That's the big thing that I think is worth building, the understanding that it's a trust relationship, not just a commodity relationship - though it is that as well. I think we can move tattooing forward every day by doing that, by not treating one another as client-patron, but as people sharing an experience.
Bram is a tattoo artist at Rebel Waltz Tattoo on Notre Dame Avenue. He is also a photographer. You can learn more about him on his blog, wreckcreation.blogspot.ca.