The First Rule of the Okanagan
Urge 3 Tattoos and Why
We Can’t Talk About the Region
Located just a few hours east of Vancouver, the Okanagan is arguably Canada’s best kept secret; an epicurean dreamscape of endless wineries, orchards, breweries, and more cannabis dispensaries than Starbucks locations, all of which surround a lake so massive that it maintains its own unique microclimate for the region. As a result, the Valley, particularly, the southern end of it, is one of the only places in Canada where you can enjoy t-shirt weather in October.
In review, that’s bearable weather, free healthcare and legal weed, all in one place. To play on the old cliché, that’s cake, both possessed and consumed simultaneously.
“Don’t fucking tell anyone. You’re gonna ruin it for us.”
Jeff White gestures with an exaggerated mafioso backhand as the words sputter out of him. His tone is jovial and it’s clear that he’s mostly kidding. I suspect however, that the previous paragraph will still have his ass puckering at least a little. Overdevelopment is becoming a plague. Sorry Jeff.
We’re sitting in his tattoo parlor in Penticton, BC. It’s a town that’s just big enough to be called a city, nestled between the mountain ranges at the southern tip of Okanagan Lake. The shop is called Urge 3 Tattoos and it’s the third of a loosely associated trilogy of parlors bearing a common namesake. The first of the three is located in Victoria, BC and has been in business since the mid-nineties.
“A trilogy?” Jeff breaks in, laughing. “Well, it’s not like, Lord of the Rings or something.” He’s right, at least for his location. It’s more like the original Star Wars; timeless and forward-thinking, while its appeal is at least somewhat rooted in nostalgia.
Aesthetically, there’s no mistaking the shop for anything but modern. It’s too clean, well-lit and inviting of a space to have been a tattoo shop in any era but the current one. Yet, the entire space is one big homage to the roots of modern tattoo culture. From nearly floor to ceiling, the walls are all but covered in flash from every era while the room hums with a chorus of buzzing coil machines, used exclusively at all four stations. There’s so much to unpack here.
“I feel like a tattoo shop should look like a tattoo shop,” says Kirk Shepherd, Jeff’s co-conspirator. “This is just stuff we’ve collected over the years. Some of it’s mine, some of it’s Jeff’s, and a lot of it is stuff that we liked and traded for. We still have ton more in cabinets. We’re eventually going to try to frame and hang all of it.”
“Kirk enjoys Japanese style over anything else,” Jeff adds while pointing to the northwest corner of the room, “so all of the pieces over in that area . . . those are all his handiwork.”
With 45 years of tattoo experience between them, Jeff and Kirk both represent the last wave of artists to take up the machine before the industry’s shift from the margins of culture to prime-time TV. As such, they now serve as torchbearers in a sense for the long-held traditions of the trade that are too often overlooked by the younger generation. They learned the true rudiments; how to make their own needles, build their own machines, mix their own inks, create acetates—all of it.
They didn’t sit still after their apprenticeship, either. Both of them have travelled extensively, having worked internationally and learned from experts of a variety of traditions from around the world, and both have made a hell of a name for themselves here in the Northwest.
When they discuss the industry they’ve called home for two decades or more, they speak with the authority of veterans, but with the passion and openness of initiates. They have nothing but love and appreciation for the huge strides the trade has made over the last two decades, but they simultaneously lament the inflation of their artistic currency. They welcome the new influx of suburbanites into the ranks of the marked with open arms, but openly fret over the one-and-done, microwave attitude encouraged by Instagram and Pinterest. In short, while they’re not the least bit stodgy, they maintain an admirable sense of history and tradition.
They also aren’t the biggest fans of rotaries. “People are now tattooing with electric toothbrushes, dildoes and whatever else you want to call them,” Jeff laughs. “We still all tattoo with doorbells.” He smiles and holds up his coil machine. This, of course, triggers a lengthy discussion.
“But aren’t you able to get better detail with a rotary?” I ask. Keep in mind that I’m just writer—not an artist. I only know what the artists tell me.
“It’s not really because of the rotary,” Kirk explains. “You can actually do finer detail on a coil. It’s just that most people, their apprenticeships sucked. They don’t know how to tune in a coil machine. The rotary really just does one thing. It’s the same every time.”
“Like the old infomercial,” Jeff adds. “’Set it and forget it.’”
“Exactly,” Kirk responds. “You can actually get a lot more techniques out of a coil machine, but if you don’t know how to tune it, it’ll run like shit.”
“Huh,” I nod thoughtfully. “So, really, it’s a lot like the ‘Mac versus PC’ debate, huh?”
Kirk smiles. “You could say that, I guess, but I prefer carburetor versus fuel injection.” In my five years of writing for the tattoo industry, they are the first artists to ever give anywhere close to this level of insight.
Thankfully, they are passing their wealth of knowledge along. Right now, it’s going to their apprentice, Mercedes, a friendly and incredibly promising artist who’s been sitting in with us and regularly contributing to the conversation.
“They’ve taught me how to build my own machine,” she confirms as the coil discussion meanders along. “They even taught me how to build needles.”
“Next, we’ll be going over acetates,” Kirk says, nodding.
Rounding them out is their latest addition to the staff, Dani Doll, a ten-year veteran of the trade who specializes in illustrative traditional. She just joined the team this past July after a six-year stint with Art Therapy in nearby Osooyos, BC.
Among the four of them, there’s not a weak link in the group. It’s an impressive roster they’ve cultivated with an even more impressive portfolio, all of which is rooted in traditional, but rich in a formidable diversity.
But don’t tell anyone. The secret of the Okanagan must be kept.
You’re welcome, Jeff.