Under the (Tattoo) Gun: Part Two

By Kristi Alexandra

The corner of Commercial Drive and Venables Street has long stood as an unspoken enclave for female liberation. For the past 20 years, it’s been home to the all-women’s sex shop Womyn’s Ware, where dildos, lube, kegel balls and feminist erotic literature are offered for her pleasure.

To its neighbouring west is Electro-LadyLux Tattoo Shop, another female-focused operation celebrating its 20th anniversary in the area.

A few blocks away, on Venables and Glen Drive, is La Casa Gelato, the ice cream parlour that boasts over 350 flavours such as garlic, wasabi and — my personal favourite — cabernet sauvignon.

It’s the only five blocks in the city that you can buy a vibrator, get inked, and then treat yourself to a three-scoop, chocolate-dipped waffle cone of gelato in the same few hours. If that doesn’t sound like a fantastic way to spend a Monday, girl, check yourself into a nunnery.

But let’s get back to Electro-LadyLux Tattoos.

It’s where tattoo veteran Teresa Johnson set up shop two decades ago, offering her brand of traditional art and speciality portraiture. Johnson also specializes in realistic and decorative nipple tattoos — a common bit of ink requested largely by women who’ve had mastectomies.

The shop’s newest recruit is apprentice Dena Lazarenko. While the 28-year-old is the freshest face to be part of the studio, she’s no stranger to being commissioned for her work.

Among other Vancouver creative groups, she’s known for her brand of dark realism — often being contracted for drawings of skulls, portraits, and oddities.

Previous work by Dena Lazarenko. Photo courtesy of Dena Lazarenko's Facebook page.
Previous work by Dena Lazarenko. Photo courtesy of Dena Lazarenko’s Facebook page.

When I step into the shop — ambient noise of tattoo guns and underground hip hop playing in the background — Lazarenko is sporting a flowing black wrap sweater, long dark hair, and impossibly long burgundy claws. If anyone walked in off the street looking for a tattoo of a crow’s skull, there’d be no mistake — Dena Lazarenko is your girl.

Her humble and sweet-as-pie demeanor puts her as the veritable mix between Morticia Addams and June “Leave it to Beaver” Cleaver.

“I’ve been working a full-time job essentially since I was 13 years old, and I knew I didn’t want to work for anybody anymore,” Lazarenko reveals about her entrepreneurial spirit at the Commercial Drive shop.

In 2005, the life-time artist began exhibiting and selling her work at craft shows, while still doing commissions for clients.

“Off and on, I’ll take a year off and just do art and then get a temporary job for a while when it gets hard. It’s always just been an understanding that this is what I’m going to do,” she says.

Patches featuring Dena's artwork. Photo courtesy of Dena's Facebook page.
Patches featuring Dena’s artwork. Photo courtesy of Dena’s Facebook page.

The Regina-native left home abruptly at the age of 16, taking a 32-hour Greyhound ride from Saskatchewan to Vancouver with her boyfriend at the time.

“We just both came to Vancouver on impulse with a bag each,” she says.

“It’s hard to say exactly what was the trigger, I just had to grow up really quickly and everything kind of snowballed. The next thing I knew, I was living in this city and doing art.”

Her first commission working entirely in ink was for local metal troupe Black Wizard’s Young Wisdom album cover. That move, she says, is what inspired her to start tattooing for a living.

“I guess when you’re put in a position where you just have to make things work, you do. That’s essentially what I did with art,” she says resolvedly.

Lazarenko’s work also features on show posters and band t-shirts around the city, often referencing oddities and skulls — which, by the way, she sells on the side.

“[Tattooing] was something that I always thought was a natural transition from the type of art that I do. I never really pursued it until this last year,” she reveals.

So why the long wait to get into inking skin? It was all about finding the right mentor.

Dena tattooing MY arm. Photo by Asia Fairbanks.
Dena tattooing MY arm. Photo by Asia Fairbanks.

“I was waiting to find somebody whose work I enjoyed enough and a person that I respected enough to call my mentor. There are a lot of amazing artists in the city, but I wanted somebody that I really meshed with and could spend every single day with. It just kind of clicked with my boss,” she admits.

The female owned-and-operated aspect of Electro-LadyLux Tattoos drew her to the shop.

“That was one of the things that I looked for in a mentor; I wanted to have a strong female role model. I just feel like I connect better with a female. I connect with [Johnson] more on a personal level. She’s kind of motherly,” she gushes.

For now, Lazarenko is a receptionist at the shop between noon and 6 p.m. Outside of those hours, she’s able to tattoo clients at her own station. Her apprentice rate is $100 per hour with a $50 deposit — a steal when considering her years of expertise and meticulous attention to detail.

Getting into details, wiping up blood. Photo by Asia Fairbanks.
Getting into details, wiping up blood. Photo by Asia Fairbanks.

And absolutely meticulous she is. Her station is arranged in an artistically geometric scheme, and she wouldn’t dream of touching her tattoo guns, inks, and needles without gloves on.

“It’s contact contamination!” she exclaims. “Low-risk, but still.”

The final product, after the swelling went away.
The final product, after the swelling went away.

That in itself is enough to soothe someone who’s a bit nervous to go under the gun, not to mention Lazarenko’s adeptness at drawing from imagination, and her feather-light touch.

In fact, she sketches up a beautiful fountain-quill pen that’s both realistic and whimsical for me in less than 10 minutes, based on my shaky-at-best verbal description.

“Kind of like this?” she asks, holding up a small piece of paper that she’ll soon scan and transfer on tattoo paper. Perfect.

Just like that, I’m in her chair, and under the gun.

kristiprofileKristi Alexandra is an unabashed wino and wannabe musician. She dreams about fronting a Neil Young & Crazy Horse cover band. Her talents include drinking an entire bottle of cabernet sauvingnon, singing in the bathtub, and falling asleep.