An Interview With Masha: Ukrainian-Canadian Tattoo Artist of Montreal
Collaboration with writer, Madeleine McIsaac, and IG / FB videographer and photographer, Emery Vanderburgh
After speaking to Masha online over the course of several weeks, I finally had the pleasure of meeting them in person at Rest Stop Studio. It’s a beautiful open space where they work with fellow artists to create a variety of different media such as tattoos and textiles. The walls are covered in unique art pieces and the room is fitted with antique couches and chairs where we sat and chatted about life as a tattoo artist as well as life in general. Everything about them seemed very, cool. They had a laid-back attitude but spoke very eloquently when answering our questions and commenting on the world as a whole. Although we sat there for upwards of an hour, time passed quickly as our videographer Emery and I hung off of every word they had to say, occasionally nodding and consistently in awe of the work they were doing.
Madeleine McIsaac: Tell me about yourself and your identity, where do you come from?
Masha: I'm 23, I'm from Ukraine, I lived in Toronto for the last 7-8 years, and then moved to Montreal about a year ago. I’ve been tattooing for a while, but I sort of fell into it. It was like a fluke. I got into it because of janky hand pokes, and didn't take it seriously for a really long time but kind of as it snowballed into something more I was like “oh shit I have to quit my other jobs because I don't have time to tattoo”, so it fully just fell into my hands and I think initially I just expected it to be “pretty drawings on people”, you know? But then I very quickly realized how seriously intimate it is and how people use tattooing in such different ways, so I find that part of the process and just in general with the things that I do I'm always kind of looking for the different little applications, but otherwise, I do art, I draw, and I have for a long time. I write a little bit, but I find that I try to keep my practices as diverse as possible and all sort of informing in one way or another. Tattoos are kind of an interesting one because its the thing that's the most transactional and allows me to have the most amount of space while also being weirdly super tied from person to person. So it fills a really interesting role in terms of the way that all of the little things that I do create this little web for me. That all sort of works in tandem. Otherwise, I have a cat who I love very much, his name is Sputnik, (like the satellite) and he's named after my grandmother's neighbourhood in Tashkent, which is Sputnik 16.
MM: There's a lot going on in our world today and this is impacting many different people in various ways, I’ve had a little bit of insight into how you might be feeling, as you advocate a lot on your Instagram stories (@makeyourdaddyproud), can you tell me more about your connection to that as well as just your advocacy and why you feel that's so important to you?
M: Well, I think that Instagram is a weird kind of hotbed for these things, I find it’s sort of realistically about 500 people are going to see a story, so it doesn't actually reserve space for impact, aside from maybe the odd little encounters where somebody is like “oh your stories are the only source that I’m getting”, in the context of what's happening in Ukraine. I went on a date the other day and the person was like: “if it wasn’t for your stories I would have no idea what’s happening” which is absolutely mind-blowing to me. But realistically I don't know how much that specifically is doing or what kind of bubble that exists in, so I find it kind of operates more so as a place to regurgitate shit and also square it in your brain. In the context of how much is going on, I feel that to post something or to put something out there to externalize it a little bit, solidifies it as something real that you can attach yourself to it in a way via your profile. For me that holds it, but I think that otherwise (maybe in the context of the pandemic but also in general) its particularly hard to leave that social media ecosystem and find ways within your own community–or in my case my family to properly connect on top of what happens. Obviously, there are headlines, but when it directly impacts you, it doesn't align with the narrative of what you might read or what is unfolding. I've tried to stay as active as possible within my community and I've found that's really where it's important and where the actual energy should be exerted, but I try to keep as much distance from Instagram as possible and just use it as a tool for myself to square events in some kind of linear format.
The instinct is to try to speak about it more, but I don't know, certainly, during the first month I was freaking out and constantly on the phone and Instagram, and I find myself reflecting on why that initial energy stopped, now that its faltered a little bit and I'm not quite as inclined to make a stink about it, but it doesn't mean that it stops happening and that's the weird correlation that we make. Like if I stop posting, it stops existing, even for myself, so I think it's a place to put it but it's not the place to put it.
