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INTERVIEW: Photographer & Tattoo Artist Shanice Bishop

INTERVIEW: Photographer & Tattoo Artist Shanice Bishop | Faulkner

Photo by Tina Rensby

Shanice Bishop (she/her) is a 25-year-old photographer and tattoo artist — as well as former resident above the old FAULKNER retail storefront. She dropped by our Gastown office where she dispelled myths about tattooing, explained how to get that perfect portrait, and why it’s important not to get lost blending into the crowd.

Her editorial work includes campaigns for Vancouver brands Brag Studios and Fyoocher, and she operates a tattoo studio in Chinatown, in addition to holding a guest spot at Le Pappillon Studios.

Born in London, England — with a geographical tattoo to prove it — Shanice’s family moved to Penticton, British Columbia when she was 10 years old. Within a year of relocating, she had taken on a Canadian accent in an effort to blend in. “We were the first black people there. I was so insecure. Losing my accent is the one thing about myself I would change!”

Within that same year she took up photography, ultimately leading her to study art at the University of Victoria. She admits she may have “stepped too far out of the box” for her teachers’ likings when it came to assignments, and she left in the middle of her second year citing a significant decline in mental health.

But it was during Shanice’s time in Victoria she picked up tattooing, instigated by what she describes as a local frenzy around stick-and-poke tattoos at house parties. She did her first tattoo, a framed candle, at the behest of a friend after he bought tattooing equipment online.

Encouraged by the result, she was inspired to practice — but the usual go-tos of tattooing fruit or pig skin did not appeal. So, she started with herself: her entire left arm becoming her ‘practice arm.’ Her style evolved into delicate gore — often featuring feminine bodies in fine lines with a bit of blood in the mix — inspired by Junji Ito's manga and psychological thriller films. At last count she had over 70 tattoos.

Tattoo by Shanice Bishop

Tattoo by Shanice Bishop

What was it like to practice tattooing on yourself?

It taught me a lot even about tattooing other people by experimenting with my own pain tolerance. I’ve learned how to calm people down and how deep to go into people’s skin. I get a lot of questions from BIPOC people asking, ‘Do you have to press harder because my skin is darker?’ And I’m like, ‘no baby, I did all of this with little taps’. It’s nice to start that way as opposed to fake skin where you can dig really hard, and everything is fine. You don’t see it heal as human skin. You don’t know what irritates it. If someone is about to cry, I know what do to de-escalate the situation because I know how it feels.

On your website and Instagram, you advertise that “all bodies and skin tones are welcome”. Do you find people experience barriers to getting a tattoo?

I thought that was important to put up because sometimes you can walk into a tattoo shop or meet an artist and they don’t want to tattoo darker skin or certain body types. If you have a lot of scars, they don’t want to do that. That’s fair, but that’s kind of unprofessional. You offer this service, so why are you being selective?

In my experience coming up in the tattoo industry, all the Instagram pages that highlight tattoos are of skinny white women or buff white guys with a lot of tattoos. And they’re all generally the same tattoo. I would comment on pages and ask if they would show black people with tattoos or any sort of range at all. Like anything! How about we see a bigger-bodied person with a tattoo?

I found it important to even say, ‘Hey, I know what my page looks like.’ It’s a lot of lighter bodies, but that’s also a product of my environment. They’re not a lot of dark-skinned people out here who even know of my work or believe that they can get tattooed. Even my client today, she asked about colour tattoos on black folk. I told her, ‘Our skin is brown, not black. You can still colour over it if you find the right artist who has experience and is confident in themselves.’ If you walk in and the artist is like, ‘I don’t think that is going to work’, leave.

Everyone’s skin is different, regardless of how much melanin there is. I’ve tattooed very fair-skinned people where the skin just does not want to take the ink at all and it is a struggle. I’ve tattooed dark skin that is so malleable to the ink where it is like butter. It also depends on the area.

Portrait by Shanice Bishop

Photo by Shanice Bishop for Bedlam

What about scars?

Some people have very deep scars and it’s not the best to tattoo over them. You can, or you can work around the scar. It’s a lot more painful because the skin is raised and already very sensitive. It’s definitely a difficult and delicate procedure. To be scarred and maybe insecure about your scars, you want to be in a space where the artist isn’t judging you or causing any unnecessary harm or pain to those scars or to you. I always get a bit nervous when people ask me to cover up scars but also excited because you’re closing that little chapter of self-harm or a bad cut. And that’s something they can be proud of. 

