Arts & Life, Music

Rock the needle

Despite all the evolution of beats and songs and scenes, the romance of the underground still sort of looks the same: tattoos and gasoline booze, black holes, sweat and rock’n’roll.

See also: American Flamewhip.

If ever a prairie band perfected that aesthetic — and there have been more than a few — that Winnipeg trio sang that smeary romance just as close to true.

For the last half of the last decade, the band shredded stages across North America with that rampaging sound, all four-on-the-floor drums and slash-and-burn guitars, topped by singer Joanne Rodriguez’s hellfire howl of a voice.



In short: American Flamewhip came, they rocked… and then they slipped into a little bit of silence.

That silence is about to be broken. This Saturday, the trio is reuniting for a riot at the Windsor; it’s American Flamewhip’s first show in over two years. “We didn’t really break up, we just kind of decided to take a hiatus,” Rodriguez says. “There was no bad feelings. It was just, let’s put it aside for now, and we’ll pick things up when it’s convenient.”

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Look, people get busy: drummer Chris “Mama” Bauer got married, guitarist Damon Mitchell had a baby, and all of them were caught up with other bands.

As for Rodriguez? She became a businesswoman and opened her own tattoo shop, Rogue Tattoo. The shop celebrated its first anniversary in August 2012, offering ink and piercings out of a bright-white space in the heart of the Corydon strip.

Yeah, it’s the perfect situation to find a hot-blooded rockstar working, but make no mistake: just like music, just like making art, running a tattoo shop is a full-on business. In Rodriguez’s case, it’s a business that comes straight from the heart — in a way, she’s been working up to this since she was just a little girl.

So a few days before the American Flamewhip gig, speaking over the buzz of the needle and the hubbub of a busy shop, we sat down with Rodriguez to chat about tattoos, rock’n’roll, and the business of looking bad-ass.


ST: What’s your first memory of wanting to get tattooed?

Standing at a grocery store when I was four or five years old, just staring at someone that was standing in front of me, that had a crappy little blurred tattoo. You couldn’t even necessarily tell what it was, but I was like, “that’s cool, that person has a drawing on their skin.” And just drawing on myself all the time. And then before I was 18, getting terrible tattoos, free kitchen tattoos all the time. Was I old enough get tattooed? No! Was I going to find a way to get tattooed anyway? Yeah.

ST: What was your first tattoo from a professional?

It was by Jay Pelland at Ink Illusions. I was a dreadlocked hippie, and I was like, “can I get this protest sign shrunk down and put on my shoulder?” And it was. I can’t even remember what I was fighting for. I think it was some sort of clear-cutting in Swan River, and I was like, “I live and breathe activism.” It’s a peace symbol with a vine wrapped around it.

ST: When you’re young, and you’re first getting tattooed, it’s such a big deal.

You’re all about the meaning of it. And I think that’s similar with bands and songwriting. I used to be so self-conscious about (songwriting), and I wouldn’t want anyone to hear it until it was finished. Now the older I get, the more I’m just, “hey I have a guitar part that I like, can anyone think of any else that might sound cool with it?” My inhibitions are less.

Like with tattoo ideas when I was younger, it was like, “yeah this is going to mean so much.” Now, when I’m older, it’s like… (she points to the hamburger tattoo on her right arm)… ooh, I like hamburgers. People are like, “so, what does that mean?” It means I like hamburgers. And coffee, I have a coffee cup with sugar cubes. Well, I love coffee.



ST: There’s a connection between body mod, tattooing and rock’n’roll that’s almost holy.

They do go hand-in-hand. Not that everyone who’s in rock’n’roll is tattooed, but it’s common. And I think it is a little bit of a “I don’t care what you think about me” sentiment still, and I love that. I think there’s a part of me that’s still a teenager that wants to tell the world to f off. I’m not that teenager anymore, but there’s a part of me that feels like well, I don’t care what the world thinks of me. They can judge me, and I don’t care.

ST: Some people stop at one or two. What was the point where you decided to commit?

The hula girl on my forearm. She was the first tattoo that I got, where I could call it, “where the judge can see it.” Once I got that one, I was like, “why go back now? Now I should just fill it up and it’ll look rad.” I always envisioned myself heavily tattooed, and it was exciting. It was a big decision, and it probably took me a couple of years. But once I did it, it was no going back.




