JF Biron Talks “Watercolour Controversy”, His Mentors, And Life Prior To All That...
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 JF Biron.
Patrick Coste: What's shaking JF? It’s been a while eh? Where are you at these days?
JF Biron: I’m in Montreal! I’ve been working when we can and wondering if I'll be able to go work again tomorrow. I think that with COVID it's a day by day thing, and I think I just can't wait for the stability of knowing that I can just focus on my art.
PC: ...and not worry about anything else right? I hear you...
JFB: Exactly! Gosh, I have no recollection in my life since I was a kid, when I wasn't interested in tattoos in some form.
PC: So how did you end up tattooing? Did you start tattooing when you were ten?
JFB: Lol, no, no. I was a late bloomer in the tattoo world. As a youngster I drew on my friends a lot, like from teenage years on. I spent the whole summer just drawing on my friends with permanent markers. Just all these designs that I would come up with, but it never occurred to me that it was actually something I could do.
My great-uncle had a super-traditional heart and banner tattoo that he got in Italy during WW2, and I was always incredibly interested in just looking at it and trying to understand it. It's more like, afterwards I understood that it was a heart and everything, and the old-school aesthetic.
My great-uncle was a minesweeper. He removed mines in WW2, so he had an extremely dark sense of humour. He was just the coolest guy though, except if he was mad at you, then he would rip you apart. That’s how he was. I feel like he embodied the old-timer tattoo mentality.
Then I just kind of made my way into Fine Arts. I got a B.A. in Studio Arts from Concordia, and when I was there I got my first tattoos. Then I was like, “This is an interesting medium” and I got interested in how I could do it. I just tried it. Eventually I built a portfolio and was able to get an apprenticeship.
PC: Way cool. Did you have a traditional apprenticeship?
JFB: I had two, lol. Let me tell you the story…
So a friend of a friend had a shop and he was alone, but you know, when you don't know the reality of the industry you're just happy to get your foot in the door. This person was selling kits to the general public, like, a cheap cheap machine at five bucks. Then he’d sell them for like, $125.00. It was just ridiculous. I didn't know that it was just a big “No-No”, so really the big lesson from that was, because these machines came in and were crap, we had to tune them. We’d spend like, up to 50 hours on them lol, going to bed at five in the morning because we tuned the machines all night. I got to know coil machines from A to Z doing that, so he taught me all that, but I left about eight months later.
I started, actually it was kind of like an epiphany because I went to my first tattoo convention. It was in Toronto in 2009, I was absolutely blown away by the talent.
PC: NIX, what a great show. You went there as a visitor?
JFB: As a visitor. It was kind of an exercise, so we went and I was taking as many seminars as I could, like my first bloodborne pathogens course, do’s and don'ts of the industry. After that weekend I realized that I was basically working for a scratcher. I then realized how I wanted to start my career, so I decided to just say goodbye and start again from scratch.
PC: So you truly started anew, from scratch! Pun intended, lol!
JFB: Lol, yes! I started back at ground level. I liked it after a couple of months of just going everywhere. I actually have a good story. I looked up to Safwan quite a bit and so he's the first person I went to show my portfolio to. The first question he asked was: “Do you want me to like, be nice or be truthful?”
Obviously I said “truthful”… The first thing he said was, “I'm not even going to look at your tattoos, you haven't been tattooing enough”… Then he went and picked apart my entire portfolio.
At that time, I was trying to create some form of “reinvented old-school” where I wasn't using the principles that made up old-school. I was using the imagery, but no meaning. I came out of there (I've told him this story, he knows...) and I hated him so much, but it gave me such drive. I was like, “I'm going to show you. I'm going to work for you one day.” From there on our relationship was really like, each year I’d bring him a gift (bottle of liquor) and he’d critique where I was at, both drawings and tattoos. Then eventually I’d just do a tattoo for him, and everything he said at that first interview was absolutely 100% true, and I couldn't be more thankful that he did what he did because he made me a better artist.
PC: I have the same respect for him that you have. He helped me as well, and that's beautiful...
JFB: Oh yes! He's an amazing person. He has a wonderful eye for just about every aspect of what tattoos are, you know? Like, from the machine, to the end product design, composition, just everything. Since I got my chest piece done by him, I was able to kind of dive into the creation and understanding of how he went from a blank piece of paper to a finished tattoo.
