Damian Robertson Talks Life-Changing Experiences, PTSD And Finding Focus...
Point to Point takes you behind the needle to share the personal journeys of tattoo artists like you. Drawing inspiration, spreading respect and love… This time we’re talking with Mr Damian Robertson.
@Patrick Coste: Good day Damian, how’s Alberta these days? Lemme tell you, I've been wanting to interview you for a while as I’ve got a big “man crush” on you, lol! I mean you’re a great artist, we all know that, but what I see and why I love watching your social posts, is that you have a “never give up” attitude. You’re inspiring others who are battling their own demons, but you rarely let those dictate your way. That to me is priceless and inspiring. Thank you.
@mr.damian.robertson: Lol, thank you! Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this. Alberta is a bit cold, but the hours are getting longer. We just had our first fire on our land a bit north of here, with all the neighbouring families. First of the year… 6 feet apart... Sort of sad but we do the best we can with what we’ve got! … It’s pretty much where I’m gonna hang this year.
PC: I hear you. I have a few visits here and there on my end too... Walk the land, but visits are rare… But hey, tattooing is back in most places and you are too!
You’re quite the master when it comes to drawing and applying all that great art to tattoos. You also served in the Canadian Forces. It’s a somewhat a weird combo, but totally indelible together as they’ve been connected for a very long time. How did you become to be today’s Damian? Can you walk us through the eyes of a younger Damian?
DR: Sure. I grew up in Grimsby, Ontario. Small town, not much space for artists when you think of it, but I was into all sort of things in high school. My Dad was a firefighter. I wasn't always an artist but I was good at it. I didn’t see though, where I could go with this as there was a very little place to be an artist with sports, and I just needed a bit of guidance in what was next when I was eighteen years old.
One day I went to an air show with my Dad and I saw a booth with an infantry sign-up. I was like, hell that looks cool, lol, so I went in and did four years in the infantry.
PC: Would you like to talk about the incident with the train while you were in Germany? It was during your Canadian Forces days right?
DR: Yes. So, I was in Kosovo at the time and I had this vacation coming up. I drew the shortest straw and had to go at the beginning of my tour… but it’s something you want to have at the end of your tour so you feel like you have a vacation. I was like, “Whatever”… I got to go to all these great European locations, so on February 6th, I was leaving for leave of duty. The guy I was traveling with had a different ticket and I’d meet him there a bit later and really, we’d sleep all the way there.
The train I got on was a bit older and wasn't the greatest. It was a typical coach train. About twenty minutes into the train ride, it started erratically shifting around, braking sporadically until it jumped the tracks at a switch while going 120km an hour, and crashed into the train station and a house.
PC: Glad you’re still here man! So you were ON the train?
DR: YES! I was on the train traveling around Europe and it crashed! The cabin was crushed. You can go to my Facebook page and see the newspaper clipping. Anyhow, I managed to break one of the windows and get out. At that time I was on an eighteen-day vacation, so I was still in training and all that trauma care was fresh in my head.
I was looking at all that blackness and devastation, at all these train cars that were just flipped on their sides. The window was smashed in on me… It looked like a scene from “The Walking Dead”. I kept smashing the windows and helping people get out of there, assessing the situation, helping to get the situation over with, you know, military training. I noticed a German soldier earlier because he was dressed in his fatigues, and I went towards him to ask if he knew First Aid. He said yes, so we went to the car that had flipped over, dragged it over fifty meters and managed to get the door open together. We got a bunch of people out and then both went back to that car that had flipped on its side, with all the doors and glass windows with people trapped underneath. Those people unfortunately went out the window and did not survive that night.
I’ve had PTSD from that night for over twenty years. It was pretty horrific. It was dark... I have blanks in my memory. We were pulling out people whose loved ones were gone. In that moment you do all you can just to survive. My training helped me to keep calm and I was definitely able to operate, until I got rounded up by a paramedic who took me aside, took care of me and asked questions… I didn’t have anything in my steel luggage that was crushed… but, it could've been me.
