Photography by Will McGuirk
Drawing on other people draws out the best in tattoo artist Valerie McBain.
When I put out the call for a series on tattoo artists McBain who works at Motor City in Oshawa was topper-most on the list. McBain moved from Montreal two years ago with her Fine Arts degree (Fine Arts Core Education) and a desire to grab life by the skin of its throat or neck, upper arms, lower legs, back whatever.
McBain says art is very much part of the culture of Montreal. However as she worked her way through high school and college she didn’t expect to find work in the arts. She says it was purely accidental.
“I was looking for a part-time job while I was in college and I wound up walking into a shop, just looking for a job, even let me mop your floors. They thought I was applying for their apprenticeship so I got a call back for that. I thought why not? Its perfect,” she says
Tattooing she says became a tangible expression of her own art. It’s not permanent, beyond the life of the person, but there is something of the forever in it she says.
“When I first started it was totally different, tattooing is so different from regular artwork," she says, "It took a long time for me to figure it out. But the more I do it the more its feels like I am painting and I go back to all the things I learnt.”
McBain says she uses a needle kit for the illusion of shading, using pulses between 60 and 150 times per second and “it depends on how many needles you have, it will leave that many points that many times per second.”
She says she gravitated towards realism in her work. She dabbles in other styles but prefers realistic portrayals. She says its much more popular now than ever.
“People are seeing it on television. People didn’t know you could do that before,” she says.
McBain didn’t know that she could make a career in art but having moved from fine art to tattoo art she is moving again into fine art. She has learned she says by painting on skin how to paint on canvas and in particular to achieve the push and pull of space. “ . . . working around a curved surface makes it so much more complicated. I think I am finally beginning to understand the idea of balance and what you need to have a full piece with balance in it.”.
The art of tattoo has achieved a balance between the traditional iconography and the tribal markings of recent years. People are marking themselves with their own traditional tribe icons, in many cases, family members or pets. Tatting yourself up with pictures of your nana is the furthest thing from the outsider tradition of old and now, twenty years after tattoos hit the mainstream, getting a picture is almost a right of passage.
“It definitely makes you feel stronger," says McBain, “You feel like if you can get through it you have passed a hurdle. You are stronger than you thought you were. That’s part of it. People want to know if they are strong, if they can take it.”
If you can take it, McBain can do it and if not, she can do a lovely portrait on canvas for you instead.