Tales of a Perpetual Artist - Jamie Macpherson

Published: 06 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 209, March, 2012

From drawing comics to tattooing in the back of a hair salon to hanging with Filip Leu in Switzerland, I challenge you to find a tattooer with a more interesting tale to tell than Vancouver, Canada-based artist, Jamie Macpherson.

Born in Doncaster, Macpherson spent the first seven years of his life being artistically moulded by his British surroundings and absorbing as much artsy knowledge as a young child possibly can.

“Growing up in England had a huge impact on getting into drawing comics,” he says. “I used to make up my own Beano-type characters when I was about five or six years old, and my uncle would always give me his old ‘Oor Wullie’ comics.

“My dad was a huge influence on getting me into art young, though. He’s a great illustrator and also made lots of really nice watercolor landscapes, which I loved looking at and emulated very young. As I got older, I still liked painting, but I got more into comics and superheroes through my teenage years. My high school even let me drop math for another art course because I always just drew on the backs of my papers instead of doing the work,” he laughs.

At the age of seven, Macpherson moved across the Atlantic, settling in British Columbia, Canada. Several years later, when 1999 came around, Macpherson found himself walking into The Twilight Zone – “A little shop in the back of a hair salon run by bikers” – at 19 in Chilliwack, BC. That was it. He didn’t need any further explanations or time for thought, he was hooked.

“I saw some Paul Booth flash and spent hours flipping through tattoo magazines in the shop,” he remembers. “I started bringing my best drawings and comics in to show the tattooists at the shop… the owner really liked my drawings and paid me $20 to draw for the customers on the spot, then they would tattoo them. I would watch very closely as my artwork got etched into the skin, asking so many questions constantly. Then they got me to clean tubes, do the floors, bring them coffee and they taught me how to build needles. Eventually, I got to tattoo one of the artists working at the shop – a dragon head on the top of the foot. They got me to outline it with a single needle and fill it in with a five round.”

Constantly looking through tattoo magazines, committed to expanding his tattoo knowledge, Macpherson repeatedly came across stories about tattoo artists jumping from country to country to improve their skills. That’s when the travel bug decided to strike, hard. Deciding that exploring and conquering at least part of the world’s large expanse was to be his next step, Macpherson was soon on the road.

“I did a four-month tattoo tour, starting in England, then I tattooed in Glasgow for a month with Johnny’s Tattoo Studio,” he starts, recounting the almost mind-numbingly packed journey, complete with an intimate encounter of a tattoo legend.

“After Scotland, I went to Switzerland and met my favorite artist, Filip Leu, who I’d been following for years in all the magazines. When I got to Lausanne, both he and Rinzing were very welcoming, made me a coffee and made me feel at home. Most of the customers were tattooists themselves, so it was great to meet them all. Filip let me watch him very closely for the few days I was there and had lots of great tips on technique. I think the best advice he gave me was to draw more and go back to art basics, re-learn everything I thought I already knew to push my work further. Immediately that night I started a new sketchbook, which I filled completely and have been drawing almost constantly ever since. He really got me more excited about tattooing and art in general.”

With some new art from Rinzing on his skin, Macpherson’s journey continued to Italy and then Portugal, “where I tattooed in Cais Cais at a really nice shop called Urban Gallery. Then I came home!”

No matter where he set foot, one particular style of tattooing seemed to always be met with the same great awe and respect, regardless of culture.

“I noticed a lot of people all over showing an interest in Japanese stuff. It really just flows so nice, fits the body and is easy to read. Also, it holds up over time really nicely.”

Which may be why, apart from his bold old school designs, Macpherson loves tackling large-scale Japanese works, paying tribute and doing great justice to the historic, instantly recognizable style. Although, he does always strive to add his own touch and weave in his background.

“I try to put a European twist on my work. It shares a lot of the same elements as a well-drawn comic book. Nice, flowing lines, like with a brush, give so much movement and life to a design.”

And just because all the travelling and tattooing aren’t nearly enough, he also refuses to cease pursuing his passions for painting, drawing and music, continuously fusing artistic elements and blurring the lines between varied mediums.

“I truly believe that all art forms feed each other in one way or another,” he says. “I think it’s important to explore lots of different mediums and apply techniques from one medium to another. For example, a flat paintbrush on paper can give you a similar effect as a magnum tattoo needle on skin and vice versa. Painting like you’re tattooing or tattooing like you’re painting.

“I think a solid tattoo is the same as a solid drawing or painting. It should be a balanced composition, have a clear focal point that the eye is drawn towards and shouldn’t be too cluttered.”

As for his current artistic obsession? “I’ve been trying to get a better understanding of brushstrokes, so I’ve been studying Chinese ink paintings on rice paper. You have to work very quickly because the paper absorbs the ink so quickly. I’m really interested in the simple gesture strokes they use in scroll painting, like four brushstrokes and you see a perfect horse running or a tiger. It takes years to master, but when it’s mastered, a painting like that could take five minutes to paint and it’s perfect!”

For anyone who thinks this is all surely more than enough for one person to have on their plate, Macpherson is out to prove you wrong, as he is also the shop manager of Vancouver, Canada’s, brand spankin’ new Unity Tattoo.

“My good friend Yu-Wei Wang opened up shop in February of 2011. I’m lucky enough to have lots of friends in the industry who work with me, which makes it more enjoyable too. Illsynapse comes every year from Japan, Sylvie from Montreal, and our newest edition, Kyle Harding, works with me full-time now,” he says.

“I really enjoy managing a shop without being the owner. I always say, I don’t want to have to be a boss, so don’t make me be a boss. We’re a drama-free shop, not a TV reality show, so everyone respects that.” Probably why Unity Tattoo’s inaugural year has proved to be smooth sailing and why the shop’s reputation and success is quickly piling up in proportion with the talent of the variety of artists, both local and international, that it houses.

With travel still on the agenda and guest spots and conventions likely to be a part of Macpherson’s yearly calendar for years to come, the young artist doesn’t try and fight off the travel itch, but does limit his ventures away from home to no more than a week, considering his family and new baby girl, Aya. Which I suppose also means his back-up career choice – “I’ve been in punk bands and electronic projects, so I guess I’d be a touring musician” – would probably not have the greatest success.

What I absolutely had to know next was, as far as the newest generation Macpherson’s first tattoo is concerned, does Aya have her artist already picked out for her by default?

“I won’t let her get tattooed by a scratcher from home, that’s for sure!” laughs Macpherson. “Also, when she’s old enough, she’ll be tattooing me!”

With so many accomplishments, both in his personal life and ever-growing career, since his humble beginnings in the tattoo world in 1999, all that’s left to be addressed by Macpherson is the issue of what can possibly be expected from him next. What does Jamie Macpherson have hiding up his very long and very impressive sleeve?

“I completed a series of 100 thumbnails of backpieces last year and am constantly working on improving my technique, not just in tattooing, but drawing and painting, and studying books on rules of composition, color theory and advanced perspective drawing. I plan on publishing designs from various sketchbooks in the future."

Needless to say, sleep is optional when you’re a perpetual artist.

Guesting at Johnny’s Tattoo Studio

Johnny’s a super great guy from the old school generation of tattooists. In fact, there was a time when he was one of only two shops in Glasgow. My friend Illsynapse, from Nagoya, Japan, also came down to meet up with me and tattoo. He’s always teaching me so much about Japanese tattoo motifs and names of different yokai (Japanese ghosts) and stuff like that. He loved the haggis in Scotland! [laughs]


Unity Tattoo

1648 Nanaimo Street
Vancouver, BC
V5L 4T8


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: James Macpherson