La Belle Province - Montreal Art Expo 2011

Published: 17 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

For many Montrealers, September is synonymous with the last chance of the year to be a social butterfly before temperatures plummet and freezing off body parts you didn’t even know you had becomes a harsh reality. Festivals and exhibitions of all sorts fill up to-do lists and calendars, with one of the yearly highlights none other than, you guessed it, a tattoo convention.

Fusing the worlds of tattooing and fine art for almost a decade now, Art Tattoo Montreal continues to prove it is a strong voice and unforgettable presence on the convention circuit. With an overwhelming number of tattoo conventions popping up all over the globe, it is seemingly becoming harder to be unique and to truly impress. But if this year’s turnout and feedback are any indication, Art Tattoo Montreal’s unique touch and ability to please both artists and tattoo collectors alike has become sort of their thing.  

Organized in part by local studio TattooMania, the 9th edition of Art Tattoo Montreal set up shop in Windsor Station from September 8-11. This may be a good point to pause and give a notable mention to the venue because, let’s face it, how many conventions can boast about being held in a place as unique as an old train station, which was completed in 1913, located in the heart of an urban city? With its glass ceiling, signature Montreal charm and vast open space, Windsor station may no longer be a working train station, but it is certainly the best place in town to house over 200 local and international tattoo artists.

Following their tried and true formula for success, the convention was kicked off with the (non-skin) art component of Art Tattoo Montreal. Taking place at the Fresh Paint Gallery, this year’s exhibit was all about local Quebec artists capturing what they perceived to be the essence of home sweet home.     

Close to 30 artists from across the province produced original works for the exposition, which was fittingly entitled La Belle Province (or The Beautiful Province, Quebec’s longtime nickname), and included Quebecois staples such as lumberjacks, fleur-de-lys and portraits of former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Now, for the tattoo component of Art Tattoo Montreal. I arrived at the convention in the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, and walking up and down the rows of artists had already begun becoming tricky, as utterly concentrated convention-goers strategically maneuvered between stations, stopping to flip through portfolios and consider potential artists, determined to make their dream tattoos a reality.  

The space between tattooers sometimes became tight, especially when multiple artists at a station were working at once, but I suppose that was to be expected, and it certainly didn’t stop clients from embarking on extremely ambitious, sizeable pieces.   

With a constant flow of tattoo collectors entering Windsor station, many of them on the hunt for new ink, a new phenomenon I had never noticed before at Art Tattoo Montreal seemed to emerge in the number of artists who were completely booked up for the weekend. But with the array of talent attending and the surprising number of enthusiasts well into the process of getting their second or third tattoos of the convention by midday, perhaps this trend was nothing but inevitable.     

Known for their ability to bring out the big guns, so to speak, this year’s Art Tattoo Montreal was no different. The 2011 special guest was none other than Ruth ‘Ruthless’ Pineda; you may have heard of the feisty tattooer, as she was on a little show called LA Ink. Dressed in sky-high heels and a pink skull-adorned apron, she is one artist you probably wouldn’t want to mess with.Although, judging by the interactions I observed between Ruthless and her clients and fans, I have a feeling she might secretly be a big softy inside.

Other American tattoo superstars included Chad Koeplinger, Grime, Ron Wells (whose signage wittily informed the public that he was a “Gassssy American” and “I ain’t got shit to look”), and Jason Schroder (whose tattoo dolls stopped me in my tracks, along with the artwork and tattoo machines on his desk, of course, and just so happen to be the coolest home accessories, well, ever).

Briefly returning to the aforementioned trend of fully booked tattoo artists, I soon discovered that Grime was, unfortunately for me, a part of this club. Yours truly tried. Really tried. But it was not to be. So the lesson learned from all of this is that if you’re dead set on working with a particular artist, for goodness sake, book an appointment before the convention begins.

Although, I must say, watching Grime work was still a treat. A small group gathered around his work area as the San Francisco-based artist meticulously etched away at a large-scale shark on a lucky gentleman’s forearm, headphones in ears, his concentration at an almost indescribable level. The result was undoubtedly badass.

Europe was also well represented with Art Tattoo Montreal veterans from France’s Tin-Tin Tatouage and Mystery Tattoo Club once again returning to the Paris of North America.

