MUSE: Tattoo Artist Jacqueline May

All images courtesy of Jacqueline May

BY ANNA J. STAINSBY                                           ONLINE DIRECTOR

This past August marked Jacqueline May’s first year as a proper apprentice. It’s one that she spent away from her native New Zealand, trading out her graphic design job for an apprenticeship 8000 miles away, at Tattoo People in Toronto. A few months later, Seven Eight Tattoo welcomed her to their crew as a full-time artist.

After a bachelor’s in Fine Arts in Auckland, a year of graphic design in New York, and a couple years of what May calls “janky stick and pokes” in her Melbourne apartment, the idea of an giving tattooing a real go finally stuck.

As we talk about her upbringing- growing up in a tiny coastal town in Taranaki, playing by the beach every day in a small, humble community- she begins to let me in on her heritage, which would be the basis of her future as an artist.

“I’ve always had a fascination with tattooing. Being from New Zealand it’s such a huge part of our culture.”

Ta moko, their traditional tattooing has been around for centuries, introduced by the Maori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. It’s something May’s grown up with, and seen everywhere from their national rugby team to the skin of passersby. She emphasizes how huge, and more importantly, how accepted it is within the country.

And although her roots are there, she wanted to explore. To May, New Zealand is a place to settle down, to grow up, and to have children. “It’s amazing, but I wanted to to see the rest of the world. I love the culture of NZ. It’s a huge influence in my current work.” She pauses for a moment, then admits, “Coming to Toronto, I do get that homesickness. It’s once you’re away that you really appreciate where you come from.”

Of course, the love only grew when she began to get inked herself, the day after her eighteenth birthday.

“My ex-boyfriend drove me to the parlour where he got all his tattoos, and I was so excited. It was quite an experience- a woman did the tattoo and she kept on taking cigarette breaks. I was like “Okay- this must just be part of it!”  But every few minutes or so she’d do a few lines and then smoke. It was palm sized.”

Right now, Tammy Kim is working around it for her backpiece. As soon as she mentions it, she warns me not to get one. 

“It’s too painful. Along the spine… The thing is, it’s not just the pain on your back, you feel it in other areas because of the way the nerves work… I have to go through the pain as well- I have to have a taste of my own medicine. That’s how I see it.”

Next came picking up the needle and turning to the ink to herself. The scene is typical: friends, kitchen table, beers- totally unsanitary, she adds. When I ask about it, she asks if she can show me her first stick and poke- lettering around her ankle.

“It’s so bad. So janky! Oh gosh, I loved it. Some people say stick and pokes hurt more but it hurts way less. It’s just one individual prick instead of dragging a needle across the skin.”

I ask about differences between home and Toronto. Weather aside, one of the biggest differences for May is in the perception of tattoos.

“In Toronto, it’s [tattooing] not having that huge impact so far… It’s sort of growing. It’s fairly new. I was talking to other artists about this, I feel like Toronto is going through this huge tattooing boom right now. There’s some great artists coming in and some incredible studios pumping out some beautiful beautiful work. It’s on the rise, but that would’ve only happened in like the last 2 years or so.”

She’s not wrong. Recently, Toronto has seen a surge in demand of tattooing. While cities like New York or London have a more reputable name, Toronto is beginning to forge its own identity in tattoo culture- growing from up-and-coming to a hotspot nurturing some of today’s best artists. Shops are expanding, local artists are guest spotting abroad and bringing in international clients, and the work produced in the city is top quality art. Toronto is also training its future tattooists, turning apprentices into artists in about 3 to 4 years.

“You start off stencilling- all day, every day.” May says of the process. “It’s just to strengthen your arm muscles and get precise lines. Then lettering. A lot of drawing for flash. Once you do that you go on to tattooing fake skin- oranges, bananas- but it’s nothing like real skin. There’s no comparison, it’s so ridiculous! Tattooing oranges is just so ridiculous. It’s more about watching and learning from your mentors and other tattoo artists- not just the design they’re creating but how they go about it. How they attack it- where they’re positioned, where their arm is, where they’re stretching the skin… It’s such a process. You really have to start tattooing to get the feeling.

Once the real tattooing starts, there’s a surprising shift. When I ask her what her day looks like now, she answers what most “9-5 people” would reply: “Emails, emails, emails…”

“When you’ve got a client, you start at 12, set up the station, print out the stencil, do the tattoo- depends on how big or small it is… In between clients you try to draw and do more emails. Draw for the next day’s client… Typically I’ll have 1 or 2 clients a day. That’s a great amount, it’s not too stressful.”

