By Jessie Archambault
The cotton candy pink room glows in the studio. The glass door has a glittering pink P on it. Bottles of coloured ink clutter the black shelf on the wall. The artist, Calah Wright, has several of her own paintings covering the remaining walls. The desk is covered with drawings and sheets of paper towels. This room is in The Gallery Custom Tattoo Studio located on Prince of Wales Drive.
The shop’s princess, Wright is an unordinary tattoo artist to watch in Ottawa. Many agree her art style and use of colours differentiates her from other artists in the tattoo world, especially with her piece Octognarl the Death Machine. This tattoo was meant to cause deaths because motorists would not be able to stop staring at it and would crash their cars, said Wright.
After almost a decade as a painter and only three years as a tattoo artist, she is preparing to hit the convention circuit where tattoo artists from around the world gather starting in Vancouver, B.C. this spring, in order to build her name internationally. The princess will surely charm her way to success and gain many loyal subjects while at the convention ball. <!–more–>
Her likeable princess personality can be overwhelming if not well understood. At times, her temper tantrums over the lack supplies at the shop can be frightening. When sheets of paper towel are missing, Wright will swear loudly and gesticulate her hands above her head because they are crucial to the job for wiping the tattoo needle of the extra ink.
However, Wright’s self-proclaimed title is well accepted by clients, colleagues and friends.
“There’s a line between being cocky and being confident,” said Wright. “And I like to dance on it.”
Wright, 30, does not fit the conventional princess appearance. She is heavily tattooed from her scalp to her feet. Overall, she has 94 butterflies on her body.
“I haven’t counted,” she said, “but I’ve made a boyfriend count one time, and that’s what he came up with.”
Most of them are part of bigger pieces such as a tree on her leg that has butterfly leaves. “They’re, like, hidden everywhere,” she said. The insect can do what it wants, when it wants and does not take life too seriously, Wright said. Her butterfly tattoos simply make her happy.
In the fall of 2010, Wright worked at Ventura Boulevard Tattoo Studios where she met Richard Morrissette, an international award winning artist and her mentor. For the first three months of working there, Morrissette ignored her.
“I didn’t understand her, I didn’t understand her artwork,” said Morrissette, who now owns of the Gallery Custom Tattoo Studio. “I didn’t understand who she was.” His wife, Nikki Nelson, told him to start paying attention to her. “She had potential in her,” he said.
The first time Wright went to a tattoo shop was during a mother-daughter bonding day at 15. She got her first tattoo, a butterfly, that day and it is the only piece of flash tattooing she has on her. Flash tattoos consist of predesigns that anyone can do, even a monkey if it was trained, Wright said.
However, she designed most of her other tattoos. Even if today the first butterfly looks bad, Wright said she will never cover it.
She customizes every tattoo she does and adapts them to the body part it is going on. “I can’t tell you what your tattoo is going to look like, except that it’ll look good,” the princess said.
Her entire left leg became her practice leg and has the first couple years of her career on it. “I’m just gonna sacrifice a limb and have some fun with it,” said Wright. She wanted to know what her machines felt like, she added. Wright did not want to practice on someone else. “My goal in life,” the princess said, “is to give people better tattoos then what I’ve got on me.”
Wright would get one or two tattoos per year while studying for her degree in communication studies and visual arts at the University of Windsor. However, Wright got heavily tattooed after graduation at 22. “I’m running out of space,” she said about her appearance today.
In her 20s, Wright worked across Canada at the front desk of hotels before ending up in Penticton, B.C. where she got her first apprenticeship at SunCity Tattoos and Body Piercing Inc. Rob, her first mentor, was in his early 60s at the time and had an old school way of teaching. She would not touch a machine for a year. Instead, she cleaned around the shop and prepared the tattoo chairs before sessions. Six months in, Wright quit because she didn’t agree with the terms in the contract they offered.
The princess does not have a sense of obligation, said one of her friends, Jennifer Andrews. “If it’s something that she wants to do then she’ll do it,” she said. “But if she has no interest, then you’re out of luck.”
On the other hand, Morrissette, her mentor, said “she doesn’t take shit from anybody.” Therefore, when the contract offered by SunCity Tattoos did not satisfy her, she left.
