Pearl Harbour Gift Shop & Tattoo
Started Tattooing 1981 – Present
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Currently lives in Toronto
Bill Baker – The Early Years
By the time Bill Baker reached the age of 19, he had already been through a myriad of life experiences. His vicarious punk rock lifestyle had swallowed his youth and landed him in rehab. In his adolescence, he thought maybe, at best, he could find a job as a welder, since he had dropped out of school in grade 10. In his words, he needed to “regroup” and figure out what he was going to do with his life.
Bill had always liked drawing, so once he got his life together, he thought maybe he could go to art school. He applied to every art school he could however, he needed to do two things: move to a city that had an art school, and take a high school equivalency test. His choices of location were Vancouver, Toronto, or Calgary.
By chance, a friend of his asked Bill to do a drawing for him because he was going to Calgary to get a tattoo by this famous tattoo artist, Paul Jeffries. After seeing Bill’s creation, his friend thought tattooing would be a good thing for Bill to do because of his obvious artistic abilities.
His friend’s enthusiasm about the idea far outweighed Bill’s desire to become a tattooist. At that time, Bill’s only exposure to the vocation had been a tattoo he’d had done by a guy in Portland, Oregon. The experience left him with no interest to get into tattooing. Bill had nothing in common with the tattooist that gave him the tattoo, and felt that the tattoo lifestyle was not for him.
After his friend returned home from Calgary, he called Bill to let him know that Paul really liked his drawing and that he wanted to talk to him because he was looking for an apprentice. Bill decided to give Paul a call and see what he had to say. Turned out that Paul thought his drawing was good and invited him to come discuss some possibilities. Shortly after that phone conversation, Bill and his friend drove out to Calgary to meet with Paul however, when they got there, the shop as closed. There was a note on the door saying he would be back in a week.
Bill thought that maybe it was destiny that he didn’t get to meet Paul. Over the course of the next week, he went back and forth in his mind as to what he was going to do. A part of Bill didn’t want to learn how to tattoo, yet, there was another part of him that was drawn in by the whole idea.
Bill Baker meets Paul Jefferies
Finally, Bill decided to call Paul when he returned from his vacation, so they could set up a meeting. The extra time to contemplate the idea made Bill very anxious. He showed up for the interview wearing an old pair of army surplus pants held up by a rope, as well as a torn up tee shirt, messed up hair and we can’t forget to mention – no shoes! The interview went okay but Bill and Paul were from different worlds.
Despite his best efforts, Bill’s attempt to sabotage the interview didn’t work. Paul ended up calling Bill back to let him know that he had the job. He started his apprenticeship at Paul Jefferies’ shop (Smilin’ Buddha Tattoo in Calgary, Alberta) in 1981, with the agreement that Paul would pay him $107 a week during his apprenticeship. Bill thought, whatever, he would take the job and while he was there working, he would apply to art school. In the interim, he could make some money working at the Smilin’ Buddha.
When Bill arrived to work the first day, again he was barefoot. Paul immediately asked him, “Where’s your shoes?” Paul gave him five dollars to go and get a pair to wear in the shop. (During my interview with Paul he told me about Bill showing up without shoes. He still shakes his head in disbelief)
Bill Attends Art School
Bill did end up attending art school during his time in Calgary. He said art school was really hard and he felt that he was just a “weird guy,” who he didn’t fit into school any better than he fit in at Paul’s shop.
Trying to balance his time between school and the shop was a challenge for Bill. He would attend school in the morning and be back to work at the tattoo shop by noon. Then it was back to school in the evening to get studio time in. Eventually, something had to give.
As time pressed on, Bill was slowly becoming more dedicated to tattooing, beginning to see his place in the industry. In the end, school fell by the wayside and Bill put all his focus into tattooing. Even though Bill didn’t really fit in with Paul’s shop, he felt one of the contributing factors that made Paul want to keep him around, was Paul’s exposure to Ed Hardy.
When Paul was in San Francisco getting tattooed by Ed, he noticed that some of the guys that were in Ed’s peripheral group of friends were like Bill; very artistic and not your average kind of friends that tattooers kept during that era of tattooing.
Before Bill started working at Smilin’ Buddha, John the Dutchman had been working for Paul. Ed hardy had recommended that John come and work with Paul, however John never had intentions on staying any longer than a year. So after John left Smilin’ Buddha, Paul wanted to replace him with an artist of equal skill.
