Derek Turcotte Talks Tattoo Evolution, Technology and more…
Patrick Coste: Derek Turcotte, good day! What’s shakin’? Before we start, let me just mention that I used to live right down by your shop! It was a restaurant back then, but that was a while ago!
Derek Turcotte: Oh ya??! I think you told me that… So we might have just crossed paths as I was coming here, kinda!
PC: For sure. I can’t picture your shop in the old restaurant…
DT: Yeah, in the old French Quarter, right?
PC: That's right. I’ll bet it’s changed a tad since. I think I should come by soon, lol. I miss that place! Where did you travel from back then? Did you tattoo as well?
DT: …from Ontario. I actually started tattooing in Ontario before I moved out west. I started to work at a local shop. It was a beach-like town, close to Collingwood, ON. Yeah, I started back there and did something like an apprenticeship…like, six months or something like that before I moved out west. So I was 18 when I started… Man, now I'm 37!
PC: The mountain air does you good! That would be about 20 years, eh?
DT: Lol, the air and the sun are great here for sure man. Yeah, almost 20 years… I guess next year will be 20. So, yeah. Pretty crazy, man.
PC: When you started out tattooing, were you already good at it? Like you are now?
DT: It doesn't feel like it's been 20 years, that's for sure so, I guess that's a good thing! I definitely didn't start out great. I think I could always draw and I could always paint pretty well. I actually learned to airbrush before tattooing.
The guy that apprenticed me for tattooing was also interested in airbrushing, so I kind of learned a few things from him. Got an airbrush setup, stuff like that, and then it progressed over the years as well.
Yeah, 20 years in the making for sure, man. Plus, I've just been drawing and stuff since I was a kid, right?
PC: So it was natural for you as a kid… Like, it's not everybody who does that, right?
DT: Yeah. No…well, I think I started drawing from comic books and National Geographic and stuff like that since I was like, super little. I always, always liked sitting around drawing, and when I was travelling with my parents I always had something in my hand drawing something.
It was more to pass the time than to ever think of it as something that would be a job someday, I guess.
PC: Who could complain about doodling every day? LOL!
DT: That's it man! For sure, we're obviously super-blessed and grateful to live here and be able to tattoo every day!
PC: Back when you moved to Alberta, you’d already been tattooing for a little while. I remember Canmore having a shop or two back then. Tell me more about that…
DT: At that time I was working in a street shop kind of thing, right? That's where I probably learned and started to build a clientele. When I moved, I just worked with a ton of different artists, like people travelling through, and then we had a pretty good crew there with people like Damian Robertson…
PC: That must have been a great learning experience?
DT: We learned a lot together, working at that time, just because we're both learners and were learning the fundamentals.
At the time, I was just trying different things with colours. That was around the time when those Neuma tattoo machines came out. We switched from coils to pneumatic machines, you know, so we were trying to have new technology.
I think Eternal had just kind of gotten big back then too. They had just more colours in their palettes, more choices for technology, you know? Cartridges maybe weren't out at that precise time, but they were coming around.
It was all starting to just evolve in the direction of today. I think the airbrushing background with the compressor and the pneumatic stuff, that just made it seem close to airbrushing. So yeah!
PC: Crazy. I never thought about that.
DT: It was a similar setup, right? Like, you had a compressor, a hose, you had a moisture trap. You had to worry about getting oil, lol!
I remember all that shit, man. We built these “compressors” for the Neuma machines and then we were getting oil in our lines. So then, all of a sudden you’ve got oil close to an open tattoo and you're like “What the hell man?! Like this isn't good”. You know what I mean? So yeah, yeah, it was pretty crazy, lol!
PC: Too funny, I get it! Lol! But in all seriousness, has technology helped you to evolve?
DT: Yeah man. The tattoo technology, as it evolved, I feel like my tattooing evolved.
Back then, you threw your machine in the drawer (or I should say gently placed it...) at the end of the day, everything's working fine. Then the next morning, you go to set up for your tattoo and for some reason your machine isn’t working the same as it was the night before.
PC: Too much humidity?
DT: Yeah, or the elevation… Who knows man, it was always something. I guess we got to the point where we're at now, and you just go into the shop and set up for your tattoo and everything works so consistently.
