When Allison Deneau was seven months pregnant, she and her husband sold their condo and began renting a house in Essex to accommodate their growing family.
Within a year of living there, they made an awful discovery.
“90 per cent of the house had mold growing in it,” she remembers. “We had eight different kinds. Three of them were toxic.”
Already compromised (she has Lupus and Crohn’s disease), Deneau became extremely ill. Her son developed hives. Her eldest daughter developed neurological problems, and the baby had nosebleeds from day one.
“The landlord was a company that owned 130 properties in the area; they were all in similar states of disrepair with mold and water damage,” she says. “It had been a co-op complex that had been vacant for years; so when they bought them, they just made them look good. They didn’t fix any of the underlying problems.”
After being forced to throw out nearly everything they owned, they left the house. Insurance wouldn’t pay damages because the mold was due to landlord neglect. After two years of fighting, they were reimbursed $1,600 (Deneau estimates their losses were in upwards of $40,000).
Essentially homeless – with three children in tow – she was desperate. As a child, she had spent every summer camping up north. She decided to return with her own family. This past November, they moved into the space formerly occupied by the CIBC branch at 203 Main St. in Thessalon. She has given it a complete overhaul, creating a gorgeous, fully accessible tattoo studio and art gallery; The Vault (which just celebrated its grand opening this past weekend).
Before she got sick, Deneau worked for CIBC in Windsor-Essex. “After I got sick and I couldn’t work anymore, I didn’t want to sit around,” she says. “My husband said, 'You could tattoo' and I just said, 'Aw, you just want free tattoos!' Then one day, a delivery came in the mail; it was all the tattoo equipment – the machine, the ink, everything I needed to get started. And I learned on him.”
She moved on to friends and family, always visiting people at home – with a special focus on people who are disabled or who struggle with mental health issues. “People who couldn’t leave their house, or didn’t want to be in a shop, or wanted a support pet with them,” she says. “I was going with my niche; I have been through a lot myself, health-wise, so I can relate to a lot of what those people are going through. I like to cater to that. I still do home visits.”
She’s always liked creating art, but finds creating tattoos particularly satisfying. “Putting [a tattoo] on somebody; and knowing that that will always be there – is so awesome,” she says. “It makes me so happy to see someone leave happy. If they come in with a really horrible tattoo, or has a bad memory attached – and I can either change it or cover it – suddenly all of that self-consciousness is gone.”
She especially enjoys memorial pieces. “A friend of mine had a child that was born quite premature, he only lived a few hours. We did a really great memorial piece on her wrist; I took his tiny footprint; photocopied it, made the stencil; then we even incorporated his ashes into the black ink that we used in his footprint. So she has her son with her, always.”
She loves experimenting with lettering; and in recreating people’s own handwriting in memorials. She will also use family heirlooms as inspiration for tattoos.“This was another one,” she says, pointing at a graceful circle of blooms. “I took her grandmother’s china pattern and turned it into an anklet.”
Deneau believes what she’s been through has helped her to form connections with the people she tattoos. “Once you go through an experience, you’re able to relate to people on a different level. I can say I know exactly how that feels.”
The reception she’s gotten from locals has been warm. “We love it here, it is a fantastic town,” she says about Thessalon. “You get the odd person who is like, tattoos, really? Then you talk to them and it’s like, hmm, we’ll I’ve always wanted one. And I say, well you should get one! It’s the only thing you really get to take with you when you leave this world!”
Denau would love to see more young people from southern Ontario move up here and start businesses. “In all of these little towns, they could all use something, and they all have available space. It’s a wide open market – the cost of living is lower, it’s healthier, it’s cleaner. You’re ten minutes from doing something cool outdoors, anytime you want. It’s safer to raise kids. I can let my kids go through a walk through town; in Windsor, my kids would never leave the house.”
“In the shop setting down south [in Windsor]; somebody comes in, they get their work done, they go. There’s not a lot of connection there,” she says. “I’m trying to keep that connection, because tattooing is so personal and meaningful and life-lasting. To me, it’s not something that can just be transactional. They’re telling me things that are personal, or hard for them, or what their tattoo means from them. I get to learn what the person is about.”