This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.
All photos courtesy of Lee Baxter
A few years ago, a friend was checking out the tattoos on Lee Baxter’s body and bet him he couldn’t open his own tattoo shop. Baxter had just retired from bouncing at nightclubs around Toronto and figured that since he wasn’t “really doing anything”, he’d take a shot at it. He bought FYInk’s original location from a friend’s little brother in 2011 with no artists on staff and got to work. After a year and a half, the landlord gave him six weeks to get out. He found a new location, and went to work finding artists and creating a space they wanted to work in, using resources and connections from his time in nightclubs to get the word out. Since then, the shop has tattooed Drake, Justin Bieber, Travi$ Scott, Rich Homie Quan, Chinx, Tory Lanez, and Trey Songz, to name just a few. In spite of this meteoric success, Baxter maintains that he’s never spent a dollar on advertising. His shop’s rise to becoming the go-to spot in Toronto for the rich and famous passing through can be attributed simply to his work ethic, a “little bit of intellect,” and, first and foremost, product. “If you do a good tattoo, you’re gonna gain ten clients from it,” Baxter says, relaxing on a white couch under a portrait of Pablo Picasso. “But if you do a bad one, you’re gonna lose 20.”
The shop is clean and spacious, with beautiful wallpaper from Amsterdam framing multiple awards and newspaper clippings. In the southwest corner window, a one-of-a-kind snakeskin chair faces the street, the workspace of tattooer Scoot, who does most of the celebrity tattoos at FYInk. “If they’re sitting in that chair, they know it’s not just some shop down the street,” Baxter says. “It’s my shop.” At 31-years-old, he’s tall and athletic with fiery dark orange hair and a close-cut beard. He speaks confidently but never arrogantly, and is sporting a grey and white sweat suit when we meet.
If stories were currency, Baxter would be very rich: Chris Bosh flew him and a crew out to Turks and Caicos to get a tattoo done after the Miami Heat won the NBA Championship. Travi$ Scott fell in love with the shop and hung around the back for a few days, working on his laptop. Trey Songz stopped by on the day of OVO Fest 5 to get some ink done. Most recently, Stitches was at the shop to get a portrait of Pinhead from Hellraiser tattooed on his face. But Baxter says the most memorable experience he’s had was with Justin Bieber, who had them do Banksy’s Balloon Girl on his arm, before coming back over and over again for more tattoos.
“He asked us if we could come to the studio, and it wasn’t until almost midnight that we finished all the details, so we had to go there at midnight and tattooed him until like, 7AM,” Baxter says. “He was writing and recording a new song, “Time For Bed.” It was unbelievable to see the magic that was going on. And at the time he was being heavily scrutinized in the public eye for all these antics that were going on, and I think everyone going in there had this notion and view of him, and it was completely changed. He was so down to earth. I’ve never been around talent like that in my life, in any form of art. It was unbelievable. Probably one of the craziest things I’ve ever been around.”
If you weren’t aware, tattoos hurt, and people deal with pain differently. Bieber and Drake (who got an Aaliyah portrait touched up, and “All Kinds” done on his arm) sat well, Baxter says, but the pain threshold of some musicians is apparently not what you’d expect. “I think the toughest guys in the songs are the softest guys when they’re getting ink,” Baxter says. “I’m not gonna name any names, but some of the tougher guys who are rapping about hood stuff and saying they’re so hard, after an hour they’re like, ‘I don’t wanna finish! This hurts!’”
Baxter is adamant that his product is what drives the shop’s popularity, and he speaks incredibly highly of his artists, who each have their own interesting origin stories. He met Nikki Ouimette in his days bouncing and asked her to come work for him when someone told him she tattooed. He found out afterward that she’d done two tattoos in her entire life. She’s the shop’s longest-serving tattooer now. Seunghyun Jo (a.k.a. Potter) had just moved to Toronto from Korea, and applied to every single shop on Queen West, until he walked in to FYInk and Baxter hired him on the spot without even seeing his work, simply because he wanted to diversify his artist roster. Now he says Potter is one of the best in the world, and regularly brings back artists from Korea to do guest spots at the shop. Korea’s laws regarding tattooing are extremely strict, and artists set up underground locations in which to work so they can avoid having to go through the rigorous process of obtaining the licenses they’d need to operate professionally.
Baxter attributes part of his success to the fact that he isn’t an artist himself, which has turned out to be a big advantage, business-wise. Some shop owners who are also artists can end up with a complex that makes it difficult for other artists to thrive in the same environment when competition—artistically, monetarily, etc.—enters the equation. But it was also a hurdle. “A hard thing for me was gaining respect from the artists because I don’t tattoo. I really had to prove to them that I can run a business better than most other tattoo shops that are owned by tattoo artists. I care about tattoos and I care about the industry. Just because I don’t tattoo doesn’t mean I can’t learn about it or care about it.”
It’s obvious that Baxter cares for his artists. In fact, it’s clear that he has, does, and will fight for them. They are, after all, part of the reason that in five years, he’s “never once not wanted to get out of bed to come here.” Fighting has taught Baxter a lot, but maybe most importantly it’s given him the tools to run his shop successfully.
Baxter owns a private boxing club and manages professional fighters as well, one of whom he’s just confirmed a fight for at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn with a life-changing amount of money, almost six figures, on the line. One of his legs is covered in portraits of his favourite boxers, including Mike Tyson and Roy Jones, Jr.
“Boxing is definitely the grimiest industry in the world,” Baxter says “It’s dirtier than gangs or drugs or anything. It’s two individuals fighting for their lives and a bunch of corporate guys trying to make as much money as they can off of them. So I think you deal with the bottom of the bottom for a lot of money. You learn a lot. You learn how to get screwed over, and how to bounce back. There are days I’ve driven a Lamborghini and the next day I’m on the streetcar. It doesn’t bother me because I know I’m not gonna be on the streetcar forever.”
Matt Williams has the itch for more tattoos. - @MattGeeWilliams