Janeen Scott wanted to be a tattoo artist since high school, but it wasn’t until her apprenticeship that she realized the industry is only safe for the privileged few. Now, she is a co-owner and artist at Hemlock Tattoo — an all-female shop dedicated to change.
The realistic pressures of life made Scott question if she should go to art school. She giggles when explaining her plan B was literature studies, which is still in the arts.
In Scott’s final year of high school, the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) — now the Alberta University of the Arts—announced their ‘Show Off!’ competition, which allows high school students across Canada to submit their art for a chance to win first year’s tuition and other prizes.
“I saw that, and just suddenly a fire was lit under my ass, and I wanted to do it, so I made a piece and just put everything I could into it.”
Scott decided to abandon her plan B even before she knew the competition results. To her surprise, she won a spot in the show.
Following her win, Scott was accepted into ACAD. Even though she proven herself as a talented artist, ACAD professors wanted more. They expected her work to have more intention.
“I went into art school with a very big head. I was 17 years old. I thought I was the hottest,” Scott said. “And my instructors quickly let me know, ‘We don’t care how good you are at drawing. You need to make something that’s more thoughtful than just bringing in this pretty portrait.’”
Scott admits she thought about dropping out to pursue tattooing but persevered and overcame her art block.
Although she was raised in a Catholic home and attended Catholic school, Scott started questioning what she was taught when she was 11 years old.
“I got into junior high, and I was wearing a satanic pentagram around my neck,” said Scott. “I was very outspoken about how awful I viewed Christianity and Catholicism, and though a lot of that still exists for me, it’s a different conversation now. It’s less angry.”
Using her rejection of Catholicism, Scott transformed her work from pretty portraits to what she calls “diary entries.”
“A lot of the work I make is really personal. It is about personal experiences as a woman, making comments on female sexuality, female archetypes of the monstrous feminine, or the wild feminine. Making comments on that and subverting traditional notions of female sexuality, but using traditional religious iconography, like the image of the Virgin Mary.”
In the second year of Scott’s degree, she started building a tattoo portfolio. Hopeful someone would offer her an apprenticeship, she asked several shops to review her sketches.
After finishing her degree in 2018, a shop owner offered her an apprenticeship.
“I lost my mind. I was so excited. I called my mom. I was crying. And then the ball started rolling.”
Scott was warned the tattoo industry was not usually safe for women. Almost the instant her apprenticeship began, Scott was sexually harassed by another employee. Dispiritingly, the tattoo industry’s harmful reputation felt real.
Scott said she felt constantly uncomfortable around the employee, but she didn’t want to leave — all her hard work had finally paid off.
“The other complicated thing is getting harassed in a situation where you just got the opportunity of your lifetime. How do you navigate that?” said Scott.
Community members made the shop owner aware of the harassment, and the employee was fired shortly afterward.
Creating a safe space
After some difficult conversations, Scott and three of her female co-workers left the shop so they could show-up for the community and each other. Together, they felt they had the skills and experience to open their shop — Hemlock Tattoo.
Marlee Watts, the manager of Hemlock Tattoo, said although Hemlock’s core values seem basic, they are rare in the tattoo industry.
“One of the most important things for us is really giving that power back to the clients because a big issue in the tattoo industry is that imbalance of power between a tattoo artist and tattoo client.”
Watts has been friends with Scott since her apprenticeship at the previous shop and admires Scott’s activism.
“She’s really influenced how I look at the world,” said Watts. “It’s okay to scream from the rooftops about important issues and be vocal and share your stories and be vulnerable because it’s important and it matters.’”
All Hemlock Tattoo staff trains with Good Night Out Vancouver, which provides sexual harassment and bystander intervention courses specifically for the tattoo industry. The organization also educates about the power dynamic between tattoo artists and their clients.
Madison Armagost, a returning client of both Scott and Geneva Haley at Hemlock Tattoo, believes the experience is just as important as the tattoo itself.
“They really want to build this new, safe community for everyone in Calgary, which, for people who are nervous with body confidence issues, dysmorphia, or even just worried about going into that weird shop dynamic, they do such a good job of making you feel welcome and safe.”
Armagost said although she enjoyed her experience at other shops in Calgary, Hemlock Tattoo goes the extra mile.
“I found it to be almost an overwhelming experience,” said Armagost. “I just felt very cared for, and in that moment, it kind of gives me a sense of devotion to her and that shop.”
According to Scott, building policies outlining unacceptable behaviour such as racism, sexual harassment and homophobia was the easiest part of opening Hemlock Tattoo.
“The structure of our shop should not be a rare situation.”