Jo Colette Talks Wanderlust, Muy Thai, Sobriety And Her Tattooing Evolution...
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 tattoo artist Jo Colette.
Patrick Coste: Thank you for joining me today Jo, we’ve never met right? It feels good to meet new people again, even virtually since we can’t travel much!
Pleased to meet you!
Jo Colette: Lol! No, we’ve never met! Pleased to meet you!
PC: Tell us a little bit about yourself... What was younger Jo like?
JC: I was born in Kitchener Ontario and moved to Kingston with my family shortly after. I spent a good number of years there as a child, and then we moved down to Central America. My dad took a sabbatical from his job in Kingston. I have an older sister and a younger brother. It was them, myself and my parents all kind of piled into a little Honda Civic hatchback, and we drove down and back with it years later. We went through the States and then ended up in Central America. I had a really interesting and diverse childhood that way. We were home-schooled as well, so I had a little bit more of an alternative perspective of the world at a young age.
PC: Oh wow!!! Very cool... The same Civic eh? Lol...
JC: Yeah! We left it somewhere in Texas and then flew to Costa Rica, um.... and you know, just backpacked around, took buses around Central America. We stayed for years!
PC: That's amazing. So you must have gotten the itch to travel at a young age...
JC: For sure! I loved to travel when I was with my family. It definitely planted the seed for seeing other parts of the world, and not really enjoying being isolated in one area for very long. We ended up back in Kingston and I spent a couple of years there up through high school.
I was in high school, until partway through Grade 10, in Kingston and then the travel bug kind of hit again, so I left Kingston and hitchhiked to be with a friend. It would have been in the summer of 2007. I just kind of wandered around, had a couple of agricultural jobs on fruit farms out West, that sort of thing...
I really enjoyed a carefree lifestyle for a number of years and absolutely developed a love for travel and seeing different parts of the world, not really staying in one place for too long. My parents initiated that sort of lifestyle for sure.
PC: How do you cope with the lockdown these days in Ontario? You can't really go anywhere...
JC: It's okay right now. We've adjusted fairly well to this lockdown. When the first lockdown happened, we were in Thailand as COVID was emerging and I remember we flew into Thailand in January, and I remember landing in the Hong Kong airport and I got a text from my mom and she's like “Oh there's, I think, an outbreak and people died” etc. It was brutal. My mom, she was worried about it, we're like, oh yeah, okay, cool. Like, you know, I was sure it would have blown over in a couple of weeks and I didn't really pay any attention, so while we were in Thailand, we were hearing a little bit more unfold and watching the situation escalate quickly. We were there for just under two months and flew home at the end of February.
By the time we were flying home, the situation had escalated so much that the airlines were canceling flights from Asia to Canada. A couple of our friends who were booked with different airlines, and acquaintances we’d met in Thailand, had to rebook different flights or go with different airlines all together. Luckily we were with Cathay Pacific. They gave us the option of rescheduling our dates for our flight home to a different time, and at that point we were like, “Okay, well you know things are rough right now, let's reschedule for another two weeks, wait it out, see if things get any more stable”.
PC: Ok, so you hadn’t actually planned an extended trip?
JC: No, I wish we had, but we were only planning on staying for over a month initially and we ended up staying longer because we had the opportunity to with the free rescheduling. We were kind of enjoying ourselves there. The situation didn't look risky at all from the perspective on the ground, you know? We didn't see people getting sick, we didn't hear anything about the dangers of it in Thailand. It was mostly far removed from our reality while we were there, so we figured, why not stick it out for another two or three weeks and see if the situation resolved. Looking back, obviously now that’s crazy seeing how long it's all been drawn out for!
PC: You were fine, so that’s all that really mattered...Right?
JC: Yeah, yeah we were fine. We really didn't know what to expect and luckily everything was fine. We got the extra two weeks out of the trip, but we got home and very shortly after things went into the first lockdown mode, and initially that was difficult. I’d been planning on coming home from Thailand and going back to work. I’d just had a bunch of time off work, so that was in March.
Coming back from vacation and then being unable to go back to work was financially a little bit iffy. None of the government support or anything was in place, so it was a little bit of a surprise when everything was so instantly closed. The first lockdown was really difficult to deal with mentally. Like, we’d been training Muay Thai for like 4 to 6 hours a day when we were in Thailand. I was really active, outside all the time, really social, and we were hoping to keep that momentum going when we came home. Keep the training up possibly, look at finding fight matchups for the coming year...So not only were we locked down like everyone else, it was this abrupt grinding to a stop that was the struggle.
