By Glecy Angelic Malunes
When eight-year-old Steve Cooper first stumbled upon a tattoo shop, he got the boot instantly. That didn’t stop him from returning the next day, and the day after that. Now, in his late 40’s, Cooper struts over to his tight little corner at Xtremities Tattoo and Piercing in Mississauga, where two huge tool drawers make for a bit of privacy. Both are heavily stacked with stickers from loads of different tattooing equipment suppliers. There are other artsy designs of flowers, half-naked girls, skeletons, and even a pyramid with an eye in it.
He is one of the few OG (original) artists working at Xtremities, a tattoo and piercing studio, with 30 years under his belt.
Cooper is a veteran tattoo artist. He’s penned the evolution of tattoo art in Mississauga over three decades. He’s seen it all. And a lot has changed since he started.
The owner of the studio, Steven Smith brought him in at a time when tattooing was just about to become the next big trend.
Smith remembers that light bulb moment while watching a basketball game in the 90s. One of the players on TV that night was Dennis Rodman. Rodman was an NBA all-star and a pioneer. He was the first player to showcase multiple tattoos on his body. “If Rodman’s getting tattoos, it’s going to go all over the place,” Smith recalls.
Smith decided to make tattoo art his next business venture. Soon enough, he was sending out flyers to hire an experienced tattoo artist. That’s when Cooper came along.
In 1980, Cooper had just moved to Mississauga from Texas. One day he went out to explore the area when a tattoo shop caught his eye. It was the first and only parlour in the city.
There were biker gangs hanging out and rock band posters on the wall. Everything about it was cool, especially for young kid.
But the owner of the shop, Dee Bryant, who also happened to be a loan shark, made it very clear that he didn’t want a minor around. It was risky for a kid to be hanging out in such a dangerous place.
That experience stuck with Cooper. He wasn’t fazed in the least. “When I want something bad enough, I’m gonna go get it.”
A friend of his got his hands on some equipment. Cooper got his very first tattoo at the age of 15. It was the cover of a rock album by Mötley Crüe.
“I wasn’t the biggest fan [of the band]. It just looked really cool back then,” says Cooper. “That’s how it was.”
On his next visit to tattoo shop, Bryant saw that Cooper got inked. This time, he decided to let him stay. Cooper was told to run some errands to make himself useful. He didn’t mind one bit.
There was something about Cooper’s tenacity that impressed Bryant. He took the young Cooper under his wing and taught him all there was to know about tattooing. When Bryant died some years later, Cooper took over the shop from him.
XTREMITIES’ TATTOOING ROOM
Gabby Dolor sits anxiously in the lobby at Xtremities, right next to the tattooing room. She has voluminous brown hair, a bright green bomber jacket and a really red nose.
She conjures up the courage to look in the mirror. Dolor’s eyebrows are furrowed, showing the deep lines on her forehead. She’s fixates on her nose, first tilting her head up, then down, then sideways. She finally lets out a huge sigh of relief.
Her friend, Raffy Armena, holding their Nike shopping bags, assures her that her new nasal piercing looks really nice on her. Even though her mom would say otherwise.
“Life’s too short to not do something you want to do,” adds Armena.
Now it’s her turn. Dolor sinks into a squat, plopping the bags beside her on the couch. Armena leans back on the tattoo chair, shoulders relaxed. Her glossy pink acrylic nails rest on her grey turtleneck as she keeps it halfway on.
There’s a gleam in her eyes as Cooper marks the first line on the inked stencil just above her left breast.
Cooper adds a teensy amount of vaseline to keep the ink from spreading. The rotary machine makes little to no noise and with Cooper’s light touch, she finds herself pleasantly surprised. She barely feels a thing.
About 20 minutes later, a cursive letter “T” is permanently etched on her skin. It’s the first letter of her boyfriend’s name, placed right next to her heart.
She knows it’s a silly idea but she’s confident that her partner will do the same.
A couple of decades ago, silly ideas came at a painful cost. Cooper remembers when tattoo removals would require silver nitrate and hydrochloric acid. In other words, it was agonizing and left major scars. Now it’s a simpler, pain-free process using lasers.
Back in the days of silver nitrate, Copper was struggling to gain the necessary exposure to become a full-time tattoo artist. But he faced it head on and moved out at age 15 to pursue his dream.
“The reason I was able to survive was because I opened up a flea market booth,” says Cooper. “That’s how everybody got the word around.”
For almost eight years, he gathered clientele while also working multiple jobs in the fast food and service industry.
By the time he reached his early 20’s, he had finally saved up enough money to open a shop of his own in Rexdale. He worked tireless hours to make a go of the business and a name for himself.
A lot has changed for Cooper and the art of tattooing since then. With today’s technology, he’s able to stay up-to-date and teach himself new methods..
“I don’t do anything the way I learned [from my mentors],” says Cooper. “It’s just stuck in time. That’s so dinosaur.”
Smith also keeps up-to-date with the latest technology and trends for the shop. The studio has been around for nearly 15 years and has been an inviting space for all kinds of body artists: Young, old, experienced or novice.
“Tattooing isn’t seen as a bad thing like how it was back in my day,” says Cooper. “People weren’t even artists to begin with.
“They just knew how to use the tools to make something look kinda cool.”