Royal Anchor Tattoo is your friendly neighbourhood tattoo parlour located on Carnarvon St & 8th St. We recently got the chance to sit down with Big J, the owner of the shop, to get a feel for his style and his shop. Scroll down to learn more about this charming tattoo parlour and to see if you might want to choose Royal Anchor to get your next tattoo piece.
When did you start tattooing, what was your background?
I started tattooing in ‘99, so it’s 20 years for me this year. I’ve always been artistic and I got a scholarship to go to Emily Carr out of highschool. I went but I didn’t really last too long, I only made it like 6 months. So I think I had a good premise from highschool- I only excelled in art. I was a skateboarding dirtbag who skips school aside from art class. So I dropped out of that and I got into graffiti. I was always big into skate culture and graffiti was a part of that. Then tattoo was starting to become a part of graffiti. I mean, I got my first tattoo when I was 15. It was a skateboard logo of Lucero, it had so much little detail in it. I keep it to tell people what not to get in things. Over time, it just blobs out.
Do you do any other kind of art outside of tattooing?
I’m a visual artist; I do drawing, painting watercolour, oil, acrylic, aerosol and digital. [Those arts] are always something to do for you. [In tattooing], you’re constantly doing something for someone else.
What are your favorite subjects to tattoo?
Right now, I’m really enjoying black and grey realism and new school colourful tattoos. They’re very different genres and I came up in an era where you kind of do it all. Nowadays, everyone just specializes in one sort of thing because there's so many tattoo artists now. I still kinda dabble a little bit in everything but I focus more on what I’m more known for: aquatic stuff. Because I’m a scuba diver, diving is a passion of mine. Being underwater has always been really inspirational for me. So I've gotten a name around the diving community to be the guy to go to to get your diving tattoos. I do a lot of that oceanic work, and most of that is colour. Lately I have been doing portraiture. When it comes to realism, I haven't dabble into the colour much, but more just black and grey. Then again, it comes down to your skin - what your sun habit is like, what your skin tone is like, your canvas kinda has to be the right canvas for it too. And it has to be in the right spot; there’s all sorts of variables.
What would you tell a tattoo newbie?
What I would tell them is to research the artists. Make sure you’re comfortable with your artist - there’s a million tattoo artists out there. So it’s not only about their ability but their personality too you know, you’re gonna sit down with this person for an hour. Sometimes, if it’s a sleeve, its months. You gotta wanna be able to jive with this person. So, research your artists. It’s a really big thing.
While many people see getting their tattoos as getting a meaningful art piece, were there any tattoos you did for people that were particularly special?
Well, it just came up recently that a guy here had one of his clients passed away and that brought up a memory of a good client of mine passing away, and me having to tattoo his mom. So it can be really heavy stuff. That’s what happens in this business, you get to know people, and when you’ve been doing this for twenty years, some people become closer to you.
Do you enjoy doing those pieces a little more?
I do enjoy it. I usually do a lot more larger scale stuff so I get to know people a lot better that way. And you do one arm then they come back for the other, next thing you know you’re doing the entire body. So I do a lot of that larger scale work and that’s how I stay busy.
Do you do walk-ins?
I’ll do it if I’m available. I do get cancellations but I do have a cancellation list [to fill] though.
Do you think tattoo culture has changed over time?
Oh yeah, it’s exploded - really exploded, in a great way. It’s been able to provide me with a living for the last twenty years. The calibre of art is just insane. You don’t see what you see today twenty years ago. It is a little saturated and I think it’s kinda plateaued now. Like for instance when I started in Vancouver, there were maybe 20 shops in the lower mainland. Now there’s probably over 400. Every single time I go out, there’s a new shop. And that show probably has like 3 or 4 artists. Tattooing back then, there wasn’t the internet. I had to make my own needles. I had to go to the fishing store to buy bugpins and make needles out of them and learn how to sterilize them and all that jazz and build a machine. Now, you just order off the internet, it's so much more accessible right now. Back then, it was very hush hush, the bikers ran it. To get any info or to get an apprenticeship, you had to keep coming back and stick your head in there.
You think coming up like that benefited you at all?
Well, my upbringing was a little self-taught. I had a little bit of an apprenticeship but [when I started], I was 25, I had a child, was married and had a really good job in the skateboard industry. So it was a really hard thing to leave financially, but it was more rewarding to me to do rather than selling stuff. It was a hard transition, but here I am today and I still enjoy what I do on a daily basis. No regrets! It’s not really about the money for me but the satisfaction to me is when they look in the mirror and you see that smile. There’s nothing better than that.
How do you bring your client’s thoughts and desires into a conceptual artwork?
Well, we usually have a consultation. We set-up people with a consultation, it’s all free. Since I work digitally now, I take a picture of the area I’m tattooing, and take an image and stick it on. So I kind of come up with sketches. During our consultation, I’d kinda sketch out ideas, ask “What do you want?” and I refine it. For larger projects, I don’t draw out the whole thing, but stencil it out and I’ll freehand a lot of it so they’ll wrap right. To wrap something flat on something round to have it fit, it’s a headache. To me, there’s a lot of trust involved with the client, they research you, they look at you, they meet you. They leave me a deposit and away we go.
I heard your building is haunted, can you tell me a little more about that?
We actually had Ghostbusters come in and take a look at this place. When we first moved into this space, our business license flew off the wall. The foosball table played itself. Our drawers just open themselves sometimes. There was one time our statues just physically turned themselves around. The dogs (Rosebud and Al Pacino) also get really scared in parts of the corner of the shop. Investigators from vancouversupernatural.ca came to take a look and they researched the history of the building. It turns out the building was built by Freemasons and there were tunnels underneath the building that were used to transport bodies to the morgue. The Freemasons lost a skull in the construction of the building and the haunted atmosphere could be attributed to that.
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