Enlightened Art - Cory Ferguson & Lila Way

Published: 12 July, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 120, April, 2005

On a recent trip to American to attend Rick Harnowski’s Convention in Green Bay, I was really looking forward to meeting many of the top named artists that Rick had got together for the convention. One of the ‘names’ that I was particularly interested in talking to was Cory Ferguson. I have been a great fan of his Polynesian inspired, pointillism style for a long time. His own particular brand of work had fascinated me. I managed to catch up with him during a lull in his busy schedule to ask him what made him tick…

Cory Ferguson

Can we start with a bit of history about you as a tattooist?

I suppose it all started with my dad being a tattooist for over twenty years. So I guess I’ve been around tattoos and tattooists all my life. I started working with my Dad at Way Cool Tattoos back in ’93, making needles, working the counter stuff like that. I did that for the last eleven years, tattooing for the last four of them. It wasn’t so much an apprenticeship as such, but I just picked tips up as I went along, the rest I learnt myself from tattoo mags and other people.


I believe you have just opened up your own studio? 

Yeah, There was a whole bunch of us that left the old shop and started up Enlightened Art. There are two co-owners, Lila Way and myself. We also have two piercers. Enlightened art is more of a custom shop. We don’t have an awful lot of flash on the walls. We’ve been open for about nine months now. It’s a very private type of shop on the second floor and isn’t a street shop. We all work really well together. The old shop had too much drama and fighting but this is a really cool place to work from. It’s just two people who love to tattoo!


So you like people to come to you with at least an idea in their head of the design they would like? 

Some people come to see me with no idea at all.


So you like that? 

Yeah, that’s how I prefer to spend most of my time, doing the artwork with a heavy tribal/geometric patterns. Basically, the less influence they have, the better! But it always starts with the customers’ idea. They show me the pattern and designs they don’t like about my work and we go from there. 


How would you describe your style?

I suppose you’d call it Tribal (laughs). But that is a generic term for a bastardised version of Leo Zulueta’s work. He started something that got horribly mutated into this terrible thing called ‘Tribal’ so I’d guess you’d call my style Black work.


Who would be your ideal customer?

I think that would have to be someone who is familiar with my style and really wants it and has a lot of skin to give up. I love working on a large scale.


Where do your influences come from? Do you think they come from your dad?

Yeah, I pretty much think they did. I’ve just always liked tattoos and tattooing. I don’t know, I think you are just born that way. You either like it or you don’t. I picked it up pretty quickly, I feel I was just born to do it. I went through a really bad stage of screwing people up (or so I thought) and when they came back to show me I thought maybe they weren’t too bad after all.


Did you have any art training?

No, I’ve just been drawing all my life. Other than art classes at school, that was it.


Who would be your main influences?

I really like MC Escher’s tuff. I love that optical art style and weird geometric and Japanese patterns. Other artists in the tattooing world, I’d definitely have to say, French Thomas and Zed Le Head from Into You in London. I’m also heavily influenced by tribal and Polynesian type images from Borneo and New Zealand.


Seeing what other artists are doing especially my trips to Europe, seeing what Zed and Thomas are doing makes me go wow! Sometimes it’s a customer who comes up with a theme, and I’m like ‘man, what a brilliant idea’. That’s cool that way too. It’s great when you’re not expecting it and comes out of the blue.


At what age did you get your first tattoo and by who? 

I got it from my Dad, he made me wait until I was eighteen. I was working in the tattoo studio before I got a tattoo! He made sure that I was of age. I was pissed off at the time but, you know, I wanted one earlier than that but I’m really glad I waited. Actually, I wish I’d have waited longer to be honest. The tattoos I got then, I don’t like now. So I wish I hadn’t been tattooed until I was twenty-four or something. In three or four years, the industry progresses so much. What you thought was great previously, on reflection, is actually mediocre.


So is eighteen the minimum age for a tattoo in Canada? 

It’s not really the law, more an agreed age limit. Any shop that’s any good will not tattoo anyone younger. It’s also pretty common to be tattooed at fifteen with parental consent. But there’s no actual law, so the odd shop will tattoo fourteen year olds. Sometimes I get kids coming in with a bad tattoo wanting a cover up, but I can’t do it because they are still not old enough!