I think to me, that was the biggest change in tattooing; when you could just go in and just focus on the tattoo. You didn't have to worry about tuning your machine, or setting up a compressor, or any of that kind of stuff, you know?
PC: Yeah, yeah… you're not a mechanic!
DT: That's it man, and I wouldn't say I was ever like, the most handy guy with any of that kind of stuff. I can change a car tire, but at the same time I'll just bring it to the shop, you know? I'll just do what I like, what I prefer to put my time into, and I'd rather other people do the things THEY’RE good at.
PC: Well, you're certainly good at what you do. Tell me, did you have that major breakthrough in your tattoo life? You know, when you realized like, ok I’m good…lol.
DT: Hmm, I don't know, man. I feel like it took a long time for me, especially considering how long, we'll say 20 years in at this point. I feel like it took me a long time to become really confident in my style or what I was doing.
I would say though when I started using the rotaries like the Dragonfly tattoo machine, things started to make more sense and I felt like I was starting to get more into Colour Realism and stuff like that. I'd say that's when stuff maybe started making a bit more sense, because you could pack it bigger, like more colourful… or it was just easier in general for sure.
I think I could blend better. The layering was similar to painting, from my experience at the time, and I was getting results that looked like what I wanted it to look like. I feel like with the coils, it was always hard, for me at least, to get like those really soft blends and put in all the details that I wanted to put in. It can be crazy, all the trauma you're causing to the skin.
PC: Would you say it was more like saving time, being more efficient?
DT: Just getting that consistency, man. I'd say yeah, it took me a long time like, almost 10 years before that breakthrough where I actually liked more tattoos that I was doing than I didn't, and that's a pretty long time.
PC: For sure, for sure… A lot of people you f**ked up there, lol. Oops did I say that? LOL!
DT: LOL! Yeah. No shit.
PC: You’re making up for it now…
DT: Yeah, for sure man. I'm not saying every tattoo I did in the first 10 years was bad. I'd say I was just doing a bit of everything, right? Like, I didn't have a style per se. Maybe by the end of that time... Remember, it was at a street shop. When I moved to Damian’s shop, I'd say that's when I was starting to do more Colour Realism and focusing on the style that I have now, or building the style that I have now.
I guess all of it was a building block, but that would have been where I was starting to build on the same style that I do now. Kinda like, just the start of it.
PC: Thank you for sharing this! I'm just thinking, it was about 2010-13ish let's say, right?
DT: Yeah, probably something like that.
PC: That’s also where the actual Realism tattoos picked up. Photo-Realism not like, great Illustration tattoos…
DT: You’re probably right, man. It was like, you're going to conventions, you're seeing what other guys are doing and you're like, “OK, man, like, I'm gonna try to do that” because you can see what's possible now! Especially with the European tattooers.
It reminds me of when Randy Engelhard introduced me to Cheyenne pretty much at that time. I worked with Randy back then in Banff, and he’s definitely one of the main Realism guys, I'd say.
PC: You’re one of today's for sure.
DT: Thank you! Back then he was like, definitely pushing the envelope above everybody. So, I just worked beside him and got tattooed by him as well.
PC: Shout out to Randy! Got the chance to hang with him a few times, a very good man!
DT: Shout out to Randy for sure. Man, he always looked out for me! I’m gonna see him next year, in May next year. He's doing a convention on a cruise ship called @tattoocruise!
PC: AMAZING! He needs a Frenchman there, man. Come on!
DT: LOL! No kidding, man. I’ll see what I can do, bro. Lol!
PC: Lol, this is super crazy!
DT: Yeah, super crazy. You know, I feel like that dude's always tried different new things and always has crazy ideas, but they're always cool. He’s a pretty interesting piece of German engineering.
PC: Lol, yes, he became a dad too a few years back. Must be 10 years now.
DT: Exactly. You're right. He hadn't met his wife yet, Jeanine, but then as the years progressed, he met her and then he became a dad as well.
I actually have a daughter as well. She's 11 now, so I'd say that was kind of a big transition…
PC: To go back to your amazing style, where does your inspiration come from? Do you have a recipe for success?
