Tiff Lee Is Changing Tattoo Culture With Her Safe Space Studio
The tattoo artist and shop owner on how she made it happen
Name: Tiff Lee
Job title: Tattoo artist and shop owner
Currently lives in: Toronto
Education: Diploma in visual and digital arts, Humber College
First job out of school: Tattooing plus working at an art store and a restaurant
Tiff Lee always wanted to tattoo but initially didn’t have the guts to give it a shot. She started out studying advertising but quickly found it “stifling and honestly quite soul-sucking.” She put ink to skin for the first time ever when she was 20, and though that was the beginning of her career, her path since then hasn’t exactly been easy.
With today’s DIY culture, Lee explains, some people get into tattooing just by picking up the tools and figuring it out, experimenting on themselves or friends. She went a more traditional route and landed an apprenticeship. It was a big opportunity but turned out to be a rough experience.
“The shops that I applied to work in and the shops I wanted to work in were male-dominated,” she says. Lee’s apprenticeship experience ended up being extremely emotionally difficult due to what she describes as “a lack of professionalism and an abuse of power by the studio.” Looking back, she wishes she had waited to find a mentor who was invested in her learning and in her as a person rather than apprenticing at the first shop that would take her. “If you know what you’re capable of and you know what you deserve, you’re not going to let other people push you around,” she says.
And what Lee is capable of is not just beautiful tattoos but also change. After her apprenticeship, she worked in other tattoo shops in the GTA and spent two years in Greece further honing her skills. When she returned to Canada, she worked in Toronto shops again, this time with the intention of starting something of her own. Lee recognized that the culture in tattoo shops needed to shift, so she took matters into her own hands and partnered with artists Ketzia Kobrah and Clare Castello to open HeartStrong Tattoo, intended to be a welcoming, safe space for both artists and clients.
“I think female-owned spaces, or spaces that aren’t necessarily owned by men, are necessary to break up how saturated the market is with male-dominated shops,” says Lee. She adds that HeartStrong Tattoo isn’t just filling a niche—the artists do really great work and have repeat customers, proving that this type of space can, and should, exist. HeartStrong Tattoo now has a staff of five resident artists, including Lee, and more than 10,000 Instagram followers, and, since opening, the team has been able to donate more than $10,000 to charities such as CAMH, LGBT Youthline, The Rose Underground and, most recently, Nellie’s Shelter.