By Grace Henkel

*Content warning: references to self-harm, misogyny, verbal abuse, bullying, and an image of explicit art

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As Julia Saint Amour leans over the padded table, her rolled-up sleeves expose just some of her countless tattoos. A skull envelopes her right wrist, while four bold, black letters stamped over each knuckle on her left hand spell out “LOVE.” More designs peek out from the neck of her black sweatshirt; a webbing of delicate lines, etched in deep black, trace both of her shoulders with flower petals. Trailing down from her right temple, a tiny snake coils in on itself, dangling just next to her ear. 

But among all these striking patterns, there’s one part of her body she will never cover up. 

She pats the bare space on the back of her right forearm, showing the multitude of thin, white scars threading across the skin. 

As a senior tattoo artist at Elevated Body Adornment, Saint Amour has come across a number of clients who, like her, have struggled with self-harm in the past, and bear the resulting scars for years afterward. Still, keeping that spot on her arm distinctly ink-free marks what she hopes is a silent, powerful message of solidarity with her clients. 

“I’ve had a couple times where someone comes in for self-harm cover-ups and they’ve obviously never met me,” said Saint Amour. “I notice they’ll look at my arm and it’s just this wave of calm because it’s like [this] ‘Oh, you too,’ kind of thing. I realized that it’s such a personal and scary thing for [a client] to go and trust someone [with their body].” 

“It’s very cathartic for me,” she said. 

A 2022 article in Psychology, Health and Medicine noted a recent shift has begun to take place in Western perceptions of tattooing, transforming “from an outcast deviant activity to an art form with the power to reclaim the body.” Though in-depth studies of scar tattooing are limited, research has suggested that more people are seeking out decorative tattoos to enhance or celebrate their scars, rather than undergoing procedures that conceal them entirely. 

The technical, as well as the emotional side of scar coverage tattooing can be challenging. The injured areas must have healed over for at least a year before beginning any piece. According to dermatography research and Saint Amour’s own experience, scar tissue behaves differently with tattoos. Its capacity to absorb the ink is reduced, meaning that lines must often be retraced before they become distinct enough to form a design. 

“I have to really pay attention and take my time,” said Saint Amour. “You do have to know what you’re doing.” 

Another senior artist at Elevated Body Adornment, Grimm, has also worked with clients for cover-up tattoos, and recalled a particularly meaningful appointment they completed last June. Their childhood friend of 20 years came in search of a design to transform the scars from their top-surgery. Over the course of a three-hour session, with the client’s two-year old child and partner attending, Grimm tattooed two olive branches blending over each scar on their friend’s chest. 

The artist recalled the joy their friend experienced seeing the final result, saying it marked a “full-circle moment” that was especially powerful because Grimm had been a witness to their journey. 

“They had gone on a trip to Jamaica, and they had taken all these photos showing off topless and stuff, and they had sent me a message about how confident they felt with their body,” said Grimm. 

This often-euphoric experience of body modification has been widely celebrated by queer and BIPOC advocacy groups. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, for example, published an essay that described tattooing as “intimate, yet [also] a fierce public display of self-ownership and self-determination, a source of gender euphoria that boldly proclaims its power to those who gaze upon it.”

“…a fierce public display of self-ownership and self-determination, a source of gender euphoria that boldly proclaims its power to those who gaze upon it.”

– Pedro J. Rolón, San Francisco AIDS Foundation

 Still, before working with clients to adorn, transform, and reclaim their bodies, the tattooists at Elevated Body Adornment had to confront often-vicious barriers to developing as artists. Saint Amour, who has been tattooing for five years, and Grimm, for seven, began their craft in an industry they said was deeply “toxic” and is only starting to improve. 

“They’re not as popular now, but when I first started tattooing, I think [the majority] of the shops were just very biker-owned and [dominated by] old white dudes,” said Grimm.

“We went to old school shops where [it was] just blatant verbal abuse. Blatantly abusive, racist, sexist, and misogynistic. There’s a lot of that in the industry,” said Saint Amour. Many tattooists in training, according to Saint Amour, become part of a “cycle of bullying” and are also vulnerable to being exploited as “a lot of apprentices get taken advantage of where they’re seen as free labour.”