Do you do many conventions?

Yeah, A few, most of them in Europe, England and Germany mostly. But I’m now doing more over here in the States.


How does your work go down with the public? 

The style I do is pretty unique, I learned a lot of it from Zed Le Head and the guys at Into You, which is definitely a unique style. So there will always be people who want traditional sacred hearts and stuff, who are probably not going to even take a look at my work. But there’s always a handful of people that go crazy for it so I ‘kinda wait ‘round for those people to come and find me at conventions. Quite often someone will want something that they’ve seen in my portfolio and I’ll end up tattooing them for the whole day. I love to work in that way.


What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a tattooist?

If they are extremely gifted at art and you really, really have something to offer, that would be the kind of person I would recommend to be a tattooist. If it’s the kind of thing you’re into because you like to look good and cool at your job. I would say you might want to consider something else! The markets getting extremely flooded and in the future, I just don’t see there being enough work to go round for everybody. We’re bordering on overkill at the moment. I have been tattooing in quite a few countries and it’s the same everywhere! There’s no formal training or anything like that, It’s pretty much anyone who can pickup a machine can open a shop. One of the worst places I’ve seen was in London, Camden Town. I was working in Bugs’ shop, I used to do a couple of months a year there and every time I came back, there would be another new studio, then another two doors down from that shop. It’s crazy!


American tattoos seem very bright and vibrant, what would you put that down to?

I think we have been doing big colour work longer and it’s also down to the composition. Reading Guy’s (Aitchison) book, you learn a lot about colour. In it he tells you what colours to put next to each other to make them stand out. If you don’t know that, everything seems to have the same tone to it, you know, where the background blends into the foreground. A jungle scene is a good example of this. You see a lot of animals and jungle back pieces where everything has a flat look to it. Nothing is in front or behind or anything else. So composition is pretty much everything.


What would you say have been the three major changes in the tattooing industry in the last five years or so? 

I think there are constant changes. Sterilisation is getting better. It’s still not where it should be. A lot of people are not bagging all of their equipment. Canada has extremely high standards of hygiene. You’ve got to get yourself into the habit of not touching stuff after you’ve gloved up. That’s a no-no! It’s come a long way though. The artwork has come a long way as well. Tattooing is definitely getting away from the ‘Biker’ image, which is good. Tattooing had got more ‘art’ into it. 


I was reading about the Canadian government setting up tattoo shops in jail, is that a good or bad thing in your opinion?

It’s an absolutely great idea, it’s like abortion or injecting drugs. They know there’s going to be an underground movement, so why not educate people to do it cleanly with needle exchange programmes. Tattooing is always going to happen, so why not make it clean? Definitely a good step.


How do you relax?

I’m a pretty boring person! I don’t do drugs or drink or anything like that. I watch a lot of movies. If I’m not tattooing, I’m either drawing or doing something in the shop. That’s about it!

Lila Way
The other guiding force in Enlightened Art is a very talented lady by the name of Lila Way, I asked her a bit about her history and how she got started in the tattoo industry; ‘I haven’t really been tattooing too long, so I don’t have much of a history. lthough I knew I was going to tattoo from a very early age, and I always said so. I was lucky enough to have grown up in an environment where tattooing and tattoos were almost always around, and so later in life I just sort of gravitated towards it naturally. Cory and myself just opened this shop in May of 2004, so the studio is fairly new. efore this venture, we worked together at a different shop for a few years.’


