Jesse Shearman Talks Golden Grills & Tattooing Nas...
PC: Jesse Shearman, good day! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I HAD to give you a shout…I mean, you’re one of Toronto’s finest tattooers, and you’re sooooo active.
You’ve got a thriving shop. A truly great business, solid as it gets, but you also have few hobbies/side hustles, a family… and when you do something, it looks like you mean it every time! Lol.
JS: Hi Patrick! Thank you for the honour… and yes, I do.
PC: Let's start with those golden grills. WOW! Quite the thing eh? I’m very intrigued… Did you have any prior experience with that? I mean… no one really learns that in school, you know?
JS: No, no, not at all. I mean, I have some experience in metallurgy right? Because I used to make tattoo machines back in the day and stuff like that.
So basic braising and some MIG welding, you know? Manipulating the metal a little bit… But nothing like gold and gold is fun to work with because it's so much easier to work with. It’s softer. You can bend it and do whatever you want as opposed to working with 10-18 cold rolled steel. It's more expensive to work with though…
I had the opportunity to learn those things and I thought it was a good time to work gold. So yeah, and I actually did pretty good with it for a while. I was just making gold grills for people.
You see the thing is, when you're a tattoo artist you have to understand what your product is. You know what I mean? So I sell tattoos, and I know nobody NEEDS a tattoo. It's not like groceries, right? It’s the same thing with gold grills. Nobody NEEDS a gold grill, but they want a gold grill and my clients are the type of people who buy things they don't need.
I like to do it and they like to buy it!
PC: Simple, love it! Tell me, you’re truly a pillar of tattooing in Toronto. How long have you been at it?
JS: I've been tattooing for 25 years now. I turned 40 this year, I started tattooing when I was 15.
PC: Fifteen! So it wasn’t like, a CLASSIC route let's say…
JS: No, I was always an artist and the truth is the allure of tattooing has always attracted me. I remember being a kid walking down Yonge Street, Queen Street and breaking my neck looking inside shops, hearing that buzz… Like, what’s going on in there?
There's something about tattooing that fascinates me, but not just tattooing. I've never really been into getting tattooed all the time, but I was so fascinated by the process of tattooing. I've always wondered like, how the hell did they get that image on you? Know what I mean? I never understood how it worked, so I was SO fascinated.
There was no internet, there were just tattoo magazines, and you don't even know how they're tattooing, you just see the tattoos. I'd be looking at the tattoo magazines, pictures of conventions and looking at their setup, how they set their station up… That's all I had. Then there was an old tattoo supply store in Toronto on Queen Street; Studio One, that would sell tattoo machines and stuff like that.
I also remember getting my first tattoo in Toronto. I'm pretty sure it was because they would tattoo anybody. I’d just turned 15. I still have it, I've never had any tattoos that I’ve covered.
The tattooer told me where I could buy supplies, because I was fascinated. I paid $60 for the tattoo. I'll never forget..
PC: Sixty bucks!
JS: Sixty bucks. This was 25 years ago. I'm sitting there, I'm getting tattooed and watching this other guy across from me get his neck done and I'm thinking, “Oh my God!”, right? But I remember feeling like a man that day like, I can deal with this. I was really nervous, “Am I gonna be able to do this or what?” I remember asking questions and looking around and really soaking everything up, and then he told me about Studio One supply. They’re still around. “You can go get your supplies”, and the next day I was down there and getting the supplies and equipment I needed.
I was really fascinated. Like, how can I learn? He's like, “Go to the supply shop and check it out, whatever”. So I went down there and I got a catalog, and I started going through the catalog. I bought myself a tattoo kit that they’d put together. Machines back then were still American-made.
PC: So after spending one week, you defined your career? 25 years? You’ve got to have some moments that you’re proud of that have happened over that time…
JS: Yes I do! I like to ask this question of artists at times: Who’s been in your chair? Who influenced you? What’s the day you’ll never forget? And they all have somebody. They all have somebody like, oh yeah, I remember this guy or a celebrity or whatever it is.
PC: So, who’s been in your chair?
JS: Lol! So my guy is a rapper by the name of NAS. I tattooed the rapper NAS.
PC: Who’s that? Lol, I’m just kidding! He’s a master!
JS: I had a good friend that I tattooed a lot, he was in the music industry, and he would hook me up with a lot of celebrities that I would tattoo in the city. They’d come to the city and he'd show them around, and he's like, “I know a tattoo artist also”. He got me to tattoo them. He does that often, but one night he calls me up… He's like, “Yo, I'm eating dinner right now with Nas. He wants to get a tattoo”.
In my head I was like, “Really?” I'm a big hip hop fan. Hip hop is a big, big thing to me.