DT: I guess nature. I’ve always liked wildlife too, and comics. I have a good comic book collection, play a lot of video games. All that stuff 100% plays into what I tattoo, and my artwork. Being in the mountains, I like to travel a lot too. Traveling to different countries and seeing different places inspires me, so I always focus on photography when we’re traveling. Then when we come back, I'll take those photos, and you know, I might not paint the exact photo I take, but I'll use it as inspiration for a new painting or something.
PC: That's really rad. Thank you. You went to Morocco recently, right?
DT: Last April, we went, me and my family. We did Spain, Portugal and Morocco. We went to the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Man, it was a pretty unreal experience.
PC: That's unsettling, right? It's not at all like your regular day at the office when you think about it, you know? Like, that landscape…
DT: For sure it was. It’s obviously a Muslim country and has a strong Arabic presence, so definitely just a completely different world than ours. Honestly man, they're amazing people, and in a lot of ways they really opened my eyes to a different perspective on the culture. They're really loving kind people, you know? We brought our daughter with us and we actually celebrated her 11th birthday in the Sahara desert. That was pretty cool.
PC: All that is very inspiring!
DT: That's it, man, it's cool. All of that plays into the feeling and the creativity of the art work. I think it all works together, man, just like your life experience with creativity and what you do. Especially when I met my wife, she's like, really helped me, you know? I’m kind of an obsessive person, so if I didn't have a family, all I'd probably do is work, which isn't really healthy and I'd probably burn out, you know what I mean?
PC: A balance, eh?
DT: 100%! My wife is super… She loves camping, the outdoors, traveling and stuff like that. Having somebody like that in my life has really helped me balance between just being obsessed with tattooing and painting and stuff, to where I have a bit more of a normal life than I probably would if it was just me!
PC: Another shout out here to Elizabeth!
DT: LOL, that's it, buddy. Most of the time it's a good thing. Sometimes it isn't, then you gotta pull yourself up.
PC: 200% agree. Now, to go back to technology a bit… What do you think of the fast-emerging AI technology? Do you use it?
DT: Totally, man. It makes me think of when iPads came into the tattoo world, and Procreate®.
PC: That was the devil…
DT: Exactly, man. Just like rotaries, when coils were all we knew, right?
PC: That's what made me think about that.
DT: Exactly, man. I think there will always be new technology and you can look at anything like, “Oh that's gonna take my job” or “that's gonna replace me”, or we can adopt it and make us better at what we do, right?
I’m actually working on a Venom painting right now and I used a couple of references I got from Midjourney, which is one of the AI-like apps. I airbrushed a Venom character with the Midjourney app and all of the sudden I'm paying for it. Obviously I’ll tweak it out and put my own spin on it.
It‘s just another great tool for the painting I'm working on right now, so for sure I'm gonna use it, man. That's great technology, so why not? Right?
PC: It’s not so different from using pictures and Photoshop. It's just way more efficient when you think about it.
DT: Yeah man, it's just like a step further in technology, right? Like, just making that stuff more interesting. So yeah, I think it's cool.
PC: What’s up for you in the next little while?
DT: In the next few days I’ll be doing a collaboration with Matt Curzon.
PC: Oh snap! Two great tattooers! Do you find it technically hard to do collabs?
DT: Not much anymore. I mean, it was a little nerve wracking the first couple of times. You’ve obviously got to be a bit more aware of the person you're working beside, and your client, and you’ve got to check what they're doing and trying to work on. It's like, even just the stretching, pulling a line, how much pressure you're putting on the skin. Keeping aware that you're moving the leg or an arm or something for the person who's tattooing right beside you. I guess, just that kind of stuff. But no, man, I think it's always been a pretty fun process from my point of view .
PC: I always think of the collector…
DT: Yeah, exactly, man. You’ve got to respect the person that signed up for those projects, for sure.
PC: Will we see you at a convention this year?
DT: Just Calgary in October would be it. I didn't do a ton of shows or tattoo traveling this year. I’m kind of just focused on traveling outside with the family.
PC: We'll catch up there man! Cheers, and thank you very much for the time!!
DT: Yeah, man, for sure. Yeah, I appreciate your time Patrick and also for just like, reaching out man. That’s cool.
PC: Thank you so much, very grateful. Have fun on your days off and you know, keep it classy man.
DT: Thank you. Alright brother, have a great day.