He stands over the other man, shoulders hunched, face taut, as the tattoo machine pushes ink into the other man’s skin. He pauses, relaxes a bit, wipes the man’s shoulder, gathers more ink, eyes the target, hunches over again, and gets to work.
His name is Sheldon McKee, owner and proprietor of McKee Tattoo in Wingham, Ont., a town of about 3,000 people in northern Huron County, best known as the birthplace of the Nobel laureate Alice Munro, master of the short story, also known as “Canada’s Chekov.”
McKee grew up just outside town, and always loved to draw.
“Not that I was any good at it,” he said, smiling through a chestnut-brown goatee that pokes about two inches past his chin.
“But I loved to draw. I was always drawing and things like that, as a kid.”
He went to Turnberry Central for elementary school and F.E. Madill for high school, but by the end school wasn’t his thing. He dropped out of Madill, tried to go back, dropped out again, and became a laborer, working with drywall.
“I never, ever thought I’d actually get into tattoos,” he said. “It’s a pretty hard field to get into.
“I never thought I’d ever be able to find somebody to get me into it the proper way.
“But I did, and it worked out, and I love my job.”
The other man leans forward, straddling his seat and resting his chin on its upper edge, as the machine pushes more ink into the dermis.
His name is Ryan Johnston, a math and computers teacher at Madill, tall and heavy-set, with broad shoulders, short silver hair and anagram tattoos on each forearm that spell out the names of his children.
Johnston got his first tattoo, a small gecko near his left shoulder blade, when he was nineteen, not knowing what he was getting into.
Now he is married, middle-aged, a father and seasoned educator. He wants to cover the small gecko with one that matches his personality today.
“The gecko is more about adaptability—being able to change, being able to adapt to what you need to do,” said Johnston, who speaks quickly, words pouring out in staccato bursts.
“I’ve been through some things in my life where I’ve had to really adapt and kind of persevere. So it’s kind of just a reminder of—always make sure I’m staying flexible.”
Johnston taught McKee in one of his first computer classes at Madill, about 15 years ago. They figured it out when he came to the tattoo shop one day.
“He was this quiet guy that kind of came into my class, and wasn’t the top, A student, but wasn’t a bad student,” said Johnston. “Computers weren’t his favourite things, I don’t think.”
“No, they weren’t,” said McKee, chuckling softly as he works. He is shorter and skinnier, thoroughly friendly and dressed in a black t-shirt and a black-and-white bandanna that covers his brow.
“They still aren’t.”
“He would sit there and always be doodling,” said Johnston. “Pretty sure, on a test or two, we had a few doodles.”
McKee chuckles again and confirms it.
“Maybe when there was supposed to be some answers there were some doodles instead.”
Johnston said he’s worked in Toronto, worked in Belleville, and the kids tend to fade away in places like that.
“But working in Wingham and Huron County, I mean, I see so many of my former students all over the place,” he said.
“I think that’s the best part about a small town, is seeing the kids develop.”
A friend who worked at a tattoo shop gave McKee his first machine when he was nineteen, with the understanding he wouldn’t work on public people—wouldn’t start screwing them up.
The friend offered to give him pointers, and McKee found a supplier that would give him brand new needles and tubes.
He used his own skin as a canvas, starting with a turquoise question mark above his left knee, outlined in black and based on the Indian Larry Motorcycles logo
“That was the first time I ever touched a tattoo machine,” he said. “I just loved his stuff, so I thought I’d mark it on me.
“Legs are the only place you can really reach, for yourself, comfortably, to tattoo.”
He marked himself again and did tattoos for friends. Within a couple of years he had an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop in Owen Sound, a small city about 90 minutes northeast of Wingham.
“I was still catching chickens and drywalling at night, and then doing my apprenticeship at the tattoo shop all day long,” he said.
“That is the way to learn. You need to find a reputable shop, get an apprenticeship, and go through it.“And it’s not easy. They will put you through the ringer. But that’s what makes you a good artist, in the end.”
You might start, as McKee did, by shoveling sidewalks in winter. You learn how to clean, how to talk to people. All that comes before you touch a tattoo machine.
“Or even a pencil, really,” he said. “You were just showing the person you were willing to do whatever it took to become a professional tattoo artist.“Because so many people do it the wrong way, and there’s so many bad tattoo artists out there. It’s easy to fall into that, so it’s important to do it the right way.”
He doesn’t take the ethics of tattooing lightly. He sees it as one of the few industries that still has some integrity to it.
“There’s lots of times where I turn people away,” he said. “Tattoos have to be kept simple so that they last a lifetime.
“If they want too much jammed in there, it just becomes cluttered, and a mess, and that won’t look good over time. So unfortunately, sometimes you have to say no.
“But I think that is that little bit of integrity … tattoos are meant to accent the body, so they shouldn’t make your body look worse.”
