More than just ink


Back in the day, tattoos weren’t such a hot trend.

Instead, it was only a popular trend amongst those who were considered “rebellious” by society. Tattoos were something people probably hid from their families and employers because it was something no wholesome or professional person indulged in. Tattoos were perceived as disgraceful, trashy, unprofessional and sinful.

However, in the new millennium, some people are becoming more open minded to different forms of art, especially in the city of Toronto. With tattoo shops opening on every corner in the downtown core, tattoos are becoming normalized in urban culture.

Tattoo conventions are pushing to the forefront within the tattooing industry. For an example, The International Tattoo Convention that takes place every year in Puerto Rico. This shows that being a tattoo artist and getting tattoos are becoming an accepted form of art and a way for people to tell their stories.

There has been a significant shift in attitude when it comes to how tattoos are perceived.

With tattoo based reality TV shows like Black Ink Crew: New York and Chicago that follow into the lives of prominent tattoo figures in the American tattoo industry, people are beginning to see that tattoos tell all sorts of stories and is even being used as way to keep people sane.

For example, Melody Mitchell who features on the show Black Ink Crew: New York shared her treacherous past and a point in her life where she once indulged in drugs, alcohol and self-harm, but with the help of expressing herself through tattooing she is now on a better path.

Sedanour Kayan has a similar story. She grew up in a traditional Turkish home but fell deep into the tattoo culture after years of feeling as if she had no sense of who she was.

Sedanour Kayan, shows off her very first tattoo.

“My tattoos made me different from my sisters, my mom and just everyone in my family.”

Sedanour says that throughout high school she did not fit into anybody’s circle and she felt awkward.

“I turned to heavily smoking at a young age because I seen the easiest group to fit in with was the smokers.”

Sedanour not only smoked, she began to heavily indulge in other drugs at a young age. Drugs gave her the individuality she desperately wanted at one point in her life, but she knew that deep down this wasn’t what she wanted for herself.

“It came to a point when I could not function without getting high,”

Once Sedanour took an interest in the tattoo culture in Toronto, she began to move away from drugs and began to get her high from getting tatted just like Melody.

Listen to Sedanour discuss her tattoo journey further:

Tattoo artists have even begun to dedicate their skills to important causes such as Toronto’s own Jenifer Liles who started a tattoo project to remember indigenous women. Tattoos are used as a way for people to remember the dead, symbolize a chapter in their life or to keep in mind a quote that brings you back to your happy place and more.

For example, Slack Technologies writer Lima Al-Azzeh shared with her tattoos she got at New Tribe in Toronto. Lima shared the significance in her elephant tattoo which was done in Islamic writing. Lima told that this tattoo helps her remember the trip her and a friend took to Thailand. She decided to get this tattoo after she took a ride on an elephant and realized how poorly they were treated yet the elephants still kept some sort of uncanny humanity.

Kat Von D at a photo signing for her new book at the Indigo bookstore located in the Toronto Eaton Centre.

Katherine von Drachenberg, also known as Kat Von D, appeared in the tattoo based reality TV show Miami Ink and later acquired her own TLC series called LA Ink; which ran for five seasons. Kat Von D is a record breaking tattoo artist (Drachenberg broke the record of most tattoos done by a  person in 24 hours in 2007) and the author of two New York Times best sellers Tattoo Chronicles and High Voltage Tattoo. Kat Von D, the creator of MusInk tattoo convention, gives a graphic perspective on the global tattoo culture and goes deep into tattooing as a process and an art in her book High Voltage.

In High Voltage, Kat Von D states,

“I am a canvas of my experiences, my story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach.”

The city of Toronto is surrounded with tattoo and body piercing shops that are filled with a wide range of people. You can pretty much say that tattoos have made their way from being a counter-culture to mainstream. Inside some of these vibrant colored tattoo shops, stories are being told through ink, pictures, and words.

Work at it, if necessary, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now. The old proverb is full of truth and meaning, “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” Many a man acquires a fortune by doing his business thoroughly, while his neighbor remains poor for life, because he only half does it. Ambition, energy, industry, perseverance, are indispensable requisites for success in business.

Tattooing is an art form — there’s a lot of emotional involvement in the process. – Kat Von D in Big Tattoo Planet.

Marchae Wilson moved to Toronto from Trinidad by herself at the age of 16 three years ago.

Marchae left all her childhood friends, siblings and her parents back home. Her parents did not come with her because they were not comfortable dropping everything and leaving, so she made a move that any average 16-year-old would not imagine doing. But Marchae wanted to explore another environment and get to know new people so she came to Canada to do just that. However, with leaving everything she knew behind, she began feeling lonely as making friends wasn’t as easy as she thought.

“I went weeks sitting at the lunch table by myself and it started to get depressing.”

Marchae began to miss her mother most of all.

“I was going through an awkward phase in my life and I was going through it without my mother and for any teenage girl that is hard. “

Marchae began to look for ways to turn her negative energy into something positive. She started to take an interest in Toronto’s tattoo culture when she turned 17. Back home she wasn’t interested in tattoos because she grew up in a very traditional and Christian home.

“My mom used to always say that tattoos symbolized demons and her spirit never take those who tattoo,”

However, after moving to a city that is big on the culture of art, her outlook on tattoos changed.

