WALKERTON,Ont. -Verna Riel Wilson sitting at the kitchen table, “the office”. Photo by: Tommy Morais.
Apple started out in Steve Jobs’ garage. Actor Jim Carrey worked as a janitor to help support his family long before he became an actor. Tattoo artist Verna Riel-Wilson’s aspirations began in her mother’s kitchen.
Like her upbringing, Riel-Wilson’s beginnings are humble. “I started by tattooing myself,” she said, pointing to various ink scattered across both of her arms. “That’s how it started, tattooing my family, friends and myself in the kitchen”. She has been an artist for as long as she can remember, drawing since she was a little girl. 2016 marks her 35 years as a tattoo artist.
I’ve tattooed policemen, firemen,judges but the most surprising of them all had to be a local priest.
“First thing I say is if you don’t have any, don’t start,” warns Riel-Wilson. “They’re addictive.” She feels that people get tattoos generally as tributes or decorative pieces but some tell a story. When asked about some of the deeper meaning behind the ink, she explains that they’re part of who she is. “To me they tell a story about a certain time in life that the person’s going through. For me, I have them as tributes for my son,” says Riel-Wilson.
For the most part, tattooing is a positive experience. The artist gets huge satisfaction out of seeing her clients’ faces when they see the end result. Taking ideas and making them come to life can be a long and difficult process, but one that is ultimately rewarding. “When a customer tells you after you’ve done a tattoo how much they like it, it’s a boost on your ego,” she says.
Riel-Wilson explained that even people in highly regarded positions get tattoos. The reason? According to her it’s simply because people like art. “I’ve tattooed policemen, firemen,judges,” she says. “The most surprising of them all had to be a local priest. A tattoo is clearly not the taboo subject it once was. “The only thing I refuse to do is art that represents any form of racism because of my beliefs,” she says.
The tattoo artist is no stranger to judgement. “My uncle used to say my money was dirty,” Riel-Wilson says. “I said it pays my bills and I asked him how much his welfare cheque was,” says the artist with a certain air of satisfaction. As a female tattoo artist, she also dealt with a fair share of sexism. “They called me a biker bitch and I didn’t even ride a bike!” she says.
“Years ago I took town council to court so I could make sure one [tattoo shop] was allowed,” she says. “They realized there was a strip bar in the area and so they had to give me a shot.”
The artist revealed that when she first opened a tattoo shop people thought she was the help and not the owner, which shocked quite a few. Riel-Wilson had to fight for her art going as far as to engage in legal activities. When she first set up shop, she was the only tattoo artist in town and was denied a business licence three times. “Years ago I took town council to court so I could make sure one [tattoo shop] was allowed,” she says. “They realized there was a strip bar in the area and so they had to give me a shot.”
The Walkerton resident credits her mother as the motivation behind her career trajectory. Her mother was always very supportive of her art. “My mom asked me to do something with my art before she passed,” says Riel-Wilson. “I don’t know if that’s what she would’ve wanted, but I did it.” She is semi-retired and now mainly works with preferred customers. On the subject of permanently retiring she laughed saying she’ll quit, “When I can’t hold a [tattoo] gun anymore.”
In her own unconventional way Riel-Wilson is a pioneer for gender equality and an inspiration to women everywhere. The world of tattooing was very much a boy’s club when she first started. It has since gone through an evolution and now women such as Kat Von D are now respected artists at the forefront of the tattoo scene. She may never get the credit she deserves, but it’s because of women like her who forged their way in a male-dominated culture that women have their rightful place in the field today.
And for that we thank you Verna,- happy international women’s day!