All Blog Posts / Queer Voices: Halifax Tattoo Artist Gabe Squalor
Queer Voices: Halifax Tattoo Artist Gabe Squalor
Published On: November 6, 2019
Written By: Evan Eye
Earlier this summer in the midst of the whirlwind that was Pride 2019, I found myself flying solo from my home base of Vancouver to the opposite end of the country – Halifax, Nova Scotia. I had never been to this stunning (and as far as I’m concerned: remote) city, and although I was travelling for work I was excited to see what this seaside town had to offer a jaded gay such as myself. I had heard rumours of the local hospitality and enthusiasm for all things progressive, and within minutes of pulling into the downtown core in my cab I had this confirmed by how visible Pride already was to my jet lagged eyes. We’ve all heard time and time again how polite and friendly Canadians are, but it wasn’t until I visited Halifax that I felt that to be true.
Outlaw Country Tattoo had been on our radar for some time now – a queer owned and operated tattoo shop that had been attracting attention for both it’s unapologetic existence and quality of work produced by the talented team that congregated within its walls. Led by best friends Gabe Squalor and Tucker Bottomley, Outlaw Country was a space for queer and queer friendly individuals to comfortably express themselves through the time-honoured tradition of tattooing. Located at 6103 North Street, the unconventional corner-facing entrance of Outlaw Country lets you know that strange and beautiful things were behind it’s glass door.
Gabe was kind enough to set some time aside in her busy schedule to chat with me about her career, her shop and outlook on the tattoo industry from a queer perspective – when I arrived at Outlaw Country Tattoo I was met with a warm welcome from her and her team, noting the stark contrast from every other experience I’ve had in a tattoo shop prior. Gone was the machoism, the exclusivity, the ego I’d come to expect from a tattoo setting; it was immediately clear to me that Outlaw Country clients had permission to be as excited or as nervous as they truly were. No “too cool” performance necessary.
“Outlaw Country is here to provide a safer space for anyone who falls under the queer umbrella, or people who want to support us and receive tattoos or services in a queer-centred environment. We get a lot of people who may not identify as queer, but love coming here and love the environment in which we create. Everyone is welcome here, just so long as you’re not a bigot. The door is open.”
Gabe’s interest in tattooing began at a young age – when asked, she couldn’t recall a time in her life where she didn’t want to a be a tattoo artist. What started out as an obsessive approach to drawing turned into something more as her family members would get tattoos and then show her the finished work.
“I was always drawing as a child… always, always, always. As soon as I started getting introduced to tattoos, like family members or whatever going and getting them and showing me, I was like I’m pretty sure that’s what I want to do, you know?”
By the time Gabe had graduated high school it had become apparent that much like any other industry the tattoo world was going to be a tough climb not only for a woman, but a queer one at that. Securing an apprenticeship in a shop was a fruitless endeavour, as each attempt to make it work failed as she went from shop to shop trying to find the right place to learn and grow.
“It just kept not working out, for many reasons; mostly because of my queerness, whether it be in appearance or, you know, Big Dyke Energy. So I did what I highly don’t recommend others do, which is I started working out of my own home. Obviously going into a shop and getting an apprenticeship is the way to start tattooing, that is so incredibly important… but at the time I just didn’t have access to that, so I did what I had to do.”
As she developed and honed her style and skills in her home studio, Gabe eventually made the move out west to Vancouver where she got her first gig in a now-closed shop called Sticks and Stones.
“My first experience in a queer-centred tattoo shop was actually in Vancouver, this lovely shop called Sticks and Stones. That was my gateway experience into what a real shop environment was with multiple artists. I started out helping organize things, getting supplies… I got a good perspective on how places are run and operated.”
Five years on after finding her footing in the industry, Gabe returned to Halifax with newfound confidence and the resolve to make it work in a standard industry shop. It didn’t take long until she was reminded again of the forces that pushed her out in the first place, such as the lack of awareness around the pronouns of clients and how to make space for folks to safely identify themselves. As much as some of the spaces she found herself working in wanted to proclaim they were queer friendly, they weren’t prioritizing something as simple as having a section for pronouns on client waiver forms.
“I kept finding myself trying to carve these spaces out to suit what my clientele needed, but every time I was doing that I was seen as a space hog – a boss doesn’t typically like it when their employee starts telling them how to run the place. I pretty quickly realized I wasn’t going to be able to turn those shops into the kind of space that I, we, needed… which is what led me to make the decision with my best friend Tucker to open a queer-centred shop. We were going to be flaming, we were going to have fun and we were going to provide all the services that are super needed by queer people in this industry.”
Gabe and Tucker go way back. High school best friends that came out and grew up together – the type of connection that from the uninitiated outside would seem like an unfamiliar level of closeness. A bond arguably unique to the queer community in which you’re finding yourself and them at the same time and meet in a strange, vulnerable transitional point in your lives.
“Whether you’re gay, lesbian, trans, whatever – you know, it’s such a crazy weird time and to have someone be your partner in crime is just amazing. We kind of got married in a best friends kind of way, and it was together forever ever since then. We live together, have a band together, own a tattoo shop together… we do everything together.”
Much like with their tattoo shop, Gabe and Tucker’s music under the band name Holy Crow operates in a similar way; a queer perspective on something perhaps rooted in a straight cis man’s world. With a sound described as queer folk music meets punk meets rock and roll, the same rebellious and authentic spirit is front and centre. Holy Crow currently has two albums available to stream at holycrow.bandcamp.com, and after listening to both of them I can only hope Gabe and Tucker continue making music together for years to come.
During my time with Gabe I took a moment to wander around the shop, trying to take in as many details as I could. Every inch of the walls were covered in framed mock ups of tattoo pieces, most of which were queer as hell. Towards the back of the space I noticed a large, framed illustration that was unmistakably Aileen Wuornos. I had to ask Gabe what that was about.
“The movie Monster came out around the same time I was starting to realize that I was truly as queer as the people around me were telling me. It was that story that really made something clink in my mind; that “would do anything for love” mindset seemed extremely familiar to me. Later in life, I related to a different part of Aileen’s story when I experience just how challenging it is for two queer women to have a steady income in a patriarchal world created primarily for men to succeed. I also remember finding a quote online by Aileen which went something like ‘if you can’t be a good example, then at least be a terrible warning’. I could go deeper as to why this outlaw means so much to me, but I also wanna leave some of it up to the imagination.”
The 1st of October marked the one year anniversary of Outlaw Country, and from the beginning business has been steady. Gabe attributes part of the success to getting the perfect space – they spotted the real estate listing within hours of it being posted and locked the location down shortly after. And while the space is indeed perfectly suited for the job, Outlaw would be nothing without its talent. Between Gabe and resident artists Emerson Roach and Megan Green, Outlaw Country is a a fantastic example of queer folks coming together and making it happen.
“I think the queer community is bountiful and lovely, and I adore it. Every day I want to do something, and that something is often tattoos. Every day queers are coming in here and getting tattoos, and they’re happy when they leave. That is our gift that we give back to our community. Our communities raise us, especially here in Halifax, and I think it’s important that we acknowledge and continue that.”
Outlaw Country Tattoo can be found on instagram at @outlawcountrytattoo, or by phone at (902)-405-3484.