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In Crystal Alexandria’s Vancouver home, there’s a stained-glass emblem featuring her shop logo for Dark Ocean Tattoo - a conch shell with geometric patterns and strawberries on the back. It’s rare for a client to reciprocate art with art, and even more rare that the piece would find its home nestled proudly for all to see. Yet over a year ago, in the Squid Ink studio on Virgin Voyages, the self-made artist designed one of the most conflicting tattoos an artist can do – for its rewards and for its emotional cost.

But that’s who Crystal is – she’s a woman that doesn’t take inspiration for granted and is not shy about expressing how grateful she is to her clients for trusting her with their vision… and memories.

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Dark Ocean’s Pioneer

To know her impact, you must get to know the artist.

Crystal is vigorous; when it’s something she wants, she aims. So, when an ex-girlfriend suggested that she take on tattooing for the fun of it, it felt like tattooing had found her.

“I didn’t have a career even though I was in my 30s,” she said. “I thought I’d give it a go!”

Because it was difficult to find an apprenticeship, she had to teach herself how to draw and tattoo. “General” tattoo imagery didn’t really speak to her, but when she saw a mandala tattoo, everything shifted.

“I was terrible at math, but the dance of shapes, mandalas, and the depth of shading and lines just called to me,” she said. “It is meditative and satisfying.”

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Crystal On Board

Over 140k Instagram followers later, she took her signature style to Squid Ink in the most Crystal way possible. She snagged an ad from some waiting room, guiltily, and followed up.

“They were not accepting artists, but I was determined to be on board,” she recalled. “I followed them on social media and made a point to like and comment on every post. I followed the artists, I genuinely engaged, and I was patient.”

Eventually, someone began responding to Crystal on social, sent her an application, and before you know it, she was packing her ink and beachside gear.

“I didn’t really know what to expect… I love travel, and don’t have much time to do it anymore, so it was lovely to live vicariously a little.”

Immediately, the experience aboard Virgin Voyages with Squid Ink is a distinct one. Instead of one appointment per day like in her studio back home, clients onboard were piling in like a traditional street shop.

“There was one day I did 13 tattoos in a row which, oddly, is more exhausting than lining an entire sleeve in a day!”

Yet even exhausted, Crystal relished meeting people from all walks of life from around the world. And one day, Squid Ink Manager Dennis Gensinger tapped Crystal to meet three women whose request would shift the tone of the trip completely.

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Redemption at Sea

If you think that passengers aboard Virgin Voyages are people just looking for a luxurious experience, then dive beyond the surface. As the body artists aboard soon found out, most of the individuals had a score to settle.

For example, one client used the experience to get her first tattoo – a Captain America Shield. It was quite the lucky timing since she would meet Chris Evans a few months later. But some of the stories are even more stirring, like a woman who defiantly got a piercing after her controlling ex hurled harmful insults to warn her not to.

The inspirational stories were endless. For Crystal’s next clients, they wanted to use one memory to create another.

Ramona, 58, traveled often with her family and loved cruises. A quilter, sewer, and volunteer art teacher for elementary students, she cherished art and family, and they cherished her right back.

She, along with her two adult daughters Marley and Cassie, wanted to have commemorative tattoos featuring a Scandinavian pattern inspired by an antique plate that once belonged to Ramona's late mother. Three tattoos in the same likeness, with a single vine of ripening strawberries with flowers blossoming in between. Dennis let Crystal know that Marley specifically requested her to tattoo it.

“The family spent their summers at her [grandmother’s] place, and she was quite precious to all three of them,” she remembered them saying. “The dishes were used whenever they were there and were a fond memory [they] shared together.”

It was important for the three women to connect a cherished moment from the past to the present. But for Ramona, it was also a way for her daughters to carry on with a future without her.

Ramona had cancer. Once in remission, the disease had returned. This time she would not survive.

With only months left to live, Ramona decided that the remaining days were going to be one for the books, even if for a little while.

“…I remember a mother who loved her daughters, was at peace with her mortality, and had lived a good life. She had so much life in her,” she reflects. “And I remember two sisters, tethered together in their grief, trying to enjoy one last trip with their mother; it was difficult and beautiful to watch.”

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Grief – And Its Remedy

It is a silent consensus – tattoo artists often find themselves positioned to help their clients navigate ink and emotions, especially when it comes to grief. They have to experience the pressure of nurturing their clients, but also have to get the tattoo just right. Crystal herself had tattooed people dealing with grief before, like parents who lost a toddler or an elderly man mourning his wife of 60 years.

And after losing her mother at a young age and having a stepmother who experienced her own cancer scare, she experienced her own sorrows that helped her approach the session with a unique sensitivity.

“Dennis, Nik (our general manager at the time), and I decided to do the tattoos at no charge,” she said. “We knew they were only a product of a heartbreaking situation.”

Even in the preliminary phases, there are special considerations– tattooing a mature body raddled with chemo is no easy feat. As Dennis is prepping their contracts padded with unique stipulations for the three Squid Ink customers to sign, Crystal chooses to channel her life hardships and pour it into her work.

“I can’t say I kept myself together the whole time,” she said in a coping chuckle. “When we were finished, we all broke down together, and a lot of tears and hugs were shared.”

Not only did Crystal have the anchor of her past to push through, but she also expresses the crucial role her wife and peers played in supporting her through the entire thing. Whose notable strength was a driving force for them all? Ramona. Crystal says that the incredible “gem” made them laugh and cry the entire time.

“The whole thing was just pure love, right till the end.”

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The Value of Memories

After the cruise, Ramona’s health quickly declined. She died just two months later at her home surrounded by friends and family.

Her daughter told Crystal that she and the crew were such an important part of her journey in the end. Ramona was so incredibly proud of her and her daughter’s tattoo that she would constantly make them lift their sleeves at doctor’s appointments or to show their friends.

To share her gratitude for it all, Marley handmade Crystal a stained-glass version of her shop logo.

“A big part of the experience was… allowing them the space to cry, grieve and celebrate,” she said. “Helping them through their pain while still holding up my part of the relationship, which really was to give them a bonding moment that they would all carry with them.”

Tattoo artists are constantly redeeming the stories that their clients want to tell. When tattooing at Squid Ink with so many unique individuals clustered together at sea, artists are bound to test their limits. But undoubtedly, they’ll inevitably realize their value.

As Crystal says, “You will meet all kinds of people, you will be asked to do all kinds of tattoos, and you will have all kinds of feelings. You will learn about yourself, about your tattooing, and you will take that back with you, forever changed.”

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