“If you worked for an old biker dude, you’d clean his motorcycle,” Grimm said, laughing.

The toxic culture of the industry nearly came to a breaking point for Saint Amour as she progressed towards designing her first piece. Often, the first human tattoo an apprentice completes must be done on their own skin. Saint Amour recalled the hyper-masculine, misogynistic environment in the shop where she learned, with fellow staff belittling her skills and making a barrage of sexist comments over her shoulder. 

As the time to put together her design drew closer, she remembered, “​​A lot of the older guys [were] bullying me [saying], ‘What are you going to tattoo on yourself?’ Day in and day out, it would bug me.” 

Before revealing the design she came up with – one that’s now permanently inked on her leg – Saint Amour paused, smirking, and said she felt the tattoo was not very “age-appropriate.” 

At that time, Saint Amour remembers thinking, “I’m just going to do something really crazy to freak them out. I’m going to tattoo a dick on myself for my first tattoo.” 

And she did. 

“They were like, ‘No way,’” she said. “Then I did it and they were like, ‘You’re f**king insane,’ so they left me alone.” 

What the old-school biker dudes saw as “insane” became a way for Saint Amour to take ownership of the misogynistic narratives that surrounded her in the apprenticeship. The tattoo – a banana-shaped, rainbow-coloured and explicitly-phallic design – exemplifies her bold, colourful and provocative style. To Saint Amour, the tattoo not only made her body of work stand out, but resisted lingering stereotypes and limitations in the industry.  

Looking back on their time in apprenticeships, Grimm noted that tattooing isn’t the same now as it was a decade ago. Seeing more and more queer and family-owned studios in Toronto and across Canada over the years has built a culture that they say is increasingly safe, inclusive, and welcoming. 

For the past two years, Grimm has run a flash tattoo fundraiser in honour of the Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31. Half of the proceeds from the set of flash tattoos, or smaller, already-prepared designs, are donated to the Get Real Movement, which addresses homophobia, transphobia, and racism through workshops with secondary students. Having gone through public school with a heightened awareness of unsafe environments for queer and marginalized students, Grimm said the charity’s goals “really resonated” with them. 

Anti-queer sentiment in the Greater Toronto Area is still very much alive. Last fall, protestors marched as part of the “1 Million March for Children ” in opposition to diverse gender and sexuality curriculum in schools. Provincial governments across Canada, including Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and most recently, Alberta, have also introduced different LGBTQ+ targeted policies in the past year, such as requiring parental consent for schools to use names or pronouns different from those a student was assigned at birth. 

Elevated Body Adornment’s owner and head-piercer Kadie Rankin said creating safe environments for the queer community both in and out of the tattooing industry is a collaborative effort. Recalling the “horrible” and “abusive” atmosphere of her own apprenticeships in 2011, Rankin simply “wanted to create a space that was not that.” 

Sourcing supplies from Canadian and women-owned businesses, helping transgender women clients get “really gender affirming” first ear piercings, or simply throwing on some Lo-fi music builds an atmosphere she says helps clients feel more comfortable in both the studio and in their own skin. 

“I’m honoured to be a part of [body adornment] experiences with everyone, and that they trust me to do something like that for them,” said Rankin. 

“It’s been a journey. I feel like everyone in the shop works together to create that space.” 

Years after first designing the admittedly “vulgar” banana tattoo, Saint Amour’s small act of resistance, like the bare patch on her forearm, has resonated with her community of clients. That particular tattoo has taken on new meaning as a symbol of sexual liberation and agency. 

“It transformed into something else because I posted it [on social media] and so many people liked it. I dug deep down and found what the meaning was for me, in a sense,” she said. 

A gay client of Saint Amour’s, whose deeply religious background suppressed his identity, had that same affectionately-named “banana dick” tattooed on his foot in vivid colour. 

“It was very oppressive for him. For him, this tattoo really meant freedom to express his sexuality. I’ve related to a lot. Every time I did this tattoo I learned more about myself. Other than that, it’s just really silly,” she said. 

After finally revealing the original piece in its permanent home on her skin, Saint Amour rolled her pant leg back down with a laugh and sighed. 

 “This banana dick is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”