Meet the Maker: Jenny Grant of True North Tattoo

By Sara Smith

They say if you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. For Jenny Grant, a visual artist based in Kingston, this adage has certainly proven true. “I really love what I do,” she says. “It’s not work — it’s just so enjoyable to me.” She spends her days dreaming up beautiful designs that can be seen all over town — but you won’t find her work hanging on the wall at a gallery or cafe. You’re more likely to see her art on a Kingstonian’s arm or leg, in the form of a bold and skillfully-executed tattoo.

Her passion for art began at an early age. “It’s something I’ve done ever since I can remember,” she says. These creative tendencies led her to eventually pursue a B.F.A. from Concordia University. Somewhere along the way, an interest in tattooing got thrown into the mix. “I got my first tattoo when I was 16, and it struck me as something I wanted — to be tattooed,” says Grant. “I didn’t have this grand plan to become a tattoo artist, but it came together when I finished art school and moved back to Kingston, and was offered the opportunity for a mentorship at True North Tattoo.”

Jenny Grant tattooing at True North Tattoo
Jenny Grant skillfully inks a tattoo on Wayne, the owner of True North Tattoo. Photo via: Chelsea McBride/Seychels Photography

Counting “the Godfather of pop surrealism” Mark Ryden amongst her influences, Grant’s creative style is equal parts dreamy and quirky, with a dash of creepy. “My drawing style is a bit of American comic book realism, mixed with the cuteness of anime,” she says. “My painting is a little more varied, a mix of abstract and surreal, and they have more depth to them, but still with a more cartoon sort of flavour.” Often, her art will turn traditional gender expectations on their head, bringing decidedly unconventional, empowered pinup girls to life.

A knack for cartoonish, stylized images comes in handy when working with clients at the tattoo parlour. Grant works closely with her clients to understand their vision, before applying her own skills to create an interpretation of their chosen design. “Some people do bring printouts and want them copied, but often I’ll have someone ask for a specific idea, and it’s something that I’ll draw in my own style,” she says. “If it’s a large piece I’ll try to get a rough sketch done about a week before, so I can sit with the person and go over what they want. I want to make sure we’re both on the same page, and then I will spend hours doing their final drawing.”

The actual process of tattooing is another story — and a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. There was a steep learning curve when making the transition from working with acrylics to wielding a tattoo gun.

“It’s like going from zero pressure, to more pressure than you could ever imagine,” says Grant. “With painting, if I make a mistake I can go back and fix it, or restart the whole painting if I want. With tattooing, you have to nail it on the first try. It’s incredibly precise, and can be very stressful.”

However, she notes that each medium is fulfilling in its own way, and both have a special place in her heart. “I find painting incredibly freeing, and tattooing incredibly challenging — and rewarding,” she says.  

Jenny spends hours creating the drawings that will end up as her clients’ tattoos. Photo via: Chelsea McBride/Seychels Photography

Were it not for the influence of acclaimed Kingston business owner Wayne Murrill, Grant may never have found herself on this particularly rewarding career path. “One of my friends got tattooed by Wayne, and I went along and brought my portfolio to show him,” she says. “After a few days at the shop to see if I was a good fit, he offered me a five-year apprenticeship. During that time I ended up meeting my husband, and having a little girl.” Now her family counts Kingston as their home base, as she works to balance a busy tattooing schedule with time at home.

In the few precious moments she gets to herself, Grant can still be found making art. “I draw all day and tattoo all day for work, and then anytime I have a spare moment to myself, I’m also drawing,” she says. “As long as I have the energy, and my eyes can stay open, I want to be creating things.”

See more of Jenny’s work on her Instagram.