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Interview: Liquid Amber Tattoo – Vancouver Interview: Liquid Amber Tattoo – Vancouver Interview: Liquid Amber Tattoo – Vancouver Interview: Liquid Amber Tattoo – Vancouver Interview: Liquid Amber Tattoo – Vancouver Interview: Liquid Amber Tattoo – Vancouver

On 06, Mar 2016 | In | By jane

Interview: Liquid Amber Tattoo – Vancouver

What provokes the birth of a business? In this particular case, a business in the tattoo industry? 

My business partner Justina Kervel and I opened Liquid Amber Tattoo in 2001 for a multitude of reasons; one of these reasons being the blatant lack of female tattoo artists in a male dominated industry. Now some 15 years later, we are still in the midst of an exciting shift. There has been an exponential increase in not only female clients, but also in female tattoo artists.

So now what? From a cafe in Los Angeles, I called Justina at her home in Vancouver, BC, so I could interview her for this blog. We ended up discussing all sorts of related and unrelated shop-talk. (Along with being part owner of Liquid Amber Tattoo, I’m an actress for Film & TV. I’m in LA for pilot season this year, which is why we couldn’t meet face to face for this interview)

Me: ‘Did you always know you were going to be a tattoo artist?’

Justina:  ‘NO! Don’t you remember?!’

Back story: Once upon a time, Justina and I were engaged to be married. We started LAT in our early 20’s with no real business experience or really any clue or comprehension as to exactly what the hell we had gotten ourselves into. When we look back at that time now, we often consider that maybe we were too young to get married and likely also too young and too dumb to start a business from scratch. In this case, hindsight is not 20/20. Why? Because with time, we succeeded. We succeeded in running our business together and almost more importantly, after parting ways romantically we succeeded in forging a lifelong friendship. Pretty much a marriage on all accounts, except for the fornicating part. So I guess still pretty much like marriage, AM I RIGHT?! (apologies to my wife Jessie. Just jokes, dear. Just jokes)

Carrying on …

Me: ‘Yes, I remember that you didn’t always know that you were going to be a tattoo artist, but I have to ask you these questions like a real life journalist so that I can write this thing.’

Justina: ‘Right! Well, I didn’t always want to be a tattoo artist. When I was young I had the wrong impression that tattoos were separate from the art world.  I always had the thought in my mind that it was just for guys. I had always considered myself an artist and went to art school but I didn’t know any tattoo artists and I didn’t want to, at the time. I found them intimidating. And my exposure to people in the business was very limited and I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of the few tattoos that I was seeing at the time.”

Me: ‘Okay, that’s kind of harsh.’

Justina: ‘Well it’s how I felt. Anyway, we went to Europe.’

Justina and I went on a month long backpacking trip to Europe together. We stayed at hostels, drank cheap $2 bottles of wine and fell in love with Paris. We even considered moving there for a hot minute, but life responsibilities brought us back to Canada.

Me: ‘Yes!  Europe! That’s when we met Philippine.’

Justina: ‘Right! We met her and my opinion on what tattooing could be totally changed. When she transferred my art to our skin I just thought, ‘Wow, now that’s impressive!’

For our tattoo pieces, Justina had drawn a gargoyle for me, and a statue from the artist Rodin for herself. We were both tattooed by Philippine and at the time, we had no idea how much this experience would change the course of our lives forever.

Me: ‘So, when we came back from Europe you were set on being a tattoo artist, right?’

Justina: ‘Yeah, I went to every tattoo shop in this city seeking an apprenticeship.’

Me: ‘How did that go?’

Justina: (laughing) ‘Shitty! I was snubbed a lot. Most artists just kind of shooed me away. The few that did speak to me and glanced at my portfolio didn’t know what to do with my art. One artist said, ‘your art is amazing but it’s not suited for tattooing. You should look into being an illustrator! Maybe a children’s illustrator?’

Me: ‘Ha, I don’t remember that. I bet that pissed you off.’

Justina: ‘Yeah! It made me angry! I knew that was bullshit because I had seen what Philippine had done in Europe. It motivated me to say, ‘Fuck you all I’m going to do my own thing.’ We opened LAT shortly after.’

Me: ‘Our first shop in Kitsilano. Was that scary?’

Justina: “It was pretty scary at first. There were days I wouldn’t see anyone come through the doors which was disappointing and stressful at times. But I just knew in my heart that if I put everything into it, it would all work out. It really just felt right. A voice inside of me told me it would all be okay.’

Me: ‘You took a big risk and all you had was a voice reassuring you?’

Justina: Ha ha, yeah, I guess. And hey! It all worked out.’

