an arm tattoo of a ghost in a window

Blood, Ink, and Illustrator

Xinyu Ding, an artist who works at Golden Iron Tattoo, has made the switch to digital artistry for their work. Ding no longer draws tattoos by hand. Instead she uses digital software as it provides greater flexibility to artists.

Ding graduated from OCAD University in Toronto with a degree in illustration in 2019. After school, she had a hard time finding work as a professional illustrator, but had a stable job as a graphic designer.

“When you just get started – [you have] no financial support, no contact list, no followers,” said Ding. “So I started to look for something different but also interesting things to do.”

Image credit: Xinyu Ding
Image credit: Xinyu Ding

With technology becoming more accessible, the next major innovation in the tattoo industry has slowly risen – digital art. Tattoo artists have been slowly making the switch from pen and paper, to stylus and screen.

Image credit: Xinyu Ding

Colour, life, and individuality leap from the drawing tablets of tattoo artists, onto the skin of students at Guelph-Humber and beyond. Tattooing is an art form that has existed for thousands of years across any of number of civilizations and cultures. Tattoos are more ancient than Otzi the Iceman with his astounding 61 tattoos.

The art of tattooing is steeped in the ink of tradition and slow to embrace technological innovation. Before the invention of the tattoo gun in 1891 by Samuel O’Reilly, tattoos were done by hand with different tools dependent on culture. For example, in Japan the style was called tebori – meaning hand-carved. Tattoo artists would tie 11 to 42 needles together and with the rhythm of a machine pluck away at the skin giving birth to breathtaking displays of mythical figures of Japanese folklore. Tebori is still practiced to this day but has been overtaken with the popularity of the tattoo gun. Newer artists in the industry are entering this ancient field with backgrounds in leading edge graphic design and digital arts on top of illustration skills.

When Ding was in the chair getting her third tattoo at Golden Iron Tattoo, she inquired about an apprenticeship. After showing her portfolio, she was taken on as an apprentice.

“Being a graphic designer is not my goal, since I still love doing illustrations,” said Ding. “But as you know, it’s very hard to work as a professional illustrator.” She was accepted as an apprentice “and it was totally free. So, I spent most of my spare time practicing tattoo skills but still kept working in graphic designs.”

Ding’s apprenticeship took one-and-a-half years to complete. She spent hours mastering line work alongside shading. In that time, she developed her own style on fake silicone skin before gaining her mentor’s approval.

“Creating tattoo designs perfectly fits my major, and somehow that is what I want to approach as an illustrator,” said Ding. ”I really enjoy the process of transferring my designs on clients’ skin. It calms my mind and brings me a good working attitude.”

Anyone who wants to follow in Ding’s footsteps has the opportunity to. University of Guelph-Humber offers digital design courses to students. However, tattoos still carry a lot of stigma that make some students avoid this profession/this line of design work–or, for that matter, even getting a tattoo. Certain places of employment do not allow tattoos at all, while others require employees to cover them up.

Despite all this, Guelph-Humber students are still getting tattoos. In a poll of 59 GH students at 39 students have tattoos. Of those 39, 15 got one while at GH.

Image credit: Xinyu Ding
Image credit: Xinyu Ding

In fact, tattoos are immensely popular among Guelph-Humber media students.

“I have over 12 little tattoos and I love them all, they are either just art that I like and want to decorate my body with or they have meaning so I still very much love them all,” said one student.

“I wanted to get a tattoo because I simply thought it was cool and I also had an opportunity to get my first one for free due to the artist being an apprentice so after that, I became addicted,” said another student who has six tattoos.

Eighteen survey respondents said they do not have any tattoos, while 11 plan on getting one before graduation. Seven of the students polled plan on never getting one.

In contrast, in 2012 the Independent Polling System of Society–known by the acronym IPSOS–found that two in 10 Canadians have at least one tattoo. Individuals from ages 18 to 34 are 36 per cent more likely to have tattoos. Ding falls within that demographic; she got her first tattoo at 20. She says that the majority of her customers are in the 18 to 34 age range.

In spite of the aforementioned stigma associated with tattoos, only one of the polled students said they were against tattoos as a whole. The others who had no plan of getting one looked at tattoos through the lens of curiosity and acceptance. They saw tattoos on others as a form of self-expression that they do not want to take part in, but are respectful of another’s choice.

One student, who claimed to be never getting a tattoo, said that when they see someone with a tattoo they want to know the meaning behind it. Another student who has no plans on getting a tattoo said that when they see one they know what that person values most.

Image credit: Xinyu Ding

IPSOS found that one in 10 tattooed Canadians regret their tattoo. At Guelph-Humber, of the 36 students polled with tattoos, only one no longer likes theirs. Some of the students who do not have tattoos but are interested in getting one express fear that they may regret it or dislike it one day. “I don’t know what I want and [I’m] scared that I’ll get it and then later on not like it,” one of  the GH poll respondents said.

While getting a tattoo may only be a few hours of pain, it is a lifelong decision. Ding says that the main reason people regret their tattoos is because of the quality of the tattoo.

Ding recommends doing your research before going under the needle. “Don’t walk in to get a cheap tattoo from an artist that you never know, because you benefit nothing from it,” said Ding.

Tattoo artists and studios are on all major social media platforms and have their own websites. She recommends using Instagram to find artists whose art you like. Instagram acts as a portfolio and archive of an artist’s work. You can see their style and get inspiration for what you want before getting ink etched into your skin.

Sometimes the biggest regrets come from people you know. Ding advises against tattoos of partner’s names or portraits because “it could be a sweet memory, but it could also be one you want to erase entirely.”

For those students thinking about specializing in Visual Communications who are worried about pursuing their artistic dreams or struggling to think what to do after school, tattooing is a viable option. Every student at Guelph-Humber takes an introductory course to Digital Design. If you choose to specialize in Digital Communications, you take the subsequent courses. These include MDST 2070 Digital Graphic Design, MDST 3120 Digital Graphic Design II, MDST 3110 Digital Graphic Design III.

Follow Xinyu Ding on Instagram

Featured image credit: Xinyu Ding

Owen Thompson

Owen Thompson is a fourth-year media studies student with a specialization in journalism at the University of Guelph-Humber. He is the substantial editor and contributing writer for the U of GH Emerge Magazine.