But the real focus of this 9th edition was the homegrown talent, with 63 Canadian shops showing off their tattoo skills. And, it must be said, Canadians may just have the best sense of humor and the greatest amount of creativity when it comes to naming their tattoo shops. Five Fathoms, Burning Monk, Sugar Shack… you get the picture.  

Sharing the historic Windsor train station with the artists was the La Belle Province art exhibit, which was transferred over from the gallery, as well as numerous performers and curiosities.
Live painting on canvas stopped passersbys in their tracks, as did the numerous naked females throughout the venue who were being spray painted from head to toe with body suits that transformed them into mythical women of the future. French transplant Scarlett James treated the crowd to burlesque performances throughout the weekend and rockabilly band Joe Henry & The Rockin’ Bones took care of the music.

However, one of the most buzzed about guests by far, for both positive and negative reasons, was Montreal’s own Zombie Boy.

Rick Genest, better known as Zombie Boy, used to be an instantly recognizable street kid, known for being fully tattooed with bones, insects, etc. I mean, there’s a reason why he’s chosen to be called Zombie Boy. Once a squeegee kid, I used to run into at bars across the city; Genest blew into the realm of stardom when he was featured in Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ music video and photographed as model for Thierry Mugler ads.

Whereas people used to stare for all the wrong reasons, now individuals were lining up to take photos with Genest, shirts emblazoned with his face were being sold and autographed head shots were being snapped up by fans. Make of that what you will, ladies and gentlemen.   

Not to be forgotten, the ever important, although not always as prominently represented, traditional realm of tattooing was brought to Montreal by the skilled hands of Japan’s Horishin and Horimasa and the artists of China’s YZ Tattoo. An Orimasa Tebori seminar also allowed for the chance to get a closer look at Japanse hand poke tattooing and take part in an intimate Q&A session with Horimasa Sensei.

Original artworks and prints by a variety of artists, along with accessories, clothing, shoes and books were also scattered throughout Windsor station; a constant reminder that wherever you go these days, a little touch of consumerism and smart branding is likely to be present.

As this year’s edition of Art Tattoo Montreal wrapped up on Sunday evening after three action-packed days, the only thing on everyone’s mind was how organizers will possibly outshine themselves next year. And since 2012 will mark a decade of the convention’s great presence in the industry, they’ll really need to think way, way out of the box.

But if anyone knows how to throw a good party, it’s the people of Quebec. So if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, I recommend that everyone get their fleur-de-lys out, brush up on their French, prepare their palates for the culinary wonder that is poutine (i.e. French fries topped with a mountain of gooey cheese curds and hot gravy) and get on that plane to help Art Tattoo Montreal celebrate its tenth birthday in La Belle Province.


Montreal is located in the southwest of the province of Quebec. The city proper covers most of the Island of Montreal at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. The port of Montreal lies at one end of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which is the river gateway that stretches from the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean.

Montreal is defined by its location in between the St. Lawrence river on its south, and by the Rivière des Prairies on its north. The city is named after the most prominent geographical feature on the island, a three-head hill called Mount Royal, topped at 232m above sea level.

Nicknamed la ville aux cent clochers (the city of a hundred steeples), Montreal is renowned for its churches. Mark Twain once noted, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” The city has four Roman Catholic basilicas: Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, the aforementioned Notre-Dame Basilica, St. Patrick’s Basilica, and Saint Joseph’s Oratory. The Oratory is the largest church in Canada, with the second largest copper dome in the world after that of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The 2006 census reported that in the Greater Montreal Area, 66.5% spoke French as a first language, followed by English at 13.2%, while 0.8% spoke both as a first language.[80] The remaining 22.5% of Montreal-area residents are allophones, speaking languages including Italian (3.5%), Arabic (3.1%), Spanish (2.6%), Creole (1.3%), Chinese (1.2%), Greek (1.2%), Portuguese (0.8%), Romanian (0.7%), Vietnamese (0.7%), and Russian (0.5%). In terms of additional languages spoken, a unique feature of Montreal among Canadian cities, noted by Statistics Canada, is the working knowledge of both French and English possessed by most of its residents.


Text & Photography: Barbara Pavone