Peel Smith Talks ‘90s Tattooing, His Dad’s Legacy & Judging At Conventions
Patrick Coste: Peel, how are you? We just saw each other at the 20th Anniversary Calgary Convention and it seems like we couldn’t get enough of you! Lol!
Peel Smith: I'm doing alright, thanks for asking. We actually just got hit with about 12 cm of snow last night, so you guys came and left at the perfect time…
PC: No kidding! For sure, Peel, with all the fun we have on the Canadian tattoo circuit, we’ve never really sat down and talked seriously. I bet this won't be any different…lol.
PS: Probably not, lol!
PC: Before we go down the rabbit hole of stories, and I know we will, how long have you been tattooing?
PS: I started… My dad actually started in 1990, and I started… I think I did my first tattoo in 1990 as well, but I didn't start doing it for a living until ‘92. I think that was when I started doing it as an apprentice and all that stuff.
PC: So about 30… 31 years, wow! Was your apprenticeship under your father?
PS: Yes, my dad employed me because I'd always been drawing. I have always been, you know, good at art and things like that. So, first he employed me pretty much right out of school.
I was working the front counter, drawing, doing cleaning and booking appointments and things like that. He came in about six months later and he got really mad at me. He was like, “All you do is sit on your ass and hit on the girls and you don't do anything.” He was like, basically: “Learn to tattoo and make some real money or go do something else”. I was really pushed into it because back in ‘92, most of the tattoo shops around were super-traditional, biker-based shops. Everyone wore their black Harley T-shirts every day, flash on the walls… I didn't like it. I didn't wanna be like that. I've been around motorcycles and all that stuff, so I actually used to go to work every day in a silk shirt and tie and just didn't wanna conform. I guess I had that true kinda “tattoo thing” where you wanna be a rebel, you know?
PC: I hear you. Very funny in a sense, but that’s what rebelling was about for you and you stuck to your guns! You definitely were the rebel eh? Hard to imagine, but this is how you defined yourself, right?
PS: I was a rebel within that industry at that time for sure. I didn't wanna conform to that way. So, I would go in and dress to my taste and my clientele started to become a lot more women, just because they started to feel a lot more comfortable. They did feel far more intimidated going into tattoo shops at that time, with all those bikers. That was special in itself at that time…
PC: Were you in Calgary back then?
PS: We were living in Medicine Hat. I remember a good story from the early days... There was a man - Little Vic was his name. He was a fairly well known Canadian tattooer back then. He invited me and my dad up to Calgary. He had a shop called The Joker's Wild.
He was doing a breakfast television show in his shop that one morning, so he invited me and my dad up to, you know, make his shop look busier; more artists and things like that. I remember going up to film at like six in the morning and of course, I showed up in a silk shirt and tie and he was extremely threatened.
He said that he was worried I was gonna ruin his reputation, and he wanted me to wear a black t-shirt in order to be on TV and I said “No, I'm not doing it”.
He was like, “Well, if you're not gonna wear a black T-shirt to conform, then get out. I don't want you on TV.” I remember my dad saying, “No, you know Peel's bringing in a lot of different clientele because of the way he's dressing, in the way that he's acting”, and eventually, I guess, I did get to stay and tattoo. But, he even told the camera people not to show me too much because he was embarrassed.
PC: Good thing your dad reacted the way he did with your attire. He understood something!
PS: My dad actually was in the military for 25 years, and then got into tattooing. It was just his dream. He always wanted to do it ever since he was extremely young, so he never ever cared about things like that. My dad didn't feel like that. Again, he came from a different world to get into tattooing as well.
You and I both watched that Paul Jeffries movie before the Calgary Convention. What was funny is that, I think it was the very first photo that was in that movie, it was Jeffries with two young guys. One of the young guys in the picture was Bob Graver, who was actually a really good friend of my dad's. I remember I'd been working in the shop for, I don't know, maybe less than a year and then my dad shipped me off to Bob's shop which was in Kelowna. My dad was like, “Oh, you know, I've taught you a lot of stuff but, you know, Bob had been tattooing a lot longer, had more experience, had more knowledge.” So yeah, my dad actually shipped me off to Bob’s shop for a fair number of guest spots and stuff, just so I would learn more things from more artists. I spent actually a lot of time with Bob Graver over probably, you know, three to five years.
PC: I get ya! It wasn't your dad, it wasn't like the person who nurtured you since the beginning, you know?
PS: That’s right, and that was the thing because I think for me at the time, I only knew of one second-generation tattooer in Canada really anywhere. I was, I think, one of the first people with a second generation to do this job. Now, a lot of people are doing it. We're seeing a lot of people that have been tattooing for years, having kids, but at the time I was one of the first… Crazy!
