Inkcredible bodies: An inside look into the world of a tattoo apprentice

By in Culture

Stephanie Mah, a recent graduate in studio art from the University of Saskatchewan, wasn’t sure what direction she wanted to take her work after graduation, but she always had body art in the back of her mind.

U of S alumna Stephanie Mah uses line and stippling shading techniques to bring her work to a moving canvas.

Mah, now living fairly close to Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market, has been an apprentice at Oly Anger Tattoo since November 2017. Even with her extensive background in painting and drawing, moving from canvas to body art has proven to be a challenge.

“If you draw something on paper, and it looks good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to look good on a body, because your anatomy has curves and angles that paper doesn’t. So, things that look good on paper can look really stiff on bodies. I’m still trying to learn what [works] with the flow of muscles and joints,” Mah said.

She explains that the learning process is even more complicated, because there is no singular way to create a tattoo — everyone uses different tools and techniques. Apprentices like Mah are often expected to learn as they go. Although it’s not always easy to find a good apprenticeship with a solid mentor, Mah says she was fortunate to get a spot at Oly Anger.

“I am lucky to be at a really big studio. I think Oly Anger is one of the biggest studios in Canada. We have like 15 artists right now that are resident, but we have room for more,” Mah said. “I have a lot of artists that are really experienced that I can learn from, which is awesome.”

Mah notes that she didn’t come about her apprenticeship in the usual way, as most would-be apprentices take their portfolio to a shop and seek out a mentor in person.

“Obviously, being in Saskatoon, I didn’t have any connections [in Montreal], but I had a portfolio from my years at the U of S, and I have a website, so I just emailed a bunch of studios,” Mah said. “I heard back from two… [Oly Anger] seemed like the most receptive to it, so I went in October to meet the owner of the shop, whose name is Oly, and then I moved for November.”

Mah explains that securing her apprenticeship involved no formal agreement or application process but was more of an exercise in networking.

“There’s no contract. It’s really unconventional. Even when I moved out here, I was like, ‘Well, I hope this works out, because I literally have nothing,’” Mah said. “It’s just kind of like you trust the person that you’re working for that it’s going to work out and that they’re going to teach you what you need to know.”

Just as the job itself is unconventional, so are the earnings, as an apprentice tattoo artist doesn’t make money the way an employee in a service or desk job would. Oly Anger doesn’t pay Mah for her work — she has to set her own prices. Most apprentices work for free at first and are often responsible for purchasing their own equipment.

“Yeah, so when you start out tattooing — like, I was doing free tattoos for a while. And then, as you gain your skill set, you can raise your prices. But, the first 15 or so I did were free. You [also] front all your own costs. I bought my machines and everything. And, the studio that I’m at supplies some materials, but it’s mostly all me who pays for everything up front.”

Despite the challenges of learning on the fly and paying for her own equipment, Mah says that one of the most difficult parts of tattoo art is that you can’t erase your mistakes.

“It’s just so different from what I’m used to,” Mah said. “I’m a perfectionist, so I’ll rework, but with a tattoo, it’s like you put down a line and it’s there forever. So, if you do it wrong, you’re like, … ‘I might have messed up, but how am I going to make sure that it still looks good?’”

While working as a tattoo artist is fairly lucrative as creative jobs go, Mah recognizes that it’s not easy to find work as an artist after graduation, yet she encourages fine arts majors to make time for their art, even when they are working other jobs.

“I think, for art especially, it’s really easy to have a side job … and forget to do art, because you need to pay for bills… I would just say, continue to do art and prioritize your art practice, even if you have other things going on.”

Stephanie Mah will be back in Saskatoon for a guest spot in the first two weeks of October. If you want to book a tattoo with her, check out her Instagram @snmah or email her at snmahtattoo@gmail.com.

Jessica Klaassen-Wright / Editor in Chief

Photos: Stephanie Mah / Supplied