By Bradley Turcotte –
Railbender Tattoo and Art Gallery proprietor Alex Néron passed away peacefully on the evening of January 17, two and a half years after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer. Alex was 40-years-old.
Alex tattooed many clients at the Hamilton Ave. N. studio, however, his bright, positive and non-judgemental personality is what has left a permanent mark on family, friends and members of the community.
Originally from the Orleans neighbourhood in Ottawa’s east end, Alex excelled at athletics as a child and became an exceptional baseball player. Alex loved to draw and, along with his younger brother Yves, attended a summer camp for the arts facilitated by Sandra Oh, who is now known for her role in the medical drama series, Grey’s Anatomy.
The Néron brothers were Oh’s favourite pupils, Yves recalls.
“We were a couple of rascals,” Yves says. “We were super hyper, always laughing with our parents trying to rein us in.”
Alex went to live with his father, Marcel, and stepmother, Donna, when he was 13. Donna says his artistic abilities were apparent from an early age.
After attending Algonquin College for carpentry, Alex fluttered through many careers, at one point operating an airport shuttle service before working for Ford and Pepsi.
“He was never sure of exactly what he wanted to do for the longest time,” Donna says. “But when he discovered tattooing, it became his passion and he wanted to pursue it.”
Donna credits Alex’s wife and Railbender co-founder, Marta Jarzabek, with encouraging her son to follow his artistic calling.
While working at Market Organics in 2011, a “super handsome” man with “a big smile” arced across his face asked Marta to make him a coffee. Alex was a new hire at the health food store and on their first shift together, the two chatted all day, cementing a yearlong friendship that eventually turned to courtship.
Their pairing seemed like a natural fit to the couple and to everyone who knew Alex and Marta.
“He and Marta were an amazing team,” friend and client Shelley McKay says, describing the duo as “humble” and “full of joy.”
“We could tell it was the love of his life,” Donna says.
Two months into their relationship, Alex purchased Marta’s engagement ring during a trip to Paris but he waited years to propose as Marta continually thwarted his attempts at a surprise.
While on a pub-crawl of the city’s breweries and beer bars on the “hottest day” of 2014, the couple strolled down the Ottawa River. Sweaty and overheated, Marta turned around to ask for water. Alex held out the engagement ring to Marta on the wooden steps behind Parliament Hill.
“When you know someone’s going to ask you for a long time, you think that you wouldn’t be taken aback,” Marta reminisces. “I was speechless. I didn’t even look at the ring. I was near tears.”
The couple gave their friends and family one-week notice when they married on July 18, 2015 at Blessed Sacrament Church. Over 100 well-wishers attended. Marta describes their nuptials as “perfect.”
Curators selected some of Alex’s visual creations for art shows but it was Marta who emboldened Alex to become a tattoo artist.
Alex got his very first tattoo at an underground shop at the age of 15. The first tattoo he penned was on his own body – a group of abstract orange circles on his knee.
“It was awful,” Marta laughs. “Then he did another quite large one on his thigh that was really good; a raven with a sun.”
In 2013, Alex and Marta stumbled across Railbender’s digs during the Hintonburg Beer Run at neighbouring Beyond the Pale and snatched up the space. With help from the community, Alex and Marta realized his dream of an upscale tattoo shop and art gallery that promoted local artists and put their employees first.
Alex’s vision for the shop included a plan for Railbender’s interior.
“He loved creating, whether it was drawing or tattooing. Even renovating is a form of creating,” Marta says.
Alex and Yves gutted the unit with renovations taking three and a half months. Clients continually inquire about the studio’s concrete floor that the brothers poured themselves.
Meticulous regarding Railbender’s cleanliness and operations, Alex always had a paintbrush on hand to touch up scuffs and politely showed clients to the shoe mat during the winter.
“He strived for perfection in a lot of what he did in his life,” Yves says. “I think it’s why the standard was so high. People noticed and commented on it all the time.”
Yet when it came to the tattoos stamped on his body, Alex was happy to let another artist practice their craft on his skin, regardless of the quality. Most obsess over their ink, but for Alex, the artistry was his obsession. Besides, there were always cover-ups.