So my dad, you know, he was super, super, hard on me because of course; military family, military training. Part of it was like, we would butt heads, we were father and son and then of course we worked together at that time. We even lived together still. We were a family unit, so my dad was kind of like that just to ensure that I was getting that full kind of experience. He wasn't sure if he was being too hard on me or not hard enough, so he wanted to make sure that I got the true tattoo vibe.
So, yeah, he shipped me off to make sure that I was learning more and doing better.
PC: We’ve talked a bit about your dad here. What was his name, so the world can know about this Canadian legend…
PS: His name was Tim Hanic, and he owned Dansing Dragon Tattoos in Medicine Hat, Alberta and Ontario for a little while.
PC: Thank you very much. When we talk about how you were dressing “cleaner” than most tattooers at that time… We’re talking about the 1990’s, a time when tattooing became cleaner in matters of cross-contamination and bloodborne pathogens and stuff!
PS: Yeah, my dad being in the army played a role for sure. Funny story: My dad's best friend was still in the military and was a medic, so he actually was the one who came in and really taught my dad a lot about medical cross-contamination. I remember our very first sterilizer we ever had back in the nineties. We were one of the first people to actually have a proper autoclave and it actually came from the military. My dad's friend found that. I guess they retired the unit, even though it worked just fine. They just had newer, better ones. He was like, “Well, it's off the books. It doesn't exist. You want it?”
So, you know, we took the first sterilizer and like I said, we'd already been so far ahead of the game on safety. Even back then, and because of my dad's military training, and because of my dad's friends in the military and his connections, we were ahead of that time for sure.
PC: Just to remind people who read this interview; in the nineties gloves were just about to appear, or they were around but very few artists were wearing them!
PS: Well, that's the funny part for us, we never tattooed without gloves… Even in the nineties. Even my dad. We never once did a tattoo without gloves. I've talked to some people, even Dan Allaston. I remember he said that at his beginning they weren't using gloves but with us, because of the medical and because of the military, I think we started out in a better way than most. No doubt.
PC: It’s so nice to hear those little stories. It’s hard to imagine tattooing in the nineties. That was pre-TV shows, but not “Sailor Jerry old” either! To think the tattooer density must have been slim during that era…
PS: Yeah, but there were a few. We had guest artists who had come through at that time, Bob Graver was one of them,Tom Cole was another one. Back then like you said, especially in Western Canada, there really weren't a lot of shops, even in Medicine Hat where we started. We had one other shop that was competition to us and that other shop actually was using a freaking jailhouse pen gun!
He didn't even have legitimate machines and he had a shop! So, you know… Even coming up to Calgary, which you know, Calgary to Medicine Hat is about 2.5 hours. Even up here in Calgary, I think at best there were probably three tattoo shops in the whole city and that was pretty much it.
There weren't really a lot of us at that time and there were still the old days of respect, you know? You didn't step on someone's toes, things like that. I've talked a lot lately about how the industry has changed, where people seem to feel fine opening up a shop across the street from someone else, and that… that was just not the way it was, especially in the nineties. I think it's bad business.
I remember my dad got along somewhat well with Paul, there was actually a fair bit of respect. Even in that video you saw that Paul, especially during the summer when it was really, really busy, Paul would always bring in a guest artist from somewhere who would come up for generally the whole summer and he offered one of the summer spots to my dad. My dad, I guess, was the first one ever to turn down Paul because we had our own shop, which was only 2.5 hours away. I was really in no position to run a shop, you know? At that point I was barely 19 years old… 18 years old.
PC: You were a few years into tattooing at that time right?
PS: Yeah, absolutely. It was still early on, I was only allowed to do the simple things, you know, roses and things that took an hour or two. That’s kind of where my job was and my dad didn't wanna risk our own business to go hang out with Paul. But it was a really big dilemma for my dad because, who wouldn't want to work with Paul Jeffries?
PC: True that. Paul already was a big name in the nineties!
PS: Absolutely, and I even remember one of the big things. My dad was up talking to Paul and back then everyone was super, super secretive. No one wanted to give away where you get your machines and things like that. I remember Paul Jeffries gave my dad, really, one of the first mag needles we'd ever seen. Paul showed my dad how to make them. I remember so well, even when he gave it to my dad he was like, “You know, I'm gonna give this to you. Kind of as a gift to help you out.” But he's like, “Don't ever show this to anyone, don't ever tell anyone”, especially the Little Vic character that I talked about earlier. He even said, “Little Vic's been trying to figure out how I make these for years. So whatever you do, make sure you don't tell him,” you know? It was like this…
That’s how secretive it was. I mean that time, again, of loyalty and respect. So I remember my dad coming home as if he’d just won this great award. He's like, “Look what Paul gave me!” and he showed me how to make them. “This is how we're gonna make them from now on”. It was a really big deal for my dad and for me.
