14 Jan The Unsung Hero of Toronto’s Tattoo Scene
Prairie Koo, more notably known by his moniker, Mr.Koo, is currently standing at the forefront of Toronto’s tattoo scene as one of the most sought-after artists in the city. Koo is rapidly making a name for himself with his mastery of single-needle micro-realism, and a whopping 65k following on Instagram. It’s clear he isn’t going anywhere but up from here.
Koo, alongside Michael Pecherle, co-founded Ink & Water, now with two locations located in the heart of Toronto. They are actively reconstructing the image of what we associate tattoo parlors to be. Stripping themselves of the conventionally dimly lit, underground vibe many associate parlors with today, Koo has reimagined Ink & Water to be a welcoming, Insta-aesthetic masterpiece that stresses that the memory of getting a tattoo is just as important as the tattoo itself. All while keeping it communal by allotting a portion of every tattoo to Sketch, an art-based program to disadvantaged youth. With all of this, it’s hard to imagine where he finds free time. Yet, he still manages to be one of four selected by Nike as an “Unsung Hero”, shining the light on artists making a change in their communities. Koo let’s MUSE in on everything from being judged within the industry to his most recent skull tattoo he got in India.
What got you into the profession and how did you find yourself at Ink & Water?
I started off as a designer. When I learned to tattoo, I was working on interior design and architecture, during this, I put tattooing on pause to go to school for graphic design and product design. Ink & Water is my brainchild. I saw a hole in the tattoo industry where the customer wasn’t the main priority but instead, it seemed that artists were more concerned with trying to win competitions and looking cool to other artists.
What is it about single-needle work that is so attractive to you? Especially considering its seemingly increased level of difficulty to perfect.
I grew up loving the Chicano culture and style, I learned that some of my favourite artists were all using single-needle so I started practicing with fine line work. It is so much harder to perfect and even harder to know how to make sure it doesn’t fade quickly.
Do you think micro-tattoos will always be regarded as a sort of timeless style?
Timeless… what is really timeless. It will last as long as the person it is on. I think it will always be attractive to people who have fewer tattoos or don’t like the heavy look of a regular tattoo.
What do you think of artists that have garnered similar praise for their ability to perfect the single-needle craft? Thoughts on artists like Jonathan Valena, Brian Woo and Mark Mahoney?
I love the work that those artists do, it’s next level. I hope someday I can be doing work at that caliber. They made single needlework famous and now the Koreans have taken over the scene. Artists like Mr. K working out of Bang Bang, and a lot more artists in Korea.
Mark Mahoney who has been deemed as a pioneer of micro-tattooing, said that whenever life takes a dramatic left turn, that’s when people get a tattoo. Considering this, as an artist handling projects that are especially close to your clients, how do you handle the stories that come with the work you do?
At this day and age tattoos might have meaning but also might just be something that caught the persons eye. Art is art, who cares about what it means. If it makes you smile, cry, or think of a memory, it did its job. But I do a lot of animal portraits of dogs that passed and the stories I get sometimes makes me sad or here and there, I will get to do a memorial piece for someone who has passed.
Brian Woo, more commonly known as Dr. Woo, has said for tattoo artists like him and yourself, that is specialized in a branch of tattooing like micro-tattooing, its common to receive a lot of backlash. Do you think this is rooted in it being a relatively new style as well as it being a harder style to master? Or have you experienced this at all?
I experience this all the time. “Artists” don’t respect what we do. It isn’t a full black piece and what we do won’t necessarily age well or not fade. But there are people who have prison tattoos and those still look the same from when they got out of prison. Their tattoos are still there, and it was all done by a single needle. I go to conventions around the world with @mgptattoos. Everyone crowds around him when he does large pieces while I’ll be in the corner doing my thing. Even when we (micro-artists) submit pieces, no one will really consider them as “tattoos”. It’s too new of a genre and all the judges are old school. When I felt it, most was when a machine company came up to me and the rep really wanted to have me on their team but the other artist on the team looked down on the style I do and that kept me from being able to join.
Style as an artist is arguably crucial to leaving your signature on your work. I’m curious about your personal style. What do you tend to gravitate towards how you dress and present yourself and do you find this aligns with what you do as an artist?
My signature style is just minimal. I don’t like to make things too dark. It’s like how I am as a person, I like to keep things minimal. The way I dress is simple comfortable – pants and a plain t-shirt and cap.
Do you find that platforms like Instagram have changed the industry? Do you find that this has made your style more vulnerable to imitation?
Copy away. Imitation is the best form of flattery. You can jack my work but not my style.
IG has drastically changed this industry. If you’re an artist in North America without an Instagram, are you really an artist? I always tell my staff, you can be the best at your craft but if no one sees it, then the person who does “ok” work and shows it to the world will do better than you.
What was your first and your most recent tattoo?
First tattoo… great story. I got it from Ricky tattoo in Hong Kong. The legendary artist who pioneered tattooing in Hong Kong. Old and weak and old school as fuck, he free hands dragons, and full back pieces. I thought it would be funny to get a straight line from him. He told me he couldn’t do it so he did a dotted line around my arm.
The last tattoo was by my homie Taylor when I was at the India convention. He works in Hong Kong but is from Buffalo, NY. He tattooed a temple on the back of my skull and neck. I was sitting on a shitty chair with my head on a table at a semi-outdoor tattoo convention. Fun times. I like memories, the tattoo is just a part of it.