When she got an apprenticeship in Ottawa, Wright did not hesitate to come back east to her family that lives in Berwick, Ont. The apprenticeship was at a shop where “there was all that shady shit that you see in movies.” Wright recalls an incident where she was unable to work.
“When you walk into the backroom to do a drawing and you can’t because there’s a drug dealer in your way, it’s just not cool,” she said of an experience she had while working at the shop. “All I ever ask is give me what I need to do my job.”
When it comes to paper towel at the Gallery, Wright’s princess personality is evident. If she does not have any, “you’ll fucking hear about it,” she said. Morrissette, 41, said that “she’s slamming doors because of minor things.”
Even though anyone else would have fired her a long time ago, Morrissette hasn’t. “She’s not being evil, she’s not being a bitch, she’s just being Calah,” he said. “You have no choice but to accept her for who she is.”
But, when they were both at Ventura where they first met, Morrissette admits to having ignored her because “her artwork was a little crazy for me,” he said. After she stood up to him defending her art, he slowly started warming up to the princess. He then asked her to follow him to a shop he was opening. After weeks of thinking, Wright accepted. Morrissette taught her everything he had accumulated in 25 years of career. “She wasn’t a waste of my time,” he said.
Wright spent every spare time over Morrissette’s shoulder. “His teaching style and my learning style match very well,” she said. “She studied and just hit hard,” Morrissette said. However, there are now things she could teach him, Wright said.
Her mentor taught her about drop shadows and perspectives. “She took the theory that I gave her and made it her own,” he said. The princess will never follow the rules. “It’s just not in her,” he said, “she makes her own rules.”
When she announced she was leaving Ventura to the owner, the working conditions weren’t the same. “The environment wasn’t cool,” she said.
If you are trying to make permanent art on people and you’re uncomfortable doing it, it’s not fair to your client, Wright said. When she left Ventura, she took her growing client base with her.
Many of her friendships started on the tattoo chair. Her best friend, Jennifer Andrews, 35, followed Wright from one shop to the next in Ottawa. Andrews has four tattoos done by Wright. “She’s progressed so much,” she said. When they go out to the bars, Wright attracts a crowd. “People just approach her despite how she looks,” Andrews said.
On the other hand, Jennifer Bowman O’Reilly, a friend of Wright’s, said that no matter where you go the conversation always comes back to tattoos. “People will stop us on the street to come talk to her about her tattoos,” she said. O’Reilly, 37, was grateful for Wright’s sense of humor while getting tattooed last year. “You don’t want to be sitting in silence for that many hours,” she said.
Wright insists on meeting with new clients prior to the tattoo session to establish trust. “The trust between a client and an artist is just huge,” she said.
Wright works very long hours, but she loves what she does even if it is physically and mentally exhausting, Andrews said. “She enjoys her job and it transcribes in her work,” O’Reilly said.
Wright found her old roommate in her tattoo chair too. Amanda Boudnes, 32, was having a half sleeve done and mentioned she was looking for a roommate. Two weeks later, Wright moved in. Boudnes explained that Wright was messy by nature at home.
“Calah has a tendency to not wear her glasses when she paints,” she said, which resulted in Boudnes regularly cleaning paint off the light switches.
Wright’s friends and clients followed her for their next tattoos to the Gallery Custom Tattoo and to the princess’s pink room.
All the artists got to pick the colours for their own rooms said Nelson, 35, who is co-owner of the shop. “Calah’s was pink because she’s our pink princess.” It’s not everyone’s taste, however, “I wouldn’t be able to work in here without going crazy,” Morrissette said.
Wright refers to her room as her “bubble of happiness” because “you can’t be sad in a bright pink room.” It’s a safe place for her and nothing else exists when she is in there. Sometimes, she even takes naps between tattoo sessions.
The princess will be hitting the convention circuit this spring to build her name. Being used to the privacy of her room, Wright is worried about her focus level. Especially when tattooing in a large room filled with hundreds of other artists and civilians, her focus level will be hard to maintain, she said. Tattooing and entering contests at conventions will result in her work wandering around different cities on different people. “It’s going to work out, but I can’t tell you how right now,” Wright said.