PC: Piece of history right here! Talking about old mags makes me wonder where you got your supplies back then, and what was your first machine?
PS: National Tattoo Supply? Back then it was the same thing. Paul Jeffries was the one who got my dad invited to the National Supply Co. No one even knew about National Tattoo Supply unless you were already in that circle. I can't remember if Paul had to call or send a letter or if we had to send a letter to National and put down a few artists that we knew who were members.
Then you would wait, you know, after weeks… because everything was done by mail, there was no internet. The catalog was a ringed binder with the National cover on it. Inside was actually your code number. Basically, if you called National and you wanted to place an order you had to have that code number.
So yeah, my very very very first one, I remember, was a swing gate from National. Typical chrome, the big one. We paid the extra money one year. I remember opening the box and it was, you know, like the movies; you open up the box and angels sing, and light comes out of the box! It was just like that. That‘s the epic moment of course, after waiting… Especially for being in Canada, you had to wait a bit more, so you never knew if it was gonna be a week, or if it was gonna be six weeks.
PC: We’re off to a great start! Lol, thank you so much! That was the nineties, then Tattoo TV shows came along!
PS: Yeah! Before the TV shows, tattoo magazines were a thing, you know? Being so excited like, hey it's the second Thursday of the month, the new tattoo magazines should be out. You have to remember, even then, tattooing was still such a small industry. Even the tattoo magazines. There was only one magazine a month and there would only be one or two places that you could buy it because it wasn't like, every store that carried milk. Sometimes you even had to go to more of a specialty magazine store or newsstand that might carry it. It wasn't everywhere, you actually had to know where to go. I remember we actually had to ask the owners to make a point of bringing tattoo magazines in because it just wasn't a normal thing.
PC: You think TV carried away that same passion? TV shows alone produce so many more tattooers!
PS: I think the TV shows had, like I did with my silk shirts and ties, started to introduce tattooing to the people who maybe still thought tattoos were taboo, you know? I remember, especially across the street from our first tattoo shop in Medicine Hat, there was this little German Deli and I’d go over there a couple of times a week for lunch. There was this older lady… I remember her just giving me the evil eye because I remember my sleeves rolled up a bit on my shirt and she was like, “You know, you're such a nice looking young man. Why would you wanna wreck your body with tattoos?”
A lot of people still had that mentality. TV shows brought tattooing and tattoos to the mainstream and started to show people that tattoos aren't just for bikers and low-lifes and things like that.
I remember tattoo shows though… They always made it about memorial tattoos. I remember, whatever day of the week it was, the next day after the TV show you'd go into the shop and you'd have a few extra messages on your voicemail; “I saw…. the show”. They were telling you some long story about why they wanted this tattoo, and the depth of the story, and it kind of ruined tattooing a bit that way!
PC: Do you think the TV shows brought more attention to customized tattoos though?
PS: I always joke about that. When I first started tattooing, it was all about more flash. Because you wanted to offer options and selection to people, and the more you had, the more business you would do. We would go and you pay different artists XX amount of dollars for a set of flash, and you were really proud of it. Especially when you're like us and in Medicine Hat, a small town. I remember going to a Montreal convention and buying flash from influential people, and how proud we were to have those designs on our wall.
Not to mention the other great thing about that, that I laugh about a lot… Those flash designs, you’d just price them out. So you had a $300 rose on the wall. If you could do that in 30 minutes, it didn't matter. You weren't obligated to work by the clock.
I remember even my dad went and got a little Hannya mask, I think it was from Paul back in the day, and it was a $300 design on the wall. I think Paul had him from the moment he walked in, to the moment he was finished with the bandage, was about 45 minutes. No one cared, that was the price. There was this one rose we had on the wall and it was beautiful. I don't remember who drew it, but it was this one rose and all the women loved it because it was the most realistic rose. We got so sick of this design and I remember when we first put it on the wall, I think it was like $80. After about three years that $80 tattoo went up to about $300 because it was one of those situations… if people are willing to pay and we hated to do it, just because we wanted to do something different. Whereas now you have people coming in, and I've had clients that sit in your chair, and they literally start a timer on the phone and they're holding you to the minute. Well, I just spent five hours drawing something custom for you…
Before that, way back to ‘92 - ’93 when I started to work with Bob Graver, I don't know how many sheets of flash were on the wall, almost no one sold designs. Every single thing on his wall was hand drawn, hand painted, hand everything.
