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Tattoo Sanctuary

For tattoo artist, new shop is his sanctuary

Under My Thumb storefront gives owner a place to ‘hang my hat and draw.’

Tattooing is my life, and walking in here feels good,” explains Chris MacDonald, owner/operator of Under My Thumb tattoos. “It’s everything I ever wanted as a kid, a quiet place to hang my hat and draw.”

By: Alex Newman Living, Published on Sat Apr 23 2016

It’s a weekday afternoon at Chris MacDonald’s newly opened tattoo shop and the sun is shining through huge plate-glass windows, scattering colours from a pelican image and the shop’s letters across the walls and floor.

Under My Thumb is MacDonald’s business, but you can see why it’s also his oasis: vintage leather chairs, mid-century coffee table, a playlist of alternative Canadian country rock, and a whimsical coat rack designed and made by his wife, woodworker Megan Tilston (

“Tattooing is my life, and walking in here feels good,” explains the lanky 39-year-old, his voice soft and laconic. “It’s everything I ever wanted as a kid, a quiet place to hang my hat and draw.”

Throughout the shop, a main floor storefront on College St., gallery white walls backdrop dozens of pieces of art, either collected over the years or self-produced. Taped to the wall above MacDonald’s desk are dozens of drawings on onion skin papers that lift slightly every time the front door opens.

Sometimes, MacDonald says, clients choose to replicate what they see, but his work is a jumping-off point for collaboration, and the first visit is usually a consultation “to talk through what it is they’re looking for, in order to personalize it.”

MacDonald owns the shop, but has three tattoo artist co-workers. The shop is divided in two, with two artists in the front and two in the back. Separating the two spaces is a short narrow hall with stencilled floors — tattooed, actually — in lacy snowflake designs.

With magazines on coffee tables, tall tropical plants, Art Nouveau floor lamps — and even a “mini bar” set up on top of the white radiator — the shop is worlds away from the stereotypical tattoo “parlour” frequented by bikers, inmates, or other underworld denizens.

MacDonald chuckles at that thought: “Yeah, well, tattooing has changed a lot. It’s gone from taboo to mainstream, and it keeps gaining momentum. No matter who gets tattoos, the same passion for artistic expression drives it, as always.”

Most of his own body art is under wraps, although there are hints below a plaid cuff — blue and purple roses, a red star. The rest are either coloured, or softer blacks and greys: a portrait of his mother, a poppy flower for a favourite cat, a symbol to represent MacDonald and his two brothers, Joe and Rob.

For him, tattoos are “charms. It’s a way of never forgetting the things that have impacted you, a way of carrying them with you forever.”

Everyone has a story, he explains. “You can look at somebody on the street, and they’ve been through a lifetime of experiences you’ll never know about. And everyone’s trying to express themselves. For those who aren’t able to create their own art, tattoos communicate their story.”

MacDonald’s own story begins in Alliston, Ont., in a small house surrounded by fields and few neighbours. His parents were artistic types who loved to sketch and draw, and so did he as a kid. Hitting the rebellious teen years just when counter culture revolved around skateboarding, punk rock and tattoos, MacDonald left home at 17 and moved to downtown Toronto.

He got a job in a warehouse to support himself, but he never stopped drawing, building a portfolio he intended to take around to tattoo shops when he was ready. Then one day while getting a tattoo himself, the artist remembered meeting him through Rob, his older tattoo-artist brother, and asked to see the portfolio. Within the week, MacDonald had been signed on as an apprentice. It was a busy shop, open to the public and hopping with people constantly coming and going.

In 2010 when he opened his own place, it was by appointment only and he missed the buzz. So when he decided to expand this year — after discovering that he was about to become a dad — he wanted a place that would encourage people to drop in whenever they liked and yet keep out undesirable elements.

A tattoo artist can do his art anywhere because the tools are mobile, but MacDonald can’t emphasize the importance of a home base enough. “It’s your sanctuary. And the better the environment, the more your mind is free to create something beautiful and good.”

As a reminder of how far he’s come, he’s kept his first portfolio and occasionally thumbs through it. “I used to walk along the streets where my shop is now, daydreaming and smoking. If you’d told me that one day this little shop back would be mine, I wouldn’t have believed you.”


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