Julien Detillieux, who along with Marta, Yves and artist Stephane Courchaine, make up Alex’s “dream team,” says his tattoo style matched his “unique” personality.
“Whenever he would do a tattoo you could tell it was an Alex tattoo,” Julien says. “He definitely influenced my style and allowed me to have a second view on how to do certain things. His methods spoke to me.”
Alex and Juilen tattooed each other many times. When recalling the flower with an “M” for Marta and the liver paired with “survivor” he inked on Alex, Julien becomes emotional.
“I don’t know where I’d be today in the tattoo world if it wasn’t for him. I owe and dedicate my career to him. I’m thankful for Alex,” Julien says. “That I got to know him, be around him and learn from him.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Alex and Marcel received tattoos from the same artist. Alex recently covered up the tattoo his father got that day with his own rendition.
One of Alex’s works, a tribute to the fight against domestic violence, graces Shelley’s skin.
“He definitely helped me and continues to help me to this day. I keep rereading all the messages from him. They keep me going,” Shelley divulges. “I feel very honored that I have one of the last tattoos he did.”
Donna and Marta each have a single tattoo. Both are Alex’s work. Marta’s everlasting piece is “my love” written in Alex’s handwriting.
Alex was feeling unwell long before his 2015 diagnosis. Doctors assured him he was too young for anything serious and attributed his symptoms to indigestion, Marta says.
Extremely low hemoglobin levels led to a colonoscopy and then Alex’s stage four diagnosis.
There were promising results along the way that would turn out to be false hope, Marta recalls, and Alex struggled to stay positive at times.
“Where Alex was at, the prognosis is never good, so you have to find a way to keep going. You need to find hope that you can hold on to,” Marta says.
Alex endured rounds of chemo, many operations and three clinical trials. After one treatment of chemo and stem cell inhibitors, Alex was feeling good. He responded very well and could “enjoy his life with friends and family.” He called it “a great beginning to the future of cancer treatment” in a video on The Ottawa Hospital foundation website.
The trials come with a list of “all symptoms that you could find in the dictionary ever,” Marta says. Alex was keen to take part in the trials as his participation in these studies could help not only himself but others as well.
Before his diagnosis, Alex supported the community of those who have received a diagnosis by organizing a team for The Ottawa Hospital’s annual Do The Ride fundraiser named #youarenotalone in 2014. He missed the bicycle event only once, in 2015, due to the effects of chemotherapy. Connecting with this community brought Alex great comfort after his own diagnosis. He sought out the advice of a “coach” and met with doctors at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre.
“Having support around you makes a big difference,” Shelley says. “Everybody’s circumstances are so unique to them… Having people who are going through similar experiences to talk to and share those things with, it can make a huge difference in minimizing the traumatic part of it.”
Marta implores everyone to think about cancer in a “proactive way” and visit their doctors regularly. Overcoming a cancer diagnosis relies on early detection. While visiting chemotherapy wards, Alex met people younger than himself in addition to younger patients diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
A fundraiser to alleviate costs incurred during Alex’s illness quickly surpassed its goal.
Yves and Marta attribute the fundraiser’s success to the generosity of the community facing diagnoses and Alex’s positivity resonating and reflecting back.
Marta is moved by “how many people were touched by Alex’s kindness and generosity” as hundreds of messages flood in sharing stories, adding she hopes people will pay kindness forward in memory of Alex.
“I think he brought something out in people,” Yves notes. “Not only did Alex himself inspire people but people would see that in themselves; what is possible when people come together.”
Alex’s Celebration of Life will take place on his 41st birthday, February 25, at Railbender Studio between 1 and 5 p.m. Everyone is welcome.
Additionally, on Railbender’s fourth anniversary, February 15, the shop is hosting a fundraiser for The Ottawa Integrative Cancer. In conjunction with Maker House Co., Railbender will offer $75 #fuckcancer tattoos and each human canvas will receive a gift from the home ware and decor store. Those who choose not to be inked can also donate and all donors will be entered in a raffle to receive a $100 Railbender voucher.