In those days, I don't know how many Tasmanian Devils we did… You drew either from memory or you drew from inspiration. Oh man, I don't know how many times we did them. Even my dad actually started to call me the “Cartoon King” because all I seemed to do was Tasmanian Devils, Bugs Bunny, Sylvester. Back when I first started,I probably did at least 5 to 8 Tasmanian Devils a week!
PC: HOLY! We have to remember that it was a “walk-in” era!
PS: Yeah, exactly. Especially back then too, you know? Everything for the most part back then was on a walk-in basis. There was none of the “3 months in advance” booking like I'm booked now.
PC: Would you say it was the golden age of tattooing?
PS: Somewhere around that time, yeah. Back then I remember going out on Saturday night after working all week, spending all my money, going back on Tuesday looking for it to open up the doors. You could actually get a few more tattoos and make more money, but most times I didn't have appointments. On Tuesday, you just went in and sat there, did some drawing and hoped that the door opened!
Another benefit for us at that time, living in Medicine Hat, just about 30 minutes north of there was a military base. We had the Canadian military, but the other big draw for us was that every summer they would have a few thousand British military come through the base. When they had their time off, after their course, they would come into town for a few days. The first thing they wanted to do was to get tattooed. So even for when those boys had come in, they'd only have about three days, we would open normally. Back then we were open from noon to 6pm I think, but during those days we would open at 10am and there were a few times I didn't get out of the shop until about three in the morning.
I remember the first time I ever did one of those long days; a 16-hour day of tattooing! I remember going home… I couldn't feel my hands because the coil machines and metal tubes were super heavy, and they came with very tiny tubes too. I remember putting my head on the pillow to go to sleep and I still heard that coil machine buzz in my ear because it was my first 17-hour day. It was literally, you had enough time to tear down, set up and you have 23 guys waiting at least. But, you knew you’d probably never see these guys again and you wanted to make every dollar you could, so $3000 of money three, four days in a row. We would do 16… 17-hour days, then normally the next weekend you’d have another battle group come through and you’d do some ridiculous hours. That's just the way it was.
PC: What were they getting? Military stuff? Tasmanian devils?
PS: Well, both… and the British, back then, they loved getting funny joke tattoos and especially on their asses. I don't know what it is with British soldiers. They love to get a few drinks in them and drop their pants, so there'd always be like, “No Entry” sign or things like that. Of course, you also had the old roosters hanging below the knee, we just did a ton. Most of them wanted that fun memory of their time in Canada. That was just their lifestyle.
PC: Lots of good stories… We could go on and on! Tell me some of your convention stories.
PS: I’ve probably got another fifty stories still from the nineties, like the first tattoo convention out in BC. You know, because again, conventions weren't a thing back then.
I think it would have been ‘93/’94… There used to be an association in Canada called CAPT, which was the Canadian Association of Professional Tattoo artists. We tried to keep up with the United States, a ton of members. All of your heroes were in that one; the Jeffries, Everett and company, all those people that you kinda put on a pedestal. Canada is so big, but at the time not a lot of cities with a lot of artists that were willing to talk and share. So, we put together a convention in Kelowna, and as I said it was probably ‘93, and it was in a hockey rink, you know? Everyone was pretty busy, but it was the first in western Canada.
Before that though, I also remember my first... A bit more international even though it was extremely small, was one in Montreal, and in 1995 it had Jonathan Shaw and Guy Aitchison. It was such a big deal and at the same time, coming from Medicine Hat, I had to go all the way to Montreal. No one traveled that far back then. It was then I met Dan Allaston, it wasn't his show though.
Guy Aitchison coming to Canada? You're like, “Holy smokes! Like, this is an important moment. I gotta get there”, you know? And back then we drove. I think it was 37 hours straight, between me and my dad. We drove out there just because it was that important.
I remember staying up until six in the morning and I wouldn't leave their room just because I was going through Guy’s painting portfolio, going through his tattoo portfolio, watching and asking questions. I was so young. I was a 19-year old kid who just was trying to absorb everything I could and I didn't wanna miss a minute of anything.
Doing a tattoo in Montreal was special for me. Again, I'd only tattooed in a small town and in a small room and I tattooed at that Montreal show. Our booth was right beside Guy Atchison’s. I was just terrified on top of it all, which was really funny. I think it might have been the first day, which I assume was a Friday, and it was a pretty small ballroom. Back then it was coil machines… I was setting up, and I go to run my first line and of course; coil machines… You could hear that echo through the hall and literally every single person in that convention came over to see what the first tattoo being done at the show was.