I posted that incident on Facebook and some of the people that were there that night reached out to me, and it gave me a sense of peace. It was a big thing in Germany. Four people were charged with manslaughter because the conductor of the train and the constructor of the tack neglected their work. I just found that out a few weeks ago actually...
PC: No way...WOW!!! Was this the point where Damian became the tattooer?
DR: It’s part of it for sure, but it’s helped me today to get a big of closure on the whole night. It does make me feel better, but it’s still a bit nuts, lol, and that was 20 years ago. For many years I’ve been having issues about that whole night, dealing with severe PTSD.
PC: You laugh about it now, you’ve moved on but it wasn't easy eh?
DR: Yes, and it wasn't easy and still isn't. At the time my Dad was ready to come and collect me. He said to me, “If half of what you told me is true, you’ll be fucked for life. There’s no one out there who’ll be able to know how to deal with this, but you.” So I went back to my regular duty like nothing happened...almost. I did a bit of clerk work and all, but three weeks down the road I hid back problems and a superior knew what was up, so I went back home.. But the news didn’t follow and I went back to training. They didn’t know… I tried to explain, but hey!! We didn’t have the information sharing back in 2000… So they were wondering what the hell I’m I doing here...
PC: So twenty-three year old Damian went back home, still in the army... Then?
DR: I went back to the battalion and did a bunch of stuff, then 911 happened. I remember being in the barracks and the whole base is shut down and we were ready for war, but with my back problem and trauma, I wasn't able to go. They put me on “temporary” they call it, and I was looking to be rebadged, to have another job basically. To me there was no way I was going to be sitting here while my friends were getting deployed.
After a while my back was so fucked that they gave me what they call a “medical leave” and with that, two years of school paid for, so I went to graphic and art school.
PC: I bet it was a challenge right there, with military training, going to regular school with kids, because you were a bit older right?
DR: Lol, yes! I was like, “You guys like guns??” Their answer was, “Noooo, guns are bad.” Lol, so it started a bit weirdly. I had to wear a mask everyday and I was twenty-five years old too, so a bit older. Most of the kids were seventeen years old and doing what kids do…
PC: But you had an agenda right?
DR: Oh yeah, that’s it! I was there to learn the skill I was already good at, so when the teacher gave me an assignment and the day after, it was done… they were like, “Well you had a week to do it!” It was just the military training that was kicking in. So I kept it to myself, I was a bit upset because it wasn't going fast enough.
PC: ...and you were dealing with other PTSD issues right?
DR: Yes that’s it. The Forces gave me a medical leave but they didn’t tell me what PTSD was about, so it never healed. It wasn't easy but I graduated well, finished school and at one point one of the shops in St. Catharines was looking for an apprentice to do flash. I went there and bugged them a few times to get in as an apprentice, and then bugged them enough really. I was going to learn it anyway as I really was digging tattoos. I thought people would leave me alone if I was becoming a tattoo artist, lol. It was a bit more solitary at that time. Army guys like bikes and tattoos. It seems to be a perfect fit in a sense. I did that for nine months, six days a week, and no pay. I was going in very early and did the needle making, cleaning, scrubbing... The fun stuff, lol.
PC: Was it a classic, harsh apprenticeship or it was fair?
DR: It was fair. It was a watch and learn thing you know? Taking notes. They noticed my habit that I carried away, but it was hard, you know? Getting there a couple hours before the tattooers’ day started, so all the stuff was cleaned, so they could work, but again my military training was good for that sort of stuff!!
Eventually I came to have a machine from a crackhead, lol, an old Spaulding, sparks flying all over, lol. Good times!!! That was 2005-ish…
In 2006 did my first banger, an arm band. Oh, and I loooooved doing kanji, lol, I was like, ”Man I love doing those, I can’t believe you’re paying me that much for those!” Lol. It was around the same time as Miami Ink!!
PC: Whaaaaat? Lol, are you a TV tattoo kid?
DR: Lol, no but listen, it did happen almost overnight. Lol, you could see all the soccer moms coming in and others, not our typical clientele. They started to ask for custom work and that’s when I saw the times were changing.
I was very sheltered in my tattoo career at that time and I didn’t really know anything about large scale tattoos. It was old school-like... That was how it was back then.