PC: You got all this wisdom and you went on to make your own way because like you said, your tattoos are vastly different from Saf’s, but solid. You must’ve had an evolution...
JFB: Absolutely, when I got my “real” apprenticeship in 2010 at a shop called Voodoo. It wasn't the Granby one, it was the one in Montreal that had three owners. It was across from Sin City on Saint Dominique, the team was amazing. People like Julie Hamilton taught me so much about cover-ups and attention to detail.
There was a tattooer there named Val McBain, who now works at Dark Tides in Kingston. She was my main mentor, and there was also Chloe Jabour who now works in Quebec. I was surrounded by all this talent, and I came in because the owner wanted me in there. He basically said: “Okay, tomorrow, you come to the shop and I want to watch you tattoo”, so I brought a friend. I just brought everything; like a little mini convention kit, and did my tattoo which was, you know, ok.
At the end he said, “You're not very good, but you're very passionate and you were ready for anything, so you're on the team”, and I could feel all the other tattooers were just grumbling… “He won't make it, not for him, what is he doing? Like, we don't need this”… you know…
PC: But that's how it is, right? Sort of hard to get in!
JFB: Yeah, exactly. I didn't start out with having someone who was making me do all the groundwork. I did it on my own and told myself, “I'm going to win their respect. I'm gonna clean everything, undo their setup, redo their setup, do their tubes...” I did what a real apprenticeship is supposed to be! By doing that, they accepted me and taught me, especially Val McBain who became my main mentor. She’s such an amazing artist, and to this day there are times I can't comprehend how she even does the art she does.
All of the principles of her work are mine too, you know? Again, artistically we’re very different, but all of the tattoo principles are the same. During my apprenticeship Val wasn't very talkative, but when she spoke, when she said something it was like, you know, mind blowing or just like “Really? Come on.” So I was like: Oh, shit. Okay, I just understood something I shouldn't be doing and I loved it. I meant that.
I remember one time I was upset because the stencil machine was broken. At that time those machines were, and still are, special machines. So she let the day slide, then at the end of the day she took me aside and said, “JF what you did, I never want to see that again. You’re privileged to have a stencil machine, because I did all of my stencils by hand for the first five years...” Just in that, I mean, if you dissect the trade there's so much work ethic and we all have to be grateful for what we have because it can always go away. Instead of getting upset, I was like, “Okay, what do I need to do?” Relax, because in the position where I was, having a special machine was incredibly easy for me. I hadn't understood what it really meant to not have one, you know?
PC: I’ve got to ask about your style of tattoos, and it’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask any “watercolour” tattooer… What's up with that watercolour thing JF? Lol, if anyone can answer that, it’s you!
JFB: Lol. Yeah, well the first thing I’ve always said regarding black lines and black in general, and I'm not saying black isn’t good and there’s black in my tattoos sometimes, but I use lines as a player in a game that has the same space as colour and negative space and all that. There’s no magnet in black ink that holds other colours together, so the idea that you need bold lines is untrue.
PC: That’s somewhat controversial eh?
JFB: Yes very, but there's like an asterisk to that... How can a tattoo be solid and not have black? The answer to that is; contrast and full saturation. Those are the two main ingredients.
So, do watercolours fade? Depends if you do them correctly or not. If you use water to dilute your ink right off the bat you're gonna fuck everything up, because by adding water to your pigment you're dispersing the pigment particles, and you can't. You're taking your full saturation and you're reducing it, just like you would in Photoshop. In Photoshop though, if you reduce the saturation it reduces it evenly, whereas in the skin you can't know where a pigment particle is going to land. One area is going to have more colour than another, and not in a good way.
That's why my technique is 100% full colour saturation and then I change the colour’s function with what I need to make a good contrast with the skin tone. So what happens is at the edges where it seems to dissipate, you still have colour. You have colour that’s lighter than the skin tone, you know? That's the point; to go lighter than the skin tone and then off into either a whip shade, or a whip shade with water where at that point you're not even going to see it.
PC: So it does the job it’s supposed to...
JFB: Yes, exactly. The job of disappearing should be happening before that, and that's through the use of light colours and taking into account the skin tone. Watercolour tattoos when done correctly, do not fade. Period.
PC: Amazing, and you've got that because you've been working at this style for a long time...