PC: What WAS the tattoo?
PS: It was a pretty large dragon actually, like, most of the guy’s upper arm. Almost a half-sleeve type of thing. We'd actually drawn it, my dad and I. I think we did four custom boards, flash designs that we brought just for the Montreal show. We didn't even show anyone back at home, we literally drew these pieces that we wanted to do and we took them to Montreal. I don't even think we brought anything else. It was like, pick from these four custom boards that we made just for the show. It was a guy, oddly enough from New York, who’d come up and picked this dragon.
I'd never tattooed in front of a crowd before and I was petrified, and it probably took me about five, six lines before I was able to just kinda get it together and be able to focus 100%. I'd done it a bunch of times, before but never done it in front of a crowd like that. I remember how intimidating that was.
PC: Thank you for sharing, this is crazy! You also went to China. I can say this from my own experience, that it must have been something as well?
PS: You know it was! Especially since once you set foot in the tattoo convention; instantly you're a rock star. We had the velvet ropes, we had security holding people back, we had people holding cameras up over their heads to just take photos of us. It wasn't because we were anything special.
I remember Glenn Paradis and I had to split a booth in China and the first day, or at least the first few hours, all we did was sign autographs. I signed flags, I signed anything that people had. We had to pose for photos. It wouldn't surprise me if Glenn and I went through fifty to a hundred photos with random local Chinese people who just wanted photos with us, you know? Then I remember some guy finally wanted to get a tattoo, and I was the first one of my group to do one. This guy came up and wanted a portrait of his wife or girlfriend, so I remember doing a tattoo of his wife's portrait on this guy's leg. All of the sudden, you have to know that the Chinese population over there, they don't understand private boundaries or private space. So literally, I'm tattooing this ankle, hunched over, and I couldn't see the photos! The people‘s heads were blocking my view because they're trying to see what I'm tattooing, and taking photos and all.
Another great story was that famous video of Paul Booth, which is hard to find now. It was when Paul Booth got mad at a supplier for selling a copy of his machine's design.
Paul Booth got really angry with everything. In the video, he actually went over and caused a scene and basically forced that supplier to give him all of the machines that he had with that logo - “They're mine. It's my property, give them to me!” sort of thing. I think he had 8 or 10…
So the guy gave all of these machines back, and I remember we were all back in Paul's hotel room after watching the video, because we filmed it.
Sadly, I guess on the trip back, something with his camera and the altitude from the plane wrecked the video somehow. But we were watching the video and all laughing. I remember we were just about to leave his room and go for dinner, and I remember asking Paul like, “I know, I know you're mad and all, but you know, is there any way I can have one of those machines?” and he just grabbed one and gave it to me. I was just like, yeah, this was so cool to have; a Paul Booth knock-off machine from Paul Booth after the big international incident… Lol!
It was the best machine I had… for 20 minutes.
PC: LOL! This is too funny, Peel! We could go on for hours and we should but before we go, tell me, what are your travel plans for next year!? Will we see you on the convention circuit?
PS: I'm gonna do what I've been doing for 30 years. You know, just try to be inspired by the industry. Take the positives of the industry and really embrace it.
It's been 30 years for me. This industry has given me so much. It's given my family so much, and after 30 years I think I'm just as passionate as I was at the beginning. I can't think of any other career that could offer that to anybody.
I even said even if I won a billion dollars and I never had to work another day in my life, I'd still be tattooing, maybe you know, three days a week rather than a full time thing. I can't imagine anything else, and nothing else, that would push me to strive to be better every day.
As for travel… I'll be judging in Edmonton and Toronto. I think I'm going back to China next year and there was talk of doing Prague. You almost never see me tattooing at a Canadian tattoo convention, but you'll often see me judging. That's honestly one of my favourite things; judging tattoos. I don’t like the terminology but the truth is, you get to see all the best tattoos in the tattoo convention. It's really overwhelming when you have 650 artists, like this year in Calgary.
To me it’s inspiring, it's really easy to overlook someone who’s really good, or something that's really special. Even with the younger generation, I can be inspired. I might have said some negative points about a tattoo because the previous one was better, nonetheless, I sure can learn from each one of them. The level of tattooing is great today.
PC: Very eloquent and crazy-great, right? Peel, thank you so much! I’m looking forward to celebrating your 30TH, and Eikon’s 30TH, next year! It’s been more than great to talk to you on a much more regular day!