Saturday, July 2, 2011

Falling Ass-Backwards Into a Tattoo Career

 Since I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist.  I am not certain how I got the artist-bug.  One of my aunts told a story about how my mother would take my little finger and trace the outlines of the illustrations in the children's books she read to me when I was a baby.  She was attempting to associate words with images, but perhaps that had some impact.  My father furthered that same process in his own way, purchasing 6-7 subscriptions to various Marvel Comics titles back in the 70's; from the Amazing Spider-Man to Conan the Barbarian.  I was drawn both to the story and the artwork.

 As a child of the 70's, I grew up in interesting times.  My dad, I freely admit, was a bit of a hippy, and I spent as much time in-and-out of local head-shops and in the homes of some strange characters as I did in front of a television watching Sesame Street.  In this environment, I was exposed to underground and low-brow art in all its glory.  The comic books were a little more involved and a lot more raunchy.  I found myself reading "The Fabulous Freak Brothers" and the works of Robert Crumb.  "Heavy Metal Magazine" caught my young eye with its artistry, sci-fi and fantasy stories, and of course the erotic aspects of its work.

 I was drawing constantly by the time I was 8 or 9.  My father's freaky friends encouraged my efforts, and mentioned on more than one occasion that I should consider being a tattoo artist.  I didn't think much of it then... I wanted to draw comics.  The art, though, has several parallels, including (at the time) a reliance on heavy black line to define form and a minimal color pallet.  In high school, my friends and fellow artists had the same suggestion, but then that was the 80's and I was about as far from the tattoo industry as one could get.  It would still be several years before wide-spread legalization was to occur.

 In Basic Training for the Army, one of my Drill Sergeants caught wind of my artistic talents and tracked me down about my work.  In that environment, the last thing you normally want is a Drill Sergeant to give you any form of special attention.  After checking out my work, he brought me into the Drill Sergeants' office and sat me down with some paper, pencils, and a set of images for reference.  He wanted to get a tattoo that weekend, and while he had a design in mind he lacked the talent to put it on paper.  For about 4 hours I sat in that office with every Drill Sergeant in my unit milling around and looking over my shoulder while I worked out the design.

 That was probably the most pressure I have ever been under in any field of work.

 I started checking out tattoo shops in Europe while I was in the Army, making some contacts and a little cash-on-the-side designing tattoos.  I even considered staying in Europe and working at a tattoo studio in Germany, but the gig was not guaranteed and I was home-sick, so when my tour was over I went back to the states.  I went to college when I was left the military, and again heard how I should consider being a tattoo artist from my peers... only this time they were fellow artists so their opinion had a bit more weight.  In addition, the tattoo industry had finally been legitimized, and new shops were cropping up every month.  With a family to support, the prospects of what to do with an art degree to support my kids were limited.  While merchandising my work and promoting myself through shows, I began investigating the tattoo industry.  My problem was that I really didn't have an 'in'.

 A local radio contest changed all that.  A prominent DJ wanted to get a tattoo, and was holding a contest for the design.  His listeners would get to vote on the work submitted, limiting it to a field of 5 finalists from which he would choose.  My submission was one of the finalists.  That brought me to the attention of some of the shops around town, though I wouldn't know it right away.  It also gave me the extra pushed I needed to start looking seriously into being a tattooist.

 I started designing my first tattoo flash set (the pages of art you see on the walls of many tattoo studios is called "flash") inspired by my success in the local contest.  I had spoken to a local shop-owner, who said he needed designs like the one I had submitted to the contest; kind of a BDSM-themed piece.  I designed to sheets of similar flash for his shop, then sat down to design a set I thought would be attractive to a larger audience.

 I poured through every reference source I could get my hands on; books, magazines, and videos (back in the day of VHS) on tattooing, tattoo-art, and the tattoo industry.  Tattooing had finally become legal in most states, and the industry was taking its first tentative steps into also being recognized as a legitimate art form. I created my designs with this in mind, but not much else.  For months, my studio walls were covered with designs of various sizes, about 200 finished designs and I don't know how many sketched-out ideas.  I selected 60 of the best and arranged them by relative theme into 10 or so sheets.  I printed about a dozen sets along with some business cards at the local Kinkos, cut the sheets down to the industry-standard size of 11X14", and started peddling the sets around town.

