The walls of Palace Tattoo on Hastings Street are blanketed with classic tattoo flashes of hearts with “MOM” written across them, nude pin-up girls, eagles and skulls.
“Down here is work from Doc Forbes,” said Nick Wasko, crouched in front of several vintage tattoo flashes at the front of the shop. (“Flash” is the word used to describe a tattoo design created on paper or cardboard.) “He was a famous tattoo-er in Vancouver and had a place a few doors down from here. Most of the older guys you see walking around with tats are probably his.”
Wasko and business partner Jessy Hoffman can name Vancouver’s tattoo artists from the 20th century as if they were their own uncles, reciting names and life stories of Curly Allen, Speed Robinson, Percy Waters and Lee Roy Minugh.
“Tattooing is an art and its concept as an art is lost in antiquity,” Wasko said. “It’s extremely gratifying for us to save these bits of history from being squirrelled up in some hipster’s attic or ending up in a landfill somewhere.”
Wasko referred back to the Doc Forbes collection, a series of flashes that haven’t seen the inside of a tattoo parlour in 40 years. “This art wants to be up in the walls of a shop, this is its home.”
The two tattoo artists spent the last decade “hunting for treasure,” as Hoffman puts it. Having opened Palace Tattoo about 18 months ago, the shop on Hastings Street at Heatley Avenue is a culmination of Vancouver’s tattoo history and a time capsule into the city’s overall heritage —
from the seats from the now-defunct Pantages Theatre to the giant clown head from the P.N.E. to the 1930’s clock above the door from one of Vancouver’s iconic Aristocratic diners. Wasko and Hoffman agree tattoo history and the city’s past are one and the same.
“These tattoos represent the western narrative, boiled down to a single image,” said Wasko, a born and bred Vancouverite. “Tattoo history represents who we are as a western culture.”
Vancouver has always had a strong tattoo history, Wasko said. Since it’s a port city, he continued, for decades navy men and merchant sailors frequented tattoo parlours in search of those iconic vintage and patriotic images — skulls, mermaids, eagles, lots of badges and shields from the military.
Most of the flashes in the store are antiques dating from between the 1920s to 1970s. The oldest flash dates back to the turn of the century. Half of the designs in the collection are original pieces in impeccable shape.
“It’s hard not to feel the connection to the original stuff,” Hoffman said. “Everyone who comes in says they feel that impact because someone physically sat down and drew this.”
Wasko and Hoffman, who both have their fair share of ink, said 80 per cent of the work they do today is based on antique tattoos.
“We did our research and cultivated a want,” Hoffman said.
Wasko said these days, any art school dropout can be a tattoo artist. But back then, he added, these guys were trailblazers, working in an environment most men or women couldn’t handle today.
Wasko and Hoffman agree their focus is to carry on the rich narration and stories behind the ink. The owners say by tying in Vancouver’s history to the intrinsic value tattoos bring to it, Palace Tattoo is simply “a place for people that love tattoos.”