Meet Sadstab, Your Favourite Band's Favourite Tattoo Artist

Having tattooed over 50 bands since 2016, Fion Liu is the preferred Toronto stick-and-poke artist of indie music's greatest names

Photo: Alex Earl Gray

BY Allie GregoryPublished Jul 17, 2020

Lockdown has been an interesting challenge to navigate for Toronto-based tattoo artist Fion Liu — a.k.a. Sadstab — especially considering their modus operandi: tattooing touring artists.

While Liu's hard-earned paycheque comes from a variety of sources — working the floor at Toronto's Play De Record and as a cassette player technician at the Dupe Shop, to name a couple of the myriad occupations — they're likely best known for their work as a stick-and-poke artist, a career that pays mostly in ways other than cash.

"I love trading and valuing my tattoo not just by money," Liu explains. "I've traded a guitar with googly eyes all over, synthesizers, rare records and more. There have been a few times where I have tattooed musicians and they'll trade me with tickets to their show, merchandise, autographs, hugs and friendship."

The full number of artists they've stabbed is hard to quantify (when you factor in touring band members and defunct lineups) but Liu's client book boasts members from at least 53 touring acts — so far.

Those artists include members of Unknown Mortal OrchestraPUPSnail MailWaxahatcheeSwearin'IDLESCharly BlissWeavesthe HorrorsJeff RosenstockFIDLAREllisChastityDaughtersJoyce ManorA Place to Bury StrangersJungleMac DeMarco drummer Joe McMurray, Hockey Dad, PalehoundDZ DeathraysWhitneySTRFKRCasper SkullsPeelingPONYPretty MattyWampireSpeedy OrtizTimber TimbreT-RextasyPileTwo Door Cinema ClubKaleidoscope HorseAJJ, Psychic Twin, Dune RatsHoopsYour Friend, Radio Caroline, For Jane, Ogikubo Station, RAENER, K.I.D., Doffing, Cold Fronts, the Frights, Vundabar, the Gooch Palms, Nanami Ozone, Hobby and Villain.

While the multidisciplinary artist may have a penchant for illustration, cassette repair and collecting rare records, their talents extend much further than ways they can monetize — and in that arena, they stay modest. You won't get a hint of elitism talking to Liu, who describes their art style as "abjectly adorable." Rather, they pour themself into their work out of an earnest desire to give something back to their favourite artists.

Having completed over 740 tattoos since 2015, Liu's homegrown tat business has morphed from a simple passion project into a ubiquitous hub for bands that are on the road and in search of unique body art. With such a diverse range of clients, Liu's pieces are similarly varied.

Take, for instance, when the entire touring Waxahatchee band got matching tattoos of a Bath & Body Works Peach Bellini candle (in honour of their shared laugh at a viral YouTube video); or when husband-and-wife duo Chastity's Brandon Williams and Ellis's Linnea Siggelkow got matching rose tattoos; Stefan Babcock of PUP's infamous knee cactus; or Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz's magic wand on her ankle; each piece is tied to a unique — and sometimes unusual — story.

third band was the amazing @waxa_katie <3 thank you to your whole crew

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You can trace Liu's career in tattooing bands back to a chance request from Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson, when he asked to meet them for a tattoo session while he was in the province for Oro-Medonte's defunct WayHome music festival. The two had previously met backstage at a UMO show.

"I asked if he could come to my studio 'cause I don't have a ticket nor a ride to go to the festival," Liu explains. "Instead of that, Ruban offered festival passes for me and two friends so I can enjoy my first-ever music festival experience."

Happenstance experiences like these are common for Fion, who has tatted their way into many of Toronto's backstage areas, tour busses, random kitchens, and even one time, a parachute drop zone. 

Not only have they hopped all over town to set up shop in the back of nearly every Toronto music venue, they are also known to occasionally travel great distances for a piece — once even as far as Hong Kong. A few years ago, they headed south to Boston to give out tattoos at Palehound bassist Larz Brogan's birthday party.

Maybe coincidentally, Palehound later recorded a song about their love of home-poked tattoos. It's titled "Stick N Poke" and appeared on their 2019 album, Black Friday. Before its release, the band had Fion over for yet another round of pokes. 

When and if the pandemic ends, Fion is looking forward to forging new client relationships. Specifically, they have their sights set on giving tattoos to a bunch of new artists, including Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh, Alex Kapranos of Franz FerdinandGary Numan, John Rocca of Freeez and Ryan Jarman of the Cribs

Liu doesn't have any tattoos themself, nor do they play any instruments in the conventional sense (though that doesn't stop them from collecting). For them, the way to engage in their favourite art form is through appreciation. And the best way to do that is by forming personal relationships with their favourite artists. 

Common among these artists is the strong sense of the over-arching "alternative." As a listener, Liu cites indietronica, disco, new wave, funk, punk and countless other genres as their go-tos for dropping the needle. Their healthy record and cassette collections serve as some of their most cherished tools of the trade, as they consider a good soundtrack crucial to setting the mood in their workspace.

"My 'must-have' tools to create the perfect tattoo are good lighting and brush pens — [and] if available, a turntable," Liu explains. 

Their multidisciplinary sensibility is exemplified through the way they turn a love of music into a permanent, visual medium. And while Fion counts this chapter in their art career among some of their most cherished memories, their all-time favourite piece dates back to their university days: their tattoo-adjacent thesis work as a student at Ryerson.

"My favourite piece of art that I've done is my Last Will and Testament," they explain. "I wrote my will in a colouring book format and talked about how my body will be transformed from a machine creating art, to a dead machine recycled and become art."

They continue: "Very surprisingly, I got a full mark on it. My professor Lee Henderson added an 'A' next to my first name on purpose as he recalled my story about my name."

"'Why Fion, not Fiona?'" Liu asks their father rhetorically.

"Because you got to earn the 'A' yourself."

Thank you again @stefanbabcock for letting me stab your lil cactus on you <3

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forgot that I got my film roll developed. thanks @idlesband again! <3

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THANK YOU @ponytheband @prttymtty!!! YOUR MUSIC IS AMAZING. 😻✨😍❤️

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