Mellow music plays as Alice Tsui disinfects her tattoo bed for the arrival of her client.
The newly developed Fox and Machine tattoo shop is tucked underneath Calgary’s historic C.C Snowden building, where the pungent aroma of rubbing alcohol immediately greets the nose.
The shop contains several workstations that are all uniquely decorated to each of the tattoo artists’ likings. Though the shop is located in the basement, a window is able to cast some of the afternoon sunlight making the already well-lit space even brighter.
Despite growing up in a household where Tsui’s family disapproved of tattoos, her love for drawing made it easy to transition her artworks from paper to skin.
Immigrating to Calgary from Hong Kong was a tough adjustment for 12-year-old Tsui.
Calgary’s eerily quiet nights scared her; she resorted to leaving her bedroom lights on at night to remind her of Hong Kong’s lively streets.
Due to the language barrier between her teachers and classmates, school became difficult — art helped her connect with others.
“I was always good at art, so they would always ask me to draw them something,” Tsui said.
Growing up, Tsui would draw plants placed around their apartment. Her parents were fascinated with their daughter’s ability to draw intricate details at such a young age and decided to enroll her in weekly art classes.
Although Tsui has an extensive background in art, being a tattoo artist was never something she intended to happen.
“Just like growing up in church and having my parents be really traditional, we were always taught not to get tattoos. And that tattoos are bad for you, only bad people would get tattoos,” Tsui said.
After a year of studying sociology at the University of Calgary, Tsui decided to take a break from school.
“I was so lost, I just didn’t want to be in school. I just didn’t like it,” she said. “I started working at a restaurant, went on vacations a couple of times and then I realized I needed to be doing something. I couldn’t just be working in a restaurant for the rest of my life.”
She went back to the University of Calgary for digital studies, a fine arts program. Still, her heart was not satisfied.
Although she enjoyed studio classes, she ultimately ended up losing interest in school again due to excessive research, readings and writing.
When she befriended Calgary-based tattoo artist Jed Templa, she decided to quit school altogether and take up a tattoo apprenticeship with him instead. He was extremely impressed with Tsui’s commitment to take a break from school to put all her focus into tattooing.
“Seeing her grow from the beginning, giving her confidence by tattooing my fingers to my shins.” Templa said. “Then I was like, you know what you’re ready!”
Alice Tsui focused on blending colour on Barry MacIsaac’s leg. Photo by Astrid Cunanan.
As Tsui’s tattoo career began to bloom, her choice to stop school was something she knew her parents would not agree with. So, she kept her apprenticeship a secret.
"They would ask me, 'Oh, what classes are you taking?' And one day, I kinda told them, 'Oh, I didn't register for any classes. I'm not going to school.' And, obviously, they freaked out," Tsui said.
After Tsui’s parents learned that she was no longer in school, their relationship became strained. She found comfort in her significant other, Barry MacIsaac.
Maclsaac has always been supportive — in fact, he was in the shop getting his first tattoo during this interview.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” said Tsui.
For once in her life, she had a strong feeling that this career path was for her.
Tsui has been with the Fox and the Machine tattoo shop since its opening day in March 2019.
Work quickly started picking up at the shop and late nights became a regular occurrence in order to create original artwork for clients. Tsui’s parents took notice of this.
“They started asking me, ‘Oh, how is work?’ And then I’ll say, ‘Oh, it's actually getting busy, like I am doing great.’ They just stopped asking me about school. They just let me do my thing,” said Tsui.
Little by little, Tsui began opening up to her parents after they started to show interest in her tattoo career.
“I went from not telling them anything to showing them everything I was doing. Now, they’re supportive. They actually came to the shop to visit one time,” Tsui said.
Tsui specializes in fine line and realism tattoos. Even people from outside Calgary have been coming to the Fox and Machine shop for her specific style; a style that she describes as something parents will like due to its delicate nature.
“So, that is actually why I am doing the style I am doing. I want to change what people think about tattoos,” said Tsui. “I want it to be a lot acceptable for a woman.”
As Tsui finishes up bandaging MacIsaac’s tattoo, she begins to roam the room to look for her phone. She quickly captures a short video to post on Instagram, where she keeps a portfolio of her latest works to show her 2,700 followers.
This was MacIsaac’s first tattoo from Tsui. So, he wanted to get something that meant a lot to him. For MacIsaac, that meant something special Tsui got for him.
“For me, hockey means a lot, and it is the first hockey stick that she has ever bought for me … I am sure she’ll want to give me more but that's the significance.” MacIsaac said.
Even though Tsui has just begun her career, her bookings have been filled up by clients eagerly waiting to get her designs on their bodies.
Looking ahead, she wants to grow stylistically into the field of realism and fine line.
“I would love to travel and tattoo. I think tattooing and travelling is my dream, and to meet people around the world. Also possibly having my own shop someday,” Tsui said.
For more information on Alice Tsui, visit https://www.instagram.com/art.by.alicet/?hl=en
- By Astrid Cunanan