From prison tattoos done with electric fans to ex-lover cover-ups, Montreal Vintage Tattoos captures the body art that’s just getting better with age
Elizabeth Maltais is always on the lookout for an old tattoo with a good story. Wherever she goes, she keeps an eye out for designs that look faded with age. “You know, as soon as you become interested in something, you start seeing it everywhere?” says Maltais. “That’s what happened.” A year ago, she started posting her finds on Instagram, under the handle Montreal Vintage Tattoos. As her account grew, Maltais followers started submitting their own body art – all with a story to tell. Karl got his tattoos in prison by fastening a guitar string to an electric fan. Bob, a cashier Maltais met while shopping, poked his own name onto his forearm at 15. Bonnie, meanwhile, picked up a machine pen 20 years ago and tattooed her husband’s arms to commemorate the birth of their children.
When she’s not scouting the streets for tattoos, Maltais manages a cafe in Montreal’s Griffintown. Rick, whose tattoos are featured on Maltais’ Instagram, frequents the café. He got his first tattoo in the late 80s, when – as he puts it – “the only people who walked around with tattoos were sailors, bikers, or ex-cons”. This first tattoo, which he designed, is a Star of David wrapped in barbed wire. It represents his Jewish heritage and reminds him of the conversations he had with Auschwitz survivors as a young man. “Every tattoo on my body is indicative of some moment in my life,” says Rick. “My next tattoo is a stick figure my kid drew when he was really young. It’s a portrait of me.”
People are often caught up in how ink will look as it ages. Just as skin sags and hair greys, tattoos muddle and fade. But the people featured on Montreal Vintage Tattoos aren’t worried about aesthetics. Their tattoos tell a story. For Maltais, and the followers of her Instagram, there’s beauty in these stories. Dazed caught up with Maltais to find out more.
Why did you start Montreal Vintage Tattoos?
Elizabeth Maltais: I had just moved into a new apartment. Walking around my neighbourhood, I kept seeing old dudes drinking beer and coffee on the street, smoking cigarettes and chatting. They were all covered in tattoos. I was dying to know, What are their stories?
One day, I went to a hardware store to buy paint and the man behind the counter had a huge Bob tattooed on his forearm – I thought it was so badass, I had to ask him what the deal was. When I started talking with him, he was so surprised that a young woman would be interested at all in his story and childhood. When I left, I thought, ‘Fuck, I should do something with this.’
How do you find people to feature?
Elizabeth Maltais: Whenever I see someone with exposed tattoos, I get a sense of their vibe and if they would be down to talk about their life. I try to be as respectful as possible. The last thing I want is to come across like a young person whipping out my phone, trying to take a photo. Some people want to share, others don’t. That’s fair, too. A lot of the tattoos on the page were done in jail. There was this one guy, Alain, who was covered in tattoos. He was very embarrassed to tell me he got his tattoos in jail. I told him that the past stays in the past – I’m just here to appreciate the work.
I don’t want to generalise, but I feel like older people don’t get a lot of attention. They’re left aside. Most people are super happy when I show interest in their tattoos. It makes me feel good, so I hope it makes them feel good, too. Some people ask if they’re going to be in a book and I say, one day.
What’s your favourite story you’ve heard?
Elizabeth Maltais: I love a good ‘I got this done for my lover and then we broke up and then I covered it’. One guy had ‘Jolene’ tattooed on his arm, for his wife, and when he got divorced, he covered the name with a boxer – to show he was on top and in control. I just think that’s hilarious.
I met this woman in Toronto last summer. In Kensington Market it’s very common to see people hanging out on the street, pulling up chairs, smoking cigarettes and playing really loud music on their portable radios. I noticed a woman chilling by herself. She had exposed tattoos, so I approached her. She told me that she did all her tattoos on herself when she was 50 years old. She had flowers and roots on her foot that crawled all the way up her leg. On her thigh, she had a uterus tattoo with text that read, ‘NOT THE BOSS ANYMORE’. She gave herself the tattoo to commemorate going through menopause. I thought that was so iconic. She was the best. Definitely one of my favourite stories.
What are your DMs like?
Elizabeth Maltais: At first, I thought the page would only be for me and my friends. Next thing I know, people were sharing the account and sending me photos almost every day. I get DMs from older tattoo artists who used to work in Montreal. Through the texts, I can tell they think they’re talking to a man. I feel like people don’t really know who is behind the page, which is cool. I try to keep it that way.
When did you get your first tattoo?
Elizabeth Maltais: When I was younger, I got really shitty tattoos, quotes and cringey things. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it’s OK. Tattoos started taking more space in my life when I was living in Toronto with my friend Robby, who’s been tattooing for over ten years. I hung out in shops with her and fell in love with the culture, and other artists’ designs.
Who is your tattoo icon, dead or alive?
Elizabeth Maltais: Dead: Spider Webb. He tattooed during the 70s and fought against the law that made tattooing illegal in New York City. He sat on the stairs of the Met and tattooed a woman’s ass with a plume. People are still using his designs now. I actually have an original design of his, from the 80s.
Alive: Bill Baker. Super humble, laid-back guy. He’s tattooing in Toronto, started in the 80s. Not only was he tattooing and opening shops, but he also created Machinegun magazine, which taught artists how to assemble and fix their machines. It would take months for him to write a single issue. I feel like, these days, there’s a rush to be successful. Bill sets an example for any artist, and I have a lot of respect for him and his career. I actually met him when I lived in Kensington Market – he did this piece on my forearm.
How has tattooing changed since the 70s and 80s?
Elizabeth Maltais: Tattoos used to be seen as unsanitary and dangerous. Artists like Spider Webb fought to make tattooing legal. With time, people started to see tattoos as a form of self-expression. Styles have expanded so much and now everybody can find a design they relate to. It’s way more accessible now.
What does ageing beautifully mean to you?
Elizabeth Maltais: People are so scared of ageing, but there’s beauty in getting to know yourself, challenging yourself, having different lives throughout your life, meeting loves, losing loves – all of those things build character. And if you’re able to get tattoos during all of those different phases of your life, it’s pretty cool. I can’t wait to be old and wrinkled and have crusty tattoos.
How will you wear your tattoos in 30 years?
Elizabeth Maltais: The same way I do now.
What’s the future of Montreal Vintage Tattoos?
Elizabeth Maltais: For now, I want the page to grow organically. I love that it’s pretty lowkey. I appreciate that Montreal Vintage Tattoos can be a platform for people to share their love of tattooing culture. That’s enough for me.