“At first I begun to question myself when my interest in tattoos peaked because I thought I was disobeying God,” but Marchae knew investing a huge chunk of her time in exploring the tattoo culture in Toronto would take her mind off of her loneliness and depression.

“Something had to be done I really could not stand feeling like this the constant sadness and reminder on why I should’ve never let my curiosity of foreign [North America] take over me,”

Marchae began to experiment with the open spaces on her body to make herself feel better about her situation.

“I first started off with piercings because it made me feel and look different from everybody. I also feel like if I look different I can make friends,”

Every weekend, she would hop on the Dufferin bus from Dufferin and Eglington, the only area she knew in Toronto for some time, and travel to a side of Toronto she never been before.

Kensington Market.

Marchae found out about Kensington Market and its heavy tattoo culture through social media.

“I had never been out there and at this time my body was completely naked of ink,”

she would roam the streets of Kensington Market popping in and out of tattoo shops like Reactive Ink on Augusta Ave.

“Reactive Ink really helped me brainstorm a lot of my tattoos even though I didn’t get my first tattoo there,”

After weeks of consulting with artists at Reactive Ink, Marchae made a move on her first tattoo. Marchae says that her tattoo artists gave her a lot of artistic freedom and they listened to her story and her visions.

Conrad Sandbacka, tattooing a client at his Sugoi Tattoo shop.

Conrad Sandbacka, a Toronto based tattoo artist who currently works at Reactive Ink and have been in the industry for about eight years, says that it is very important for the artist to allow the client to tell their stories and all we should do is listen.

“I don’t really tell the stories. My clients do,”

This tattoo means a lot to Marchae despite its small size.

“It’s like I could bring my mom everywhere with me even though it sounds corny but no seriously,”

“Mom” was what she got tatted on her ankle.

Very small it was but the size did not matter to her.

“My tattoo artist let me know that the size never matters the meaning behind it is what matter and I really thank my artist for channeling my loneliness into a piece of art,”

Thalia Paige Dixon is a Scarborough native who went into the tattooing industry at age 18. Thalia always had been one of the artsy kids in high school, so stepping into the tattoo world wasn’t so far fetched.

Thalia Dixon, who goes by her artist name Paige, has also dedicated a lot of her career by channeling something negative into art.

Thalia took an interest in the arts when she was in high school. She was one of those kids in class that sketched and drew anytime she could. Thalia described herself as a creative child who used art as an outlet.

When Thalia was almost a senior in high school a friend of hers began to notice the talent she had and recommended that she went into tattooing.

Despite Thalia growing up in a traditional Caribbean household that had a certain mentality against tattooing, she began to take up tattooing any way at 18.

It took quite some time for Thalia’s father and family to accept her and all of her tattoos. Thalia’s father began to look at her tattooing as an art that means a lot to those who she do it for.

Just like Jennifer Liles, Thalia dedicates her skills to a bigger cause.

Outside of tattooing, Thalia works with a lot of youth that either grew up in the system or the streets in Scarborough. “Emotionally it is draining because there’s no quick fixes” Thalia said when describing her experiences with these children.

Tattooing also allowed Thalia to have more of an empathetic nature which helps her understand the way she should approach these children. Thalia says tatooing to helps  give her release and keep her sanity in the times she gets frustrated and feels as if there is no hope..

Tattooing allowed Thalia to be more of an empathetic person which helps her understand the way she should talk and approach the children that she works with. Tattooing also allows Thalia in the times she gets frustrated and feel as if there is no hope to release, and she even says it keeps her sane.Thalia says, “In many ways tattoos can be healing,”

Thalia spent a lot of years in the system just like some of the children she worked with.

For many kids who grew up in the system, she felt as if there was no hope and that she was worth nothing. However, tattooing gave Thalia that hope she needed when she felt as if nothing would turn around for her.

Thalia also spent a lot of years struggling to find herself not only as an artist but just as a person.  “If it wasn’t for tattooing I wouldn’t be doing some of the other work I am doing now. If it wasn’t for tattooing I wouldn’t be the person I am.”

Tattooing gave her that sense of individuality.

Thalia even mentions that tattooing has healed a lot of her clients. For an example, those who come in and have a history of harming themselves use tattooing to get them on a better path.

“Tattooing releases endorphins and instead of harming yourself and ending up with a scar. You can end up with a piece of art.”


However, not everyone has such extreme cases, some people just need someone to talk to.

“People come into the shop and just begin to open up,” Thalia says.

Conrad even says since the tattooing environment is so intimate people feel very comfortable to open up to their artists.

Thalia says “I feel as if I am a tattoo artist and a therapist sometimes,”

Thalia is a firm believer that everyone deserves nice things so tattooing allows her to give back to those who feel as if they do not deserve the finer things in life.

Being a tattoo artist also helps her connect to the children she works with in her spare time. “With all my tattoos though these kids don’t look at me as just a social worker or something they look at me as one of them,”

Kat Von D says in her book  “You know, for a long time being a heavily tattooed person was viewed as something gross, or you’re either a criminal or a drug addict.”


In the new millennium, we are having a change in attitude against people who are heavily tattooed. Tattooing can be used to do such positive things.

It can give hope and life to those who relate to Thalia.

Tattooing can give a sense of individuality and save those who once heavily indulged in drugs like Sedanour and Melody. And it can bring light to negative situations like it did for Marchae.

Tattooing can save lives.

As Thalia stated, “tattooing is healing psychologically, mentally. All that.”

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