I got my first tattoo at age 16. Now nearly 24, I’ve brought the total up to eight and counting. I love tattoos. My arms, chest, and legs are a patchwork of different artists and styles, and each one tells a story about who I was at the time, or where I was.
The one uniting thread in all my tattoos is that they have all been done by men. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, it seems strange to me to follow female-identifying artists on Instagram but to have not been tattooed by any of them. I followed Ketzia Kobrah a year or so ago, and fell in love with her style. When I saw she was partnering with Tiff Lee and Clare Castello to open a new shop, HeartStrong, later last year, I was immediately hooked.
These three women have created a space that values inclusivity and connection in each of their interactions. Last November, I had the chance to visit the shop on Bloor West and sit down with them to learn more about HeartStrong, their experience in the industry, and advice about becoming a tattoo artist.
Tiff, Ketzia, and Clare are passionate, insightful, and savvy business women who have created a bright, welcoming shop for all. After our conversation, I immediately started setting aside funds for my next tattoo, which will definitely be done at HeartStrong. I hope to see you there with me, supporting this wonderful shop!
Laura Parent: How did you get into the tattoo industry?
Ketzia Kobrah: I went to school originally for a Bachelor in Fashion Communications, and then I did my masters degree, and I primarily studied tattooing culturally, theoretically, from a very academic sense, not at all practical. I was an illustrator at the time, and slowly got to the point where I decided this was the best path for me, so I got an apprenticeship and now we’re here. Tiff was my mentor.
Tiff Lee: I initially went to school for advertising, it did not work out, mostly because it was a little too corporate. I ended up deciding that I wanted to be a tattoo artist, and I went to school to get a diploma for technical skills in drawing, and in my first semester I got my apprenticeship and I’ve been working since.
Clare Castello: I went to school for illustration, I also found it too corporate. I was just working tattoo shop jobs in Toronto, and then I got make my way up and get an apprenticeship.
LP: So how did all of you meet? I guess you two [Ketzia and Tiff] knew each other beforehand.
KK: We all worked at the same tattoo shop before this.
LP: So what pushed you from moving from that shop to starting your own shop?
TL: I opened this shop because I was sick of the same narrative of going into a shop, being happy for the first couple months, and being deeply unhappy because there was something about it that just didn’t work. I wanted to create a space that was really open and welcoming, not just for the clients but for the artists as well, because a shop isn’t made by the name or the owner, it's made by everybody who works there, and so I wanted to build a home for us to all work together, and I really clung to these two a lot when I was working there. We kept each other sane for the most part, so we’ll see if that continues.
LP: Awesome! So in terms of starting your shop, what was the most difficult thing that you had to overcome, in terms of starting your own business?
TL: I think the biggest mental block for me was whether or not I had the right to open a shop. I didn’t want to be another arrogant, young tattoo artist who thought that she could just do whatever she wanted. I wanted to make sure that I was starting it for the right reasons and that it wasn’t just about money or anything. After that mental block, it was mostly, like, ‘I’ve never done this before!’, so it’s like, I have to dip my hands into a lot of things that I know nothing about because I’d never opened a business. I know how to tattoo, that’s about it. So everything else, even now, is a learning process. Tax season is upon us, and I am terrified.
LP: Understandable. I’m looking at starting my own business too, and it’s terrifying.
TL: But like once you’ve started, it’s like ‘and then what?’, ‘and then what?’, ‘and then what?’, and then suddenly now you have a business, but you don’t know until you start, and starting is kind of the hardest part.
LP: Oh, for sure. So, why was it important, because what I really admire about your space is that it’s based on being super inclusive, so why was that so important? I know for me, all of my experiences in shops have been very male-dominated, and it can be quite an intimidating space at times, depending on the shop you go into.
TL: I don’t necessarily think its a bad thing to have men in tattoo shops, that’s definitely not at all the issue.
LP: No, of course not!
TL: I think, for me, I just think it’s ridiculous when you try to push away your clientele, like if someone comes in with no tattoos, you shouldn’t be condescending. That’s a person you can literally make so much money, and so much of a connection off of, right, like at the end of the day, if you just want to think about that as a standpoint, that’s a person coming in that you want to welcome. It never made sense to me when people came in and said ‘oh, I went to this shop and it made me feel uncomfortable.’ Like, why did it make you feel uncomfortable? You’re literally there to get what they provide!
KK: They have a service, you want the service, you’re willing to pay for that service, and they still turn people away.
TL: And turning people away for very specific reasons, like it’s not the right kind of work, that’s one thing, but the general attitude of ‘you’re not one of us’, that’s bullshit. Nobody cares about that.
CC: It’s just a lot of elitism.
TL: Yeah, and I mean, I think we all do our best not to be pretentious, and beyond that, it’s just like, I know for myself I have a lot of anxiety and I’m a very nervous person. I’m very worried about what everybody thinks, and so I really want to make sure that everyone else is very, very comfortable, because with the way that I feel. In terms of diversity, and making sure that we have a place where other people can feel comfortable, because we’re women, we’re queer, all of us, which is amazing. It wasn’t planned, it just happened that way. I wasn’t like, gather as many gays into one room as possible.