The truth is, you get nervous when you’re just starting out.
You go to the bathroom, take a couple of breaths and calm yourself down, because there is no eraser, no backspace button. Once the tattoo is there, it’s there to stay.
“Even for the first year, you’re that way,” said McKee. “And when it turns out awesome, the sense of accomplishment is like nothing else.
“You did that, they’re happy. It’s the best thing in the world.”
He’s a whiz with the machine, working carefully and steadily, earnest but not uptight, making easy conversation as he goes.
This is exactly what he wants to do, what he wanted to do for years. He liked the atmosphere of tattoo shops, the fact you could listen to whatever music you wanted
“Everybody loved what they do,” he said. “It was just a fun environment to be in, so I decided that was for me.
“I had worked other jobs that weren’t so fun, and I didn’t like them, and I just knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.
“So tattooing was a way to do something that I already loved. If I can do [this] every day and make a living at it, then it was just—sold.
“I was sold, first tattoo I got.”
More than anything, he enjoys the art of it. He enjoys the chance to express himself
“And then the people I meet,” he said. “I’ve met some really awesome people throughout the years, and I hope to meet a lot more as I go on.
“It’s just the best—the funnest job in the world.”
He was away from Wingham for nearly a decade but came home to open his own shop, a vibrant studio on Josephine Street that opened on New Year’s Day in 2016.
The interior walls are painted orange and green, a nod to his Irish heritage, and there are pieces of art everywhere, on hanging canvases or thumbtacked paper.
Most are examples of tattoos—a skull in a firefighter’s helmet, a timepiece above the words “Live in the moment,” a blushing heart over the words “True Love.”
There is also a painting of Marilyn Manson, one of a monster’s hand holding a razor blade, one of another skull resting on an open book in an aristocratic library.
“I don’t think I really have a style,” said McKee.
“I think you have to be able to do everything, especially in a rural place like this, because you do get everything walking through the door.
“You can’t be a specific, specialized artist. I think you have to specialize in specializing.”
His roots are so deep here, and Wingham is so small, that McKee often knows his customers before he works on them.
“You know them as a kid,” he said. “Or lots of times they come in and they’re like, ‘I knew you when you were this big,’ and I have no clue who they are. They know my mother, or they know one of my family members.“And that’s cool too, because being away for so long, coming back to the community, it’s different.
“I used to know everybody, and now people kind of come out of the woodworks and say, ‘Yeah, I knew you years ago.’ ”
He’s thankful to be able to do this in his hometown, but the size of the place means he must be extremely diligent in his work.
“Repeat people are important,” he said. “You have to have them in a small town, whereas a city, you could tattoo a different person every day of the year and never see them again, and you’ll still stay busy. You’ll still have work.
“Here, you have to keep a rep. You have to have a good reputation and keep it with the people, so that they do keep coming back.
“I think it’s all about the work. It really is.”
Trust is important when it comes to tattoos, and he builds it by proving he can do the work. He shows them examples, so they understand what he’s capable of.
“Anyone can say, ‘Yeah, I do great work,’ ” he said. “But you’ve really got to show them, and I think that’s the biggest thing, in trusting.”
If someone comes in with an idea that doesn’t fit, he tries to figure out one that will.
“And I think people appreciate that too,” he said. “Because lots of people will just stick something on them, take their money, and send them out the door, and I don’t like that.”
He also likes to get to know his clients a bit before he marks their skin. He figures you get a better tattoo that way.
“You just get to know their personality a little bit, and sometimes a certain style of tattoo suits a person a little bit better, even if they don’t see it or think it,” he said.
“I don’t know. You get a feeling from people, and then you just know what’s going to give them their best tattoo.”
He stands behind the other man in his studio, a digital camera in his hands. He holds the camera over the man’s left shoulder blade and takes a photo for posterity.
The small gecko on Johnston’s back is covered by a much larger one, emerald green with yellow highlights and etchings of scales, talons and bumps on the lizard’s back.
“Better than I expected,” said Johnston, delivering the verdict.
“He took what I brought in and he just put his own touch on it, and it was better than what I expected.
“It’s great colour, great design.”
He doesn’t have his next tattoo planned, but said he will likely be back here a few times. And for his part, McKee has no plans to leave.
“I don’t think I’ll ever necessarily leave town, but I may have other things going on in other places,” he said.
“That’s the nice thing about this job, is it gives you the freedom to do that. You can travel, and you can find work almost anywhere, as long as you do good work.”
He may have found his calling. In the very least, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I’ll be tattooing for the rest of my life,” he said. “If I’m not tattooing, something’s gone seriously wrong.
“Not saying I won’t pick up other things throughout the time. I love doing pinstriping, painting cars and things like that. I love bikes, and so you never know.“I may get into that kind of stuff too, but I will never stop tattooing. It’ll always be my foundation.”