Chris Stout: Award-winning Calgary tattoo artist on developing her own style

Story and photos by Jessica Melnychuk

You’re six years old, drawing a picture of your house in grade one art class. It’s simple – you line the walls, sketch a triangle roof, draw the door and maybe add a window or two. Done.

But if you’re Chris Stout, it doesn’t stop there.

“My mom likes to tell stories about how, even when I was really little, I would get in trouble in school because all of my art was too detailed,” Stout remembers. “When everyone else finished drawing pictures of their house, I would still be drawing cracks in windows, door frames, door keys, spiders in the windows…”

That love of detail has continued to roll through into Stout’s career as a tattoo artist at Human Kanvas in Calgary, where she has been inking her art onto bodies for the past seven years.

This fall, she hit a new high when she was awarded the Tribal, Cultural, Geometric trophy at the Calgary Tattoo & Arts Festival, the biggest show of its kind in Canada.

“I’m still flabbergasted,” she says. “I wanted to enter because it was a piece I was very, very proud of. Calgary is so big, and there’s so many artists who entered. It’s a big accomplishment.”

The award-winning piece is a geometric design Stout inked onto her co-worker’s thigh. Stout had been given nearly free range to do whatever she wanted. “[My co-worker] was like, ‘I like honeycombs, I like bees, and I like geometric. Do anything you want.’ And we did, and it worked for us.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Stout.

It hasn’t always been a smooth journey for Stout, though. She was “late to the game” as a tattoo artist, she says, noting that most artists seem to start their careers in their late teens.

“Sixteen was my introduction to tattoos,” she remembers. “At 18, I was finally like, ‘I want to do that.’ But it was still kind of a starstruck dream.”

In her early twenties, Stout began getting serious and building her portfolio. She got into her first shop at 23, but felt it wasn’t a good environment to be in. Luckily, just six months or so into Stout’s career, Human Kanvas owner Brandi Lee got a tip about this great artist she just had to meet. She came into the shop Stout was working in at the time and hired her on the spot.

“[Brandi] put a lot of trust in me,” Stout says. “She put up with a lot of my BS over the years. She gave me a shot when I didn’t think any other shop would.”

These days, Stout has noticed more and more artists starting their careers in their twenties and thirties. She says perhaps the recession has something to do with it – all of a sudden, people have more time on their hands to pursue their artistic passions.

“But even with the recession,” she says, “we didn’t really notice a decrease in tattoo sales. Tattoos are like a type of therapy. Even when you don’t have that kind of money – it’s your mental health. If that money goes towards making you feel better, making you think you look better – people aren’t willing to cop out on that.”

And while her clients drive a lot of her inspiration, thanks to the abundance of reference photos from places like Pinterest and Instagram, Stout isn’t afraid to steer someone in a different direction, or build a tattoo right in front of someone who isn’t quite sure what they want.

“I am a walking billboard [for what not to do],” she says, thinking back to her first tattoo – a scorpion in honour of her then boyfriend, who was a Scorpio. “It’s a lovely, lovely little story,” she laughs.

“When a tattoo artist is recommending against an idea, we’re not just saying it to be rude. It’s because we have either done it or we’ve seen it or we’ve been there.”

But Stout still has that first tattoo, and many others she would probably advise others against today. “Every tattoo is a part of my story,” she says. “It just depends on if it’s a horror story or a fairytale.”

“But if I can help you avoid making the mistakes that I made, that’s the best.”

Seven years into her career, Stout is still defining her own unique style.

“I didn’t foresee myself doing watercolour ever,” she says. “Slowly, my clients have chiseled me into the style that I do, because they start asking for very specific things and I’m like, ‘oh, I like that.’ And then I just keep going there.”

She continues, “I would love to continue developing a style so when people see it on Instagram, social media, some kind of platform – they can look at it and be like, ‘yeah, that’s Chris. She designed that piece.’ If that’s in the direction of a geometric, lace, watercolour hybrid, that would be great.”

Thinking about the future, Stout can’t imagine working anywhere else, and she’s proud to be a part of the Calgary scene. “You forget sometimes that this isn’t a small city,” she says. “There’s so much talent here.”