If you’re stuck in a mindset that thinks of tattooing as a back-alley operation for drunken sailors, outlaw bikers and the low side of life, you haven’t been paying attention.
And you certainly don’t know Dan Bushnell.
An hour spent with the soft-spoken, 38-year-old Whitehorse artist yields a Cook’s tour of reflection on anthropology, sociology and psychology – although he never mentions those terms.
But he does speak intensely about community activism, street politics and the nature of art, among other things.
Bushnell is the man behind Molotov and Bricks, a bright new tattoo studio on Wood Street that’s consciously designed to create the friendly ambience of a barbershop, a place he feels “honoured” to share significant events in people’s lives.
“I get to be involved in the remembrance of the birth of a person’s child, and I get to be involved in the loss of loved ones. It’s an amazing thing,” he says.
“Even if they forget who I am down the road, I won’t. I’ll always remember that I was a part of that.”
Bushnell has made his living from adorning human skin for about seven years, although he’s been a full-time professional artist since 1995.
His first exhibition at the Guild Hall when he was just 17 led to his acceptance into Vancouver’s Emily Carr College (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design) in 1991.
From there, he went on to study classical animation at the Vancouver Film School, developing a discipline that informs his art to this day.
“When someone walks up and says, ‘OK, we need to see three pigs dancing on the roof of a shuttle bus coming out of here, and I need it to be a bus circa 1930,’ you can’t say, ‘I don’t know how to draw that.’ You just have to do it,” he says.
The other thing he learned from studying animation was how to draw quickly – something else that’s helpful in his current line of work, where the client is paying by the hour.
As an artist, Bushnell has always been a traditionalist, he admits.
“When I started learning how to carve, I refused to use power tools for the first year, basically because I wanted to do everything with hand tools. I wanted to do it traditionally.”
It’s not surprising, then, that he moved away from animation when computers started taking over shortly after he left film school.
He turned to public art, especially murals done as part of a project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“It was basically working with people on the street and saying, “What’s important to you, what do you believe in, and how can we express that visually?” he explains.
“That’s always been really important to me, helping people express themselves. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to tattooing, because it’s so personal. And you really do get to become part of the community in a way.”
After a few years working in one of Canada’s roughest neighbourhoods, Bushnell found himself becoming desensitized to the personal tragedies he saw every day, and realized it was time to move on.
He became part of a group called Collective Echoes, which involved about 35 young artists developing public artworks in B.C.’s lower mainland.
Bushnell worked with the Burrard, Squamish and Musqueum first nations to develop work focusing on their traditional practice of returning the bones of salmon to the sea as tribute, and drawing attention to the pollution of the once-rich False Creek salt marsh.
But tattooing remained a fascination for someone who grew up around people who had tattoos, including a couple of uncles who had work done by legendary tattoo artist Doc Forbes.
Even in his days at Emily Carr, he thought about tattooing as a career, “But it didn’t seem like a viable way to make a living at the time,” despite the practice’s ancient pedigree.
“If you look into the cultural history of tattooing, it’s incredible. It covers every continent, and every culture on the planet. Every single different society has tattooed,” Bushnell says.
“The oldest mummies they have found, that pre-date written history by a long shot, have had tattoos. Some were given for healing purposes, some were as passages into different stages of your life, some were in memory of different people, and some are just… beautiful.
“Tattooing is one of those things that never stopped. Even when it was kind of considered more low-brow, it was still happening continuously.”
In the 1990s, body art started capturing the North American mainstream, with “more tattoo parlours opening up, more people getting tattoos, more people willing to visibly show tattoos,” Bushnell explains.
The evidence is everywhere, from Canadian Olympic swimmers displaying discreet little maple leafs below their collar bones, to TV and movies stars flaunting their “tats”, to Sailor Jerry rum and the ubiquitous Ed Hardy line of tattoo-inspired clothing.
The tattooed lady is no longer confined to the sideshow, and body art is no longer a symbol of non-conformity.
“You can’t be an outsider if you’re wearing an Ed Hardy shirt. They sell them at Walmart,” Bushnell notes.
“You’re still going to get the guy who comes in and wants something kind of dark done, and then you’re going to have someone come in and they want wildflowers that they just saw growing on the street.”
Bushnell himself sports several tattoos – including a portrait of the Mahatma Gandhi he inked himself on his left thigh, working upside down. He has also tattooed his mother, his wife, his daughter and his father.
“I sort of consider myself as an instrument to help people achieve a vision,” he says. “It’s not about me doing my thing on your skin. It’s about you getting what you want on your skin.”
There are designs Bushnell refuses to do, especially anything that promotes hatred.
“If you’re doing something that’s directly attacking another person, or another culture, then I don’t want any part of that. I just don’t think we need to be putting hate on our bodies.”
In the end, however, the decision comes down to what the customer feels happy having as a permanent feature on his or her own body.
“I can tell you what I can and won’t do, but it’s not up to me to tell you what you can and can’t have on your body.”
As for naysayers who question whether or not tattooing is really art, Bushnell has a ready response.
“To me, art is about being passionate and constantly striving to improve. Art isn’t in what we’re producing, often. It’s in how we’re producing it, and how we go about it. Anything can be done artfully … says me.”
For those curious about the anarchic sound of his business name, Molotov and Bricks, Bushnell explains that it comes from a song he likes by a group whose lead singer is heavily involved in the Occupy Oakland movement.
But it also reflects his own values as a community activist.
“It’s just about the little guy fighting back, and reminding myself all the time that no matter how small we feel in the face of a problem, we always have tools to fight.”
Bushnell’s personal tool is his passion.
“You have to engage with what you’re passionate about, and I’m passionate about art of all kinds,” he says.
“I pursue everything, and I always will. Tattooing is something I love, and I will always tattoo, but I’ll always do other things as well.”