Tattoo artist Ryan Gagné and his wife, Natalie, show off some of their ink, with Ryan’s own work covering the wall behind them at Parksville Tattoo, which opened for business June 1. — Adam Kveton

Art on a skin canvas

New Parksville tattooer brings classic style and versatility

Sometimes it’s the medium that inspires the artist.

Some love the spontaneity and speed of watercolour, others are drawn to the particular sound of the guitar or violin.

For Ryan Gagné, he wasn’t an artist until he began learning to tattoo.

Not even able to draw very well at first, it was his love of tattoos, and his growing love of the history of the art and a classic style that pulled him through the arduous journey of learning to design unique pieces for individual customers, and indelibly apply them to their skin.

Having been in the business for 10 years, Gagné just opened a studio in Parksville this month, called Parksville Tattoo.

The NEWS sat down with Gagné to get a sense of his art, and what makes tattooing different from other art forms.

Gagné got his start helping out at a tattoo shop. Though he loved tattoos, his ambition wasn’t to become a tattooer. But when the owner asked him if he wanted to learn, he said sure.

“I didn’t really realize how much work it was going to be,” he said. “I had to learn how to draw. I had to learn how to talk to customers, I had to learn the technical side of tattooing… it was a lot of hard work.”

But it was learning about the history of the art, especially of the early 1900s, and the style of those old-school, sailor tattoos that kept Gagné at it, he said. That includes things like dice, anchors, knives through a heart and much more.

“There is something so strong and classic and bold about them that, they stand the test of time.” He means that both stylistically and literally.

“I’ve seen 40-year-old sailor tattoos that you can still tell what they are,” he said. “The colour is gone and they are kind of blobbed out but you can still tell what that image is. It’s classic for a reason.”

That’s one of the unique aspects of tattooing — while one can expect to have a tattoo last a lifetime, because the body is the canvas, the piece is going to change along with the wearer.

Sun fades the ink, parts of the body shrink or expand, and that image loses some definition.

But one of the keys to a tattoo that is going to be recognizable over the long-term is the black outline which forms the base of the piece, said Gagné.

“When colour disappears from the sun, the black holds strong … there is still a border, there is still an outline, there is still an image there. If there’s no black and then the colour fades, there is nothing holding it together. Yeah, that’s kind of why I like just the classic imagery. It’s bold and it holds strong over the years.”

But just because that’s the style Gagné is drawn to doesn’t mean that he can stick to doing just that sort of work.

Another side of tattooing is the need for collaboration between artist and customer.

While some customers will happily come in and pick something Gagné has already designed from his wall, many others want something different.

“Most of it is people bringing images off the computer or coming in with an idea themselves, or even a friend’s drawing, and it’s our job to make sure that they get what they want, but to make sure that the tattoo lasts as it’s supposed to,” he explained. “Somebody will come in and want something really, really, really small, like a little family tree and they want initials in leaves. It’s too much, it doesn’t work. There are better ways to do it for a tattoo. Looks great on paper, but on skin it would change.

“But I truly believe tattooers should be well-versed in everything as much as physically possible. It’s customer service. If you come in, you should be able to do that tattoo, and you should be able to do it really well.”

That philosophy is echoed in what he says is his favourite part of tattooing.

“When I just finish the tattoo and (the customer) looks at it for the first time, completed – that’s I think my favourite. Because of all that, all the prep time and the consult and the drawing, and the late nights trying to get it ready for them and trying to make them happy, seeing that happiness at the end I think is what’s worth it.”

Gagné’s shop is located at 255 Island Hwy East. For more information, go to