PC: Was there a reason for you to go to Thailand, or was it purely vacation?
JC: We did go for a bit of Kickboxing as well! We wanted to see how it really goes over there.
PC: Right, right... You do a lot of that. Was it helpful for your focus over the years?
JC: Weirdly, I've always had that focus with work. It's actually been one of the only things that I've been capable of sticking to and yeah like, I would say tattooing and raising my son. Staying sober is one of the few things that I've managed to be consistent with because when I was younger, I had a really short attention span. I had a hard time keeping my focus on stuff and would have like, six different projects on the go.
I'm just a total ADHD personality and I love tattooing, especially because I could sit down and you know, actually be still for a number of hours in a row without my thoughts drifting or being pulled in one direction or another, or simply getting frustrated and putting my stuff down.
It was the first thing that I was finally able to glue myself to and then be able to complete, and then move on to my next task. Now, after having my seven-year-old and seeing how he’s bouncing from activity to activity to activity, I see what a big ask that is of someone with that type of personality.
I've always had that focus with art and with tattooing, which I've been grateful for. Muay Thai training really was something that helped me in other areas of my life. It's been a number of years now that I’ve been training, but I found my tie through a client of mine.
I'd always been interested in combat sports and I love the idea of the aggression and strength behind it, as well as the physical activity and learning something new. One of my clients was speaking to me about this class that she was taking, and she said that she loved it. It was her first time, the instructor was great and invited me to go with her, so I did and instantly I was just taken by everything about the sport. I’d never been pushed so hard physically in my life. I thought it was gonna puke the first time I did pads with someone. Oh man, like, it's just a totally different level of fitness than running or going on a bike ride or lifting weights.
PC: This brings me to the next topic, which is very close to your heart...Was it hard for you to be sober during the lockdown?
JC: Oh, absolutely, yeah. It used to be such a fresh and raw memory, that it consumes all of my identity almost. I'm really, really, really happy to be at a point where I’m settled and just able to embrace the other parts of my personality and life without everything having to revolve around sobriety and recovery. That being said, 2012 was when I got clean and sober.
I went through a period of it being difficult to switch to staying away from those types of situations too; making sure that I wasn't around people who would be encouraging of me to use, or like, putting myself in rescue situations where I could be more vulnerable.
When the lockdown came, the difficulty for me wasn't temptation through any of the specific substances, but I actually had a very very hard time dealing with mental health stuff. I think it goes for everybody... When you’re forced to slow down or stop, or some of your coping mechanisms are taken away, it becomes a lot more apparent where the needs are, what you need to address and where the unresolved issues might live.
For me, I’d developed a very healthy lifestyle in terms of physical activity and staying busy, having an awesome job where I love to create stuff and spending time with my family, but a lot of it was really focused on doing things from the time I got clean. It was very proactive in terms of, okay like, what can I do to fill the void and fill the space and keep myself busy and keep myself distracted? I’d found different, healthy and successful ways of doing that and building a life that I enjoyed living, but then suddenly with the lockdown all of that was taken away. I was just kind of stripped down to like, me, myself and I.
PC: Would you say the younger version of yourself would have struggled during the lockdowns?
JC: If it happened back then? I kind of see it as a blessing in disguise, because I hadn't really taken the time to stop and look at the deeper root of my mental health stuff and where the addiction had originally started.
Dealing with depression and anxiety has always been a factor in my wellness, and in my life over the years. I’d never really been able to get to a point where I was satisfied with my mental health. There was always a little bit of something that had fallen behind or like, worries, worries... Yeah, if I didn't have any of the things that I‘d used to replace drugs and alcohol, like fitness, tattooing, work relationships, all that stuff, if I didn't have those things it would be a problem.
Sometimes people, when they're often describing addiction or defining addiction, you're asked to imagine what life would be like without one of those things, or without being able to lean on any of it. I think even though the things that I was doing in my life were positive, I was definitely using those healthy things as another method of escape.
PC: Would you say it's a balance? You found the balance and everything?
