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Remembering Ace Tattoo

When Tattoo Shops were called Parlours

by AdamSkyArtist

November 2, 2006

Down by the docks is the remains of what was once the old Ace Tattoo parlour. I was at the tender age of eighteen when I first set foot in that joint and the sensations of walking in to Ace stick with me even today as how a proper tattoo shop should be presented. My first impression was the overwhelming smell of green soap and stale cigarette smoke; the particular aroma of any place where tattooing happens day in and day out. The yellowed tattoo flash were all priced for the blue collar crowd and the paint on the walls was fresh except where it gave way to old signage stating 'Tattoos Done While U Wait' and 'Add 20% to the Price for Any Work Off the Arm'.

The shop was laid out efficiently and was always sanitary. On one side of the pony wall was the waiting room with a vinyl covered bench, books of line drawings, an old pinball machine and a jukebox and on the side where all of the action took place was two orderly work stations with small wash basins and just enough room for two tattooers to work side by side on their clients with no funny business. Stuck to an old rotary telephone was a red and white sticker reminding us that 'loose lips sink ships'.

On any cold and rainy night in Vancouver's East Side you were guaranteed a spot in the chair with little or no waiting to go under the needle. This was well before the modern age of consultations or needing an appointment to see the artist. Payday was their only busy season.

Guys like Bryan and Rico and Dave Shore were the regular featured talents at Ace, offering the neighbourhood a better caliber of tattooing than people could have expected for its day. One time as Bryan was emblazoning a skull and top hat on my forearm, I asked if Rico was still around. He told me that his ol' lady was jealous of him having his hands all over young girls at work all day so she forced him to quit tattooing and get in to construction. Construction was a more reliable paycheque anyhow.

The culture on the street eventually went from bad to worse. Drugs hit East Hastings Street hard and people got nervous to come down to the old block. Shops left and right started to board up and even the competing tattoo parlour across the street closed down.

Ace Tattoo kept its doors open through the blight of the crack cocaine and heroin epidemic of Vancouver's Lower East Side but the business changed hands a few times and with it the tattoo shop lost its dignity. I visited one frigid winter afternoon to find the door wide open with water leaking around the cracks in the floor and the walls painted flat black. Death metal blared over the speakers of a ghetto blaster that looked like it had been dropped one too many times. The hand painted flash and the juke box was gone. Plumbing and pipes lay exposed where work station cabinets used to be.

Eventually any signage pronouncing the storefront operating as a place of business vanished and old blankets and curtains covered the inside of the windows. Only the hand painted skulls and dolphins on the window; the last vestige of any indication that tattooing had ever taken place there was the only remnants of its legacy. I heard a rumor that some tattooers who had their tattoo shop condemned by the city had moved in and were operating behind the curtains but I don't think that lasted too long.

The shop is now vacant with a 'For Rent' sign in the window. I've often fantasized about reopening the old Ace Tattoo and revitalizing it to its previous glory. I'd love to see an old juke box in the corner again and maybe hang up some hand painted flash and have shootouts to see who can get the high score on the pinball machine. But the neighbourhood is too far gone. Anyhow, I've got the history of Ace Tattoo etched on my arm for life.

The gradual decline of Ace Tattoo was more a product of the city's East Side sliding in to the oblivion of poverty and drug abuse compounded with poor business sense from the shop's benefactors. But how Ace used to be in its glory days I believe is still the model example of what a tattoo shop should look like, feel like and operate. As much as our tattooing and our clientele has become more sophisticated, many of those old time parlour owners had it all figured out a long time ago.

Adam Sky

Editor in Chief

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