Have you personally experienced self-acceptance through getting tattoos?

Tattooing has helped me so much with my own body. I used to be the kid at the pool who wanted to be covered up. Even with my own insecurities and whatever issues with my body now, I want to show off my tattoos. It’s not like, ‘Look at my legs’, it’s more ‘Look at my art. I am art.’ And I want everyone to feel like they’re art.

How did you get into photography as a kid?

I was always into technology. I’m a big nerd with computers. I can sit on the computer for hours. My mom would get a new phone and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ll set this up for you!’ literally at nine years old. I asked my mom for a camera for my 11th birthday and it was this little bright neon green Fuji film camera. My friends and I would do little photo shoots for Facebook. We’d edit everything on Picnik with quotes and deep-fry the pictures. You’ll never find any of those pictures. They are deleted, they are gone, they are burnt, they are dead!

I just really loved the idea of being able to capture a moment and have it forever and even to physically hold it if you went and got it printed. It immortalizes a moment. Even as an 11-year-old, I knew that everything was so temporary. 

Portrait by Shanice Bishop

Photo by Shanice Bishop for Levi's

Your portrait work has a distinctly intimate feel. How do you get that photo?

I usually show up to everything off a joint. Then I’ll smoke a joint or two with them. Thankfully, I’ve worked with a lot of people who like to model and like to be in front of the camera. With people who are a little bit camera shy, I find it so important to tell them that they’re doing a great job. Or show them a photo that you’re really excited about, like, ‘Look at you, dude! I’m not doing anything, look at you!’ I always ask if there are any angles or ways you do not want to be photographed. Is there a side that you like better? Do you want me to edit out blemishes? I always ask for permission when I’m doing that type of stuff.

I just like my one-on-one time with people and being as intimate as possible because I feel like as humans we super lack that and in Vancouver especially too because people think intimacy is more of a sexual thing. No. You can be intimate with someone that you have no sexual interest in. Even being an empathetic person is pretty intimate, like a tap on the shoulder telling someone ‘You’re doing a great job! You should be proud of yourself.’ No one does that here! It’s so disheartening.

How do you incorporate sustainability in your career and life?

I only thrift and buy second-hand. I’ve had a lot of film cameras break on me. So I just thrift one, use it until it’s dead, and get another one. I’m a big believer that it’s not the tools that you have, it’s your eye.

If I do buy new it’s got to be really nice and from a place that values sustainability as well. I’m not going to go buy anything from H&M. Their Conscious Collection? Sounds like a lie. Sounds like a huge lie. Like, wait, why do you only have a section? If you’re ‘conscious’, why isn’t it the whole store? They’re like, ‘Anyways, this one is recycled cotton. Everything else: garbage.’

I wish tattooing was more sustainable. There is this brand that makes compostable cord covers and bottle covers for the equipment that we cover in plastic. Also, Black Claw Needles wrap their needles in compostable paper and the box is compostable. Lately there’s been more steps taken with trying to be more careful with single-use plastic.

Portrait by Shanice Bishop

Photo by Shanice Bishop

Do you have any favourite pieces from FAULKNER?

My favourite shoes are from FAULKNER. I have these beautiful Prada hiking boots and they’re so sexy. I think you guys have a cool thing going on here and it’s so cool to see how you style everything.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

If anyone is kind of stuck and doesn’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going in life, that’s okay. I feel like most of my life, I’ve been trying to fit into some sort of a box. Shit, I lost my accent when I was 11 years old because I was trying to blend in, you know? Fuck blending in! Just do your own thing. Do what makes you happy and you’ll figure it out. I’m still figuring my shit out and people see me and always comment, ‘Oh you seem so put together. You seem like you know what you’re doing,’ and I have no clue what is going on. No idea!

People always ask me how I got into tattooing, and it was an accident. But sometimes the accidents are the best decisions you could ever make. Just go with the flow. Right now with the pandemic, a lot of people are finding those creative outlets. Keep making time for them, whatever it is. Tattooing, photography, making art, dancing, whatever — those things get me out of my head. Those little things of happiness, cling onto them. Life is so short and so weird. If you can create something beautiful, fuck it up. Do it!