Ian Greer ‘18

Tattoo Artist

Ian’s Question: Do we desire truth or narrative?

Keystone Title: Reflections on Contemporary Tattoo Culture

Abstract: A book based on six months of research and interviews with contemporary tattoo artists in North America and Europe, this piece couches the politics of tattooing in the context of contemporary social justice movements in order to ascertain their respective impacts on one another, and postulates some ideas why tattooing has enjoyed a dramatic increase in popularity and social acceptance over the past ten to fifteen years. It argues that for the past several decades, Western tattoo culture has largely excluded certain groups of people, political perspectives and art styles in the interest of maintaining an insular, male-dominated fraternal power structure. However, in recent years an alternative tattoo culture has emerged that focuses on making tattooing a safe, accessible and liberatory political art practice. This contemporary culture has theoretically as well as tangibly shifted tattooing into more private, personal and gentle spaces. It provides an alternative for people wanting to engage with tattooing as a tool for healing, commemoration and self-expression.


Prior to graduating, Ian tattooed our President! In this interview, Ian talks about the future of stick-and-poke tattoos and how Quest changed his mind about getting a post-secondary education. 

First things first—what was it like to tattoo Quest’s President?
We were very casual about it, honestly. The most stressful part for me and my roommates was cleaning our room really well before George came over!

The tattoo idea started when George and I met for the first time last September for an introductory interview with [Quest’s student-run newspaper] the Mark. We were talking about our respective academic interests and when I mentioned tattoos, George told me about this finger tattoo design he’d wanted for a few years. Apparently, some of the street shops he consulted with were hesitant to tattoo fingers, because the skin is so delicate. However, because handpokes are significantly less traumatic to the skin, they’re ideal for this sort of project. We discussed it again a month ago and George seemed really excited, so we had a quick consultation and then went for it a week later. I saw it this afternoon and it looks like it healed great!

A handpoked minsa (itsu no yo), an Okinawan symbol roughly translating to “enduring love”

What is your Question?
My Question is “Do we desire truth or narrative?” It came from a time when I was predominantly focused on journalism and media studies, and I’ve stuck with it although my academic interests have shifted since.

Why Quest?
All credit is due to two people. The first is Quest Alum Evan Captain, the brother of one of my good friends from high school. I was set on never going to university and working as a freelance journalist forever, but a few months after finishing school, Evan and I had a lengthy conversation and he convinced me Quest might be worth trying out.

I was still a bit hesitant after applying but felt a renewed sense of confidence after my interview with Quest Alum and former Admissions Officer Jill Carlile. Our conversation made me feel valued in a way I’d never expected to in a traditional school setting, especially because—unlike interviews I’d had with other universities—it did not revolve around my very poor academic performance in high school.

I entered Quest in 2014 feeling able to learn on my own terms and I am grateful to this school for making space for students like me for whom traditional educational models tend to fail.

Greer or Gruyere? And how did that happen?
“Gruyere” was a name given to me by my friend Dorah as a sort of tongue-in-cheek mispronunciation of my last name. I was curious what it would be like to have an alter ego and the name Gruyere seemed the natural starting point for my exploratory identity. There’s no actual difference between my alter ego and myself, so the names are just fun to interchange.

Dogs or cats?
Dogs are more fun to draw.

Has anything you’ve learned at Quest crossed over into your art?
For sure. After taking Jamie Kemp’s Image of the Artist course in the fall of 2016, I developed an intense interest in medieval art and iconography. The readings and artworks we explored in that class were a big part of why I began drawing seriously a few months later.

The following spring, I took two classes that expanded my interest in art: an Artist-in-Residence course called Photography in the Age of Snapchat, which made me excited enough about film photography to incorporate it into my Keystone, and the Foundation Life Science course Biodiversity of BC, where I did some of my first botanical drawings. A lot of my drawing style came from that course and it’s proven continually useful since botanical tattoos are so popular at the moment.

Tell me how you got into tattooing.
I started drawing intentionally in January 2017 and did my first tattoo a few months later on my friend Ava. I was shaking and practically mute the entire time but it turned out okay. At that point, I had four tattoos: two machine tattoos from shops in Seattle and two stick-and-pokes I’d received from other Quest students.

I was really curious about the medium of stick-and-poke and excited about how these first few tattoos changed how I looked at my body—they simultaneously made me take myself a lot less seriously and gave me an intense interest in how people represent themselves.

That summer, I gave around 30 more tattoos, including two on myself, and have done probably 60 since school started again in the fall. It’s a really beautiful way to connect with somebody; the experience requires calmness and trust from both people and often creates complementary feelings of vulnerability and strength.

Which is your favourite tattoo that you have and why?
I have like 20 tattoos now. It’s hard to pick a favourite because I have very different reasons for liking each of them.

The last tattoo I received was a collaborative project between me and my friends Stephen and Morgan. It’s a scene from the opening of one of my favourite books, Pedro Páramo. We made sketches together in a studio in Seattle, then using a combination of premade stencils and freehanding directly on my body with a surgical marker, Stephen and Morgan collaboratively drew and tattooed the composition on my forearm. It required a great deal of trust and creativity from all of us, and because it was freehanded it works really well with the contour of my arm and sits neatly around the other tattoos in that space.

I really admire the artistry and improvisation some artists have brought to the tattooing process and find this tattoo exemplary of what I would like to attempt in my own tattooing practice in the future.

Are you ever nervous to work with something so permanent?
No, that’s the whole point! If it weren’t permanent, I don’t think people would be so intentional about it, and that intentionality is often what makes the tattoo process so meaningful.

Why do you think stick-and-poke is so popular?
It’s a very gentle procedure—people almost universally comment on how painless it is, though this can depend on the artist’s technique. For many people I think it also implies a degree of fluidity that’s not always present with machine tattoos. It’s also generally accessible, and perhaps less intimidating than going to street shops or interacting with some of the more “traditional” aspects of machine tattoo culture. I go into greater detail on this in my Keystone.

What’s your prediction for the next trend in tattooing?
I hope to see a lot more freehanded tattoos—designs that work with the contours of the body rather than just sitting in a particular place. I also am excited about the prospect of collaborative compositions between multiple artists, where tattoos either combine in a single piece or interact with one another in an intentional way.

What do you plan to do after Quest?
I’m going to move back to Seattle, where I grew up, and work on opening a small private studio for doing tattoos and embroidery. A growing trend among tattoo artists is to travel and have short guest spots at other tattoo studios, and I have somewhat loose plans to do this in Vancouver, New York and Montreal over the course of the summer. I’d also like to continue some of the investigative reporting I did before and during my time at Quest on land use, housing development and houselessness.

Quest University Canada is suspending regular academic programming following
completion of the current academic year in April 2023.

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