Saskatchewan’s Nomadic Tattoo Co. Thrives Against all Odds
“Maple Creek is very old school, very traditional, very . . . conservative. Many here have never left to experience big city living. The town motto is ‘Where past is present.’”
Nothing in his description of the town in which he works and lives suggests there would be fertile ground for a tattoo business to take root. And the more he talks, the less likely the situation becomes. A town of just over 2,000, heavily controlled by a traditionalist, faith based community, isn’t exactly an optimal place for an atheist covered in ink and piercings to stake his fortune. Yet, this is where Sean Barnard and his wife, Kalee have decided to open Nomadic Tattoo Co. and raise their four children.
It’s a matter of roots. Sean spent his life in a state of perpetual motion, having lived in 17 multiple cities in three different provinces and one territory (hence the name, Nomadic). Kalee, on the other hand, grew up here in Saskatchewan just forty minutes from Maple Creek. It made sense—and they make it work.
But as small a town as it is and as much as it is like every other rural prairie neighborhood, Maple Creek is practically a metropolis by comparison to the surrounding region.
Saskatchewan is unfathomably sparse. Most of the dots on the map are little more than villages; sleepy clusters of aging homes and anachronistically quaint businesses that serve as a rusty hub for the farmers spread across the sprawling countryside. The numbers in these villages rarely break triple digits and paved roads are a luxury. The lines on the map that connect the dots are more often than not comprised of gravel and are tread upon by hoof and paw as often as tire.
In between, there are the prairies; a dusty spattering of rolling hills, hidden valleys, and gaping canyons straight out of a cowboy fantasy, far more populated by coyotes, antelopes, deer, buffalo and prairie dogs than humankind. The vastness of this land is only dwarfed by the infinity of the night sky.
Sean may have technically undergone his apprenticeship in Vancouver, but this is the backdrop that has molded him as an artist. Operating within a town largely disinterested and occasionally hostile to his trade, he doesn’t have the luxury of developing a specialty or turning down work he feels is beneath him. As a result, versatility has become his specialty.
“I have to be a jack of all trades and master of none,” he offers humbly. “I have to be able to take anything that comes in the door and adapt just to pay my bills, feed my family and occasionally do the pieces that I want to do . . . If all I did was what I absolutely loved to do, I would be unable to operate a viable tattoo shop. I wouldn’t have any clients. That’s the reality.”
It’s a mixed bag, according to Sean. He admits to an occasional surge of jealousy over artists in population centers who are able to develop an artistic niche for themselves, but he also acknowledges the value of the education life has gifted him.
“I think it’s cool to be able to jump around from style to style . . . be able to take on some more interesting projects and tackle some things that I honestly have no business doing. The challenge is fun in itself.”
Even with his willingness to tackle anything that comes his way, the survival of the business demands they reach far beyond the confines of their old school town. Luckily, they are able to do just that.
“I would say that 96% (if not more) of my clients are driving an hour or more to come see me,” he says. “I’m overwhelmingly humbled by their loyalty. I know there are better artists out there, but they insist on coming to me. Meanwhile, I’ve been in Maple Creek for five years now and I’ve tattooed maybe 17 people who actually live here.”
As far as the trade we traditionally think of as tattooing, Sean’s a one-man operation. However, rounding out the business is wife, Kalee, who has recently begun offering permanent make up services. Between the two of them, they make ends meet and provide a comfortable life for their four children, but it’s not always easy, especially in the post-Covid world.
“Covid-19 has thrown a really big curve ball into everything,” Sean laments. “The cost of everything has gone up. I wish someone would step in and talk about price gouging because it’s getting ridiculous. A nine-dollar box of gloves is now 25-30 bucks. A box of masks that were 12 bucks are now 60 bucks.”
It’s even more strenuous on their family life. Pandemic protocols require that they work separate shifts, taking one client at a time by appointment only. As a result, one of them is almost always working while the other is playing full time parent to the kids. They’re taking it in stride, though, and continually making all the pieces work. And while Sean and Kalee take an enormous amount of pride in how they treat their clients, Sean makes it clear what the real priorities are.
“We’re a family business,” he states unapologetically. “I make it a point to take as much contact info as possible when a client books with me because if one of my kids gets sick, I’m going to cancel on you and reschedule. You can bet on that.”
“At the end of the day,” he caps of with a chuckle, “to be honest with you, I just do me and if you don’t like it . . . well . . . fuck, that’s just me!”