Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Ink king

Crystal Balser, tattoo artist and acclaimed gender bender

Credit: Bradley Turcotte

Whether it’s a Dorito chip or a half-naked man, tattoo artist Crystal Balser is happy to ink customers with the artwork of their choice. Balser runs Mod Tattoo, a Bank St shop operating out of Wicked Wanda’s.

Balser is also a member of the Capital Kings, an Ottawa drag-king troupe. Her alter ego, Frank N Beans, is the lewdest and crudest of all the kings. And that’s exactly what Balser set out to create.

Last year, while attending Randy Marshall’s Drag Idol event, Balser noticed that many of the kings and queens didn’t infuse much humour into their performances. When she offered up a backhanded comment to that effect, she was dared to do better. Frank N Beans was born.

Bean’s first song was Richard Cheese’s cover of Disturbed’s “Down with the Sickness,” an unconventional song for a very unconventional drag king. “I started out trying to look just like a man in a leisure suit,” Balser says. “You know the kind of man who sits at a bar stool, kind of creepy. Then Frank N Beans went in a more silly direction, with outrageous, mismatching, tacky clothes.”

Balser says that because Ottawa’s drag-king scene is still nascent, she’s reached out to those who want to come along for the ride. Any aspiring king who would like to try his hand at performing can take part in her fresh-meat nights.

“I’ll have them come and do a song with me and then do an applause meter, and if the crowd likes them they get the ability to perform again that night.”

Balser says kings shouldn’t be thought of as comparable to drag queens but rather as separate gender-bending performers.

“I don’t think we are overshadowed; I just think people don’t know about us. It’s such a fresh thing in the community. I would say drag kings try twice as hard to get out there and be entertaining. “

Marshall says he knew when he introduced Balser to the performance art that she would create something unique. She now considers him her drag father. “Frank is absolutely insane,” he says. “I knew she would do something crazy.”

Balser’s other talent is more refined. A seasoned artist, she made the switch from pastry chef to tattoo expert armed with only her training as a visual artist and acute observation.

“I noticed how much tattooing was like painting,” she explains. “And I thought to myself, I think I’d like to develop that. So I found a job being the counter-girl at a tattoo studio.”

Balser then used her connections to secure the proper equipment and found willing friends to practise on. After years of running an at-home business, she found employment at Bar Kitty, an all-female shop in Gatineau. She made the move to Wicked Wanda’s last month.

“I want people to know that if they feel uncomfortable getting tattooed at different places, they can come to me,” she says.

Mod Tattoo will offer a Pride special Fri, Aug 17–Sun, Aug 26. For $60, patrons can pick their choice of Pride-themed flash designs. A portion of the funds will go to Capital Pride.