ST: Working in the industry now, how does that impact your perception of tattooing?

Being a business owner is crazy. It’s a different level of stress than I’ve ever imagined. But once you get over the hump, and there’s more security and you feel like business is doing well, that’s when you get to appreciate it and have fun with it a little bit more. The (tattoo) industry is a finicky industry, you know? I wish everyone was super sweet and “hey, let’s all go bowling.” But it’s just not like that — it’s a lot of personalities to work with every day.

ST: And I imagine it’s an industry that attracts a lot of strong personalities.

There’s definitely strong characters in this business. I like keeping it as drama-free as possible, because that’s something this industry is renowned for. With the reality shows and the content in those shows, as much as it’s about tattooing, it’s a lot more about the drama outside of tattooing.

That’s the kind of stuff I want to keep to a minimum. I don’t want it to be like a burly, biker shop that people might be scared of coming in. It’s a different profession now, it’s more of a legitimate service. Lots of professionals are getting tattooed, so when they come in I want it to be a professional, medical kind of experience. I want the whole experience to be a pleasure, and not have clients be scared to say “I don’t really like that part of the drawing.” It’s going to be on your skin forever!

ST: Because shops can be intimidating. That’s why my first tattoos are so bad; I was too scared to say “no.”

Yeah, and me too, I was just like “oh yeah sure, that Chinese symbol you put on my ankle looks like a spider, but alright, here’s your money.” So I want (Rogue) to be a welcoming environment, to know they can collaborate with their artist and not be scared to hurt their feelings.

ST: Tattooing is becoming more mainstream — how does that look from your perspective?

Everyone’s just excited that it is so acceptable now. It’s great for our business. Is it a trend? It might be. In 10 years from now, is it going to be as popular? I hope so. But if not, there’s still going to be those collectors getting tattooed when it’s not cool. But ideally everyone hopes that it can stay common enough that we’ll all have work. In a small city like ours, there’s lots of people getting tattooed, and it’s impressive (for Winnipeg).

ST: It seems like there’s a stigma that’s fading away.

Yeah. And there are still jobs that are adamant about no visible tattoos or piercings. But that’s getting less and less, because it’s getting harder to find someone who doesn’t have visible tattoos, or doesn’t have a facial piercing. And I don’t know, I think it would be kind of cool to have surgery done by a guy who had full sleeves.

ST: In terms of trends in tattoo art, it seems like a lot of people are rediscovering traditional.

I love traditional. It makes me feel like a kid looking at a colouring book, just big and bold, fun and cartoony, nothing too serious.

ST: It’s just for the love of it then.

It’s just so fun. Bright tattoos make me think, “that’s a fun person.” Traditional’s just a fun way of doing stuff like that. You can mix and match. Take something like an owl, that might be really ornate. You could get it done portrait-style and it would be beautiful, I’m sure. Or you can get it in a traditional, cartoony way, and it’s just cuter.

ST: It goes back to that idea in rock’n’roll, of just getting to the point as a musician where you just jam it out.

Yes…  simple!

ST: What’s your favourite tattoo an artist has ever done for you?

The big rooster (on my left arm), the cockfighting rooster. I sat the longest for it, two days in Toronto. It’s just really detailed, and I traded it for a trombone.

ST: Uh, where did you get the trombone from?

From school band when I was in high school. I was like, what am I going to do with this thing? And he was here doing a guest spot, and staying at my place, and was like, “I’ll tattoo you for a trombone.” It was one of those things where he was like, “what do you want to get done?” And I said “a skull.” No. “Flowers.” No. “A rooster?” And he was… yeah, he’d do a rooster. I imagined it would be something small, but he brought in this picture. It was huge, and I loved it. And I was like, “if you think that’s a trombone’s worth, sure.”

ST: That’s a beautiful story. 

That’s part of the fun of getting tattoos — you remember exactly who did it, you remember where, when, what you were listening to.


Inked or not, Winnipeggers bring out your party pants this weekend, because American Flamewhip is back in action on Saturday, Jan. 12 at the Windsor. Even better: Andrew Neville and the Poor Choices and brand-new surf-rock band Hang 3 are also on the bill. Tickets are $10 at the door.


Melissa Martin is the entertainment editor at Spectator Tribune. Find her at @doubleemmartin or