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Times may be tough this Christmas, but if you've got an art buff on your shopping list, here's one way to get a bargain - go out and get some ink.

If you have their artwork tattooed onto your body, a number of Canadian artists, flattered by your permanent commitment to their creation, will give you a piece of art in exchange.

Guy Bérubé, an Ottawa-based gallery owner, first found out about the tattoo-for-art trade in February through Toronto artist Daryl Vocat's website.

"Want art? Get a tattoo," wrote Mr. Vocat, explaining that he would mail a dozen screen prints of his drawings, worth $120, to anyone willing to "prove it" with a snapshot.

Mr. Bérubé, 44, signed up and got a $100 tattoo of a favourite illustration in June. "Everybody loves a deal," he said.

The image on Mr. Bérubé's forearm shows three cartoonish Boy Scouts posing together in their boxers and briefs. To him, it represents the relationship he has with his two brothers, Denis and André.

"I thought it was fascinating; I love the work," Mr. Bérubé said. "But I'm about getting the book with 12 cards in it."

While images by some high-profile Canadian artists such as Fiona Smyth, Kelly Mark and Marcel Dzama adorn the flesh of fans (without permission or compensation), the tattoo-for-art trade has always been an unspoken tradition in the art world, said Mr. Vocat, 32.

"I joke about it as 'the blood cult,' " he said. "It's a comeback to the idea of subculture. As mainstream as tattoos are today, it's a nod to this thing [being]underground."

In Mr. Vocat's case, the idea came about when 24-year-old Toronto-based editor Matt Thomas asked permission to have one of the artist's drawings tattooed on his left arm back in 2004.

Mr. Thomas was tired of the readymade stock selection of zodiac signs and panthers on offer in most tattoo parlours.

"But when I say 'this is by a local artist' it's so much more punk rock," said Mr. Thomas, who paid $300 for his tattoo and got the folio with 12 prints in return.

While the star-struck art buff gets a free piece to hang on a wall, the artist also gets something in return: an ego boost.

"It's the ideal place to show art," said Mr. Vocat, who popped by and took snapshots while Mr. Bérubé was being tattooed this summer. "It's the most exciting thing that can happen to me as an artist."

To Toronto-based conceptual artist Micah Lexier, the tattoo-for-art trade is just an extension of the "standard" art-for-art trades that artists have been doing for ages. Whenever Mr. Lexier gives lectures at galleries, museums or universities, he always mentions he is game for the trade.

"It's about friendship. It's bartering; no money's exchanged and everyone gets what they want," said Mr. Lexier, 48. "One of the joys of it is that money isn't an issue at all."

But snagging a piece by Mr. Lexier through a tattoo trade could end up being an extremely sweet deal. According to his Toronto dealer, Robert Birch, who is next in line for a tattoo by Mr. Lexier, his screen prints start at $500 and his steel wall sculptures go for $15,000.

Clinton Draper, a 27-year-old dancer based in Victoria, B.C., claims he wasn't in it for the freebie when he got one of Mr. Lexier's images tattooed on his forearm for $100.

"It's touching base with an artist I look up to and respect," he said.

Mr. Draper loves the fact that he's got a one-of-a-kind on his body, and three custom drawings, each valued between $500 and $1,000, to go along with it. But the penny-pinching goes both ways, often coming from artists - who want their own tattoos, naturally.

Matt Crookshank, a Toronto artist, traded one of his paintings (worth $4,000) for 20 hours of tattoo time (worth $3,000) by Lizzie Renaud, one of his favourite tattoo artists.

Mr. Crookshank, 33, doesn't see the big deal. "Why not? You're not going to sell all the pieces you have," he said. "If I can trade, I'll always trade. I'd trade for groceries."