Submitted by Christine Whelan
Aug 19th, 2021 VOL. 2 ISSUE 26
It was the grand opening for the new tattoo shop at 42 Jarvis Street on Thursday, August 12th. Local politicians and a big crowd showed up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
One week before the celebration, I sat outside, across the street from Neon Crab, in the shade — it was a hot day– with Phil Cudmore and Will Graham to hear their story.
Phil, a Fort Erie local, has been into the tattoo industry now, going into his 13th year. “Over the course of my career, I’ve owned four of my own studios, all local.”
Will, born in Kitchener, owns and operates a string of tattoo shops across Ontario,
With an extensive and diverse background, from hosting a TV show about tattoo culture to involvement as an Artist-In-Residence with the London Arts Council, with his diverse and vast experience as an artist, he explained “You do this long enough, eventually you get head hunters coming after you, offering you jobs. So, I worked all over the place. But doing that is work.”
The Shift In The Industry
Will talked about a time when there was a shift in the economy. “Consumers were becoming savvier, understanding that the power lies with our dollar.” Imitating the general consumer, “‘If you don’t treat me well, I’ll go somewhere else.’ And this whole culture of being a biker tattoo artist, where the artist is in control, that doesn’t fly anymore.
“More importantly, people weren’t ok anymore coming into the shops and pointing to the flaming eight ball on the wall, getting the same tattoo that twelve other people had. Back then, tattooing was really about craftmanship. Most tattooists couldn’t draw. If a shop could say they were a custom shop, that was a big deal.”
It was around this time that Will was asked to work on weekends, doing custom tattoos for people. “I fell in love with tattooing because of that connection with the client.”
This was new for Graham. “It wasn’t what I was used to. I’m used to being a number somewhere down the line, doing my piece of the big project. But now, it’s a conversation between me and the client. And they’re telling their story — what this means to them and why it’s important to have, for instance, a dog’s paw print on them. And it’s so cool to be part of that.
“That’s what really kept me in tattooing was this connection. I want to be part of your journey. I want to give you what is in your head and make you love — whatever it is, whether it’s marking a milestone in your life or covering self-harm scars. Whatever it is, I love to be a part of that and make you happy. That’s what I want to do. I’m a people person.”
Eventually, he found himself in London, Ontario. After working for two years as a curriculum developer for Time Warner Cable. “And because of what I did there, I got to know everybody. And they got to know me, and what I did. So I had a big client base that was just waiting for me to open shop.”
He quit Time Warner Cable and, “I cashed in some RSPs, took a scary personal loan, maxed out a credit card, and I opened. It was just me. Just 600 square feet. Just me. In London. And I loved it.”
But life took a quick turn when Will’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 34.
“Everything is good now. She’s good now. But it was hard. Our lives fell apart.”
Will shared stories of the days with his wife during her recovery. “I came to realize, there’s no way I can achieve my goals on my own. The only way to do it, despite what some others might think, is by helping other people be successful. So, I changed my business model.”
It became about helping other artists be successful tattoo artists.
“I started this new model of bringing in artists and showing them how I do things. I’m trying to bring all the legitimacy to the tattoo world.” He feels an artist should be able to choose to work in the tattoo industry as a career they can retire from.
Phil added, “It doesn’t matter what tattoo shop you go to, there are no group benefits or anything like that. Neon Crab is the first, and as far as I know, the only shop in Canada and the US that actually offers a group benefits package for their artists at a very cheap rate.”
Will talked about the shift in people they see walk through their doors. “Because of the moves we’re making, we’re now bridging the gap between the back alley, esoteric tattoo world, and the white-collar, business class world. It’s a market segment no other tattoo shop is trying to reach.”
We talked about how every age, role, gender, occupation are getting tattoos now — lawyers, judges, moms, grandmas, police officers, and ministers. Will admitted, “There’s still a stigma attached, but it’s changing.”
Communication Is Key
Both Will and Phil agree tattooing is such a mystery. People don’t know what goes on behind the door. Phil shared, “And people’s ideas are skewed by what they see on TV. That’s not reality. Not even close.”
