B.C. tattoo artist rallies community and fundraises $24,000 for Red Cross

Topics: British Columbia and Yukon, Emergencies and Disasters in Canada, Philanthropy News
By: Tyler Munro, Canadian Red Cross | January 25, 2019

Kelsey Bareham's #Trees4BC designs, plus a photo of the artist.

Kelsey Bareham always knew she wanted to give back, but she didn’t always have the means to. “I lived the life of a starving artist for many years,” she says of her early years as a tattoo artist. “I used to want to help people back then too.”

So, when Kelsey eventually hit her stride, opening her own tattoo studio in 2016 — Whistler Tattoo Company — she quickly found a way to use her talents to support those in need. As a Canadian Red Cross Community Fundraiser, she has now helped raise more than $24,000 towards the Canadian Red Cross’s BC Fires Appeal. 

For Kelsey, it’s a cause that hits close to home. She grew up in Pemberton, a mountain village two hours north of Vancouver, and can recall the impact that wildfires had on her family, back when her youngest daughter was barely a year old. “I remember it was stinking hot in the summertime, and we had no air conditioning,” she says. “It was like 35 degrees in the bedroom, so we had to crack a window.”

Within half-an-hour, Kelsey says the room was so filled with smoke that her daughter’s nose started bleeding. “She was like fourteen months old, and she was coughing. We couldn’t even have the window open,” Kelsey recalls.

In the years since, she’s seen firsthand how the fires have affected her community and many others across British Columbia. “I remembered what it was like when [my daughter] had that nosebleed, and how you couldn’t breathe, and how we had to sleep in the garage,” Kelsey said. “I felt like I had to do something.”

Then, in the summer of 2017, a stroke of genius. 

A Seed That Grew

As news of wildfires took over local and national airwaves, Kelsey drew up 12 different tree designs and posted them to a local Facebook page, offering to tattoo them for a donation to the Canadian Red Cross. The response was unexpected and unbelievable. 

“I turned off my phone, and went to bed,” says Kelsey. “And when I woke up, I had 300-plus Facebook notifications.” Her #Trees4BC campaign snowballed from there. The media took notice, and lineups at her studio reached out the door. Kelsey’s cause resonated with people, and before long, her designs found themselves on the arms, legs and bodies of hundreds, and eventually thousands of British Columbians. 

The demand quickly grew so large that she had to enlist a little help, first from the other artists under her employ, and later with other supportive tattoo studios across the province. There was Vancouver’s Liquid Amber, Whistler’s Black Ohm, and Gibsons Black Swan, the latter of which returned to help fundraise the next year. All in all, between all three shops, donations topped $24,199 that first year alone. 

The impact of donations like these cannot be overstated. The community's response to the #Trees4BC, and other community fundraisers like it, allows the Canadian Red Cross to be there for those affected by the fires.

Money raised went towards providing financial assistance to families affected by the fire, to help them catch up on their bills, get a head start on repairs, or find temporary lodging. It helped give vulnerable people toothbrushes, soap, and shampoo; essentials they had to leave behind in the confusion of community-wide evacuations. That money went towards brooms and gloves and clean-up initiatives; it went towards helping the people of British Columbia get back on their feet.

The aftermath of some of the fires in British Columbia.

Learn More: 2017 B.C. Fires | 2018 B.C. Fires

“I think one of the reasons there’s been such a big response is that people can see it, they can smell it,” says Kelsey of the community’s incredible support. “It’s in the air when they’re lining up.”

“I’ve been so blown away by how many people were willing to permanently alter their bodies to show solidarity for people going through this,” she adds.

Unforgettable Ink

By now, Kelsey jokes that she could probably do one of the #Trees4BC designs blindfolded with her hands tied behind her back. But she knows the need is ongoing. Fires have become a rite of passage in parts of British Columbia. Kelsey says her children sometimes refer to August as “Smoke Month.” In their lifetime, it’s all they’ve known. She says you can smell it when the fires are rolling in, and paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to live through them.

“I think one of the reasons people have responded the way that they have is that a lot of people don’t know how to help,” Kelsey says. “I heard that again and again and again, people were like, “I want to be able to do something, but I don’t know how to help.”

It’s that feeling — the almost helplessness locals feel — that inspired Kelsey, who says she’s been moved by the community’s support. She talks about the different connections people have to the fires, and how in a way, they’ve actually brought people closer together than ever.

She describes a particularly moving client that stuck with her, a tattoo she’ll not soon forget among the thousands she’s done in her career so far.

“A man was on his way back home, right after the ordered evacuation had been lifted,” she says. “He was in line, and all of the other people in the crowd bumped him to the front so that we could get him tattooed and get him home.”

It’s moments like this that resonate. Little things, that when tallied up can represent a movement. In this case, a movement that’s been integral to the recovery and rebuilding of a province once burned.

“I feel like if everyone were to put a little more energy into doing good things in the world, then it would make positive waves,” Kelsey says. “I’m just trying to do my part in whatever way I can.”

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