One of Edmonton’s first female body-mod artists and shop-owners discusses changes in the industry
By the time she reached it, Noni Coburn’s goal of making an entirely female-run and operated body-modification parlour ceased to seem so important.
When the owner of Ritualistics Tattoo and Piercing struck out on her own 20 odd years ago, she caught “flack” from members of the tattoo community—small, at the time, and male-dominated. She recalls, at the outset, wanting to “give the finger” to nay-sayers through staffing Ritualistics only with women, and by being one of the first female shop owners, but at the time there weren’t enough female artists around Edmonton looking to work, so it took longer to achieve this—long enough that the nature of the industry changed and enough time passed that she felt she could un-flip that particular bird.
There’s a quiet victory in this, but she’s long since gotten over the initial shade, now that female tattoo, piercing artists and clients are commonplace across the city.
“It kind of worked out, but not when I wanted it to,” Coburn says with a laugh, “but nothing ever does.”
In the 1990s, Edmonton had far fewer tattoo parlours than it does now, and, by and large, men owned and staffed them—most of the artists and clients were also men, bikers mostly, she recalls. The community, besides being overtly masculine, was tightly-knit, and some of her early detractors may just have taken issue with her moving on from her former shop, she says.
“The community today, because it’s so large, there’s not the same kind of politics there,” she says.
Edmonton now boasts dozens of tattoo parlours and, across both the city and country, body modification has moved away from some of the negative stigma that surrounded it. Coburn laughs when she says people would be surprised what politicians hide under their suits.
International research agency Ipsos states that 22 percent of Canadians had tattoos in 2012, and women had slightly higher rates of being tattooed than men, a figure that Coburn agreed with anecdotally, suggesting it’s roughly 60 percent women getting work done now—in the city, not just in Ritualistics.
And now more and more women train and work in the field, she says.
“Back in the day, you had ‘most-tattooed man’ appear in the Guinness Book of World Records. If you had the most-tattooed woman, she’d be in a circus,” she says. “It was something very much frowned upon.”
Coburn has no big plans for Ritualistics’ future. After moving three times—from Kingsway to downtown to its current location on Stony Plain Road—and having established a warm rapport among the body-mod community and its clients, she’s happy with her business.
That said, as tattooing, piercing, etc., have entered ‘polite society’ there are more chances for foibles among practitioners in the industry: more work done, more chances for mistakes, and regulations surrounding it haven’t evolved in-kind, Coburn says.
From the start, Coburn saw body modification as a quasi-medical profession, something along the lines of aesthetician work, but far more invasive, more blood.
But the prestige isn’t there, nor is the training and regulations on certification or products, leaving room for abuse or error. Glow-in-the-dark tattoo ink, for instance, is growing in popularity, but the amount of time spent researching its long-term effects on the human body is negligible: not that tattoo ink in general is highly regulated. These lack government rulings, she says, are leftover from the time when tattoos were seen on bikers, criminals, and other less savoury members of society, she says.
Similarly, while there are public health advertisements warning about the potential dangers of, say, alcohol, there are no such campaigns for tattoos.
Likely, there won’t be any changes in the future until “something happens to someone important,” she says.
Coburn believes long-standing change should be enacted to protect clients, and bring workers more in-line with other professions that work with skin, blood, and muscle.
“We’re dealing with blood-borne pathogens, we’re dealing with the human body, we’re dealing with diseases, cross-contamination, contagions,” she says. “We’re dealing with an invasive procedure, and there are certain protocols we need to follow to ensure people are safe.”