Monday, May 11, 2009


I spent a couple of days shooting in my old home town this weekend. Actually we had two shoots on the go, one in Regina and one in the middle of a Hamilton thunderstorm. I hear the dailies on that one are awesome.

And I gotta tell you -- working without endless form filling funding or network letters all this “broadcast model is broken” talk must be testing any bank’s confidence in bridge financing  -- is truly freeing.

This is my first ‘more than a fly-by’ visit to the old stompin’ grounds in a couple of decades so, of course, much has changed. Familiar haunts are gone and others have altered to the unrecognizable.

But one thing struck me at almost every turn – because there was one at literally every one of them – the tattoo parlour.

Now, I know tattoos are as common as earrings everywhere these days. But Regina’s still a fairly small and conservative town and I wasn’t seeing any ink on any of the people I was around.

I started thinking that maybe I just hadn’t seen enough of them naked, so I asked -- (if they had a tattoo, not if I could see them naked).

Nobody was marked. So now I had a real mystery.  A mystery that deepened when I saw racks of Saskatchewan Roughrider “temporary tattoos” in a local Sporting goods store.

sask tat 2

If Regina’s most beloved symbol wasn’t worth sacrificing a little epidermis to exhibit, what was?

When I broached the subject with local expert and apparent fellow blank slate in the body art department, Uncle Willis, he recalled hearing that Regina had the highest per capita number of tattoo parlours and Chinese restaurants in the country.

Now it’s not hard to have the highest per capita anything in Saskatchewan, since you’re dividing whatever you’re analyzing by next to no people in the first place. But the Chinese restaurant part of Will’s recollection made sense.

That’s because when the province was crisscrossed with railroad tracks to haul away all those acres of wheat, many of the workers were Chinese and many of them settled in the small towns they passed through and opened restaurants.

If there’s a restaurant in any prairie town, odds are it’s still Chinese.

But nothing Willis and I speculated explained a tattoo explosion so vast there should be a local Crown corporation called SaskTat to culturally promote the craft.

wheat tat

So, when there were breaks in shooting, I visited a couple of the ink outlets and asked.

The first one claimed to have been the first shop in town and didn’t really know what had attracted all the rest -- but remarked that many of them were very good.

The second illustrator admitted learning his craft in a prison work release program, which struck me as oddly prescient of the penal system. But he claimed he “honestly didn’t have a clue” where his customers came from, insisting they inhabited “all walks of life”.

I got this odd feeling that both artisans I spoke with weren’t comfortable with my question. And neither chose to extend the conversation. So the mystery remained one until very late on my last night in town.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Saskatchewan is that there isn’t a lot of cliquish behavior. Not a lot of these people don’t talk to those people or somebody’s more important than somebody else.

There’s an equality and sense of brotherhood there that comes from a land that can be harsh at times and where you’re taught from birth to look out for and after your neighbors.

So it didn’t strike me as odd when the record producer sitting on one side of me in a Country bar introduced me to the Judge sitting on my other side.

I mentioned my mystery to “His Honor” and the question didn’t phase him one bit.

“It’s the gangs,” he said, “When they’re not spilling blood they’re spilling ink to mark their status.”

It made sense.

My once sleepy and trouble free home town now regularly battles to top the country in murders, car thefts and violent crime. The downtown core is beginning to resemble the “donut syndrome” of American cities where people have fled ravaged city centers for the safety of the suburbs.

And that socially disrupted center with all its unclaimed turf has now become home to the “Native Syndicate”, “Indian Posse”, “Crazy Crees” and many other violent gangs.

indian tattoos

Most people put gang crime down to poverty and alienation and that’s all true. But so are a laisse-faire attitude toward drugs and a feeling that it’s politically incorrect to lean on folks who are more sociopath and psychopath than member of a definable race or culture.

I’ve spent a lot of time in gang ravaged neighborhoods of American cities and the people most victimized by them are their own. The people most harmed are the ones they most appear to champion.

And perhaps worst of all, their very presence prevents the rest of the community from reaching out to those most in need.

Intimidation is the gangs’ most powerful weapon and it infects everyone from those under their thumbs to politicians afraid to appear insensitive to tattoo artists who know silence is good for business.

But unlike most American cities, Regina has a history of co-operation and caring that (combined with the current economic boom) still offers an opportunity to save it.

My hometown is a place that has given this country a lot from art and culture to bio-research and medical care that have made all Canadians what we are.

And for far more people than me, it’s too special to lose.

1 comment:

Clint Johnson said...

I have to disagree with a section of your post (emphasis mine):

"Most people put gang crime down to poverty and alienation and that’s all true. But so are a laisse-faire attitude toward drugs and a feeling that it’s politically incorrect to lean on folks who are more sociopath and psychopath than member of a definable race or culture."

I would lay the lion's share of the blame on the LACK of a laisse-faire treatment of these drugs. The illegality of drugs is what makes organized crime into the problem it is today. The harm that the drugs themselves do is not insignificant but this effect is with us whether drugs are illegal or not.

The consensual part of the equation may bother many people but while an individual's desire for a drug and another individual's willingness to supply that drug may not be a legal right, it is a moral right. I think it is stupid and for a relatively small number of people it is personally very damaging... rather like sky diving.

The effect of keeping these drugs illegal is to push the market out of the rule of law. Groups kill and maim for market share and there is no legal recourse for those on the receiving end - so they arm themselves and retaliate.

As it stands, the people involved in the drug trade, traffickers and users alike, have no recourse but violence when there is any disagreement over debt or territory. Society and law sees them as "other" and withholds any option but that of might makes right.

Throughout all history, there has been a demand for mind altering substances. There is a small percentage of society that is wired in such a way as to make this one of their primary motivators in life. The legal status of something will not trump neurology. What it will do is ensure the profit margin is wide enough that there will always be people ready to fight for the place of anyone taken out of the equation by the police or internecine conflict.