PC: So cool and somewhat so far from where you’re at right now! I mean, sure your tattoos are technically correct, as you would expect from a great tattooer, but I’ve gotta say here, your composition is out of this world! What was the pivotal moment in your career when you can pinpoint saying...THAT day was a good eye-opening day?
DR: Hmmm...One of those days would be the day I discovered MAGS.. hah! It was at my first NIX convention in... 2007 I think... Shige Yellow Blaze had a corner booth doing a rib piece. I sat there for three to four hours just watching, speaking when I was spoken to and I was amazed by his work without knowing who he really was. At the time I was using a round shader because of the tattoos I was doing, but he was doing such smooth shading and I got my shading technique from him.
So, at that convention I got a new shader, liner and started rocking out tattoos that were holding, that were getting done a lot faster and a few guys at the shop came around and were asking, “Wow, how you do that?” I said, “I’m using a mag!!!” Lol, the mag is a good tool that made a big evolution in my work.
PC: Shige should come to YOU now! Oops, did I say that out loud?
DR: Lol, thank you. I don’t know about that, lol, I hear you though. It was a long time ago for me. Everything came out of my military time, especially in the infantry. We’re thinking that if we’re gonna do something we’re gonna look fucking cool while doing it lol, and the cool factor of the asian-style work is soooooo cool and has unlimited outcomes. It gets boring when you stop trying!
PC: It’s a scene right!? You’ve got to be able to make it as good as you can. It’s like you said, unlimited!!!
DR: Exactly! I base my tattoos on veteran philosophy. I’m putting those philosophies into words and then it makes it easier to draw. We can all draw a dragon, but what’s he doing, what’s he stealing? Sure, the dragon will end up cool as it can be! So yeah, I create a scene with a cool dragon that’s meaningful and it gives more power to the illustration.
It’s a good reason why people come to me now for bigger tattoos, they like the story.
PC: Man, the only trouble I see, is the space on anyone's body. You’ll run out of room before the story ends! Hah!!!! WOW, like that big dragon with the Tanto knife!!
DR: Thank you. It comes with what I mentioned earlier, with getting things done as per the military and not having small children. Mine are all gone out on their own now. It’s me, my dog and my lady, and she crafts as well. She’s very talented and she does her thing when I draw so it’s maximized, it’s nice.
PC: Man you are so smooth, we could go on and talk forever! Lol! So, at some point you found the tools but I feel like it’s not the end of what made Damian who you are today!
DR: Correct, in 2007 I went to work with Bailey Moffatt and it gave me the chance to get quicker at drawing. Lots of overflow tattoos came my way and she helped develop my drawing quite a lot! I did that for about seven months, but I wanted to go West, so at one point I sold all I that I had and moved with my snowboard and my snowboard gear, and headed towards Banff, and that was in 2008!
PC: No way! We must have missed each other by a few days! Lol! Such a great spot!! Where did you end up working?
DR: Oh yes, it was good! I had a good spot living above Perfect Image tattoo shop in Banff. It was shiny, bright, and I in was in the mountains. It was a good time for me to heal. My PTSD kicked in at that time and made me hard to deal with and be around, and at that time I had no real help or anything so anger was my way of coping on many occasions. But Banff is a nice hippie town, lol. People are chill, but trying to find myself I went and worked at a few places, then ended up moving to Canmore and opening my own RTC tattoo shop. It went on til 2015 and so many great artists came through, like Derek Turcotte, Michael Brito, but I didn’t understand finances. I didn’t understand business. I just knew how to tattoo, and well.. Shit happens….
A lot of it had to do with PTSD and earlier trauma, and not being able to deal with it and past issues but nonetheless, it wasn't a good environment for them and for me. It was the inner anger that was taking over. Really, you don't ever know what's going on in other people's minds.
At one point I was losing my grasp on everything, what tattooing really was, even who I was. It was hard to get my point of view out and everything was blurry, so in 2014 I got off all my drugs and all my pharmaceuticals except cannabis. I’ll have to consume cannabis for the rest of my life. It’s the lesser of the evils, but once I got rid of all the bad pharma for my back and brain, at one point things started to clear up a bit, and that was about when I moved to the city, to Calgary, that I started meeting with other veterans and seeing that I wasn't alone! Welcome to the club Brother!! Lol. We started to get in touch with more veterans’ groups and from 2016 to the present, this huge campaign appealing and getting us right to where we don't have to worry about this anymore.