Lila is a self-taught artist and has some strong views on the apprenticeships that are offered in America. I asked her about this. ‘No, I don’t think apprenticeships are a good idea, not in America anyway.  have seen what some people are offering as an apprenticeship and it’s ridiculous. t’s just a way for some shop owners to stroke their own egos, having some poor kid running around doing everything for them, and then never getting any formal instruction or guidance. f someone wants to learn bad enough, they will find a way. ‘I got a job working behind the counter at a tattoo shop a few years ago and once I got my foot in the door, I started paying attention to what the artists were doing, and I asked a lot of questions. t some point I bought some machines and tattooed some grapefruits, and then I got a couple of people willing to let me do little pieces on them and next thing I knew I was hired and working the floor full-time. t all happened ‘kinda fast really. So many people come in here saying ‘yeah, I want to tattoo’, but never once has one of them had a portfolio of sketches or drawings with them. t’s ridiculous!  don’t want to apprentice anybody, but I still tell them that if they want to be taken seriously, they need to draw and bring drawings with them.’ One of my best bits of advice is to draw everyday, and get tattooed by your favourite artists. You can learn a lot while getting tattooed.’
Lila always knew that one day she would become a tattooist. ‘I was a late bloomer really.  wanted tattoos since I was 2, but I got my first when I was 23.  have to say that I am ‘kinda glad though.  think about some of the garbage ideas I had when I was 16 and I am relieved that I didn’t get any of them. My first tattoo was a bit of a traumatic experience. his guy at my old shop did it, but I never let him finish it. I almost didn’t get any more because of that one. t’s a big tribal belt all around my waist, up my ribs and down my pelvis. t was a mess. t’s a bit crooked on one side and I am so scarred up because of this guy. Thankfully though, Cory fixed it up for me and now I love it!’


I asked her how she coped with the whole tattooing process. ‘I wouldn’t say that came easy, but it just feels right to be doing it. he longer I do it, the more I find myself absorbed in it.  spend a lot of time studying things like colour theory and trying to learn more about my machines and stuff. obody taught me any of that stuff, so it’s all trial and error for me. t’s a lot harder when you don’t have anyone sitting you down and showing you these things.’


Did you get any formal art training? ‘No, but my Dad used to buy me tattoo magazines when I was a little kid and I would spend hours drawing tattoo designs for him. e also introduced me to fantasy artists like Boris Vallejo, and I spent a lot of time drawing his stuff too, just trying to see how close I could duplicate his work. My interest in tattoos most definitely comes from my parents. hen I was a kid and my mom was getting tattooed, not a lot of women were getting tattooed then.  always felt proud of her, like she was different than most moms. y dad too, he had some really cool tattoos, he even had his neck tattooed which I thought was the coolest thing in the world!  just wanted to be able to tattoo them someday, and now I do.  am currently covering up some of those tattoos that my dad got when I was a kid.’ ‘I am influenced by so many people. here are so many amazing artists out there, it’s mind blowing really. bviously I have been influenced by Cory, he helped me so much when I first started. Also, Tom Renshaw has been tattooing me, and although I don’t tattoo in the photo-realism style, I have been influenced by him. ot only is he a talented artist, but also he is an extremely nice guy.  also love Bob Tyrell’s’ stuff, Jime Litwalk, Craig Driscoll, Kurt Wiscombe, and Filip Leu to name just a few.


When asked to describe her style Lila said that it would be bold, colourful pieces. She really likes to go for stuff that screams out for attention. You know the sort of thing, the stuff that stands out from a crowd from the other side of a room with fat lines and loads of colour.


As we were finishing the interview, I asked Lila what she thought were the three major changes that had happened in tattooing over the last five years? ‘I guess one of the things would have to be tattoos going so main-stream, which financially speaking, could be seen as a good thing. owever that led to an overly saturated market, which is a bad thing. ut the increase in competition led to an improvement in the overall quality of tattooists out there, and that is definitely for the best. 


When I pull out my old tattoo magazines from when I was a kid, and compare them to what is going on now, it’s absolutely mind blowing! nd who knows what another 10 years will bring?’  


Is there anybody you would like to thank for helping you over the years? ‘Yes, my parents for exposing me to such interesting tattooed characters and for pushing me in the right direction. ory for being my business partner, a good friend and an excellent person to tattoo beside. nd Ace Daniels for letting me get my start at one of his shops.’


Cory and Lila can be found at: Enlightened Art, 189-A Lakeshore Rd. E, 2nd Floor, Oakville. ONTARIO L6J 1H5 Canada.




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