Will explained, “When people come in the door, they don’t know what to ask. And they think they’re going to get that sideways attitude they see on TV. It’s up to us to bridge that gap for them. It’s up to us to recognize that need when it’s there and help them through the process. We walk them through it.”
Graham smiled with pride, “It started in London, then I took over a shop in Strathroy, then I opened one in Hamilton, then Sarnia, now Fort Erie. And here we are, thirteen years later, five shops and thirty artists strong.”
Coming To Fort Erie
Will explained, “The first thing I did when I realized Fort Erie was the great fit for Neon Crab, was I reached out to the other tattoo artists in the area. I introduced myself, explained I was coming to Fort Erie, and invited each one, giving them the opportunity to join forces.”
Phil gave his own experience. “Back in March, Will reached out to me through a mutual friend of ours, with this vision, this plan, that he had, to kind of revitalize the tattoo industry as a whole, which is the same vision that I have. We’ve been working towards this plan since we first talked.”
Phil smiled, “He asked me to be the Studio Director for our Fort Erie location. It’s been a great ride so far. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.”
Phil explained he expects he’s got about three more years as an actual tattoo artist. After thirteen years, his hands are feeling the usual effect. “The bonus part is joining forces with Will and the Crab family — because that’s what we are, a family — I now get to go into a position where I feel more secure and I know I can look ahead and know I can still support my family after I can’t do tattoos anymore.”
More Than Just A Tattoo
Will shared, “We have a relationship with Hospice Care at Chedoke-McMaster. What does end of life care have to do with tattooing, right?” He explained, “We are often the first outreach someone makes when they’re grieving. ‘I just lost my mother. I need to get a memorial,’ for example. So, they sent students to us to learn how to handle those situations and why those clients come to us. It’s important to these students.”
Both Will and Phil talked about how they often see people who are grieving, separating, and people who self-harm before therapists and psychiatrists do. “They unload on us and we need to know how to talk with them.”
Both agreed that some of their clients use the tattooing sessions as therapy sessions. Along with a listening ear and supportive conversation, the purpose of a tattoo is often to cover up self-harm scars, names of people now in the past, and even holocaust numbers.
Changes To Come
Will eventually realized that if he wanted to make the business stronger, he had to eliminate himself. “But if I tried to sell it now, it won’t work. Nobody has the knowledge and skills I have accumulated. I run it all. It’s all me. I am the lawyer, accountant, publicist, manager. I do all those things, so the artist doesn’t have to be a business owner.
“So,” he thought, “if I set it up so that it can run on autopilot, anyone with money can buy it. Then it’s more valuable. Then the only thing that’s coming from the new owner is vision. What comes next.”
Will has now created roles that are responsible for certain tasks. He is weaning himself off the business, like a parent slowly weaning the children off. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes there’s rebellion. “But I can’t micro-manage.”
Will told his story of a medical scare that caused him to have a several-day hospital stay. It was a reality check and a learning experience. He realized, if something happened to him, others’ lives would really be affected. And the General Manager’s role was created.
“Now I want this taken to the next level. I just don’t know what that is yet.”
Then Will hired an accountant.
“Right now, we are in the middle of incorporating, which is the next step in eliminating me. The business will now survive without me. Each location will have its own incorporation.”
And the final piece that has Phil so excited. “Instead of paying the Studio Directors a bonus for being that responsible person on-site, they now will have shares in the company, be part owner.”
Neon Crab: The Name And Logo Reflects The Mindset
Will explained that the name of the shop is symbolic of their competitive advantage, the way they are with people. “It’s a personal service. We want to be personable, to reach out to people.”
He broke it down. It was pretty simple. “First, I’m a Cancer so I like the crab.” Big smile. “And it’s fun. Recognizing that the tattoo industry is now more mainstream, more appealing to more people, I didn’t want anything intimidating.”
Check out Neon Crab’s website: www.neoncrab.ca. You can also find them on Facebook by searching Neon Crab – Fort Erie.