If you’d told Nate MacDonald five years ago that he’d soon find himself a die-hard Ottawa Redblacks fan, let alone the team’s go-to tattoo artist, he would have responded incredulously.
But that’s exactly what’s happened to the 38-year-old Prince Edward Island native.
Growing up, MacDonald didn’t watch football, mainly because he didn’t know of any organized football on the island. Instead, he played rugby and hockey. It wasn’t until he moved away from PEI to go to school at the University of Maine for a Bachelor’s of Education that he began to take an interest in football.
“I knew nothing about football and everyone always chirped me for that” MacDonald admits. “Eventually I knew I had to pick a team to support and it just so happens that one night when we were out there was a Boise State game on TV. As they were going over the lineups at the start I noticed they had a Canadian on their team named Jon Gott from Alberta, so I picked them in solidarity with my fellow Canuck.”
He never imagined that years later he’d not only be cheering for Gott again, but also tattoo him.
Although MacDonald always enjoyed drawing, he never considered himself any good at it. He has no formal training and used to believe that when it came to art and drawing, people were either blessed with talent or they weren’t. At least that was his line of thinking until one day in his early 20’s when he read an article in a guitar magazine about Zakk Wylde, the guitarist from Ozzy Osborne’s band.
“Wylde had a quote in it where he basically said that natural talent was a load of shit. That no one picks up a guitar and starts playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’. That was a transformational thing for me to read at that point of my life. It literally changed everything. I began to practice drawing every spare second I had,” MacDonald says.
12 years of practice later, MacDonald was teaching history and communications at the Nunavut Arctic College when he got offered an apprenticeship at Barnstormers, a new tattoo studio opening up in Ottawa.
Glen Paradis was the owner and one of MacDonald’s favourite tattoo artists. They’d met in 2008 when Paradis gave MacDonald his first tattoo. MacDonald had always admired Paradis’ work and had brought some of his drawings to share with him. Paradis gave him tips and they struck up a friendship. Years later, when Paradis opened his own parlour and reached out to MacDonald, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse” he says.
For the past five years MacDonald has been living in the nation’s capital and plying his trade on a never-ending stream of skin canvasses. With help from his colleagues, MacDonald has blossomed into one of its most sought after tattoo artists. He specializes in large scale Japanese-style tattoos; dragons, snakes, samurais, masks, koi fish, but does it all during the seven hours per day he puts in at least five days at week at the studio.
His first experience with the city’s pro football team came in the fall of 2014.
“When I moved to Ottawa, on game days I’d always see flocks of people walking by the studio, decked out in Redblacks gear and heading to the stadium. I was interested and wanted to check it out for myself, but given that I was an apprentice at the time and not really making any money, sporting events were a luxury I couldn’t really afford. Luckily, a client gave me some tickets for the Halloween game against the Ticats,” MacDonald says.
”Even though Ottawa lost, it was an exciting back and forth game and I was blown away by how great the Canadian style of football was. What really amazed me was that after the game the team allowed fans to go onto the field and meet and take pictures with the players. I still think it’s the coolest thing in the world.”
Smitten with the CFL and the Redblacks, MacDonald and his wife quickly became season ticket holders, grabbing a pair on the North Side in Section GG.
“I know there’s a big rivalry between the North and South Side but to be honest, as long as I can see the game I don’t really care where I sit,” he says.
As for how MacDonald went from being a fan to tattooing the players he watched from the stands, it all began with a Twitter question.
Defensive lineman Moton Hopkins put a query out looking for a spot to get tattooed in Ottawa. Jeanine Ritchot (current co-host of the Mouchoir Podcast, formerly of the BleedRedblacks podcast) suggested MacDonald and Barnstormers Studio because she’d had work done there before and was very pleased with it.
Hopkins took her advice, getting a maple leaf with a No. 95 (stylized with the same notches the Redblacks use on their jerseys) and things took off from there. Since tattooing Hopkins, MacDonald has inked nearly 40 Redblacks players, members of the coaching staff and front office (some more than once). At this point, it’s word of mouth. Players talk to each other and when one notices someone’s new ink, the conversation naturally leads itself to MacDonald.
While players get all kinds of tattoos, MacDonald notes that many want something to represent where they’re from or something tied to their families. He’s tattooed everything from a viking with a flaming axe smashing a skull on Jon Gott to an astronaut doing a trick on a BMX bike for Avery Ellis. Most recently DeVonte Dedmon came in to get a wing with his birth year (1995) on it.
Over the course of his tattooing career, MacDonald has inked hundreds of tattoos. But one stands out from the rest. Although it wasn’t on a player, it was Redblacks related.
“After Ottawa won the East Final over Edmonton in 2016, I got an email from one of my clients who lives in Calgary. It was only a sentence long but asked if I was a betting man,” MacDonald says.
“Intrigued I wrote back asking what he had in mind. We settled on the following; if the Stamps had won, he would’ve gotten a Grey Cup champion tattoo, all costs on me. But if the Redblacks won (which they obviously did), I was allowed to tattoo whatever I wanted on him. That’s how I ended up creating my favourite tattoo, a crying horse with a big second place ribbon pinned on it with the words ‘Grey Cup Runners Up’ across his leg.”
Nowadays, in addition to inking any player that walks through Barnstormer’s door, MacDonald has also been busy creating a series of game day posters for each Redblacks home game. “Jon Sinden (OSEG’s director of marketing) reached out and asked if I’d be interested in working with the team to create something special for 2019. Obviously I jumped at the opportunity. It’s been a ton of work but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Plus it’s not every day I get to paint for the team I love”.
Like many in R-Nation, MacDonald isn’t happy with how the season has gone but he’s also not about to give up on the Redblacks. MacDonald will still be renewing his tickets next season because just like a tattoo, his fandom is permanent.