Living in a world of accelerated culture, the fine line between right and wrong, smart and dumb, and respectful and rude, is constantly being blurred. Those seemingly mandatory awkward teen years dealing with growth spurts and questionable fashion choices are becoming visions of the past as young people strive to grow up and collect life experience as fast as humanly possible. Even when it comes to something as permanent as getting a tattoo.
In spite of the constant societal pressure to be on top of what’s new and hot, it’s refreshing to see a tattoo artist like Billy DeCola operate on his own terms. Getting his start tattooing alongside Ami James in the TLC reality series NY Ink, DeCola has come to perfect his craft over time specializing in traditional Japanese style tattoos. Recently opening his own private studio in Burnaby over the summer called Kiku Tattoo Parlour, DeCola works one on one with his clients and tattoos on an appointment only basis.
We were able to sit down with the internationally renowned artist to talk about everything from learning how to tattoo with the world watching to why he decided to open his own shop in Burnaby.
I read that you kind of fell into tattooing due to circumstance opposed to actively pursuing it as a career. What was the turning point in your life when you decided to take tattooing seriously?
I hit rock bottom basically.
Yeah? Because you had a distribution company before you starting tattooing right?
I had a company where I was importing and exporting professional video equipment from Japan and at a certain point in time the economy just completely crashed and so did my company, I think it was in 2008. I lost every single penny I had, I foreclosed on my house, I lost my car, I was financially at rock bottom.
As far as my life goes, however, I was fine. My wife didn’t leave me and we just had a new born child, but at the same time it was stressful. So then we came [to Vancouver] where I tried to take up photography.
Because your wife is from Vancouver right?
Yeah my wife is from [Vancouver]. So I came here but I hadn’t really thought it out much. I was just kinda sitting here waiting for something to happen. And that’s when Ami [James] called me up and was like, “Hey man why don’t you move the family down to Miami and you can work at the shop?”
So after working at the shop for a while, I was out having a couple beers one night after work and a couple of the guys were like, “Hey let’s go to the shop and do some little tattoos on each other.” I’ve never touched a tattoo machine before at this point, so I did this tattoo and everyone was like, “Wow you did a good job man! That’s awesome!”
I remember Ami was like, “Hey look at that whip shading man!” And he’s showing it to all these other tattooers. And I don’t know, I just had this feeling inside like, “Wow, maybe I could tattoo?” That was the little spark that lit this big fire inside of me.
Did you have any experience with art previously? Like in school or as a hobby?
I feel like I had an eye for art as far as videography and photography was concerned. I was also hanging out with tattooers a lot and developed an eye for the art and knew what was cool and what wasn’t. I definitely knew about the flow of Japanese work and stuff like that because when I lived in Japan I spent a lot of time at the tattoo shop and learned a lot there.
So what would you attribute your learned skills for drawing and designing tattoos then?
I would say that I was taught by the people who brought me into it. Ami taught me, Chris Garver taught me, all of the guys at the shop taught me a lot.
I read that your whole tattoo apprenticeship experience was pretty much on camera on NY Ink
How did that feel? I read that it was super stressful for you and that it was a really weird experience
It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through in my life. Not only was I learning a new trade at kind of an old age, compared to other guys who’re like 17 trying to learn [how to tattoo], I was doing it in front of a world wide audience. That was a lot of pressure.
Were there times where you wanted to quit?
I did quit, a couple times! Then I came back. But mentally, I quit every day. I was just like I can’t handle this anymore, is it really worth it? I wish I didn’t have that mentality at that time, but you know, it is what it is.
You’re most well known for your traditional Japanese style tattoos. Where would you say you learned the majority of your technique from?
When I lived in Japan [before I started tattooing], I hung out at the tattoo shop a lot and got my whole arm done tabouri style. You know if you get tattooed you’re watching it happen and you’re learning. So even though I didn’t know I was, I was learning lots of stuff.
Did you go back to Japan after you started tattooing to learn more?
Yeah I’ve gone back and I’ve actually tattooed in Japan.
Your career has spanned an interesting time in tattoo culture. What was it like to witness that shift in culture and where do you think it’s going to go in the future?
I love tattooing and I love where it was at a certain point. I don’t know exactly where it’s going now because I’m still kind of in the middle of it. I’m just trying to preserve what was taught to me and respect everybody who has paved the way up until this point. I’d like to respect the past but also be open to where it’s going.
My goal is to try to make people feel comfortable when they walk through the door, no matter who they are, no matter what type of person or background they come from. Those are the things that I was taught, to respect the people and to treat them as you would want somebody to treat your loved one.
Do you have rules as to what you will and won’t do?
Yeah I have rules and I don’t break them. I won’t tattoo your hands, I won’t tattoo your neck, and I won’t tattoo your face unless you’re completely covered. Even if you’re a young girl and you come in and you want a big forearm piece, you have your whole life to get a big piece on your arm. I think that a big tattoo on the forearm or somewhere that’s out there in the open is gonna kind of ruin your life a little bit, or at least change it.
I try to talk to people about their decisions and if I feel like they’re making a bad decision, I’m not gonna be one of those guys who’s like, “Oh well she’s gonna go down the street and get it anyways.” I’m not that guy, I’ll say no.
Why did you decide to open your own private studio now instead of continuing to guest spot in studios both in Vancouver and around the world? Do you think your studio will always remain private?
At the time when I opened the shop, it was just time for me to do my own thing. And I kinda like the private thing. I feel like it’s in the same style as the studio in Japan where I got tattooed. I really liked the style of it being very quiet and private with no distractions.
When somebody comes in the door, I just shut the door, I lock it, and I concentrate on what I’m doing. Ten years from now, will I still be private? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll open another street shop, but I think I’ll always have that private studio.
Besides the fact that your wife is from here, is there any other reason why you chose Vancouver to set up shop?
I think Vancouver is a very good market for tattooing, I really believe that. Lots of people love tattoos, and compared to some other cities, there’s not as many shops all over the place. For example, you can go to LA or New York and there’s a shop or two on every block. Then you come here, and there are some great artists here don’t get me wrong, but there’s definitely more of a demand than there is a supply.
You recently started a Youtube channel for posting blogs. Is this a reach back to your NY Ink days?
I’ve always been really into photography and videography and stuff like that so I think this is just another creative outlet for me.
I recently shot a pilot for a TV show that I’m trying to pitch. I can’t really talk about it to much, but I can tell you that it’s a travel show and it has tattooing in it. It’s not a tattoo show with travel, it’s more of a travel show with tattooing.
I got the idea just from travelling around because I’ve been to Australia, Japan, and all over the world tattooing. And I’m like man, I wish I could share this with people. I think that’s kind of what made me start the Youtube channel too.
I think now is such an interesting time because if you ever wanted to try something media wise, you can. Because everything has such a low barrier to entry, you can do whatever you want.
Yeah for sure, you can just hit the upload button and you’re on.
Photos for Daily Hive provided by Brandon Artis. Connect with him at @_brandonartis.