It all stems down to the individual and can’t necessarily be boiled down to trying to turn our attention to whatever is happening in one person's life and gives one perspective on it, but it’s too huge. I think we stress ourselves with trying to understand things fully from all sides when in reality everyone's just fucking confused and doesn't understand what's happening. You can only zero in on your own understanding or that one person you know, so there's not a lot of space for nuance within the opinion. You'll have people who fall into really hyper-nationalist approaches in the context of war, and there’s this assumption that we’re all sitting from the same perspective, but that’s not true. In larger parts to it's just disappointing to be honest because even when it’s your community or the people closest to you, and they still don't take the time to invest their energy just because it's hard, that's understandable, but to that end, I don't feel like an ambassador necessarily, but it's more like why is it only one of us? What happened to that energy we had and when do we choose to delegate it, and who gets it, there's a weird nihilism and distress that happens I think, in terms of this echo chamber of who we listen to and when, when it's important or when we choose to just shut our eyes because we all can do that at any point. For somebody to invest their time, even if that is in misinformation, like my grandmother in Tashkent who listens exclusively to the Russian channel, she’s so invested in what she hears and is so enraged by this conflict, and I would almost prefer that to the indifference, like the passive sense of at least if you care whether that's on one side or the other at least there is a dialogue happening. Where it’s much harder to have a conversation with someone who knows nothing at all regardless of if it's misinformation or not. It’s kind of like the saying “the opposite of love is indifference”, so it’s complicated for sure.
MM:: How does this intersectionality affect your art?
M: I tend to work in archives; I keep a lot of voice memo conversations like this. I find if I'm stuck on a project or unsure of where to take something, I’ll keep little archives of content. There was a period of time when I was collecting passport photos from family members and taking passport photo’s with friends where I would basically create some sort of file of just 300 photos, and at any point, if I'm stuck on a project, I can reference back to that archive, so naturally, the thing closest to me would be my identity, so I keep these little pockets of information that I can pull from. A lot of it is conversations of people I’ll go back and reference or listen to and then it completely informs the way that I make stuff. It’s kind of actually relevant to tattooing as well in a lot of ways because of how much, in general, in tattooing you reference images. It’s a lot of mining through vintage photos and re-rendering these things into drawings.
It’s this hoarding sensibility to create these little piles and then always having the security of knowing that it’s there. So certainly for me, it's photos and family, just keeping a lot of that content that pertains to my life’s history.
It’s interesting with tattooing though, maybe specifically when I first started tattooing, I used to put so much energy into what my flash looked like and what my tattoos looked like. Looking at technically where I could go and what I couldn't do or facilitate for people to the point where the actual quality of the tattoo–I had given it so much more than it was able to do that now I find it easier to do, or more ethical to do to just relinquishing control of things as soon as I draw them. It stops belonging to me the moment it’s made for a tattoo it belongs to the person who chooses it and to whom it speaks to. I find that way I can kind of de-inject myself from the process. It goes back to the nastiness of human canvas, the whole mentality of “I put my art on you forever” feels very ‘ownership’, and I think more than anything there is validity to people beginning their own art and even Pinterest photos because we're really just here to produce and sometimes you can collaborate within that, and sometimes you're there to just execute a skill. And I think that all of those processes are extremely valid, but I do my best to keep as much distance as possible from my art and the people that are putting it on themselves as adornment.
MM:: I understand art is very personal and emotional, does your artwork tend to coordinate with the issues you’re passionate about?
M: Maybe not so explicitly. I find it too painful to do when it's intending to operate as a message. It's impossible to fully separate it. I think whatever I’m thinking about the most at the time is going to somehow seep into whatever it is that I’m making. I don't know that I have the emotional capacity to let it do that for myself. I'd rather it just be another process where it feels more valuable. So yes and no I guess. Sometimes you’ve just gotta fuck around and make shit and it's really personal because it's coming from a place of wherever your mind is at, but I don't think it's sustainable or it for it to always be that heavy, for me at least. It doesn’t always have to break your heart.
The thing that I think stands out to me the most is that somehow I've gotten to this place where I’m allowed in on the process for people. I get to facilitate it. It’s not personal to me but it's personal to the function of the craft and really varies in application and you're forced to meet people exactly where they're at which I find really intimate, but not in the “crack your soul in halfway".
MM: What kind of style or movement do you align your art with?