JFB: Exactly. I'm in my twelfth year and I still see pieces that are coming back from six, seven years ago, since I've always used that technique. That’s full saturation. I have tattoos coming back from my apprentice days that are still packed and solid, but from that point where we said earlier like, yeah this is what I do... That's ALL that I do. Tattoos coming back are exactly like they should be, just like an old-school tattoo by Shamus or a black and grey from Anam, you know? In five years, in ten years, what are they looking like? They should still look great if the person takes care of their skin; moisturizes. Does it look great? Yes, it does and I'll fight anybody who wants to challenge that, but not physically because I’m definitely not gonna do THAT, lol.
PC: Ok, ok Billy Idol, lol... If we backtrack a bit to your early days, were you doing mostly watercolour art?
JFB: Watercolour might have been kind of on and off, and then I just got more serious as I developed it. The sketch work that I did was dead on. I always found that my sketches were much more compelling than any finished drawing, so I just stuck with that and that kind of art. I love that roughness of not being fully there, but with enough information to know what it is.
I graduated in 2004 and when I started tattooing, I was trying to promote that style here in Montreal as much as I could, slowly but surely, you know? I would get one tattoo that was like that, but back then I was already working full-time doing whatever came through the door. I was still trying to push my own thing. It grew a little by little and over the years it's become what it is, and I couldn't be more grateful for it.
PC: Amazing. When you think about it, at times you just see the struggle of the process, you know? You don't see the beauty, but you can always go back and see it.
JFB: Yeah. I mean, we've all fucked stuff up. It’s inevitable for my own apprentice, that's the first thing I put on the table.
It's like, “Listen, you will fuck up, so get over it and just now let's work on trying to do it with fewer mistakes and understanding how to do it correctly as fast as possible, because you can't avoid a blowout. It will happen to everyone and it happens no matter where you are in your career, so you can't be perfect all the time.”
I mean, of course there are moments where I’m like, “Holy shit, that's a really nice tattoo. I did that well on that one….”, and then I’ll start picking it apart for what I can do better for the next one. Obviously that will take a toll on your self-esteem, and also on your defense mechanisms. Mine was work. It got me to where I am.
PC: So have you slowed the pace down a bit?
JFB: Yes, I take time now. I mean, I don't even understand how I was able to work as much as I did, especially from when I started my real apprenticeships up until now really.
PC: Tell me about that part!
JFB: I was working a full-time job.
PC: What were you doing back then?
JFB: I was the 911 call operator. So I mean, like, I had this aspect of total loss of faith in humanity, because it’s not fun being backstage to society.
I was working 40 hours a week and then any time I wasn't there answering calls, I was at the shop... unless it was the fucking middle of the night, obviously. I remember having night shifts where I’d finish at seven in the morning, go to sleep, get up at 10:15 am, go to the shop and work the day until eight. Then, back to work, sleep on the couch for an hour and a half and my shift starts, you know? Doing that non-stop. My apprenticeship lasted for two years...
After that, when I left the police, I didn't stop. Like, I couldn't. It's not like I said, “Okay, now I can relax”. No. Now all the hours I used to work at the police, I just poured into tattoos. Just anything to keep my mind off the demons in my head... So I'm grateful that I am where I am because I was able to put so much into it, and pour so much into it.
You can only focus on doing the best job that you can and accept those things will happen.
PC: I do different things but when you get into this trade I would say, you know, you just can't stop.
JFB: It's a wonderful community. I absolutely love it. It's because it's way more than just a job I hoped for. For those tattoo artists that think it's just a job, that's it. This or another one, I'm really sad for them because they don't get to enjoy it as I believe they should. For me personally it's my life. It's what I do. I do other things, but I can't imagine not doing it. To me it's the highest form artistically, because you're trying to draw something in a three dimensional space where you can't go too deep, you can't go too shallow... You have to work it perfectly. It's like the alignment of the stars for that kind of thing, you know? So like, oil painting is extremely difficult, but a canvas is a canvas, you know? Skin is different, and I've touched a lot of mediums through doing my Bachelor of Arts and nothing compares, you know?
PC: Hopefully it won't be a thing they need to do to get their Bachelor's degree. Lol…
JFB: No, I don't think so. Tattoos are looked down upon by the Fine Arts community, so to them it's just lowbrow. It's the ultimate form of art for me. I'm pushing it as much as I can to the point where, you know, I want to use a person's body as a canvas and try to break out of this “real estate” mentality.
