Currently reading : Ten Questions: Nick Wasko
Based in Vancouver, Nick Wasko quietly tattoos from a private studio off Davie Street, just a few short blocks from the beautiful beaches of English Bay. Stepping into his studio is comparable to walking into a time warp – his collection of tattoo flash, memorabilia, and ephemera permeates all areas of the space. Although working from a private studio (though he is no stranger to street shops), Wasko’s tattoos look right at home alongside the tattoo your grandpa would have selected from the flash on the walls of a tattoo shop fifty years ago. I recently caught up with Wasko to briefly discuss his tattoo practice, the role of the Internet in tattooing, and the history of tattooing in Canada. Wasko was also kind enough to share a few images from his ongoing project documenting old Canadian tattoos. Enjoy!
So lets start off with the basics for those who are not familiar with you – who are you and where do you tattoo out of?
My name is Nick Wasko and I am currently splitting my time between a private studio in Vancouver and Liberty Tattoo in Seattle.
From what I understand, your grandfather had a number tattoos. Were you interested in tattooing from a young age and at what point did you decide that you wanted to pursue tattooing as a career?
My grandfather did have several tattoos, and they were definitely my earliest exposure to tattooing, but I don’t think I really became conscious of tattoos until I was about 15. I was in grade 10 I think, and I went to a tattoo shop with a buddy who was getting a tattoo. After watching my friend get one, I knew I wanted one too. I guess it took me a couple of years to work up the courage because I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 17. After that I just kept getting more. It wasn’t until I was in my mid 20’s though, and had been getting heavily tattooed for a few years that I thought about the possibility of learning to tattoo. I was traveling down to the U.S. fairly regularly to get tattooed and a guy I knew working in a shop down there asked me if I had ever thought about tattooing. I suppose it took hearing someone say it out loud for me to realize that’s what I wanted to do. When I got back from that trip I started trying to figure out ways I could learn to tattoo.
You apprenticed under Thomas Lockhart – can you talk a little bit about this and how it influenced you as both a tattooer and as a tattoo historian? Is there anyone else who played a role in your development as a tattooer and researcher?
I could reminisce about my apprenticeship with Thomas for days. His old shop on Davie Street, where I learned to tattoo, was really a special place for me. Before it moved in 2011, it was Canada’s oldest continually running tattoo shop in the same location. People had been tattooing in that shop for nearly 40 years, and for the 10 years before that, Doc Forbes was tattooing at the address right next door. The history was palpable as soon as you stepped foot in there and took a look around. The shop was wall to wall, floor to ceiling flash. There was flash stacked on top of flash on top of flash, some of it antique stuff dating as far back as the turn of the century. Walking in there was like walking into an era of tattooing that no longer exists. Tom was right in his element there too. He is one of the last of the old time tattooers, no question about it. I owe him everything and the time I spent in his shop has not only influenced me as a tattooer, but as man as well. I wish that place was still around. There will never be another shop like it. The other tattooer who was a huge influence on me early on, and continues to be today, is Vince One. He is an incredible tattooer, painter, and machine builder and he really helped me out a lot when I was learning. I owe that guy for sure.
When did you begin to focus on tattooing traditional imagery? How do you feel about the current proliferation of new tattooers adopting a “traditional” style without being aware of the history and meaning of the designs they are attempting to replicate?
I was interested in the traditional style of tattooing from the get go. I was drawn to tattooing because of those classic images and what they represented. It was, and still, is the toughest stuff out there. I think understanding the historical context from which those designs originated helps to inform a tattooer about how those designs are supposed to look. Too many new tattooers are just copying what they see on instagram, not realizing that the tattoo they’re biting is a third generation interpretation of a classic tattoo. Once its so far removed from where it started the whole thing ends up getting lost in translation. If you don’t know where it started, it’s hard to know where to take it. It’s like if you never heard the Clash or Black Flag and you go out and start a punk band, you end up in Blink 182.