 While I am certain that in the back of my mind I recognized this point, there is a difference between "art" and "tattoo art".  It is not a question of the limitations of the tattoo process; a good tattoo artist can tattoo just about anything.  At the time, there was an artist or two that made a name for themselves reproducing classical paintings like Di Vinci's "Mona Lisa" as tattoos a little larger than a US quarter coin.  While that and other pieces of art are impressive, the problem is the nature of a tattoo itself.  Tattoos are inked into living-skin, and living skin changes over time.  That space of skin holding the tattoo will change in time, stretching, shrinking, tanning, and fading.  The ink is inserted into the skin, and the body recognizes it as foreign matter.  While it is too much ink for the body's immune system to removes completely, it never stops trying.  Lines blur and colors fade as the body carries ink away from the tattoo.  This is why tattoos generally incorporate bold, black lines; they help keep the tattoo's definition over time.  Those cool little reproductions of the master-works are neat now, but in abut ten years will be blurry, and over a life-time may become an indistinct blotch of color.

 My designs were supported by 4 years of college training, decades of graphic design practice, and absolutely 0 knowledge regarding tattoo design.  Many of the details were too small to be practical, or the lines too fine.  My skill as a draftsmen was not in doubt, but my understanding of tattoo design was obviously lacking.  Still, many of the studios and artists I took the set to were impressed with the art as well as the professionalism of the presentation.  Many of the tattooists told stories of aspiring artists bringing their designs into the shops in lined notebooks.  I didn't know much, but I was still miles ahead of most other guys who walked through the shop doors with a portfolio under their arms.

 One of the questions I was asked consistently by artists and shop-owners was whether or not I wanted to be a tattoo artist or if I was tattooing.  At first, I said I was only looking to sell the designs, fearing to lose the sale by suggesting that I had an ulterior motive.  Eventually, I started replying that I was interested in being an artist, and asking about apprenticeships.  Most the studios said that they were not looking for apprentices, but also warned me about the risks of trying to learn to tattoo without an apprenticeship.  They also pointed out how saturated the local market was with tattoo artists.  At the time in Ft. Wayne, IN, there were more listings for tattoo studios than their were McDonald's restaurants, and there were places in Ft. Wayne were one could stand on the street in front of one McDonald's and see the next one down the road.

 So, yes, there were a lot of tattoo shops.

 I sold some of my sets or sheets from my sets, and started to make a minor name for myself in the local industry.  I was invited to participate in a couple of art-shows held by local shops, and it was through one of these shows that I met one of the best tattoo artists in Ft. Wayne who really gave me the kick-in-the-ass I needed to become a tattoo artist.  The advise that he gave me that I am going to relate in this post goes against everything you learn in the industry, so unfortunately he will remain nameless here.  He is an award-winning artist and tattooist, had been in all the top tattoo-publications in the nation, was an art-teacher on the high school level, has had a few art shows at the local colleges, and has established two successful studios.

 More importantly, he was a great guy who treated everyone he dealt with with respect.  Despite his success, he always acted like just-on-of-the-guys.

 We sat down at his shop, and he basically answered every question I had about the industry and my experiences.  He liked my flash-set, but explained to me the differences between "art" and "tattoo art" that were problems in my designs.  He also described my set as "collectors' flash".  My designs were cool, but not something most people would want to get.  Collectors, like tattoo artists themselves, would buy my art, but most shops could not make any money having the flash on there walls.  Most people want hearts, skulls, and more common fair.

 He also gave his opinion as to why I was having such trouble finding an apprenticeship.  "Your work is too good." he said.  "It has some issues, but any artist looks at your work and the fact that you have no experience and he realizes that when you do have experience you are going to be competition."  He explained that the reason that tattoo artists are such a tight-knit community is that everyone is watching their competition.  Every tattoo that someone else does is money that could have been in your pocket.  That is why prices in most shops are relatively the same; it is the point of equilibrium between what the shops can afford and what they charge to under-cut one another. 

 He suggested, against common wisdom, that if I wanted to be a tattoo artist, I should just get some equipment and start practicing.  Obviously, he didn't mean on people, but the opportunities to practice and materials on how to tattoo were available to anyone.  While it is always better to learn through an apprenticeship under the guidance of an experienced artist, it is not as essential as many studio-owners would make you think.  You have to be careful, of course, and honestly spend a few years more practicing and working to figure things out so that you don't harm your clients, but studio-owners perpetuate the idea that you have to learn through an apprenticeship because literally anyone can pick-up a tattoo machine and give someone else a tattoo.

 It will be a shitty tattoo, but it will be a tattoo.  The axiom that "you get what you pay for" is nowhere more true than in the tattoo industry.

 Still, I had it in my head to learn the "right" way, but the advise given provided a "plan-b" where before there was none.  It was a year or so later that someone saw my work on-line and suggested I participate in a tattoo-school they were establishing.  They loved my work and all-but-guaranteed that I would be making money in my first year.  The one catch was that I had to move to Texas. 

