It’s not every day one hears of a backpacking trip across Europe inspiring a complete career change and the founding of a tattoo shop – and it’s even less often one comes across a successful all-female shop. It doesn’t take long to realize Luvia Petersen and Justina Kervel are anything but ordinary.
Their story is one of unforeseen inspiration and seized opportunities, and it only seems fitting that I first heard of Petersen and Kervel’s Vancouver shop, Liquid Amber Tattoo, at a heavy metal show about 5,000 kilometres away in Montreal.
At the start of my night out on the town, I hadn’t in the least bit suspected that I’d be striking up a conversation with Liquid Amber Tattoo’s former receptionist, Kristin Ory. It may just have been my love for the curious and all that is out of the ordinary, but the moment Ory mentioned the words “all-female shop”, I was intrigued. One look at the Frankenstein portrait done by Kervel on her thigh (which just so happened to have been crowned ‘Best Small Black and Grey Tattoo’ at this year’s WestCoast Tattoo and Culture Show) and I was sold. I had to know more.
Getting in touch with Petersen and Kervel in the days that followed, it became evident from early on in our interview that this was not going to be your run-of-the-mill tattoo tale.
“Just over ten years ago we traveled to Europe and on that trip we stumbled upon the most amazing art studio,” begins Petersen. “The artist’s name is Philippine and she works in all sorts of mediums. In the middle of the room was one tattoo chair and we spent some time with her as both of us received tattoos. Philippine agreed to let Justina tattoo herself the following day and at that moment, she was hooked and I was inspired.”
On their return home to Vancouver, British Columbia, the duo set their sights on opening up a similar style of shop, dropping their previous engagements without hesitation, the last trace of their non-tattoo past somewhat immortalized in their new venture’s name.
“Before Justina was a full-time tattoo artist she was a landscaper,” says Petersen. “We used to play a game where I would point at trees and flowers and she would name them. One day I pointed at a liquid amber tree and as soon as I heard the name I said, ‘That sounds like a good name for our tattoo shop’.”
For Justina Kervel, who has been an artist for as long as she can remember, tattooing never crossed her mind until she had the opportunity to try it during that fateful European adventure. After that, it didn’t take much convincing or arm-twisting for her to turn to tattooing in the hopes of launching a new, more passionate full-time career.
As she soon discovered, it was the best thing she could have done for her art: “Tattooing has had some unexpected but very welcome side effects to my artistry. Transferring an image from someone’s head to paper takes a large dose of patience and imagination. I have also noticed an improvement in my paintings, as I am more comfortable using colors now, while using my newfound patience to develop more detail in my work.”
For Petersen, who is not a tattoo artist herself, co-founding a tattoo shop had its own distinct learning curve, but it didn’t stem from where one might initially expect. “I have been able to learn the ins and outs of tattooing theory by listening to Justina speak to clients and by asking questions. Learning to run a business was the steep learning curve,” she says. “If I did something wrong, we paid the price. However, hard work and the commitment to succeed have paid off.”
Being a unique breed of tattoo creature, Petersen and Kervel knew from the moment their idea was conceived that there was one thing in particular they wanted to do differently. Although men have worked at Liquid Amber in the past, it is now a female-only shop and something tells me Petersen and Kervel are not about to go messing with a good thing.
“Women provide a gentle, caring, almost motherly atmosphere that we wanted for Liquid Amber Tattoo,” explains Petersen. “At this time, we happen to have an all-female crew, which is working out great. We have been well received by clientele who seek us out just because we are all-female.”
But no matter how open and forward-thinking the tattoo industry and community appear to be becoming, there are still (unfortunately) times that showcase just how closed-minded they can really be. “When we attend tattoo conventions we are reminded tattooing is still a male-dominated industry,” admits Petersen. “‘So, where are your tattoo artists?’ we get asked. ‘Right here’, I respond with a big proud smile on my face. I don’t mind one bit that we don’t fit the mould.”
And their challenging of norms certainly doesn’t stop there. No sir. “Another misconception is that tattoo artists should adorn themselves with tattoos from head to toe. With our group, this is simply not the case. Although we all have plenty of tattoos, some of us choose locations which aren’t visible,” says Petersen and laughs, “With clothes on, that is.”
Based in Vancouver, Liquid Amber is privy to a mixed clientele, which is reflective of just how diverse Canada’s eighth largest city is. “Depending on what neighborhood you’re in, you may see scenesters rocking new school tattoos on Main Street or a fantasy tattoo on an earthy person on Commercial Drive,” says Petersen.
Devoted to satisfying the widest possible spectrum of the tattoo-loving population, Liquid Amber strives to always offer clients the opportunity to choose from a group of artists as diverse as Vancouver’s community. In fact, to ensure their standards were met, Kervel herself apprenticed the three other ladies who are currently working at the shop, permanently marking the population: Jenny Jarrett, Kylie Gibson and Rene Botha. And in case you’re wondering, each artist does in fact have tattoo roots as interesting as those of the shop’s founders.
Jarrett, who has been at Liquid Amber the longest, “came to the shop one afternoon bearing orchids and a portfolio. Right away Justina was sold by Jenny’s amazing portfolio and the sweet gesture of the orchids,” says Petersen of the black and grey tattoo specialist.
Gibson began as the shop’s receptionist but after bringing in an original painting to hang on one of the walls, she secured her position as a future artist. “The next day Kylie brought in the rest of her portfolio and was an apprentice the day after that,” remembers Petersen. The detailed artwork caught Justina’s eye and Gibson now specializes in tattoos as bold and colorful as her art on canvas.
For Botha, it all began, as many brilliant ideas do, over some alcoholic beverages. “Rene was a friend of a friend who, over beers one night said she wanted an apprenticeship,” says Petersen.
With a portfolio that showcased unique “dark, sketchy, linear drawings similar to those of Derek Hess,” it was a style the shop just had to add to its repertoire.
Having just celebrated their landmark ten-year anniversary, Petersen took a moment to think about the shop’s history, searching for its most memorable moment to date. “The day our accountant looked at us and said, ‘Congratulations, you made money this year!’ I remember looking at Justina and saying something like, ‘Wow, we made money, I wonder what else we can accomplish?’” she says initially.
But success surely cannot solely be quantified by a good bottom line, at least not according to Petersen, and she quickly continues, “Although actually making money was an exciting by-product of following our dreams, it hasn’t been our greatest accomplishment. When we started Liquid Amber we made a commitment to ourselves that the art and our clients’ satisfaction would be the driving forces towards continual improvement. We feel that over the past ten years we have been able to adhere to this pledge and that makes us proud.”
As for the decade ahead, the shop’s future goals are, in true Liquid Amber style, just as ambitious. “Liquid Amber Tattoo will be an appointment-only boutique studio,” envisions Petersen. “We will have an exchange program where our artists get to switch spots with other select artists from all over the world [and they] will choose the tattoos they take on, producing an environment that encourages growth for the artists and yields the best work possible for the clients.”
Laughing, she can’t help but add, “until then, we recognize and appreciate the lower back butterflies and tribal barcode insignias, as we wouldn’t be in business without them.”
Justina Kervel on… her first tattoo
The very fist tattoo I did was a stick man on myself and yes, I still have it. I was 21 years of age at the time. I don’t have the heart to cover him up. Besides, he is a reminder that my career used to be a dream and that dreams can become reality when you pursue them and believe in yourself.
Justina Kervel on… best advice she’s received
Don’t go too deep. That was what Philippine told me and I have applied it to many aspects of my life.
Liquid Amber Tattoo62 Powell Street