I, Luvia Petersen, would like to mention that during this time, because I’m such a supportive and overall stellar human being, I worked a full-time job to support us, as well as the shop, while Justina was ‘listening to her voices.’ But dammit. She was right. It all worked out. Justina eventually became a prominent and highly respected artist in the community and would soon take on some apprentices of her own. It was funny, because although I was technically her business partner, I was more behind the scenes and never really present at the shop itself. There was one day where I walked into the old shop and no ‘ne had a clue who I was (imagine that). Her apprentices were like, ‘Who’s that?’ and Justina informed them that I was her business partner (so pretty much their ‘other’ boss). ‘You have a business partner?!’  I digress…

Me: ‘So, you ended up taking on some apprentices.  Why did you do that?’

Justina: ‘When I met Jenny, Chris and Mike (my first apprentices) they spoke to me as people. There is a cool bond that forms between a teacher and a student because they were vulnerable with me. You have to be vulnerable to learn. Once I started teaching them, I felt really good about it. Like I was giving back. Apprenticing them made me realise that tattooing is a gift that should be shared.’

Me: ‘Was that a sentiment that was shared throughout the tattoo community?’

Justina: ‘(laughing) No, not particularly. Not in my experience, anyway. Back then getting an apprenticeship seemed next to impossible. Even now people hold the art of tattooing very close their hearts.’

Me: ‘Why do you think that is?’

Justina: ‘There are a lot of secrets in the tattoo world. People seem hesitant to open up and share. I’m really not sure.’

Me: ‘Do you think a part of it is because tattooing stems from a subculture of society? That tattooing has consisted of a marginalised group of people for so long that those who live and breathe it aren’t excited about letting outsiders in? They want to protect it because it’s a part of their livelihood and for some, the only feeling of inclusiveness they have ever felt. Sharing tattoo secrets can leave them feeling vulnerable and open to a world that has shunned them for so long.’

Justina: ‘Ha ha—that’s why you are the business side and I’m the art side. You always articulate things better.’

Me: ‘Thanks! So how many people have you apprenticed now?’

Jusitna: ‘Umm … Jenny, Chris, Mike, Madix, Deb, Kylie, Lisa, Kristy, Laura, Jesse, Rick, Rene, Carlos and most recently we have an apprentice at the shop now. Her name is Diana. So that’s thirteen people. Wow that’s a lot!’

Me: ‘You still enjoy it?’

Justina: ‘Yes. I do. But it’s been hard for me to take on students now because of the migraines.’

In 2011 Justina was in a car accident that gave her a serious case of whiplash. She has battled severe chronic migraines ever since. At some points I wouldn’t see Justina for months because her condition would get so severe that she was unable to leave her bed for long periods of time. This has affected every aspect of her life, including her ability to tattoo and apprentice people. Something she clearly misses.

Me: ‘So, what’s next?’

Justina: ‘Well, I’ve had to find other ways to fulfill myself artistically. I can tattoo on occasion for shorter sits but I can’t tattoo six hours a day, five days a week anymore. So I’ve started focusing on painting and woodwork when I’m able. I can do that in short bursts whenever I feel well enough. You can’t do that with tattooing. Clients don’t want to sit for twenty-minute sessions!’

Me: ‘You think there is still a place for you in the tattoo world?’

Justina: ‘Absolutely! Having and building Liquid Amber Tattoo means more to me than being a tattoo artist. It’s creating a space that supports emerging artists. I want to keep offering artists a place to play and grow, where they can check their egos at the door and just be themselves. There is a deep kindness in the artists that work at our shop and I think that’s very important.  We deal with all sorts of clients. Some people who walk through the door are dealing with a lot of emotional trauma and pain so it’s important to have a team that can be gentle and empathetic. Plus the talent at our shop is out of this world amazing!’

Me: ‘So what advice do you have for new artists?’

Justina: ‘You need two things to be a great tattoo artist: time and patience.’

Me: ‘Don’t you need to be a good artist?’

Justina: ‘Ha! Yes, that’s a given. But it means nothing if you don’t take your time and have patience. One— you have to put in the time. It’s the same as any profession. Doors will close in your face, but if you remain resilient eventually those doors will open for you. Two— you have to have patience!  When you first start, all you want to do is put the needle on someone, but that can cloud your judgment. Everyone learns differently and at a difference pace so be patient and let your artistry grow along with your confidence. That way you will avoid picking up bad habits and you will have created a solid foundation for your work.’

Me: ‘If you could talk to yourself when you were starting out, what other advice would you give?’

Justina: ‘Take care of your body, cause you only have one. Tattooing will suck you dry both emotionally and physically if you let it, so be good to yourself. Take care of your mind and your body. Also, let other artists in. Work with them and create together. Be part of a team. Being a lone wolf in my experience doesn’t work well. If you open your door, you will learn more about yourself, and your art.’


Currently, Liquid Amber Tattoo resides in Vancouver’s historic Gastown area in British Columbia, Canada. It’s home to six diversely talented artists, and exhibits local artists’ work in various mediums on their walls. Liquid Amber Tattoo pride themselves on providing a safe, queer friendly, nurturing space for their artists and clients while contributing to create one-of-a-kind custom works for continuously evolving tattoo lovers.


Interview by Luvia Petersen (

Edited by Jessie Robertson, Jen Forster and Susie Surtees


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