When Nick McMaster was eight years old, he fixed a colouring contest at a video store in his home town of Beamsville, Ontario.
“There were 140 sheets submitted for the contest. Seventy of them were mine,” he said.
Determined to win a VHS copy of Babe – the 1995 film about an orphaned pig (who was won in a contest in the film as well) – McMaster photocopied 70 colouring pages. He coloured the pages all different and dropped each one through the video return slot of FourMost video every day.
Needless to say, he won the colouring contest.
McMaster has always been a maverick. He passed up a scholarship with the University of Toronto, and spent two years at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario before he decided ‘art school was bull——’.
So he left school, and landed a gig at a tattoo shop in Hamilton. A short while later, McMaster and a friend moved to Toronto in search of better opportunities.
“I sold my car. Sold all my stuff. I started applying to shops, and got into this little shop in the West End. I worked there for a little bit, then I met my girlfriend – she’s my wife now. I met her a couple months after I started tattooing.”
Young and in love, he managed to get a job just four blocks away from the house of his then girlfriend now wife Agnes.
McMaster went on to work at several shops, rambling his way through Etobicoke, Hamilton, and Woodbridge. For a brief period, McMaster worked five days a week at one shop, and three days a week at another.
“I was doing thousands of tattoos a year – it was insane,” he said.
“Through tattooing you can either stick to one shop and be super loyal. Or you can be like me and be a vampire, work at a shop, learn as much as you can, then move on to another shop and learn as much as you can.”
Now 31, McMaster owns Cinder and Sea, a tattoo and fine art studio at 9748 Willow St. in Chemainus. In the front of the shop, McMaster showcases his paintings, sculptures and carvings. Much of his art features landscapes and animals of the west coast. In the back, he has a private tattoo studio.
Cinder and Sea opened in September 2019 after McMaster renovated the interior of the shop which was formerly occupied by Salt Spring Soapworks. Everything from the flooring to the shelving was put in by him.
McMaster says the new space has been positive for both his creativity and his business.
“It’s easier to make stuff when it’s not piling up around me in a room in my basement. I get the chance to talk about it and have people see it. I can judge people’s reactions more. I’m not just hoping and wondering if people like my art. I’m actually interacting with people,” he said.
“It makes the decision-making process a lot easier. I’ve gotten a lot more sales and opportunities having a physical location. With art when you see it online that’s one thing, but when you see it in person it’s another. A lot of people like having a physical store rather than buying random stuff off the internet.”
He originally intended Cinder and Sea to be only a gallery space. Prior to the pandemic, McMaster tattooed at Electric Umbrella in Nanaimo. When public health orders took effect, the shop had to close temporarily, which left McMaster and his co-workers without a job. When restrictions were lifted and tattoo shops could operate again, McMaster opted to combine his passions at Cinder and Sea.
“It’s kind of half in between, which is what I like about it now.”
Although McMaster’s tattoo practice is frequently booked with clients, he has noticed a steep decline in foot traffic to his gallery. He estimates that foot traffic in downtown Chemainus declined 95 per cent during the early months of the pandemic and has only returned to about 35 percent of normal.
Since McMaster opened his doors in fall 2019, he did not have the one year of business history required to apply for government aid programs. McMaster did qualify for CERB, but it was quickly consumed through rent payments for Cinder and Sea and his home in Ladysmith.
Now that he can safely tattoo clients, his business is getting back on track. “I’m still making an income, but it’s not what it should be, and what it should be isn’t provable,” he said.
Despite the challenges of COVID, Chemainus has proven to be a good fit for McMaster and he’s hoping to remain in the community well into the future.
“I want to be part of the community. I’ve got the ability and the skill now to help people out. If I’m doing well and the shop’s doing well, then I can be free to do more around town.”
McMaster plans to host art classes in Chemainus. One will teach landscape painting and the other will imaginative wildlife drawing.
Cinder and Sea is currently only open by appointment.