One Door Closes and Another Opens
During Bill’s time at Smilin’ Buddha Tattoo, he had many occasions when he felt filled with gratitude for having the opportunity to work for Paul. Bill stayed with Smilin’ Buddha tattoo for five years. When he decided to leave Paul’s shop, Bill thought that Winnipeg would be a good fit for him. However, the city had a strange bylaw that made it mandatory that a doctor be present during any tattoo work. In an effort to secure a place for himself in Winnipeg, Bill teamed up with the board of health.
Bill’s father was a doctor at the time, who practiced in Winnipeg. This gave Bill the opportunity to meet with the head of the health department. During his meetings with the health board, he went over all the questions they had about the equipment and procedures in a tattoo studio. The result of those meetings produced a set of guidelines for tattooing in Winnipeg.
Back to Saskatoon
Everything seemed to be progressing well until the revision of the bylaw was pushed back another session. That was when Bill decided he couldn’t wait to set up shop there, so he rented a small store in Saskatoon to hold himself over while the bylaw on tattooing was being worked out.
Saskatoon was hard for Bill, as it brought up old memories from his drinking days. It wasn’t that he couldn’t stay in Saskatoon, but the place had more bad memories than good ones. During his time there, Bill received an offer to work in London Ontario, so he and a friend made a trip to check it out. When he arrived in London, Bill found that the city had a strange layout and he couldn’t seem to get his head around it. There was no pull for him to move there.
It was during this trip that the twosome stopped in Toronto, Ontario. Unlike London, it seemed to be a place that clicked with Bill, he could see himself moving there to tattoo.
When he got home to Saskatoon, Bill heard that city council in Winnipeg had pushed back talks on the bylaw to the next session again, so it was at that point that he decided to pack up and move to Toronto. In February, 1989 city council of Winnipeg passed the tattoo bylaw and replaced the 23 year old one stating that you have to have a doctor present while doing a tattoo.
Bill Baker Opens Tat-A-Rama
In 1987, Bill opened Tat-A-Rama in Etobicoke, Ontario. His self-imposed theory was that he should be about a mile away from the other shops in Toronto. This narrowed Bill’s options as to where he could open his shop. Because of this, Bill ran into difficulties trying to find someone that would rent him a storefront. Store owners at the time didn’t want anything to do with tattoo shops and the lifestyle that encompassed the industry.
In order to find a landlord who would rent to him, Bill decided to get a civilized looking haircut and started taking his father along to meetings, in effort to validate his endeavour. The location Bill ended up in wasn’t his first choice and he had his work was cut out for him to make a tattoo shop work in that area.
Bill’s impetus created a vacuum and eventually there were six artists working in the shop on split shifts. His hard work, coupled with his talents drew people in. Most days by 9 a.m. there were up to twenty people standing in line outside the shop. While operating Tat-A-Rama, Bill was also working on other business ventures and buying needles from all over the world. It was during that period of his career that he started “Eikon Device”. He registered the name and tried to find the perfect needles to tattoo with.
In the early years of Eikon, Bill tattooed as much as he could to help fund the new business. He said he worked a stretch of 700 days without a day off. It was a ton of work to keep up with all the demands that were on his plate at the time. He was not only juggling his tattoo career but he had a new relationship during this time and his research at Eikon required his attention as well. It took five years of constant toiling to get Eikon off the ground.
Trip to South Pacific
By 1992, Bill was 33 years old and facing burnout. It was then he decided that he wanted to take a break and travel down to the South Pacific for a year. By living in the basement of his shop he was able to save enough money to travel.
Bill had noticed that there was an evolving paradigm in tattooing. His clients were no longer just bikers, drunks and disgruntled kids who liked punk rock. His new clientele were, average people middle class citizens. As a result of that, he found himself in a place where he could not relate to his clients. He felt that if he went down to the South Pacific he would be enriched with a culture that held true to the roots of what tattooing was all about. He wanted to look at tattooing that had been going on over the last two thousand years. Bill felt that in the South, he would find the integrity that was missing in the industry. He ended up selling the shop and headed out on his adventure. This gave Bill some time to regroup once again in his life. Like he had in the beginning of his career.
Home Again – the Next Phase
His time away gave him a new perspective to what was important in his life. Bill was now in a place where he could focus on his new company, Eikon Device. When he first arrived home, he went back to work at Tat-A-Rama, serving his new and old clients. He only lasted the summer there before his antics had driven the boss crazy. He ended up having to leave because of a misunderstanding with the owner.
