Banff tattoo business dream derailed by COVID reality

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COVID-19 seemed like the least of his worries when Robb Syre moved from Vancouver to Banff in 2020 to work at a tattoo shop founded by his best friend Ronnie Giesbrecht and an associate, Leighton Gall.

“Honestly, at first I thought it (COVID) was total bullshit. It was just the flu, rebranded.”

But then life took a sudden, tragic turn. Giesbrecht, Syre’s best friend for a quarter of a century, contracted a severe case of the virus. Within five days, he was dead.

Giesbrecht was just one of a number of casualties in Banff, where the transient service industry has provided fertile ground for spreading the virus.

Banff and Lake Louise health region had the highest provincial rate of COVID-19 for its population size in April. The town imposed strict measures, including a mandate to wear masks outdoors, and the rate of infections have steadily declined. By late June, the health region recorded no active COVID-19 cases and just one active case in Banff and Lake Louise.

Because it relies heavily on tourism, the pandemic has hit the town particularly hard. The June day ConnecTour stopped in town was exceptionally quiet, with just a handful of visitors walking down Banff Avenue and no other customers at the outdoor patio where the ConnecTour team stopped for a break.

Robb Syre, tattoo artist

Although Syre’s Facebook page still says, “I don’t care if you’ve had your vaccine,” he admits that his feelings about the pandemic have changed since he lost Giesbrecht.

“I’m so confused by this,” says Syre over a beer. In spite of his declared indifference, he admits he’s now had his first vaccination shot.

Syre, 48, grew up in Kelowna, a place where he discovered his interest in tattooing as a career. He says he decided to pursue it at age 15, when he got his first tattoo and discovered his mother hated it.

“It really pissed my mom off,” he says. That was exactly the reaction he was looking for.

He began to hang around a local tattoo shop, asking the owner to take him on as an apprentice.

“He was a grouchy old biker guy,” says Syre. “He kept telling me, ‘Get outta here.’” But Syre persisted and the owner eventually taught him the basics of the craft, which Syre has practised for 28 years.

He left Kelowna about a dozen years ago because he didn’t like the way the town has evolved over time.

“It’s got a cloud of entitlement hanging over it,” he says. “It’s a really different place now – a lot of crime and a lot of drugs.”

He and Giesbrecht hatched the plan to move to Banff from Vancouver in 2020. He says they’d sit together after work each day and chat about the business before finally deciding to take the leap.

Syre loves the Alberta mountain tourist town but finds it expensive to live in. A closet-sized room in a shared apartment costs him $1,200 a month.

“I have to work damn hard to live here,” he says. Days typically stretch into 10 hours, with endless tourist tattoos for what Syre calls the Pinterest crowd – “wildflowers and grizzly bears” – themes that bore him so much he half-jokingly says he can do them while looking out the window.

Dallis Lorin

Like the grouchy old biker, Syre too is passing his craft on to the next generation, in this case to Dallis Lorin, who has lived in Banff all her life.

“She’s going to be a good artist one day,” he says.

He is enjoying the laid-back vibe in Banff, the friendly locals, and powerful sense of community, but doesn’t see himself staying more than a couple of seasons. The town now will always remind him of his lost friend.

“He was awesome,” Syre says of Giesbrecht. “He would do anything for anybody, anytime.”

After a six-day break, the ConnecTour team has left Calgary is in eastern Alberta. You can track their daily route here.

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