KK: Yeah, ‘let’s pile the gays into this shop.’ It just kind of happened. It’s a clown car of gays.
LP: I love that metaphor.
CC: I feel like there’s a lot of shops, at least traditionally, and I think it’s changing it’s a lot, and shops like this are a part of that change, but there are so many spaces that minorities and marginalized people don’t feel safe in, and I hope that this is just one more space where they don’t have to worry about that.
KK: My clientele is primarily young women, a lot of them it’s their first tattoo, because they think my style is fairly approachable, like not super intimidating. I’m very used to, at this point, someone walking into their first experience, and because I love tattooing in all aspects so much, I’m like ‘let me tell you every single thing I’m going to do, let’s walk through it’. Tiff does it, you do it too…
CC: I’m actually the one who does it the least, but that’s because I’m like (claps hands)
KK: You also tend to have the most tattooed clientele.
CC: I’m just like, ‘buckle up bucko.’
TL: I think Ketzia and I have the most first timers, and I kind of like it, it’s exciting.
LP: So, in terms of your business, in terms of HeartStrong, where would you like to see yourselves go in the next year, two years, do you have a plan? Are you just kind of rolling with it?
TL: I don’t have a plan. It’s like, ‘let’s do well, let’s be sweet to our clients’, and hopefully everything grows just from that intention, and we’ll take it wherever it naturally flows. I think when you start to think too much about ‘I want it to be specifically this, this, and this,’ it’s not so much about how you get there, which I think is really important. If I start thinking we need this much money to do this, this, and this, then it becomes a money business, and that’s not what this is about. At the end of the day, my goal with this place is good people, good clients, good work. That’s it. I don’t want anything complicated, I’m not trying to create anything that’s not what tattooing already is, if that makes sense.
LP: I think that for a business, I know money is not always the most important thing.
CC: We’re want to be able to build and grow organically as it goes, but we’re just trying to…
TL: Yeah. I guess for smaller goals, we definitely want to get to the point where we could do more things for charity, because at this point we’ve only been open for like a month and half, so we’re still finding our feet. I think it’s important to give back to the community but we need to figure out a way to do that, getting systems in place, and do it honestly and transparently, doing more research on charities we want to work with, that kind of thing.
LP: So, fun question, what is either your favourite tattoo on yourself, or that you’ve done on someone else?
CC: It sucks, because a lot of my tattoos are from friends… if I have to be honest, it’s probably this guy. It’s all bandaged up right now because I just got some more work done on my hand but it’s a little portrait of my cat.
TL: It’s hard for me to say, I have a lot of little pieces here and there, by so many different artists. I don’t know, I feel like I like each piece for a different reason, for the conversation that we had, or the travel to get there sometimes, or sometimes the piece itself. It depends, each piece is special in its own way. I can’t pick one. It’s like picking a favourite kid!
LP: I know the feeling.
KK: I don’t have enough tattoos to have a favourite. They’re all pretty okay. Favourite tattoos I’ve done on other people… that again is like, a lot… my favourite tattoos, I have ones that I’m really proud of the illustration, but usually what I love the most is the person I was tattooing, and whatever happened there. My favourite tattoos are the ones I’ve formed friendships with, and we stay in touch, those are the tattoos that I immediately remember and think about, like ‘oh yeah, this amazing person that I got to meet, and now we get to hang out and message each other all the time.’ Then they come back to you for more because it was a great experience and then you get to build on them.
LP: Alright, last question then. What advice would you give to anybody else who is looking to get into this industry, starting their own shop, wanting to work as a creative or an artist?
TL: I can’t give advice about opening a shop because this is not a defined success yet. We’re here, hopefully we’re doing okay, but I can’t give advice because this isn’t a crazy booming success.
In terms of getting into the industry, I have a lot of experience with that, either watching other people or guiding them through the industry, and at this point, I’m kind of like ‘do your research.’ Do not just go to the first shop that says ‘yeah, yeah, we love apprentices!’ Take your time, look at the artist, make sure a) that they have a style they want to teach you, or that it’s something you can learn from, b) make sure that you have a good rapport or it’s a shop you feel comfortable in because it could be good work, but you go in and people are just kind of rude or uncaring, and if they’re going to treat you like that as a client, they’re certainly not going to treat you any better as an apprentice. Make sure your time is going to be valued, make sure that people are going to care about you, because you’re going to be spending so much time there for free, most places you’re going to be doing all the labour so you want to make sure they’re going to treat you with respect.
After that, in terms of the work that you can do for yourself, it’s just like, draw, draw, draw, and make sure you watch. A lot of new apprentices don’t spend enough time watching, you have to watch what the artists are doing, that’s how most people learn. The main thing is finding the right shop. Most people just jump into the first shop- I’ve done that, other people have done that, and it’s always the first thing I say. Do your research! I could not be more clear. Make sure these people are going to take care of you, or find someone in that studio who’s going to take care of you.
LP: Awesome! Alright, that was all of my questions, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me.
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