After Bill left Tat-A-Rama, he went to Montreal to work with Keith Stewart at Tatouage Artistique. His time with Keith was riddled with misbehaviour and funny stories (which I am saving for the book).
Being in Montreal positioned Bill to be closer to his business partners, Dean and Monica, at Eikon. He enlisted Dean’s help with the company because he knew Dean was a hard working farm boy and he would bring a work ethic and a mechanical know-how to the company.
Bill stayed working at Keith’s shop for a couple of years then eventually moved on to work with John the Dutchman at Dutchman Tattoo in Vancouver British Columbia.
Bill’s desire to move to Vancouver was initially inspired by love. There was a girl out there he was fond of at the time, so he moved out to Vancouver and took a job at Dutchman Tattoo.
He worked at John’s shop for 18 months. During that period, he traveled back often to work with Dean and Monica at Eikon. Eventually, all the traveling was taking a toll on him and he needed to be closer to Eikon, so in 1998 Bill moved back to Toronto.
Once Bill got back to Toronto, he moved around a few times. He started out with Scott McEwen at Lucky 13 for a year then took a job at Passage Tattoo for two years. After his stint at Passage, he worked at King of Fools Tattoo with Shane Falkner.
The Birth of Machinegun Magazine
During his time at King of Fools, Bill was starting to put more effort into the Machinegun magazine. Each issue would take him about three months to complete. A plethora of time and research when into the making of Machinegun. During this phase of Bill’s career, he was scrutinized for giving away the trade, however from his viewpoint, it was his knowledge.
The body of work that went into Machinegun was all Bill’s research. It was his intention to demystify the basic operation of a tattoo machine. His critical analysis gave tattooists the knowledge and tools to fix their own equipment.
One of the motivating factors that pushed Bill to understand the mechanics of tattoo machines was his fear that if his machines broke, he wouldn’t know how to fix them. Bill’s ingenuity has always been driven by his curiosity. Even as a child, he liked to figure out how things work. His curiosity fueled all his crazy ideas, that later panned out to be brilliant discoveries.
Eventually, Bill put his tattooing on the back burner to work at Eikon. The research he was doing for Machinegun began to swallow up the core of his time. He didn’t quit tattooing all together, during his time at Eikon he worked in a few locations such as Montreal, Los Angeles and Vancouver but his main focus was working on his understanding of the mechanics of tattooing and how he could improve the tools of the trade.
Bill Baker Art Process
During the interview with Bill, I had a chance to look at some of the tattoos he was doing for his clients. The method to his work was like no other artist I have ever encountered before. His attention to detail is exquisite! When he produces a drawing for a large scale tattoo, he creates many versions of the drawing. Bill says that if he is about to do a fifty hour tattoo, he spends the same amount of time on the preparation for it. He refines each layer to not only look better but to flow on the body part he is tattooing. His patience and care for the task at hand is extraordinary.
At the end of the interview, I asked Bill a few questions about his style and who he is influenced by and if he felt he was an innovator in the trade. His response was that he feels his style is driven by his clients. In his era, you didn’t have a style, you needed to be capable of all styles of tattooing. Bill likes to engage his clients and understand what the tattoo means to them so he can give them his best work.
He noted that he doesn’t really study other tattoo artists because when he looks around, it scares him! He says “I’m old now and the kids today can tattoo like crazy,” so he keeps himself busy by refining his own skills. When asked if he feels he is an innovator, Bill said, early in his career Ed hardy’s work was his biggest inspiration. No matter what he did or thought was original, when he looked, Hardy had already done it.
Bill Baker – Parting words
Bill says he feels lucky to be in tattooing. At the beginning of his career, he actually tried not to get into the business. Showing up for a job interview with wacky hair and no shoes is evidence of that. His life just ended up turning out the way it did.
When he reflects back he says’ “It’s like I had something I needed to do.” There is a driving force much larger than his antics that seems to keep pushing him forward. He has never claimed to be a smart guy however, Bill has brought forth a great deal of knowledge and beautiful tattoo art to the industry. His drive and motivation is second to none.
Today, Bill is tattooing more and is no longer associated with Eikon. He says he is happy to be pouring all his time into his new shop [i]Pearl Harbor Gift Shop and Tattoo in Toronto. When I look at Bill’s life I can’t help but wonder what’s next for him. He says he is happy to be right where he’s at. Conversely, history has a tendency to repeat itself, so I can only imagine what lays ahead for this visionary man!
Pearl Harbour Gift Shop & Tattoo
24 Kensington Ave.
Toronto, ON, Canada
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