The Alberta College of Body Arts (ACBA) is located in the heart of Grande Prairie and is a school that is unique to Canada.
“We are Canada's first and only provincially licensed post-secondary tattoo school,” said Bobbi-Jo Matheson, owner and operator of the school.
The school offers students a unique way to learn about tattooing safely and is focused solely on tattooing.
The school's program is six months long with approximately 750 hours.
Traditionally, many tattoo artists learn through apprenticeships with experienced tattoo artists, which equates to about 240 hours a year of tattoo work, says Matheson.
“When you're in a tattoo shop environment, you're doing a lot of unrelated tasks to tattooing; you’re essentially a shop employee where you answer the phone, mop the floors and all that kind of stuff.
“Whereas here, this is uninterrupted supervised training, start-to-finish every day full-time for six months,” explained Matheson.
Being the first licensed post-secondary school also allows students to get provincial and federal student loans to attend the school.
Student Carter Carlson said the loans aspect attracted him to the school. He quit his apprenticeship at a shop in Calgary for this opportunity.
Tattooing in Canada requires no formal training, so many artists learn a variety of safety protocols in different apprenticeships, which can lead to missed knowledge depending on the teacher's determination to teach,says Matheson.
The ACBA is consistent in what it teaches and follows a curriculum, she said.
Matheson noted that ACBA students are taught about infection control, blood-borne pathogens and first aid, items that are not required to be a tattoo artist in Canada though it is in other parts of the world.
She believes Canada is about 10 years behind on how it approaches the tattoo industry in terms of standardization.
“For example, blood-borne pathogens (courses) are required by most U.S. states and that is not a requirement for anybody in Canada, so it is one of the components of my program just because of the principles for infection control and cross-contamination.
“We teach that not because it's required, but because I feel strongly about my students knowing how not to spread disease and proper disinfection procedures.”
Matheson was self-taught when she began tattooing.
“I remember how difficult it was; the tattoo industry used to be very guarded,” she said.
She noted when she started, it was challenging to learn the trade.
“There was no assistance from a lot of tattoo artists back in the day.”
Matheson says the school's classes are small, noting she doesn’t want to saturate the market or dilute instruction with too many students going through the program.
The school requires its students to pass an entrance exam and placement exam like many other colleges as well as submit hand-drawn art.
“If you can't draw a stickman, I can't help you with the program; we also don't claim to create tattoo artists; all we can do is help you hone your pre-existing artistic ability.”
Matheson has instructors from many different backgrounds to give students a well-rounded view of the industry.
“One of the things that I tried to hammer home is that there are multiple ways to achieve the same result and whether that be with your machine, your aftercare, your needles, really, at the end of the day, it's the end result that matters and the safety of the client.”
Kayla Potter is four months into her six months of training at ACBA and said she was extremely happy with what she was learning, as she worked on her shading on a piece of fake skin.
The college first opened in 2019 and faced the pandemic's challenges after first opening its doors, but a waitlist has already begun for future classes.
“We're starting to get applicants from all over the country.”
Matheson believes tattoo schools will become required in the future as tattoos become more socially accepted.
Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News