Tool-and-die maker becomes tattoo artist after a jolting ‘mid-life crisis’

Hawkins tattooing a client at Bombshells Tattoo Studio in Pembroke.

The thought of leaving a solid, full-time job and starting out as an entrepreneur is scary for most people. That was certainly the case for Vanessa Hawkins, whose “mid-life crisis” led to some real changes in her life.

In July 2017, Hawkins was out riding her horse with her mother. Suddenly, the horse bucked and Hawkins was thrown, landing heavily on the hard-packed side of the road.  She climbed back onto the horse and rode home. But within hours she was being rushed to hospital. She had suffered a severe concussion that required nine doctors and months of rehabilitation. 

Six months later, in January 2018, her father had a fall on ice that crushed his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic. He passed away the following August from a blood clot.

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“So that led to my mid-life crisis,” says Hawkins, 37, with a characteristic chortle. “I had this moment of, ‘What is it that I want out of life — that is important to me, that’s going to fulfill happiness in my life.’”

It was time, she realized, to strike out on her own.

“I am a farm kid. My parents have been self-employed their entire lives, so the idea of being in business myself was not a scary thing but rather an enticement,” she grins.

Until the accident, Hawkins had been a tool and die maker with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, a career she had pursued for 16 years. 

“I was making very good money and pension and benefits at CNL, but the thought of staying there another 25 years was scarier than the idea of trying and failing at something else,” says the entrepreneur.

Instead, she made a list of all the things she wanted out of life: control over her time; the chance to be creative; to be able to do something that mattered, something that she could take anywhere. Then she sat down with a group of friends to brainstorm.

“One of my girlfriends said, ‘You need to become a tattoo artist,’” laughs Hawkins.  

The idea seemed ludicrous at the time. Sure, she was creative, could draw and paint, but tattooing was a whole other ball game and one she didn’t for a minute think she could break into. Fortunately, her friends had great faith.

“I think Vanessa has tried just about everything there is to try,” says Shelley Degen, one of Hawkins’ first tattoo clients. “You want cheese, she’s your girl; shoes, sure!; clothes, yup! Need plants to grow like wildfire, take them to Vanessa. You need a spin class partner, kayak or paddleboard partner; need something built, she can do that, too! You decide to raise wild animals, call Vanessa, she knows the tricks. She’s so talented at everything. She masters everything she tries.”

Putting her fate in the hands of the universe, Hawkins cobbled together a portfolio of her artwork and trudged into Pembroke to visit tattoo parlours in search of an apprenticeship.

“The first shop I walked into they hired me on the spot and I started the next day,” she laughs, with as much wonder as gratitude.

Her first day at Max Den 2.0, tattoo artist Mike Mirault threw her straight into the fire.

“Nearly four years ago, I was her third tattoo. I walked in and introduced myself, she did some panic breathing and then started,” says Degen. “I was a bit shocked because she had no visible tattoos and honestly looked so out of place, but that worry quickly went away.”

Degen has since gone back for 21 more tattoos with Hawkins, counting two arm sleeves as a single tattoo each.  

Hawkins started tattooing in January 2019.  At first, she continued working for CNL, tattooing in the evening and on weekends.

A tattoo Hawkins started and completed at the Ottawa Gatineau Tattoo convention in 2022.

“I was fortunate that I had friends that basically gave me their entire bodies. They were just like, ‘Anything you want, anywhere you want it, go for it,’” laughs Hawkins.

By October 2019, Hawkins had gained enough confidence to quit CNL and embrace her new career. By November, she’d moved out of Max Den 2.0 and joined Bombshells Tattoo Studio, a co-op of tattoo artists owned by Liz Davis.

“I took Vanessa on because she had a true passion for art and was into art in all forms. She has a big, shiny personality and is an absolute gem to be around and her clients feel the same,” says Davis, a 20-year veteran tattoo artist.

Hawkins now runs her own business, paying rent and sharing expenses with a small group of like-minded women. 

“From a financial standpoint, I can say that tattooing affords me the opportunity to earn as much or as little as I like. I can work or not work. I charge $150 per hour and I’m booking three to six months in advance and have to close my books regularly,” says Hawkins.

She admits her timing was unfortunate because the pandemic shut down tattoo parlours for months. Luckily, she had a small financial cushion that saw her through the lockdowns. Still, she says she was never truly afraid.

“It’s kind of funny, when we are young, we don’t really worry about being able to find work or get a job. It’s expected that we will make a career and start our lives. But somewhere along the way, when we have a skill set and life experience, we become fearful. It’s odd we have more skills than we started, yet mentally more fears. We get trapped in the bills we need to pay and then there’s the pension and benefits … but it’s just a trap,” Hawkins concludes.

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