When Hemlock Tattoo Studio opened its doors in Calgary in September 2020, its artists intended to create a space in contrast to an industry they say is fraught with problems.
The tattoo shop in Victoria Park bills itself as trauma-informed and consent-based.
"As a non-male person who entered the industry, I was immediately faced with sexual harassment, and that is a very common story in this industry," said Janeen Scott, a tattoo artist and co-owner of the studio.
Scott and the other artists at the studio say mistreatment of all kinds — bullying, intimidation and harassment — can happen in the tattooing space to both artists and clients.
"You have more power than the person you're tattooing. And because of that, a lot of harm can occur," said Scott.
Katie Beach, a client, took a break from getting tattoos in Calgary after having bad experiences with treatment in other shops.
Beach came across Hemlock on TikTok, and after reading up on their policies, soon became a regular.
"I could really tell it was more of a safer space … being able to be welcomed in, rather than being met at the door with a little bit of hostility," they said.
What 'trauma informed' tattooing looks like
The shop has posted policies of zero tolerance for sexual abuse, harassment, racism and other oppressive behaviours. The policies were adapted from those on the LGBT Foundation website.
"We are really following [our clients'] lead to make them as comfortable as possible throughout the tattoo process," said general manager Marlee Watts.
When clients book, they are offered an intake form that includes a section to disclose pronouns as well as sensitivities they might have, like a need for privacy or accessibility accommodations.
Clients can choose to have a safe word or hand gesture that they can use to stop the tattooing process for any reason without being embarrassed.
"Every part of our process is designed to best provide comfort to the person getting tattooed … whether it's managing pain, managing expectations, helping them make sure that they get the exact product that they're looking for," said Scott.
There are also ways for clients to submit feedback to the shop's manager or a third-party arbitrator if any issues come up.
Tattooing different skin types
Part of cultivating an inclusive space at Hemlock means educating staff on best practices for tattooing on all skin tones, says Scott.
"The tattoo industry, as well as being very male dominated, is very white dominated," said Scott. She says this leave gaps in knowledge and can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
To address this, the studio's artists work to educate themselves.
They've taken several workshops, including one with Ink the Diaspora, an organization that challenges colourism in the industry.
When shop co-owner Geneva Haley showcases her tattoo designs online, she displays them on a variety of skin tones.
"The education is just not there in a lot of the industry," she said.
'Wild west' tattooing
Haley says issues in the industry also stem from there being no certification needed to tattoo within Alberta. There are Alberta Health regulations for shops, but all skills are independently sought by artists.
Steve Peace is the owner of Immaculate Concept tattoo and piercing studio in Calgary. He started the Calgary Tattoo and Arts Festival in 2004.
"There are no courses you need to take … there's no overseeing body for tattoo studios. It's what we call the Wild West, a little bit," said Peace.
Peace believes the onus is on shop owners to set the parameters about what is OK within a studio, and on clients to find an artist they are comfortable working with.
"I believe there are far more good artists out there than people that will make you feel uncomfortable," he said.
Lexci Krahn owns Red Loon Tattoo and Piercing in Edmonton, a space she says is "safe and welcome" for women and LGBTQ2+ clientele and is accessible for people with disabilities.
Krahn started the Alberta Association of Safe Body Art during the pandemic to act as an intermediary between the provincial government and tattoo shops trying to implement COVID-19 safety measures.
She believes the majority of tattoo studios in the province are places where clients can have positive, safe experiences, and that when there are issues in shops, those places are known about and avoided.
"Tattoo studios in Alberta are safe and inclusive places to be, and some are safer and some are more inclusive than others," she said.
"Word of mouth means everything in our industry."
For Hemlock artist Scott, she believes policy and practice are tangible ways to address problems that exist in the industry.
"Lots of people have had negative experiences, so it's important to me to be playing a role in and changing that and participating in making that no longer a pattern," she said.