PC: Wow, couldn’t be in a better place. This is refreshing to see that you found yourself.
DR: Thank you, yeah. You know one thing I learned, is that PTSD is not an excuse for piss-poor behaviour, and it became my mantra, and that you’re not responsible for the trauma, but it IS your responsibility how you act afterwards. Like, when I get tired I don’t act right, and it’s what I worked on.
PC: Thank you for sharing that with us. You’re very active and after all that, you didn’t give up! So did you think of this as … ok this isn’t the end, there is more to this life?
DR: Oh yeah, that definitely changed my perspective on life and death. My friends know I'm definitely aware of mortality and that’s why I work so hard and push it everyday. The only thing I do, is on skin right now. A few pieces of art here and there. It’s not Renaissance, that people will keep the paintings for thousands of years, so I lay them in the field right now while I have the energy and don’t feel shitty about it...
That’s it! There were definitely some days that were dark and I saw the bottom, but I know there’s a journey to this life. Maybe, I don't know ... I’ve gotta see it through. I’ve just gotta see it…
PC: When I look at your painting I’m thinking you should go bigger next time, lol. Oh, and that Geisha, WOW! The only thing I see is ... damn how long did it take?
DR: Thank you, lol, yeah, that Geisha took me a night...
PC: Wait, ONE night? You mean like 7...right?
DR: Lol, I just sat there with three pots of coffee and went after it! I have the time lapse of it! Lol, this was for me, a way to teach myself to paint “Loose”, and if I just kept going at it there’s a thing with loose painting that’s not finished that captures your eye, you know? That makes you want to keep looking at it. It’s what happens with the Mona Lisa and why it’s so famous. It’s unfinished, so our brain is trying to finish that painting and that is why it’s fun to look at!
PC: You’re fucking with me!!
DR: Lol, right!! I did it to a point where it was so beautiful and I could go back and smooth it up and do all this stuff, but no, I just left it... Every-time I look at it in my home, it is to me, a perfectly unfinished painting.
PC: So it is in a sense, finished… aha!
DR: Yeah, lol, there’s nothing I would do to it.. It’s loose... Beautiful, captivating, not sure what I did, but I peaked on something. I did something right.. I have a hard time replicating it…
PC: Wow eh? Well, look at the silk of the robe, the texture of the flower… oufff!
Would you like to talk about the opportunity that you’re offering for an apprenticeship? I don't draw well, I don't live in Calgary and I’m not a veteran. Can I apply?
DR: Well… not so much! Lol! I would love to take someone on who’s definitely worth it. Someone who will take and give back to tattooing. There’s the business side, but there’s also almost Shamanism, you’ll never be replaced by a machine. Perhaps give someone their life back, like it did for me. It gave me a focus, as long as I had tattooing I was ok. I had drawing and tattooing to get through.
It’s special to me, I want to put someone out there and apprentice them the same way. If you really want this you have to match my tempo, come proper…. I might search for a minute you know.
PC: You’re doing this for a veteran, right?
DR: Yes. I would love to teach a veteran for sure, as we would speak the same language and the same philosophy in how I direct and teach. There’s also the aspect of giving back to the veteran community.
PC: Man, I was laughing, I CAN’T really draw, but I sure can see this as such an opportunity… I hope someone will take this and open up a new life. Who can complain when you “doodle” for living eh? Lol.
DR: Lol, right! That’s it. Gotta keep that PMA going and yeah, the military work ethic and being proud is something that will be beneficial for the right person as it will bring stability and good tattoos day after day for many years... It’s an unreachable goal... To do the best tattoo every time… imagine pleasing myself... Lol, hard to do! I hope to find someone who is meant for this as well.
PC: Damian… there is no doubt that you were meant for it and thank you so much! Next time we’ll do a video interview! This was filled with a lot of information and was a great moment! Thank you!
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