Published Sep 15, 2020Musicians have dedicated their lives to making art, so it's only natural that some of them should turn their bodies into living works of art as well. From Justin Bieber's all-over ink to Grimes's daring paintbrush strokes to Drake's array of portraits, Canadian musicians have some of the most iconic tattoos in the world.
To get a closer glimpse at musicians and their body art, we asked some Canadian artists to share photos of their favourite tattoos and explain a little bit about what inspired them.
Toronto R&B/trap singer 11:11 is instantly recognizable for having his alias tattooed on his throat. That prominent ink actually isn't his favourite "11:11" tattoo, however — that honour is reserved for this one, which commemorated the launch of his career at its moment of inception. "This was the beginning of 11:11," he tells Exclaim! "I got this tattoo to represent a new beginning when I switched my artist name to 11:11. I got this tattoo the next day and ran with it."
Every other artist participating in this feature submitted a photo along with a quote to explain their tattoo. Operatic innovator Jeremy Dutcher neglected to explain his ink — but these symmetrical calf tats he submitted are so iconic that we needed to include them anyway. The tattoos are so recognizable that Exclaim!'s Features Editor once almost got into a bike accident after recognizing Dutcher's calf tats cycling past. Now that's an eye-grabbing tattoo.
Toronto rap heroes the Sorority may have called it a day, but Lex Leosis has hit the ground running as a full-blown solo artist with this year's album Mythologies and subsequent single "PULL UP." As well as baring her soul in her bars, Leosis wears an important piece of history on her abdomen: a tribute to her yiayia, Beatrice (done by GTA artist Evan Miller). The rapper says of her yiayia, "She was the matriarch of my family. She taught me how to cook and to speak my mind. I got the tree of life with a play on the kotinos leaves to remind me that everything comes from the roots and at my core is food, family and expression."
Alex Little & the Suspicious Minds
Vancouver's Alex Little & the Suspicious Minds deliver classic pop songs with rough-around-the-edges garage distortion — and adding to their gritty, rock'n'roll aesthetic is the fact that all four members are prominently tattooed.
Singer-guitarist Alex Little paid tribute to her favourite movie/comic with an upper-arm depiction of Enid from Ghost World. "I get a lot of 'Is that you as a kid?' or 'Is that Catwoman?'" she says. "Every once in a while someone will know what it is, and it's always a great moment."
Bassist Mike Rosen, meanwhile, cites his favourite tattoo as a mandala design that stretches across both hands. Inked by Thomas Hooper at Austin, TX's Rock of Ages Tattooing, Rosen has an excellent explanation for why he likes them so much: "I'm looking at them all the time. You might even say that I know them like the back of my hands!"
Ashlee Luk of lié
Along with kicking up a racket with Vancouver punk trio lié, singer-guitarist Ashlee Luk is a self-taught, DIY tattooer — and most of the artist's favourite tats are self-done. That includes this photocopy-esque dog. "I drew this tattoo based on a photo of my dog, Kayla, sitting in her usual position on the couch with the stare she would give me for hours while i worked at my desk," says Luk. "After she passed away last fall I wanted a piece in her memory, this way I think of her whenever I look at it."
Menno Versteeg of Mav Karlo
Menno Versteeg is known to music fans as the frontman of Hollerado, a member of the supergroup Anyway Gang and the boss of Royal Mountain Records — and now he's launched a solo career under the name Mav Karlo. Following last winter's ultra-lo-fi Reno Tapes, he's cleaned up his sound for a more cinematic rock sound on Strangers Like Us.
We won't even attempt to paraphrase his wild story of getting an improvised stick-and-poke by a witch from a train. Take it away, Menno:
"I got it when I met a witch on a train in Poland and she insisted she needed to tattoo me. The catch was that she would just let the design come to her and make it up as it goes, no outline or drawing for me me to see beforehand. It was a stick and poke, and my first hand tattoo, including a line in the webs between my fingers. Incredibly painful, but worth it. I had to do it though, as I can only imagine the world of hurt that would befall a person if they said 'no' to getting a tattoo from a witch whom they met on a train in Poland."
Hayden Menzies of METZ
METZ's noise-rock blitz is anchored by by drummer Hayden Menzies, as heard on this fall's anxiety-ridden fourth album, Atlas Vending. All of the band members have their share of tattoos, and Menzies is no exception: his favourite is this machine-free, hand-poked one of a hammer and oak leaves by Brighton, UK's Adam Sage.
"Adam is a gentle soul," says Menzies. "He's an extremely thoughtful person with a hilarious sense of humour. While getting tattooed, shortly after meeting him, I remember him explaining cockney slang to me, talking about '80s and '90s action movies and just life experiences in general. I'm happy to say we've kept in touch and I can't speak his praises enough, as a true artist and as a person."
Snotty Nose Rez Kids
BC hip-hop duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids are known for celebrating their Indigenous heritage with their raps, so it's only fitting that both of them cite their favourite tattoos as ones that pay tribute to family.
Young D's favourite is the ornate forearm script that reads "I love you with a passion." He explains that this phrase "was my baba's saying to us growing up. This is my way of honouring him."
As for Yung Trybez, he has the beaver design from his mother's clan crest. "She adopted me at birth, and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her and the old man," he says. "I wanted to get this tattoo to let her know how much she means to me."
Journeyman songwriter Julian Taylor has been making his way through the Canadian music industry for a couple of decades now, having fronted turn-of-the-millennium rock band Staggered Crossing and leading his own soul-infused Julian Taylor Band. Most recently, his solo record The Ridge finds him fully embracing roots rock.
Not only is Taylor known for his warm songwriting, he can be recognized by his tats, most of which come from sketches by his late grandfather, John Thomas Skanks. He cites his favourite as one called "Dreams of a Modern Mohawk," depicting three faces within one. "I proudly wear them because it is a constant reminder that my ancestors are always with me," he says of his tattoos.
Kamilah Apong of Tush
Tush are known as one of Toronto's most fun live bands, with disco parties that are all about dancing and celebration. But despite this reputation for revelling in the good times, singer Kamilah Apong has a very introspective story behind her favourite tattoo, which was by Mira of Seoul, South Korea's Tattoo Hell.
"I started going to therapy because I realized that if I didn't confront some deep-seated childhood trauma, it was going to take over my life and hold me hostage," says Apong. "I got these arrows, created after my first solid year of therapy. I look down at them when shit gets tough to remind myself that I am a warrior from the cosmos who is always equipped for battle."