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At Sherbourne: Artatorture Tattoos & Piercings Studio

Mary Ormsby Feature Writer

Standing in the doorway of Artatorture Tattoos & Piercings Studio, owner James O'Donnell can spot outsiders as they prepare to set foot on the northeast sidewalk at Queen E. and Sherbourne.

"When people start to get off the streetcar, they're scared — you can see their faces," says the 43-year-old, who has tattooed and pierced clients for 15 years near this intersection. It's a downtown corner where a slice of the city's homeless and hurting mill, most with no particular plans for their day.

"They want to look — everyone's intermingling — but it's like (they're thinking), ‘Is it a train wreck? Or is it after the train wreck and they're fixing things up?' "

A streetcar unloads. Some alighting passengers seem to stiffen. Others look completely relaxed. An older woman with weather-beaten skin and missing some front teeth scurries among the arrivals. She begs for coins that are not given.

O'Donnell inks skin full-time, embedding "sleeves" along the arms of patrons such as Michael Templeton, 22, with dark lettering or pastel fantasies. But it's the people outside his business who put the most memorable, often heart-breaking, stamp on the neighbourhood.

O'Donnell won't accept business from area people he knows or suspects are impaired by booze or drugs, or who suffer from mental illness.

"The ones who are selling their medications, maybe for drugs, you can spot them," says the married father of a teenaged daughter. "I see people deteriorate. That's bad. I can see them get better too — and they'll be the ones who maybe become the social worker for the next guy. It's good because they've been there on the street."

As for his customers, O'Donnell says, "You see all types." He has tattooed musicians, NHLers, walk-in customers and loyal generations of families — from grandmothers to their grandchildren. "They'll come in and you have to get a sense of them and it takes some time."

O'Donnell lives on the street too — sort of.

Four years ago he bought the building that houses Artatorture, a whimsical space with ancient sword collections, faux warriors in armour, goblins and dragons peering over shelves. He and his family reside in a spacious three-bedroom apartment above the store. It's got a rooftop deck, a spectacular view of the city and the steady, edgy pulse of the gritty inner-city corner.

"I wouldn't want to sell it, even though there's all these guys out here," O'Donnell says chuckling as he strolls along the sidewalk on the north side of Queen, looking at small groups of men and women talking, smoking, laughing.

A friendly female voice rings out, unsteadily: "Jaaaaaaaames! Jaaaaaaaames!" O'Donnell waves.

If Queen and Sherbourne is a train wreck, there's humanity amid the survivors.


Tattoo artist and owner of Artatorture Tattoos and Piercings, James O'Donnell tattoos the ankle of Mike Templeton while assistant Phillip Yee looks on. O'Donnell has tattooed musicians, NHLers, walk-in customers and loyal generations of families — from grandmothers to their grandchildren.




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Is the customer on a cellphone or is he grimacing?

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