Friday, February 3, 2023

Sarah’s Hotspot: Stumbling Into Tattooing with Steven James

Columnist Sarah Jessica hosts Hotshots on her website Sarah’s Hotspot: a monthly podcast series for musicians, artists and professionals within the scene to discuss the ups and downs of working within the Canadian entertainment industry.

In July’s podcast, Sarah Jessica speaks with Steven James; a Hamilton-based tattoo artist and illustrator, working at Grey Harbour Tattoo on James Street North. 

True to style, Sarah Jessica hosts a timely, honest and straightforward look on his growth as an artist, rebuilding after an arsonist destroyed his home and Grey Harbour Tattoo and the challenges he faced as an artist during pandemic lockdowns. A condensed version of the conversation is below, with the full podcast available at the end, or directly from Sarah’s Hotspot.

Sarah Jessica: Who was the first artist that spoke to you and when did that happen?

Steven: . . .When I was younger, I don’t think it hit me the way I realized, but the first where it really started changing my direction in art is Alex Grey. He’s more known for doing album covers, and the album art and videos for Tool. The band Tool. He has these beautiful galleries that are in New York City and his art is absolutely unreal if you see it live. And it was the first time I saw art in a transformative and meditative way. Definitely. 

If you look at my colour theory, in my tattoos and in some of my work, you can definitely see some matching undertones. 

Sarah Jessica: How did you find your career changing, or your day-to-day job as the lockdowns happened? So, what immediately happened with you guys at the shop?

Steven: At first, we definitely thought that it was going to be just this quick thing. That it’ll just be like SARS. We’re going to have a little festival over it, and it’ll be great. But we quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen, and then we had two experiences happen.

Mentally, we were in a battle, and I would say, a struggle of trying to understand what it meant to be. . .what was the word they always used? ‘Essential.’ It’s an odd feeling to be told that you’re unessential in life. And I get it. Tattooing is very much a luxury, and there is more of a ritualistic practice to it for society as opposed to an official and. . .I don’t want to say progress, but I almost hold tattooing in the therapeutic side of life. But then all of that was quickly shadowed by our shop burning down. 

So we really didn’t have time to just sit and absorb what the lockdown meant because we were just like ‘ok- how do we rebuild our shop during a lockdown that has never happened within our existence?’  

Sarah Jessica: To briefly cover it, for anyone who isn’t familiar, what exactly happened that resulted in the shop burning down?

Steven: As far as I know- as much as we were told, at least- there was an arsonist going around, and he just recently got out of jail. He was in the system, and he was going around lighting fires. I know he burned down two of the houses that were on York Street, and that was a couple of days prior, I believe. And then he just went, and randomly hit certain things. I believe he lit wallpaper and shoved it under the door [of Grey Harbour]. We were on the second floor. 

Downtown James Street’s buildings, they’re very old and they’re very dusty. So it just went up. It was like tinder. He was just going around. I know he tried hitting that restaurant. . .Born and Raised, which ironically, I lived on top of. I lived on top and to the side, which is how I found out. Someone said ‘dude, I think your apartment is on fire.’ And I was like ‘what?’ And then I saw some comments being like ‘oh, is that Grey Harbour?’ And I was like ‘what?’

At first I thought ‘is this personal? What is going on?’. . .What are the odds that you hit in this vicinity, so personal- my home and my workplace. But then he just kept going. I believe he tried hitting the motorcycle shop on Barton, but people were in there, and they were just like ‘excuse me. Could you just not do that?’

And that’s all I know. From the footage, the Detective that saw the footage knew who he was. And they caught him that night, I believe. . .Luckily, nobody was hurt in that fire and mainly, I would say, the damage was due to the smoke and the firefighters with the water. . .everything was destroyed.  

Sarah Jessica: How did you find that the Ontario government treated artists during the lockdowns?

Steven: I don’t think very well at all. I think it really showed how little- and again, this will be based off broad generalizations- of course, this isn’t every single person. There are a lot of people defending artists and I’m going to go as far as self-employed, period, we’ll say. But the anger started with a lot of tattooers and a lot of artists was the irony of being told that we’re unessential. Especially artists. Like, you’re telling us that we’re unessential by putting up posters that involve artists to make these posters so that you can see the posters telling us that we’re unessential.

. . .How do you not see that art is literally everywhere in everything we do? Like, every movement involves a type of artist. What is that line in the first place when it’s a trade to an art to whatever is involved? And I don’t blame a lot of them, because it started to come down to. . .we had five people at this point in the shop. And it’s like, ‘you’re telling me we can’t have two people in the shop, but Costco can be open.’ 

. . .I understand that at the same time. Like, yes, there might have been some lobbying, there might have been some kind of inside scoop, but it is a lot easier if you’re thinking about the people to shut down six people, instead of Costco, where you’re now affecting three hundred employees. That’s three hundred people without jobs. So it was this weird tug-of-war. . .at least, if you looked at it that way. To me, it was a hard side to stand on, because one, we were getting slammed. We were getting slaughtered by this. But at the other side, I understand. You’re going to pick the lesser of two poisons, right?  

Sarah Jessica: . . .What sorts of programs or initiatives do you think that our government could have done, and still could do to support artists, especially during COVID, during these times? What do you think needs to be done or needs to be improved?

Steven: Community. One hundred percent. I believe there should be more funding, or at least more support- not necessarily funding- because I do believe that people should, I wouldn’t want the government to be in control of it, to be honest. I believe people should be in control of their city. Not so much so ‘oh, government daddy, come help us.’ 

But I believe having whole rec centres; I would love a community of artists of all forms- I don’t care what you do. But somewhere where you can go safely to express yourself and find inspiration. Whether that be through workshops, exposure to- like bringing in. . .like, I always thought it’d be cool as a tattoo shop to hold seminars with just people, normal people, and be like ‘hey, this is what we do. This is why it takes so long. This is what’s involved to get to your drawing. What are the questions you have so it doesn’t feel so mysterious and overwhelming?’  

It’d just be this collective. A big collective, and having those centres for main cities or regions in cities. So that way- especially if it’s like a troubled youth, or troubled anything- it’d help them find a voice.

. . .Right now, my idea is to connect the tattooers together first, to create that vibe, that strength. And have us all in a marketplace, where you can see all of our types of work and what we do. Give the information out- where our shops are, from here to Guelph, Kitchener, London- as far as we can get. I’d love that.

Featured image by Christopher Arndt.

Sarah Jessica Rintjema
Sarah Jessica Rintjema
Sarah Jessica Rintjema (she/her) is a music and arts journalist and live music photographer based in Hamilton, Ontario, and working within the GTHA. Besides running a Canadian arts promotional blog titled Sarah's Hotspot where she interviews local artists about recent single, album, and music video releases, Sarah Jessica hosts a podcast called HOTSHOTS where she dives deep into industry issues with local artists, which inspired her weekly radio show on Mohawk College's 101.5 The Hawk every Tuesday at 7PM, called HOTSHOTS On Air. You can contact Sarah Jessica through email, Instagram, or through the contact form on her website. Profile photo by Christopher Arndt.

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