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High Five Tattoo brings approachable body art to the International Village

On the corner of King Street East and Ferguson Avenue North sits the newest addition to Hamilton’s International Village — High Five Tattoo. Inside, owners Stef Neale and Mark MacEwen have created a welcoming space that specializes in modern twists on traditional-style tattooing. “Not a passing trend” is the shop’s manifesto, and it makes a lot of sense when you understand what they’re about. Along with Stef tattooing, there are three other artists calling High Five home, including fellow traditionalist Morgan MacDonald.

The space is decorated in the same style they tattoo and based on things Stef and Mark have seen while travelling. From California to Ohio tattoo shops around North America display elements of classic cars, punk rock, bikes, and skateboarding culture. Stef and Mark took this and made it their own, using aspects they loved to create a sort of traditional meets 1980s feeling in the shop. Even the traditional tattoo colour palette was considered, usually made up of reds, greens, yellows, and blacks.

This idea extends to the shop’s name, High Five. “The name is classic, casual, but with strong imagery,” says Mark. “It feels like something that has been there for a while.” Their goal was to design a space that is approachable, timeless, and where tattoos are never the same — not trendy, not a fad, but taking a cue from a style rooted in history.

Stef began tattooing in 2010 without any previous instruction or experience. As someone who always goes for what she wants, having developed an interest in tattooing, she decided to try. Stef eventually got a formal apprenticeship in Etobicoke, and after travelling and working in various cities, she settled in Hamilton three years ago.

After spending time with the team at Grey Harbour, it was time for Stef to open a shop in the city she fell in love with. Once she saw the space they’re currently in, she knew she had found the right spot to open a shop. “It wasn’t cookie cutter, but it was clean and full of character,” Stef says. An artist since she was little, opening her own studio was just the motivation she needed to grow her craft.

While most of the work is custom, you can find inspiration from the flash covering the walls at High Five. “We put up what we want to do, and to show examples and guide clients,” explains Stef. There’s a combination of flash from other artists as well as the shop’s residents, providing ideas of “tattoos we’re interested in and what would make good pieces.” This way, even if a customer comes in without an idea, after settling on a piece of flash, the tattoo is slightly altered for the person and becomes a custom design in itself.

As for the style, the shop focuses on tattoos with longevity. “We want our product to last a lifetime,” says Mark. “The concept of tattooing has been around for so long, and we recognize and respect that.”

They draw from American traditional, as well as Japanese traditional. Iconic tattooers Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy provide influence, and as Mark explains, “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re paying tribute to those who have done it right in the industry.”

While each artist in the shop brings a different take, they all have a similar vision for the art they want to produce. And, of course, they always ensure that their shop is inviting and inclusive. “This is a safe space, no matter your background, sexuality, or race,” Stef says. “We don’t tolerate discrimination. Not for our business and not as people.”

In the past, tattoos carried a stigma and were only for criminals, sailors, and what people considered the rebels of society. Stef and Mark wanted to create a place that welcomes and appeals to everyone, spanning all generations and cultures. This means that tattoos aren’t limited to certain people that are “accepted” in shops — anyone can come into High Five and use their art to express themselves.

One thing that’s common among both tattoo artists and collectors? Learning and discovering styles that vary from artist to artist. Stef chooses to travel to different tattooers to get work done on herself. “When I’m tattooed by someone I look up to, I not only get inspiration, but I learn. You see their hand movements, their techniques, the ink they use. It’s all part of growing as an artist.” She also learns by admiring work she sees on others. “When I see a good tattoo on someone, I get excited. I want to look at it, study it, and appreciate it.”

So whether you’re stopping by for a small panther or looking for an entire Japanese-inspired back-piece, you’re sure to fit in at High Five.

High Five Tattoo is located at 249 King St E, Hamilton.

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