 I discussed this with my friend, who said that he used to offer apprenticeships, but stopped because it never worked out like he had hoped.  My situation had him reconsidering, and if it would have kept me in Ft. Wayne he would have given me an apprenticeship.  By this time, however, my girlfriend and I were already committed to the move.  He wished me luck.

 Life can be funny, sometimes.

 My girlfriend had taken a job where we were moving, Austin, TX.  My instructions were to come to Austin, get settled in, and then come by the shop to get started with my apprenticeship.  Now, the guy I had been talking to seemed legitimate.  He had a web-site featuring his shops (he had established multiple shops in Austin), his work, and his proposal for a tattoo-school supported by one of the local colleges.  He co-authored some of the tattoo-legislation adopted by the state of Texas.  I fully expected there not to be a problem.

 I arrived at the shop, only to find that the guy who told me to meet with him in Austin no longer resided there, but several hours away in College Station.  He explained to me that he recently felt like a change, that College Station would be a better location for his school, and that as soon as I could move there, we could get started.  Instead, I starting selling a new flash-set to the local shops and asking questions.  The guy I was talking to had been involved in setting up several shops in Austin, generally as a minor partner.  There were always "problems".  His "school" was going to involve paying homeless people to let students tattoo them, not a good situation for anyone.  Basically, about a month before I arrived, he was ran out of town by his creditors and the other artists.

 At this point, I was at the end of my rope.  It was time for "plan-b".  I ordered a starter tattoo-kit on the Internet, the "Tattooing A-Z" book and video by Huck Spaulding, and some "practice skin".  I had read about other artists who learned in this same manner, practicing on there own and picking up what they could by visiting shops and conventions to watch other artists work.  I had friends who were more than willing to let me practice on them (it seemed like every day I was getting asked by 3-4 people if I was ready to start tattooing).  When I finally decided that I was ready, my friend Vince had volunteered.  The tattoo went as well as I could expect, but I discovered that the stencil process that I though I understood did not work. 

 Sometime that week my girlfriend and I were driving down a road and passed a tattoo studio that had a sign out front that listed all their services.  Included on the list was "supplies".  It had been my understanding that tattoo studios did not sell supplies to the public, and though we had seen this sign maybe 100 times, neither of us made the connection.  Needing to figure out why my stencil process didn't work, we stopped in to see about getting proper stencil supplies.

 There was only one artist working that night and minding the shop.  I think I asked about "stencil paper", having no clue what I was looking for, only having read about it.  He produced a sheet of paper, and then I asked if he could show me what to do with it.

 He asked if I was kidding.

 I explained my situation.  Instead of giving me a lecture about tattooing on my own and how I needed an apprenticeship, he showed me how to use the stencil-paper.  He then asked if I had a portfolio.  I went to the car and brought in my flash-set and some of my artwork.  I commented on how good I was at drawing women, and that was one of his own boon-doggles.  He then asked, flatly, if I would be interested in an apprenticeship.

 I asked if he was kidding.

 Seth was even then a good artist, and was really about exploring what could be done with a tattoo needle.  He was a follower of Guy Aitchinson, and though he had learned in a shop, his own apprenticeship involved more carpentry work for the studio than actually being taught to tattoo.  Most of what he learned, he had to learn on his own, going relatively down the same road I was going.  He liked my work, was impressed with my professionalism, and considered my dedication remarkable.  My apprenticeship would cost $5000, but I could start for $500 and pay it off over time.  I was hesitant, given my previous experiences, but my girlfriend insisted that this was what I was waiting for.  I started my apprenticeship that week.

 I had a regular job that became more and more difficult to be at everyday.  Every hour was one wasted waiting to get to the shop were my "real" job was waiting.  This only became worse when I started getting paid for my tattoo work, and worse still when I paid off my apprenticeship that same year.  I looked forward to a two-week vacation during which I would spend everyday at the shop.

 It was like two weeks of freedom for someone who had never experienced freedom before.  Even as an apprentice, I was still making a little money tattooing simple designs.  When I got back to my desk after my two week vacation, I just sat and stared at my computer.  I couldn't bring myself to log-in.  I couldn't see the point of taking a call from a customer.  After about an hour of wrestling with what I was considering, I called my girlfriend and told her what was going-on.  She told me that if I wanted to quit, then I should quit. 

 We went out for lunch to celebrate.  I haven't looked back since.

 Life as a tattoo artist is not easy.  It is basically "feast-or-famine"; you may have more work in a week than you can handle and make $500 a night, or you may go a week without a customer.  It requires discipline and dedication to the craft.  For a good tattoo artist, the apprenticeship never ends... you are always learning and trying something new.  For me, it was a long road to get here with more bumps than I had ever expected, but I couldn't imagine doing anything else.

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