M: I don’t know. I trained in fine arts in some weird Russian academy in a basement in Mississauga where I had a fine arts background then got into the school specifically for postmodern contemporary whatever and worked a lot in installation and tried to fit myself into the pocket of what I perceived to be what contemporary art is doing right now, and I think at some point not only did very few of us understand these words we used to describe movements and styles and what can encompass things, its like collage-Esq, its an amalgamation of whatever influences you.
MM: How would you define your style outside of that?
M: It depends on the medium but I think in general I'm quite conceptually driven. I get a lot of the finessing technical skills and find that to be comforting in the context of uncertainty, but I think I'm really focused on experimentation and focused some kind of conceptualism that isn't necessarily rooted in being able to condense the meaning of something into a few sentences but more so just committing to the process of things being able to change. Something within that.
MM: How does your position impact the art you create?
M: Maybe most aligned with emotionally where I'm at at the time. I find that whatever work I'm making changes based on mentally where my state is at so it's somehow a month-to-month basis that's possible within identifying yourself. I can catch myself in periods of a lot of motivation, a lot of ability to infuse whatever sense of cultural identity or queer identity, otherwise, it's just months of producing things in order to maintain whatever comfort that can bring. I think I try to keep some level of distance so I can continue to love it and use it as a tool for myself.
MM: How did you get into tattooing initially?
M: In high school, we tattooed each other but it was like, “go to the convenience store next door and get a sewing needle and some India ink” and I was brought up with the sense that tattooing was scary. In Ukraine, at least around the time I was being brought up with my family, people didn't have tattoos and don't have tattoos, but if you did it was very tied to prison so for the longest time I was against tattoos and I didn't understand nor see the value in them besides the “I'm scared”. Then at some point in art school, people were just tattooing each other and I met some people who were treating tattooing differently than Harley Davidson, death metal, etc” and I was like “okay wait there's a different way to do this” and it kind of just went from there. I slowly started tattooing myself and tattooing my friends, learning a bit more and getting tattooed, asking people questions. At the time too, I was in culinary school and fully focused on something completely different so tattooing was really just something to do and then I went from there and moved into a space where I had the room to expand that practice. It felt kind of obvious to do but I was still fucking around completely didn't think that anything would come of it but I think that's a pretty common story with tattooing now. It’s gotten to the point of being that accessible and that mainstream at least in North America so it's kind of funny because there's this casualness to it that previously didn't exist but now I care about it a lot and it matters a lot to me. It’s just weird how I kind of came at it backward.
For a while, it was paying my mom's rent. I was supporting my family with my tattooing so they couldn't really say anything about it. Ultimately they were still like “what is happening to our kid” but there wasn't an ability to be resistant to it and I think they always had this sense of “ Masha is alive and well so let's just leave it at that” which worked in my favour because it gave me the space to kind of just do whatever it was that I wanted, granted that I was able to maintain a certain kind of independence from them. So I think that was a weird transitional process. My mom used to cry every time I got a tattoo or she would text me being like “that was really nice what you tattooed on somebody else but please don't get another one”, you know? And then when I go back to specifically Uzbekistan, less so Ukraine, it's more common to be tattooed there, It's a lot of “hide your body” especially if you're fem presenting in any way and you’re tattooed people are like, “what happened?”. There's a really different treatment of it. But today it's okay. I’ve kind of convinced my mother to let me tattoo her. I don't know what she would get and I'm scared (laughs), I think it will be something very personal. Her fiancé right now has one tattoo and it's sort of shown her that they're not as bad or not as a niche to whatever pocket she thinks I fall into. It will be like a children's portrait or something but it's sweet to think ill get to do that. It's huge. She’s less scared now and I think in general they've just accepted it which is awesome
MM: What's your favourite tattoo on your person?
M: I like what my legs are doing right now. When you first start tattooing the instinct is usually to tattoo your legs because it's what you can reach and where you can learn. At some point, I was unhappy with whatever composition I had made. I had tattooed a gigantic face on the side of my calf which was the second-hand poke I ever did and in retrospect, I was like, “Why?!”, now it's sort of layered itself where tattoos go over tattoos which is a composition I like a lot more. It doesn't read as an individual drawing. I like my ear, I like my neck and the sort of composition. I like that they're not necessarily images but they’re structures. At this point they're more like birthmarks, I don't notice them and it surprises me when people bring them up.