Every so often, the shop will have a flash day, sort of spur of the moment when the artists aren’t too booked up. They’re stressful and intense but exciting days, with easy going clients who rock up to the studio ready for anything. 

Most people who come to May come for black and grey American Traditional. Tigers, snakes, ladies’ heads, peonies, roses (“They just look so organic on the body and you can really just throw them anywhere” she says) It’s mostly what graces her Instagram page and her execution is so stunning, you couldn’t go to anyone but her to get the job done.

And if the images weren’t enough, the way she gushes about it is enough to convince you she’s the only one who should be etching those bold lines on you.

“I absolutely admire and love and respect all the traditional artists. They’ve really paved the way for tattooing. I wouldn’t be here as well as millions of other tattooists without the likes of Paul Rogers, Ed Hardy of course, Sam O’Reilly who was the first to patent tattoo machines… I see what they’ve done in the past, the flashes they’ve created have just translated through years. They’re so perfect for the human body. People are still getting them tattooed today! I love the bold lines- the cleanliness… it heals fantastically, it looks so good on the skin when someone’s 50 or 60. I think it’s beautiful. Sometimes you have dads come in and they have some American Traditional on them they get so embarrassed- like it’s old… I just think- it’s been lived in. I think it’s badass.”

While her favourite thing to do is traditional, she’s well aware of the growing demand for fine line. Every once in a while she’ll do one- happy to work with the detail and incorporate it into her work.

We segue into some rapid fire questions to end off the interview, and as quickly and as passionately as she spoke earlier, she dove in head first to answer, candid as ever.

Least favourite thing to tattoo?

“Roman numerals. I’m not good at them! I’ve done a few and I’m just like no, please stop. You’d think it’d be easy but the straight corners, edges… Also infinity symbols. Pretty sure all tattoo artists can say that, hands down.”

One trend you wish hadn’t happened?

“Everyone would probably say tribal for that but I love tribal! It’s making an ironic return. I don’t mind it. It’s cool. Probably one of the things from the nineties that was huge- the Tasmanian devil. Why? Why the Tasmanian devil? And dolphins maybe?”

What’s an interesting story behind one of your tattoos?

“My friend and I- we’re both from Taranaki- but we only met each other when we went to NYC, which was funny- we were in a heavy metal bar one night and we were just getting absolutely hammered on PBRs. It was 3 o’clock in the morning and we didn’t want to go home so we were like let’s get matching tattoos! On the subway to a tattoo parlour we were deciding what to get and for some reason we landed on a skull because it’s badass! We added in our own handwriting under- New York and the area where we lived. The guy who did it could so see we were shitfaced. Now that I think back on it I’m like- oh my god he let us do that. I don’t remember it at all. I don’t regret that one, though.”

What’s the deal with finger tattoos?

“I did stick and pokes all over my fingers- all this geometric crap. You know the Pinterest stuff? Like an eye and ugh… The healing time was a few weeks, and in that time they just vanished, as they do. They looked so gross. I got them lasered off. Imagine someone getting a ghd and just searing your skin and smelling your skin burning. It’s awful. Think about your tattoos.

There was this one that wouldn’t piss off after two sessions of laser and I was just like, I’m going to cover it, because I can’t handle laser. So I stick and poked something else and I went deeper and did it with a bolder needle and I feel like this has stayed on 3 months. Healing time totally depends if it’s machine or stick and poke. But I always tell people stick and poke will probably last longer on the fingers, you just can’t go dainty with it or it’s going to wipe right off.

You can get finger tattoos it’s just committing to constantly getting them touched up and going through that pain.”

Advice for people who want to get tattooed?

“Do your research! It’s surprising how many people come into the studio and just go- I want anyone. Find someone whose style you’re really attracted to and you really trust that they’re going to do the best job for you. And don’t be drunk! When you’re drunk blood goes everywhere.”

The best thing about being a tattoo artist?

Meeting with clients. Having that moment with them where they trust me to put something on their body for the rest of their life. The people you meet, the stories, and how open you can be with them and how open they are with you… And also the history of tattooing. It’s so fascinating!

Repeat clients are the most humbling and loveliest thing. That they continually trust you. I’m still learning and they are so supportive. I feel like they come in, not too sure what to expect and once we get going, they’re like oh this is different, it’s not like any other studio, it’s not intimidating. I don’t want it to be intimidating. I’ve been on the other side where you walk into a parlour and it’s like everyone has so many tattoos, it’s kind of scary… I like the vibe of this studio. They like that they can talk to me. They’re not scared to ask for breaks. They love the artwork, they trust that I can put a piece on them that heals really well. That trust is so humbling.”

You can find Jacqueline’s work on her site, or on Instagram @hellojacquelinemay.