At first glance you might think that the owner of Poison Apple Tattoo Company, Rebecca MacDonald, doesn’t have any tattoos herself, unusual for a tattoo artist, but as she moves her arms a little tell-tale colour peeks out from under the cuff of her hoodie.
MacDonald’s first tattoo was a small tiger tattoo she got when she was 17 while on vacation in Mexico.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” she said laughing.
The experience of getting that tiger tattoo was what eventually led to her becoming a tattoo artist.
“It was a scary but fascinating experience. It also showed me that there was a way to do art and actually make money at it,” said MacDonald.
She did her apprenticeship at a shop in Edmonton, and ended up spending four years working at the same shop.
MacDonald remembers giving her first tattoo to a friend, who she describes as a super punk with a foot-tall Mohawk.
“She got an anarchy symbol on her ankle. Years later she came back and had completely changed. She had a different job, normal hair and a cute dress on, and said that she wanted something done with the old anarchy symbol and wanted it covered up,” said MacDonald.
“The first tattoo I did was super scary,” she said. “I remember having to start and stop and start and stop, and take a breath a few times. I was almost in tears I was so scared.”
MacDonald said that while she was an apprentice her instructor was always right beside her in case she made a mistake. That way they could step in right away and fix it so that the customer would have no idea by the time it was done.
She said she has been able to develop her own style since she finished her apprenticeship.
“I really like to do traditional stuff. I like to put my own spin on old school symbols like anchors, roses, and birds,” she said.
Even in the six years that MacDonald has been a tattoo artist she has seen a dramatic shift in the attitudes towards tattoos.
“Everyone gets tattooed,” she said. “Now you have girls coming in who have never had a tattoo before and they want a sleeve or a half sleeve, and guys are coming in wanting neck tattoos.”
MacDonald said that she doesn’t agree with the approach that some people take, where tattooing is a competition between friends to see who can look more extreme.
“We try to explain to kids when they come in that getting a tattoo, like a neck tattoo, that’s in your face, is a serious commitment,” she said.
“As accepted as tattoos are now,” said Jesse Krienke, MacDonald’s boyfriend and business partner, “you don’t go to your banker and see a neck tattoo. You don’t see lawyers with neck tattoos.”
The approach at Poison Apple is not about producing as many tattoos as possible, or to put a tattoo on someone just because they want one, but to educate their clientele and create art.
“People don’t understand the work – the time and the commitment that goes in to a piece like a sleeve,” said MacDonald. “I think a lot of that has to do with reality TV shows.”
She said that shows like TLC’s L.A. Ink where the power of television gives the illusion that tattoo artist Kat Von D can create full arm tattoos in 15 minutes, gives some clients in Fernie unrealistic expectations.
MacDonald and Krienke have also seen a change in the imagery people are using as tattoos.
“We’ve seen anything and everything,” said Krienke.
Since MacDonald started tattooing in Fernie, by working on a piece on Krienke, things have snowballed and she now has a monopoly over the industry in Fernie, a big change from her experience in Edmonton.
“I think Edmonton has the most tattoo shops of all Canadian cities,” she said. “So making a go of it in big city centres like that is doable, but it’s hard,” she said. “It’s great here, the ideas are better, and I can be more choosy. It’s also slower paced. I’m not expected to pump out six tattoos in a day.”
Working in Edmonton had caused MacDonald to consider walking away from tattooing many times, but she always ended up coming back. But working for big tattoo shops taught her about the politics that could erupt and eventually, along with demand, caused her to open her own shop.
Her work is now so much in demand, MacDonald has bookings up until August. She has hired Liam Monahan, a tattoo artist from Australia, to help her keep up with demand.