MI: What it's like working independently as a minority freelancer in the tattoo industry?
M: It's changed a lot, because I've been tattooing for 4-5 years now, and even from when I started it's changed. It might also be that my relationship with it has changed too. Instagram is bizarre as a quantifier of where you're at in terms of your ‘career’. It feels really uncertain all of the time and I think that's shared amongst freelancers in general, this sense of “next month it might be gone” you don't have the promised stability of what a job can feel like, but it’s nice ultimately. Maybe because people who get tattooed now collect tattoos. There's no composition. It's not like one person is going to become loyal to you and everyone understands that. Ultimately we bitch about it but to be honest it's nice. People are always there and people are always available and supportive. You can go ask for advice or go meet somebody or move studios and get whatever you feel is missing. It's good.
I have apprentices now, and I tried to keep it as ethical as possible to make it so it's equally an investment of my labour and investment in somebody else’s future. It's cool to have apprentices who really love tattooing off the bat because that's a process that they get to do that I didn't get to do and I get to hold that for them.
MM: How do you typically advertise your business independently?
I mostly use Instagram. It starts with your friend group, then sorts of blows up to be the friends of your friends. It takes a while depending on your style and whatever niche you fall into as a tattoo artist. I find that are tattooed now are still the kind of people I would just vibe with or meet at a party. We’re in the same ‘sphere’ for the most part. It's weird to use a platform that's not suited for the way that we're using it. It’s pretty consistent now, I think people are just more down to get tattooed in general. we’re saturated for sure, but everyone is doing a slightly different thing so it's not as difficult to do or feel as if you have enough people who are willing to practice. It maybe takes about 4 or 5 months, but it goes quickly. It's almost like you blink and all of a sudden you're booked. It's really nice ultimately to get that kind of support.
M: What are some other artists you draw inspiration from?
There's a lot. I keep little tabs on painters that I'm into and I find there are some pieces that stick out in my brain. For a long time, I was working in sonic arts and there were a few experiences I had with audio installations that I hold very dear. Some pieces just operate nostalgically for me. In tattooing, it's such a relatively tight community where the people you fuck with you fuck with for a long time and you follow their work and they follow yours. It creates this kind of exchange so it's different from the way we might admire an artist to that we have zero access.
MM: How is it working with AI tattooing?
M: There's a software called GAANS that I like to work with. It's kind of similar to google captions where they tell you to identify bikes where you're slowly teaching a machine to recognize things. Like our eyes know how to recognize a bike from any angle but the ai needs time to understand what all of those angles mean. So when we do that we're helping software (GANNS) get better at giving traffic tickets. That's the point of that process. So it slowly learns a data set and will try to create a sequence that belongs. I did that with 500 or 600 photos of tattoos that I had made, which is a pretty small data set for the program and what it usually does. You normally want a set of at least 30k photos, but I ran the program and bought server space. I ran my data set for maybe 18 hours, not very long at all, but it started spitting out images. It goes with a baseline of something that I've learned, so in this case illustrations or human faces, then it drew incremental changes from the code and tried to make a tattoo. It's really weird to see what an AI thinks, not only about what my work is but what a tattoo is. It will start to create blowout and skin textures and all sorts of shit after a handful of hours of working with the images. Then to render that, It made textures that don't exist, or that I couldn't replicate in tattooing so there's this weird relationship where you go to tattoo the thing that GAANS made and you cant. You're forced to modify it and there's this frustration to being forced to adapt to artificial intelligence. It's a fun project but it's super strange to try and play with. Just on a person to computer level. There have been a lot of projects with GAANS and my hope is that if I have the server space to run it it would be fucking crazy to get to the point of being able to get that close on the FID scale and make things that are not actually difficult to discern from reality. I'd like to get there with it and make enough AI tattoos to re-feed those tattoos into the system and continue the cycle. It's really mostly used for government identification and for structuring things in general but there is a small group of artists sort of playing around with it, and it's relatively cheap so as a result, it's super flexible.
MM: It was great to see all of these beautiful methods of producing art all in one place. The experience itself was so lovely and inviting and it was truly an honour to go in and talk about everything, and even just to learn about their process. We're very excited to see what they come up with next, especially with their new experimentation with AI software. If you want to go get a tattoo for yourself or check out any more of Masha's artwork you can find them here.