To me, if the line needs to go there, I’ll drop it there. Other times it's like, where I’m going to go out of its usual territory. For example, I did a big sunflower on a very good client, on the side of their thigh, and I told her; “This line goes down all the way and even turns under your foot so that when someone's looking at it, the line just disappears underneath. It doesn't end.” Thankfully she was totally for it, but using the body as an entire canvas... Like, you wouldn't take a 16 x 20 inch canvas and do four paintings on it, you know? I think I'm trying to bring that kind of Fine Arts mentality.
PC: Graphic arts too, because back in the day it seemed like you had one letter on the thing and you’d say, “Oh, my God, I get it”, you know?
JFB: Yes, yes! How using beautiful empty space/empty skin can have its own place in the tattoo, you know? Usually the thought is that empty skin is a place where you can put a tattoo, but what if that empty space can be part of the tattoo and be needed for its design?
PC: Amazing philosophy here man! Tell me, if you could pinpoint a moment, a little something that made it all happen?
JFB: A pivotal moment? I would say it’s more like a tattoo after tattoo sort of scenario that happened...
I think it's just that I started one day and I slowly built it, you know? At first it was one watercolour-looking tattoo every two weeks, then once a week, and then a few during the week. I’d basically post just that at one point so I could do more. Now my social feed is very curated, but back then if you scrolled down what you’d see would only be that. I wouldn't show the thousands of other tattoos that I did, because that's not what I wanted people to know I did.
PC: So you went that way business-wise and made the decision to do that. It happened progressively, like, over a year... not overnight.
JFB: Not even! I’d say it took maybe thirty-four years to be at the point where I was doing anything watercolour-ish or sketch-ish, one or the other. I was a little bit more versatile, but as long as it was under those styles, that's all I did. So, I think maybe in my fifth or sixth year...
PC: You're gonna have to make me a traditional watercolour you know...
JFB: Yeah, no problem!! Lol. You know what? It's funny because I've been doing a lot of conventions, or I had been… until COVID, and I had my bookings but any flash that was on the table, there was always one little sign that says I can watercolour anything. That's my major selling point. You have an idea, I can turn it into my art no problem because I've done it so much, you know?
PC: Wow you’re very inspirational my man! What’s next for you?
JFB: The next step for me, and where I've been kind of trying out stuff, is a watercolor portrait. I want to be able to hit that benchmark. Someone wants a portrait of their loved one, just like all the other styles; realism and all that, but my art, and you know it's been years, years in the making, I'm still trying to perfect it on paper. I won't do it on skin until I'm certain that I've got a base of understanding so that I could take any picture and turn it into a piece that people can say, “Oh, that’s by Ink Your Soul”.
I don't know yet. See, I'm not even there. I've taken a bunch of classes online to understand just how to go from the picture of someone to a watercolour. There are obviously many ways to do that. There's the old Venetian techniques, like a cold and a warm colour that builds up and it builds into this really beautiful pseudo-skin tone that isn't. But there's also that aspect of like, what if it was all monochromatic? Would there be lines? Would there not be lines? I'd like to have a sketch in it. I’d like to incorporate both but not really, you know? I do a lot lately. I've especially been having some fun with having that duality... No lines, and no lines in one tattoo. I'm just exploring. I'm just having fun with what possibilities can be there.
It's obviously a different method, and you're not going to paint. I'm not going to attack exactly the way I'm going to paint. Watercolour you have a little bit of time, like a few seconds or a few minutes depending on how wet it is, to play with what you have. But it's very quick, you know? You can't fuck around. So it's the same thing in tattooing. When I'm doing my shading, I have a little bit of leeway, so I still use blending techniques that I kind of picked up from the actual watercolour on paper. In a sense, watercolour is the closest of all the mediums, to the technique of patterns. So for me, it's super-logical and easy to go from one to the other, because I'm going to work it in a similar fashion.
PC: You're going in-depth with technical shit here man!
JFB: Trust me, we're still just scratching the surface.
PC: You think about it every second, you know? Like you said earlier... This is your life. Did you have trouble with classic tattooers? Like, being a different type of artist? You're a little bit more artsy than most, yet quite technical.
