By Gabrielle Reyes
The buzzing of a tattoo machine, a sound comparable to those of barber clippers, faintly rings background to the music coming from the speakers on the other side of the room. Walls lined with plywood boards, painted to mimic concrete blocks, give the illusion of a sterile, industrial space.
“Are you excited? Are you nervous?”
Pam’s question interrupts the continuous buzz that’s been droning on for hours; it’s a quiet day at the shop and only one other tattoo artist is working on the bottom level of Ink & Water at the moment.
Liana Paolella, one of artist Pam Leszczynski’s walk-ins for the afternoon, nods. It’s not her first tattoo, but it’s her first at the studio. After grappling with picking red or black ink, Pam encourages Liana to go with what she really wants. Liana chooses red, and with that, the fine lines reading GRL PWR are stencilled onto Liana’s upper right forearm, an homage to International Women’s Day.
Ink & Water Tattoo, located at 1303 Bloor St. W. in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove neighbourhood, opened in November 2017 and was established on the basis of doing things differently. The two-floor, contemporary studio is rooted in the values of generosity, inclusivity and imagination. With a focus on contemporary art and custom work, the shop employs 15 full-time artists, each with their own unique style. Ink & Water also often hosts a variety of international artists. In building a strong community within their own space, tattoo artists and business partners Mr. Koo and Michael George Pecherle have set out to give back to the community-at-large. The goal, according to Mr. Koo, was to open a tattoo shop that could potentially donate more money than the church to their community. Now, proceeds from each tattoo at Ink & Water are donated to various local charities.
“When we first started the shop, […] what we thought would be different is if we can create a whole new way and change the mentality of people,” says Mr. Koo.
A visual glimpse into Ink & Water Tattoo. Story continues below photo gallery.
At Pam’s corner workstation, the buzzing of the tattoo machine grows louder as the needle meets Liana’s forearm. She says she fell in love with a tattoo her friend had done in red ink, the reason she ultimately chose to get hers in red too. She explains how exciting it is to be getting it on International Women’s Day. Without breaking focus, Pam responds, “I’m kinda jazzed to be doing this [tattooing] as a woman.”
After receiving a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) in sculptural and installation practices at the University of Ottawa, Pam moved to Toronto in October 2017. “When I moved here [Toronto], I started working in this bakery and I was just really tired all the time, and getting into galleries was really hard,” she says. “Tattoos were something I always liked. It’s kind of embarrassing because I watched a lot of Ink Master.” She describes her decision to pursue a career in tattooing as a ‘snowball.’ “I’m that kind of person where I’m just going to put all of my energy into this one thing, and that’s what I did.” Pam is relatively new to the tattooing world. She began her apprenticeship with Ink & Water last April before working as a full-time artist in October of last year. Her clientele is mainly women, aged 18 to 29. She says that a lot of her clients also identify as queer, as they feel comfortable being tattooed by a queer artist, something she proudly advertises. That being said, she still sees a variety of people everyday who come to her because they like her style.
At Ink & Water, there is a focus on cultivating each individual artists’ aesthetic. Their apprentices receive intensive training, and continue to receive training while working as full-time artists at the shop. Pam’s style can be described as bold and colourful. It plays with strong lines, contemporary designs and abstract elements. “It stems from an old-school technique of tattooing,” Pam says. “It also comes from some drawing style[s] that I used to do in university. I used to do a lot of abstractions based on biological drawings—really colourful and really intricate.”
A week after Liana’s GRL PWR tattoo, Pam is booked to work on a four-hour custom arm tattoo for Jordan Vincer, a second-year theatre production student at Ryerson University. The tattoo began as an all-black, pre-designed “flash” tattoo that Pam sketched out a few months prior and posted on Instagram. Being from Newfoundland, Jordan chose this design as a reminder of home. “It took me forever to decide [on a design], but as soon as I saw this one I just loved it. The whales are a tribute to [Newfoundland], and the wildlife and nature that is there,” he says.
In his search for queer artists around Toronto, he found Pam. “I loved her work and I loved her colour,” Jordan says. “Ink & Water does these tattoos in donation to different charitable organizations, which is how I heard about the company. I know they do a great job and their tattoo artists are phenomenal.”
A Drop of Ink on Your Sleeve
Five dollars from every tattoo done at Ink & Water is donated to Sketch, an organization founded to help marginalized youth through art. “We do a lot of charity work,” says Mr. Koo. “Every month we have a new charity that we work with, but the main one is Sketch. Where I come from, I was always out on the streets doing bad stuff. Art was kind of what settled me down, so I thought [Sketch] was a good thing to work with.”
The Ink & Water logo is free to anyone who gets it, no matter the size. While this makes for a great branding and marketing strategy, the money that would have been made from that particular tattoo is donated to Sketch. A unique version of the Ink & Water logo is redesigned around organizations they are working with. Similar to the original logo, each redesign is free for the month they are partnered with the organization, with the proceeds going to that charity.
A “before” and “after” of a tattoo designed by Pam Leszczynski of Ink & Water Tattoo. The image on the left displays the original digital sketch, with the image on the right displaying the final tattoo on client Jordan Vincer.
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“It’s nice to know that you are part of something that is more than just making money,” Pam says. Their focus on customer service is seen in the values each of their artists stand by. Through their craft, Ink & Water Tattoo artists have created a positive, welcoming space for all those in the Dufferin Grove neighbourhood and beyond.
“Every day it still kind of blows my mind that I get to be here, because I always thought it was such a cool job,” Pam says. “It’s definitely a passion job.”
Watch a three minute video about tattoo artist Pam Leszczynski and client Jordan Vincer talk about the process of designing and choosing a tattoo at Ink & Water Tattoo, a contemporary tattoo shop in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove neighbourhood, where proceeds from every tattoo go to charity.