Inside Out’s Alex Abbey on Self-Expression, the Evolution of His Style, and His Background in Science

Alex Abbey Alex Sappy
Credit: Instagram / @alexsappy (Photo by Lesia Kalyna)

Alex Abbey didn’t grow up with dreams of becoming a tattoo artist—or any kind of artist, for that matter. In fact, the 25 year old Toronto-based tattooer—who’s better known by his Instagram handle @alexsappy—actually began his professional career in environmental science. But, like so many entry level employees trying to navigate the gig economy, Abbey could never find regular, full time work. Looking for something to do in his spare time, he started drawing. That was at the end of 2017.

Now, just over two years since he began illustrating, and only 10 months since he did his first tattoo, Alex Abbey has honed his signature “minimal, abstract, and surreal” style. Here, the resident artist at our very own Inside Out studio talks to us about his unconventional career path, his love of nature (which is a recurring theme in his work), and the anxiety he felt before tattooing his girlfriend.

On what inspires him: “I try to put a lot of feeling into my art. I use it to illustrate things that are important to me. So, for example, I believe that it’s important for humans to feel connected with the Earth and nature, which is why a lot of my pieces include human figures and nature sort of melded together. I’m also really emotional and think it’s important to feel your feelings and not repress them, so a lot of my work touches on that, too.”

On becoming a tattooer: “I didn’t always want to be a tattooer. I only started drawing regularly in 2018. Before that, I was working contracts in environmental science for three years. All the jobs I wanted to do in the field—things focused on at-risk species and sustainability—required more experience than I had though, and getting entry level jobs in environmental science is really hard. Over the three years that I was doing contract jobs, I probably only did about a full year’s worth of work. Then, in 2017, I decided to take a break.”

“I was working random jobs just to pay my rent, and while I was doing that, I decided to participate in one of those 365 day drawing challenges. I was really committed to it. Some days I’d work from 3AM till 10PM and then come home and get a drawing done. Soon I was selling my drawings online and at vendor events. Getting a tattoo apprenticeship seemed like a logical next step, so I applied to a few shops in London [Ontario], where I was living at the time, and in Toronto. Most places turned me away because they weren’t taking apprentices. But in August 2018 I got the call to come to Toronto and work at Ink & Water. I didn’t have much savings, so I was couch surfing all throughout my apprenticeship. But I did my first tattoo in February of this year, and the rest is history.”

Like Alex’s style but not ready to commit to a permanent tattoo? You’re in luck—he just released a bunch of semi-permanent tattoo designs with Inkbox. Shop the collection here.

On the evolution of his style: “When I first started drawing at the end of 2017, I was doing more technical work and was focused on realistic illustrations. But the artists whose work I most admired were doing minimalist designs. I’ve always found minimalism visually provoking. Minimalist designers can get so much feeling across in such a simple drawing. So as I got better at drawing, I started experimenting with minimalism, too. I wasn’t great at first, but practice makes perfect, and designing is a much smoother process for me now.”

On his first time: “I’ve always been interested in tattoos as a form of expression. Growing up, I was a scene kid who screamed in a metal band. A lot of my musical influences, like Travis Barker, expressed themselves using tattoos. So I don’t think it was surprising that I got my first piece, which was a memorial tattoo for a friend, when I was 16 years old. Because I was so young, my mom had to sign the consent form.”

“I got it from Vanessa Pressenger, an artist in Thunder Bay {the city where Alex Abbey was raised} who also does cosmetics tattoos like microblading, when she was still an apprentice back in 2011. It’s a forearm tattoo inspired by my friend’s favorite song. I don’t remember it hurting much, but it did bleed a lot. Because it bled so much, it scabbed pretty heavily so the healing process wasn’t super fun.”

On his usual clientele: “Generally I don’t get people who already have a ton of tattoos. A large percentage of my clients are people who are getting their first tattoo or their first color piece, which I love and I think is really interesting.”

On his favorite tattoo artists: “Right now I’m really into Mathew Sawyer who’s known online as ‘Woozy Machine Tattoos;’ Kim Mi Hee, a South Korean tattooer who does really interesting drawings of the human form; and Lydia Marier, an artist from Montreal who’s always been a big inspiration for me because I’m obsessed with the way she’s able to create depth in such minimal designs. Chinatown Stropky is also one of my favorites because I love how expressive he’s able to make simple shapes.”

On his first client: “My first client was my girlfriend. She’s a Scorpio and she loves wine, so I tattooed a scorpion holding a bottle of wine and a rose on the back of her calf. I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous before a tattoo session. I knew she wouldn’t be happy if it looked bad, and her family also really doesn’t like tattoos. Thankfully, I did a pretty good job and she likes it! But if you ask her about it she’ll also tell you it’s not perfect because I messed up a couple of lines.”

On the best part of his job: “Drawing is definitely my favorite part. Most days I just go home and draw. I don’t draw so I have more flash to tattoo, though. I draw because it helps me express myself and allows me to experiment with my style.”

If you liked our profile of Alex Abbey, make sure to check out Curt Montgomery’s story here (he’s also a resident artist at Inside Out studio).

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