JFB: I think that I am artsy and I'm very at ease with that fact. I always question myself and my art though… Did I do that right? The feeling of never reaching that satisfaction, like there's a constant search technique-wise and and look-wise, because you're always moving forward. You're never really at a point where you're at the top of the mountain and you can look down and just enjoy the view. It's a never-ending slope.
PC: Tell me, and you’ve been open about it, you’ve been through some heavy stuff lately eh?
JFB: Yes… For me, it's the best year of my life because I'm turning forty, and it's the first time that I can truly say, “Hey, I'm having fun living and doing everything that matters”. But it wasn't like that not too long ago.
Thank God 2020 happened! I’ll be the only human who will say this, but thank God the pandemic happened because I was able, and obligated, to stop and actually reconnect with myself with my art, my family, with what it meant to breathe. I’ve spoken openly on social media that I've gone through a very harsh depression. I tried to kill myself in mid-2019. I've gotten sober since then. I'm, you know... I've gotten help, professional help. Only today do I see how important it is to take that time to just sit and enjoy, because otherwise you're never happy; content. There's some positivity with that, but there's also a limit to that positivity where after it becomes detrimental.
I think in general tattoo artists, no matter what style they do, we all have similar issues of wanting to persevere and to push…
PC: I’m glad you’re still here man!! So, you’re good, you’re working… You like to be busy, but now you’re taking it easy for a bit? Always be nice to people, you never know what their struggles are. Would you mind elaborating on the mental health issue?
PC: So you went through a shitload of emotions over the past three years. What would you say to someone who’s been struggling with self-esteem, or dealing with depression?
JFB: I think we all experience our different traumas. Mine stemmed from very far back in my childhood... Self-esteem was a major issue.
Tattooing can be harsh. It's like, you want to be with the cool kids. You're already one of the cool kids, but within the cool kids you want to be accepted into this community, you know? It's easy to lose track of what you want. I'm not a party guy and I can't drink anymore, so at the end of the convention I'll go out with friends, but I'm not going to go and get smashed. If that means having fewer friends, I'd much rather that, than the idea of disrespecting myself.
PC: So you took control, right?
JFB: Yeah, exactly. I think I can go into everything, including what designs I want to do, or my relationships with clients. I mean, you can say to a client; “I don't have to do anything for you”, and you can say it politely. No matter how much it sounds like you’re being a dick, I think they say, that's the reality. We have this ability to do what we want, we just have to work towards that. It's very easy to fall back on the “Oh yeah, but you know, you may have had better chances” or “I'm in a small town and I need to do all the tattoos”, and you can fall back on a thousand different excuses.
PC: Yeah, not reasons, they're excuses...
JFB: Exactly, so if you were to live a respectful life where the first person you respect is yourself and the next ones are the people who are close, there’s a ripple effect and you respect everyone. But the first person you need to respect is yourself. If you take that moment, the extra moment to say, “You know what? I'm not feeling this. I want to step away from it”, then do that because then you're going to go to sleep at night. If you decide to go through it, and most likely if it's against your will, you're going to have a shit time doing it. There are going to be complications and you're just going to live with that turmoil that you didn't have to accept.
PC: So taking control, that's good. Is that where you’re at with yourself now?
JFB: I think I'm still in the beginning. I mean, I still feel like I'm in the beginning. At least I know that right now I understand that I had to take the steering wheel and that I’m captain of my boat... To refer to my drink of choice; rum!
PC: Rum! It's disgusting man!! ;P
JFB: LOL, you haven’t tasted a good rum then...
PC: I definitely haven’t! Lol. It's hard to find balance. It’s like being busy, there’s a point where it’s harmful.
Thank you JF for your time today, and your story! Just before we go, I know you’re an avid musician and that you have a new album out! I’ll plug you right here!
“Danger Ghost” - You guys have to take a listen… Smooooooth!
OK, this will be for another interview, lol, but since you are a music lover what would be in your playlist when you're tattooing?
JFB: Thank you for sharing, it IS a whole other story, lol. Next time, but I’m definitely gonna give you a couple here!!!!
First one would be a band called “Jinger” with a tune called “Pieces”. It’s speedy, enigmatic, a bit messy and I love the mood!
Another one would be “Lamb of God”. Anything from them is also to my taste!
PC: Good tunes man… Nice! Thank you again JF, we’re bound to see each other soon! Take care of yourself eh?