JC: Definitely, yeah. The other thing is, so when was this? I guess the first lockdown was in March and things started to get pretty bad, just in terms of mental health, and I reached out to a trauma counsellor and I started some intensive trauma therapy - which was something I kind of didn't have the time or energy or brain space to like even think about before. When you're working and you want to do all these fun, awesome things, it doesn't really leave a lot of room to deal with any of that intense stuff, so...
Over the last year and a bit, I guess, I worked with this trauma counsellor. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD and I just kind of dove head first into understanding what that was, and knowing a little bit more about what I could do to improve the quality of my life going forward.
My partner Chris was also going along a little bit of a parallel path right before we left for Thailand. He had also received a PTSD diagnosis and went away to an in-patient treatment program for it over the summer, during the lockdown. So it was like, a really cool kind of merging of our paths where we both kind of just were able to ignore the outside world for a bit and just focus on ourselves, and really have a positive learning experience where we could give ourselves the attention that we needed and be able to be distraction free. I'm not going to say heal completely, but just have a greater understanding of what's going on and develop a little bit of compassion for ourselves in that regard. Also, we gained the tools that we’re using now for this lockdown, not to mention for just everyday life. That’s definitely making it a lot easier.
PC: I sort of laughed at this because, you know, the lockdown has become “every day” life...
JC: I know, I know... There used to be so much change, but this is what life looks like now I guess.
PC: So, basically you took all that time, you had to make yourself better in every aspect. You were talking about mental health and it ended up being at the same time as your partner Chris, who looks awesome. He looks good, he looks like a firefighter, you know?
JC: Yeah, he’s a firefighter.
PC: That's cool. Yeah, it's one of those things that you know, I don't know if I’d be able to do that. That's like a calling, you know? Like, you need to want to do it, not something you stumble upon...
JC: Yeah, he's done it for, I think over 18 years now. He's been a full-time firefighter with the Niagara Falls Fire Department.
I think more so than ever, I’ve let go of materialistic goals or you know, the normal life milestones. My one and only wish, our goal, is just to be healthy, happy and content and spread that health and contentment, to tell the others that I'm around and as happy as I can be. My goals aren't really focused around anything other than that at the moment, so I'm okay with it.
PC: Can you tell more about how you got started in tattooing?
JC: So, I started tattooing in 2007. I was too young to be responsible for attaching machines in my hands. My first couple of years, up until 2012, were everything I tell anyone who’s interested in tattooing not to do. When I landed my first job at a tattoo shop, it was in 2012 and I was there part-time. I was also working another job and just kind of dipping my toes in the water, getting used to the idea that I would be able to actually have a career at tattooing.
I was cautious, like, I didn't have a whole lot of confidence in my artistic abilities. I loved art. I always loved art as a young child and a teenager. I've always been artistic and found a very rewarding way of expressing myself, but when it came to providing a service for a client, I had less confidence in my ability to do that at the beginning.
I very quickly found that I really love working with people. I love hearing someone's concepts and being able to translate them into something that they would be able to wear on themselves permanently, for the rest of their life. Once I started working with people and getting positive feedback, I guess their reactions gave me a little bit more confidence to continue to learn and grow as an artist. That really helped me to move forward with it. My goal is to really never stop learning better ways. I always want to stay open-minded in terms of the evolution of my tattooing style, and the mindset I have around tattooing.
PC: Your story is very passionate. You seem like a very driven person.
I remember you doing some collaborations (What a pre-COVID era thing eh?) Yeah, I saw you and Cory Ferguson, a little while back, doing a collaboration. What a great guy...
I looked at your work and I saw so many different styles, and you seem to knock them all out of the park. Do you have a favourite style?
JC: Yes it was fun! I stumbled upon Cory's work years ago and I absolutely fell in love with it. His work really inspired me to start venturing into doing dot-work of my own. Whenever I see something new in tattooing, I just want to try it. I don't want there to ever be anything where I'm like, “Oh yeah, sorry, I don't do that style”, or like, “I can't handle that”, even if it's not something that I plan on tattooing strictly or sticking to. I want to be able to know that I have the skill to complete something well, or at least to be able to say that I've done it.
PC: Challenge, accepted...
JC: Challenge, accepted. Yes. Yeah, absolutely, and that was basically my mindset whenever anyone would come through the doors of the shop. I really didn't want to say “no” to anything and of course I’d tackle anything that came my way. That's what pushed me to learn, through the practice of actually doing it. That's how I've also evolved from one style to the next.
