From prison tats to permanent masterpiece: Edmonton tattoo artist buzzing about ink evolution

When Stephanie Corvus laid down her first line of ink, tattoos were still for outcasts.

She was 15 when her uncle, just out of prison, offered to share one of the skills he'd picked up behind bars.

"He taught me to build rotary machines, it's the same style of machine that they build in jail, and I started tattooing all my high school friends out of my basement," said Corvus, a custom tattoo artist who will be showcasing her work at the Edmonton Tattoo and Arts Festival this weekend.

"Not really the way that you you want to start, but that was at the tail end of a different era."

Tattoo culture and Corvus's career have both come a long way since then.

When she first started working in the industry, the stigma around tattoos was immense, Corvus said. Even her "biker" mother was horrified to learn of her career aspirations.

'A strong stigma'

"When my mom found out I was a tattoo artist, she literally said to me, 'But only hookers and sailors get tattoos,' and this is my mom who rides a Harley," said Corvus, a resident artist at Red Loon Tattoo and Piercing in Edmonton.

"Even among that group there was still a strong stigma, especially against women having and doing tattoos."

The industry has experienced a paradigm shift. The proliferation of reality television series such as LA Ink, which profiled celebrity tattoo artists like Kat Von D, brought the industry out of the underground, said Corvus. 

"It was kind of the end of the outlaw era of tattooing where you couldn't go into a tattoo shop and ask a ton of questions because they would kick you out, whereas now, we're artists first," Corvus said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Our industry was all of a sudden in the limelight."

'A whole different era of tattooing'

As interest in the art form grew, getting inked became more accepted, even celebrated. Tattoos began to shed some of their societal taboos. Celebrities and soccer moms alike displayed their pieces with pride. 

As the same time, generic "flash" tattoos were quickly replaced with unique, custom masterpieces and customers began demanding more of their artists, said Corvus.

Tattooing's surging popularity will be on display at the tattoo convention this weekend, where more than 250 artists will gather to exhibit their work.  

"Prior to the early 2000s you didn't necessarily have to be a great artist to tattoo," Corvus said.

"If you could learn the machines, you had a steady hands, if you could copy the art off the walls, you could honestly make a pretty good living doing just that.

"It's kind of a whole different era of tattooing."

After she got her start in the industry, Corvus began working in legitimate shops in across Vancouver while she was still in high school. Her "big break" came after she arrived in Edmonton in 2003 and started tattooing full-time. 

After more than a decade in the industry, she's thrilled to see that people from all walks of life now want to turn their bodies into living canvases for custom work like hers.

"You have a whole different generation rising up that want something different, and they have easy access to clean, safe tattooing," said Corvus.

"Now, everyone's an artist, and everyone wants custom work because they know it's out there, and that's been great. It's been fantastic."