This has no doubt been aided by the Internet. Your participation on Internet platforms such as Facebook and Instagram as means to promote yourself as a tattooer has been minimal at best. Was this a conscious decision and how do you feel about the current relationship between tattooing and the Internet?
I think the Internet is an amazing tool for tattooers to be able to promote themselves and expand their client base. I think things start to fall apart when tattooers are just tattooing for the Internet. It seems like these days a lot of guys’ main objective is to post another photo on instagram so they can get more followers. I think if that’s your motivation to tattoo, that’s a problem. I also think the overwhelming amount of tattoos being posted on the Internet is a problem. It used to be that when you saw a killer tattoo, whether in person or in a magazine, you’d get excited and want to stare at it and analyze it. Now there are so many people doing good tattoos and posting them online, you can scroll past 50 photos of perfect tattoos and not even give a shit anymore. Another killer skull, another rad dragon, another awesome gypsy- at some point the impact is lost. There is just too much to look at. That’s partly why I’ve not put a lot of effort into my own Internet presence. There’s enough out there already without me adding another turd to the bowl. But mostly, this interview aside, I’m a fairly private person and just don’t like people knowing my business.
You have been documenting and researching the history of tattooing in Vancouver for some time. Would you mind sharing one or two of your favorite stories or pieces of information you have come across?
Well one of Vancouver’s most prolific tattooers of the 1960’s and 70’s was Curly Allen. And even though Curly has been dead for nearly 40 years, you can still see a ton of his tattoos walking around the streets today. I think Curly was so popular, partly because he lived in the back of his shop (which made him more available then other tattooers), and partly because he had a reputation for tattooing minors. What I think is interesting about Curly is that, later on in life, he suffered a stroke and lost mobility on one side of his body. The stroke confined him to a wheelchair and virtually turned him into a one handed tattooer. This meant that, when you got tattooed by Curly, you had to hold your own skin tight so he could tattoo you. The image of old Curly one handing a tattoo on a teenager from his wheelchair is one of my favourites and not one that you would likely see these days.
Cobra by Curly Allen done in Vancouver during the 1960’s.
Vancouver has had a rich tattoo history, acting as the home of Doc Forbes as well as temporarily hosting Ed Hardy, and as you discovered, Hori Chyo. Do you think Vancouver’s role in the history of tattooing has been properly acknowledged?
Vancouver tends to be eclipsed in the history books by other major port cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. I think Vancouver did play a role in tattoo history, but compared to those other major centers it definitely had a much smaller impact. I think the city probably gets the acknowledgement it deserves, but whether some of the tattooers who called Vancouver home get their proper due is another question.
Who else played a role in the early development of tattooing in Vancouver, or perhaps more broadly, Canada?
Well I don’t think you can talk about Canadian tattoo history and not mention Fred Baldwin and Charlie Snow. They were both from England originally but were based mostly in Montreal and Halifax, respectively. Baldwin started tattooing before the turn of the last century and hand poked tattoos on the battlefield during the Boar War in Africa. Snow tattooed countless Canadian Naval men from his parlour on Barrington Street until he passed on in the 1960’s. Of course Doc Forbes is probably the most well known historical Canadian tattooer, and for good reason. His career spanned six decades and, like old Curly, his tattoos are still walking around the streets of Vancouver. Other notable figures that worked in Vancouver were Ben Corday, Ted Liberty, and Circus Leo among others.
Dagger/rose done by Doc Forbes in Victoria in 1954.
What’s next for you? Do you have any plans to publish your findings?
I’ve been researching for close to 10 years now, with my main focus being Doc Forbes. My plan is to have a book on Doc’s life compiled in the near future. Other than that, just tattoo and paint.
Any last words?
Thanks for the interview!
Parrot done in 1979 by Thomas Lockhart in Vancouver.
Click here to read a 2008 article on Nick Wasko featured in the Vancouver Courier.
Follow Nick on Instagram @nick_wasko.