I started with a very soft, feminine kind of delicate-feel tattooing... I quickly discovered that I liked adding more black. I had a couple of years where I was really into abstract, mixed styles like, ecological-type stuff and then adding the geometric and dot-work tattooing into the mix.
I had a lot of fun mixing the dot-work with realism or traditional pieces, and then more recently I've ventured into playing around with more Japanese-inspired stuff, and I'm really enjoying that. I love the crisp, solid, bold and concise application of the Japanese stuff, but then you have these elaborate and complex layouts and compositions that make these crisp, bold pieces actually super, super technical.
Yeah, so I'm really enjoying that right now.
PC: Amazing! SO, it’s like… I'm gonna go in, take in all the information I can and then I'll come back and kill it every time.
JC: Well, lol, I'll try for sure.
PC: Lol, anything challenging coming your way when things open back up?
JC: I'll be happy just to be back. I don't have anything on my radar that I'm dying to try. I've got such a backlog of clients that have been waiting so patiently through all this, that I'm just ready to wrap up all of the existing pieces that I have, and make sure that all the clients I have booked in are taken care of as soon as possible. Other than that, I don't really have something that I'm dying to do.
I just want to get back to it and put my all into whatever piece I'm doing that day. That's kind of where my head’s been at for the last little bit. Regardless of what the style is, or what piece I'm doing, I just want to be content with the amount of effort and care that I’ve put into the hours that I've been tattooing that day. Yeah, I'll be happy with that.
PC: OH, and there’s the new shop eh? What’s shakin’ there?
JC: YES! I opened up my shop in St-Catharines with Chris last November, so right after the second lockdown was lifted we were able to start. We started working for a couple of months, up until this one started. It's been amazing. It's an awesome space, a really, really clean and friendly space to work. I've got two other artists there with me; Matt Majka and Miranda Farrell.
Quite a bit for a closed shop, lol... We started doing online recovery meetings through an organization called Refuge Recovery. It's a Buddhist space, not strictly Buddhist, but the teachings kind of revolve around a lot Buddhist practice.
PC: You mean the Tao (philosophy)? Spiritual, but not related to religion per se?
JC: Yeah, yeah, exactly! Every Wednesday at 6:00pm we host an online addiction recovery meeting. Our goal is eventually, once we're allowed to have in person gatherings, we're going to have those meetings in our front room.
A lot of the incentive for us to do that came from a couple of different reasons like, Chris and I really liked the mindset behind the Refuge Recovery. It's done some really good things for our personal lives and our recovery, so we wanted to be able to make that accessible to other people, but also being in the tattoo trade.
I know many people that have been in my situation and maybe aren't gonna really be interested in going into a church basement to go to a different program, but they might be a lot more interested in coming to a tattoo shop or meeting with more like-minded people in an environment that's a little bit more comfortable for them. We're really excited about that.
We've done a couple of meetings so far and they're open to anybody who’s interested in recovery from anything, whether it’s food addiction, sex addiction, drug addiction, alcoholism... Anything really. The principles are all the same in terms of recovery.
PC: You’re talking, we?
JC: Yes, Chris has also been clean and sober since 2011. He has an amazing story. He's a super-inspirational person, and he's been through a crazy amount of trials in his life. He’s taken them, turned them around and spent a really large amount of his time giving back. He does, well he won’t right now because of COVID, but he does a lot of public speaking on addiction and recovery, and he goes to prisons and speaks with people in there.
PC: WOW eh? That's so great that you guys are involved in the community.
JC: Yeah, absolutely. I just want to put the word out there in case there's anyone who might read this that would be interested in joining us for a Zoom meeting, or later on in person at the shop in St-Catharines. They're more than welcome to reach out to Chris or I through our Instagrams, and just use the message or just show up to the meeting.
PC: Okay, thank you for that Jo. I guess next time when we actually see each other it’ll feel like we already know each other. My sister from another mister...
Thank you very much.
JC: Lol, right! Thank you so much. I appreciate that. Thank you for taking the time to chat.
Jo Colette on instagram: @jocoletteart
EDITOR’S UPDATE: Jo Collette and her partner Chris recently made it official and got married!! CONGRATULATIONS and all the best!