Yellowknifers: The Tattooist

Denis Nobody — his last name a preferred moniker adopted years back — is deep into a tattoo when I arrive at his shop above Harley’s Hard Rock Saloon. “I can talk while I work, come in,” he says. I oblige and set up in his studio as he works through a delicate design on a customer.

The 48-year-old, 24-year veteran tattooist has lived quite a life. Nobody cut his teeth in the hard-scrabble tattoo world of Vancouver, B.C., eventually travelling extensively across North America and visiting Central America and Europe practicing his craft. The self-described nomad even found a way to fit in a six-year stint as a bassist with legendary punk band SNFU.

But now the nomad has found a home in Yellowknife.

He began doing business here on a casual basis in 2007, in the wake of a divorce. “A friend of mine knew I needed to clear my head and knew some of the guys at Harley’s,” says Nobody, “I came up to do some tattooing, and I kind of started a long-distance love affair with the place.”

He continued to visit the North four times a year to tattoo, building a following in the process. In late 2011 he took the plunge and moved his life and business here for good. “It was four years this past December,” says Nobody. “it’s the longest time I’ve been anywhere other than Vancouver.”

Nobody lived most of his life at different extremes. From big cities to small towns; raucous international tours to the solitude he says he enjoys about Yellowknife. And beyond location, attitude, and activity, this uncompromising approach stretches to his business.

His views on his trade are hardline. “I’m not so personable. I’m not here to make friends,” says Nobody, “I’m here to do the best tattoo possible in the time allotted. If you want to be friendly, let’s grab dinner or a drink, but when I’m at the studio, this is work.” Bedside manner is important to some tattoo businesses, he says, but he is not worried about losing business with his more austere approach.

And it may not even matter for anyone wanting to get tattoos in town for the foreseeable future; things have changed in Yellowknife tattoo scene.

With the indefinite hiatus of Woody’s Tattoo announced on Facebook, his needle is the only one buzzing in Yellowknife as commercial shops go. Has this affected his business? “We had different clientele,” says Nobody, “I haven’t really noticed any extra people coming through.”

So who are his clientele? “I get a lot of people from further up North because there aren’t shops out there,” says Nobody, “I also, obviously, get a lot of locals and even a few people from out of town wanting to remember their time in the North.”

And what kind of tattoos are they getting? “Most people here want distinctly Northern things; ravens, Inukshuks, the lights,” says Nobody, “It’s something you didn’t really see in Vancouver or other places. People are deeper and more thoughtful about their tattoos here.”

In a territory defined by booms and busts, does the tattooing move in a similar cycle? “Not really,” says Nobody, “I don’t really get a lot of the transient crowd here; it’s mostly locals, so there’s not really that pattern.” Much of the large work, he adds, is already done or in progress after over four years in town.

His longtime respect for tattooing as an institution is clear. “Some people forget, that we as tattooists — no matter who we are — are standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Nobody, “It was the old school guys who made it what it is today.” He lists Canadian tattooists Dave Shore and Trent Paré as his greatest influences.

Nobody’s excited explanations of his business raises the question: did he ever have any doubt what he’d do? He laughs. “When I was 10 years old I told my parents, ‘I’m gonna be in a rock and roll band, and I’m gonna be covered in tattoos,’” says Nobody, “Mom and Dad weren’t too happy.” Lo and behold, it happened.

For a guy who’s worked all over the world and, in his words, “Seen and done things people only read about,” another question comes to mind: after all these experiences, why set up shop in Yellowknife?

“I’ve got no stress, no drama here, man” says Nobody, “I don’t even have any social commitments; when I’m at home in Kam Lake, it’s just me and the sled dogs!” He acknowledges that the money isn’t as good as if he’d stayed in Vancouver, but says he makes a good enough living. Besides, the people here aren’t as fake as the try-hards in Vancouver, he adds.

As we wrap up, I ask Nobody how he’d sum up his approach towards life and business. “Easy. What you do today is what matters; today is your reputation” says Nobody, “No one cares about what you did yesterday.”

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