I'll never forget it. I was literally just putting the steaks on the barbecue. I've just finished tattooing and I'm at home and then he calls me up at 8:00pm or something like that and he's like, “I'm with NAS, and he wants to get tattooed”. He hands the phone to NAS! So I'm on the phone now with Nas, one of my favourite rappers of all time. I'm a REALLY big fan of this guy too, and he's like, “Yeah what's up?” As soon as he said “what's up?”, I knew it was gonna be cool.
We went to his hotel room, and this is before tattooing celebrities and all that kind of stuff was a thing in Toronto. It was weird. “Drop everything”, my wife said. I said to her, like, “Should I go?” and she's like, “Yeah” so I dropped everything right away. I called a friend of mine who's a local barber and I'm like, “Yo I want to go down there, can you drive me down there? Bring your stuff too. I'm going to see NAS”. He says, “Say no more”. He came down right away, picked me up, and we went down there.
We got to the hotel room and there's NAS and I was like, “No fucking way”, and I remember tattooing him. That's the thing, I remember tattooing him and asking him a few questions. Not even really hip hop related though, because I don't want to. I don't want to sound too much like a crazy fan or something, but literally… Did he know that I knew everything he did?
It was crazy, and everything he talked about was really… You could tell he was a very well measured guy. You know what I mean? Everything he thought about, everything he said. He was very focused on everything and he meant what he said too.
I liked that about him. What was really interesting about the tattoo was, I was doing the inside of his bicep. I think it was his left arm and he wanted doves on the inside of his arm and he said, “You know, I want these doves. They represent the Holy Spirit” and this and that. Doves meant more that day.
I was gonna make a really nice dove. What was so interesting about the piece though, is that there was a cross on the outside of his arm. Young men used to bring in a picture of NAS all the time and Tupac, but they’d bring in a picture of NAS and they’d always say like, “I want this cross on the side of my arm”, and it was exactly THAT cross. They bring in this cross, this picture of Nas that I did so many times and the funny thing is that I eventually tied my piece into that cross. It was a big deal back then, you know? It was before social media.
It's not all about tattooing a celebrity though. The whole point is; who’s influential. It doesn't have to be a celebrity. Could be anybody. Could just be some guy you met that you never forget the conversation you had with.
He wasn't a party animal when I got there. There weren't a whole bunch of girls. They're like, not what you think. You know what I mean? He was a real business guy, and you know, crossed his T’s and dotted his I’s. He wasn't hammered when I got there. You know what I mean?
PC: 100%. WOW, what a story! Especially because you were so appreciative of his tunes! That’s amazing!
Tell me a bit about your early days. Did you get an apprenticeship way back when?
JS: I did apprentice, yeah, at a local tattoo shop. This was when all tattoo shops were run by bikers and I learned what not to do at that shop to be honest. Meaning, talk wise or just everything, you know? The artist was okay, he wasn't a bad artist. He was a local artist at the time in Scarborough. He was just a drunk and a drug addict, so I had to put up with that all the time but I was trying to be a great artist. I knew that I wasn't gonna be there forever. I knew I wasn't gonna be him. I knew I didn't want to be around the type of people that would come there, you know what I mean? I just knew that I had to do it to get the craft, to learn to swing my sword and then get out in the field and do it myself.
PC: I like the way you explain things like you're on a mission. Was there a pivotal tattooing moment that you can pinpoint? That changed your life?
JS: There definitely was. There were many moments. Winning awards definitely helps morale. Being recognized amongst your peers and then doing a nice tattoo, then winning the tattoo of the day and then a bunch of guys come over that you actually respect and they're like, “Yo that was really dope what you did. I like the way you used that yellow. I like the way you blended that and all”. Then it was like, okay cool. Like, real artists are recognizing things I'm trying to do. So that was nice.
PC: Did you ever have someone that, like showed you how to bag your bottle, you know, who came to you and said, “Hey, this is great, this is great”. You know, someone you looked up to?
JS: I don't know where to start. There’s so many artists who’ve come by. I don't want to just say one and then leave out another though. That's the problem. Honestly, over the years you just work hard. Also the most important thing is you gotta keep doing better and better. You can’t stay still. You’ve got to challenge yourself and you gotta try things, and most importantly you've got to be okay with losing. Losing is a big thing. Like, you gotta be okay with it. Let's get some drinks, you know? As opposed to, “I'm never competing again, I should have done this”.
PC: I like it! It’s important to be at peace.
Thank you so much for sharing all this, I hope others will be inspired.
Holy, we’ve been talking for hours! Lol! We should do a part two Jesse. We could talk about barbecue and grilling meat and bring my good friend Rob into the conversation. We’d have a blast, Lol!
Thank you Jesse