Under the (Tattoo) Gun: Part One

Photo by Megan Magdalena Bourne

By Brittany Tiplady

“I had my dad leaning over my shoulder, and my friend staring at it, and I was sweating and terrified. And I kept thinking: ‘I can’t mess this up on my new friend!'”  

Just over two years ago, Olivia Harrison tattooed her first piece of work, a little book, onto her friend’s wrist.

Today, she has 19 thousand followers on Instagram and an inbox flooded with fans and appointment requests.

“Whatever it was, acrylic painting, or watercolour, my dad was really into all different art mediums, and since I was a kid I was kind of thrown into what he was creating,” she said.

“When I started doing tattoos, my dad’s studio had the full set up, and I realized, this is what I want eventually. This is what I want to be doing.”

Six months into her tattoo career, Harrison set up shop at home.

“When I was starting to tattoo at home, my dad took me to the supply store in Burnaby and from there we slowly started building on my collection of things,” she said.

Back in March, entering my second tattoo appointment with Harrison, I was hungover, un-showered, and chatty.

Stepping into her home studio feels as if you are walking into a minimalist boutique. She greets you dressed almost always in black, her trademark Alexander Wang boots lead the way.

The atmosphere at her studio, juxtaposes every heavy metal, abrasive tattoo shop experience I have ever had. Which is many.

Soft indie plays in the background as the fresh North Vancouver air ruffles white curtains. Her late cat and companion, Joey overlooks the living room in a stoic manner from a grey couch.

I sank into the tattoo bed, and was cooed by the buzz of the gun.

Only while being tattooed by Olivia Harrison would one find serenity in needles carving ink into skin.

“It was really nerve-wracking bringing people into my house, but really exciting and I think it  made me develop as a person having to not only put my art on people, but talking to them, and making them comfortable in such an intense situation,” she said.

“Working at my place is really such a nice controlled environment. It feels relaxed and I try to create a positive ambience.”

Her artwork is a whimsical blend of botanical inspirations, woodland creatures and clean lines.

“I like doing little bunches of flowers, tied up into arrangements. Little floral decorations. That and animals, and weird people,” she laughs. “I always had troubles drawing people when I was younger, and so I would just do my own version of people. I think that’s what everybody does.”

Harrison’s disposition is a true reflection of her art. She is soft spoken, enigmatic, and a little bit dark. She’s quiet, but well-read and there is something about her that is both therapeutic and hypnotic.

“[Tattooing] definitely made me more social. I used to be very introverted and I feel like I’ve kind of come out of my shell in the process, and in such a short period of time. I was 21 when I started tattooing, and I’ve definitely felt I’ve become way more outgoing,” she said.

With tens of thousands of Instagram followers, Harrison, is learning how balance the climbing demand for her artwork and as with any thriving business, it’s not without some growing pains.

“I’m still kind of overwhelmed with the whole email aspect, because you start out doing something so artistic and then you forget that there’s a business side to it, and all at once it starts to snowball. Emails haunt me a little bit, but I just don’t want to disappoint people,” said Harrison.

“It is really exciting, and I am so so grateful. It’s still pretty crazy to me.”

The growth of Harrison’s social media following, has also lead to a personal growth in herself and her art.

“I’ve seen my art change over the past two years as I’ve been drawing more and more and more. It’s really cool as well. I’m just constantly moving and evolving,” she said.

In recent months, Harrison has made the transition from working at her home studio, to various pop-up spots and studios around Vancouver.

You can find her, usually on Sundays, at Black Medicine tattoo in Chinatown.

“I feel like I’m a part of community now. I feel like I’ve kind of found my people in a way. Every person that wants a piece from me there is always some kind meaning. Or even if there isn’t they are still going through a phase in their lives. It has made me feel like I have a purpose, and I found something that gives me fulfilment.”

Q&A with Olivia

First tattoo “The first tattoo I ever got, was a little feather on my foot, when I was 17. I think it was my 17th birthday.”

“Was that a gift from dad?”

“Yep. He was definitely way more nervous about it than I was.”

Favourite tattoo of on your body “My favourite one is kind of a silly one. I don’t even know if I should make it my favourite. I always used to tell my friends, that they should get a tattoo of a butt on their butt. And then I saw a bunch of flash that my friend Katie and had done and it was a drawing of a butt in a locket. And I saw it and thought: ‘It’s meant to be!’ So now I have a butt on my butt.”

What are you doing when you’re not tattooing “I am either drawing or writing. I write a lot. And I am emailing. Those emails!”

Has anybody travelled to get work done by you? “Yes! I had two people come from Texas, and they planned it all out, in advance and everything. I was liked ‘why are you doing this?!’ This is so awesome and surreal.”

You can follow Olivia on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr at @fearbear. 
brittany photo

Brittany Tiplady is a part-time poet, and a full-time goat cheese enthusiast. She loves the indoors, fast wifi, collecting maps, and a generous glass of red wine.