In the last couple of decades, a lot has been made of “tattoo artists”. It’s become kind of a big deal. Historically, tattooists have not been known for their fine art qualifications. With a few notable exceptions (Ben Corday and Phil Sparrow come to mind), Western tattooists before about 1970 were not a very artsy crowd. If you were to walk into the average shop with an “idea”, you’d most likely leave disappointed. If it wasn’t on the wall, you didn’t get it. You could occasionally provide artwork and have it done. Somehow all that has turned around. Many new shops don’t have any flash on their walls at all. For those of you who have never been around a tattoo shop at all, flash is a collective term for all the designs hanging on the walls. Traditionally, a tattooist would have to draw and then paint, usually in water color, any design that would be sold in the shop. These designs were displayed prominently on the walls as a reference of available tattoos. I guess this made them artists in a sense, just not very goods ones most of the time. The designs were etched, in reverse, into acetate and stashed, to be brought out when needed. The etched surface would be dusted with carbon powder, tapped of excess powder and then placed on skin that had been coated with something wet, oily or greasy. Viola, a perfect stencil of the design. The problem being that this stencil was VERY easy to smudge or erase. Designs had to be simple and had to be tattooed and wiped very carefully. It was imperative to start at the bottom and work your way up, very carefully wiping only the areas already tatooed. Very limiting. You can still see some older tattooists starting every design at the bottom out of habit. At some point around nineteen Vietnam, someone figured out that you could use a Thermofax machine, the kind that used to produce masters for all those spiritmaster copies we loved to sniff in school, to produce a stencil. It was a revelation in tattooing. Suddenly you could create complex designs, print them on the skin and have a reasonable chance of them staying on long enough to complete the outline. Tattoos took on a whole new complexity. Designs never dreamt of became commonplace. It opened the minds of tattooists and the general tattoo public to a whole new world of possibilities.
At a certain point, for whatever reason, educated artists started to gravitate towards the craft of tattooing, a craft with a decidedly low brow reputation. They started producing work with the help of stencils that actually lasted and then moved on to designing on the skin itself with markers and pens. Suddenly some tattoos could actually be considered “fine art”. Ed Hardy and Shotsie Gorman were two of the more visible leaders of this movement. People became enamoured of the new “custom” tattoos that were increasingly showing up in publications, mostly biker magazines like Easy Rider, although Ed and Shotsie both published very high quality, if short lived, magazines. The public became more educated on the possibilities and then more demanding of custom artwork. This was, for the most part, a good thing.
Today the business is overrun with “artists”. Even the ones who aren’t. The range in quality is staggering. People who couldn’t draw their way out of a paper bag are attempting work that no self respecting tattooist should ever try. On the other hand individuals like Shige, Filip Leu, and a host of others are producing nothing less than “fine art”. The problem is, just as in the fine art world, not everyone has the skills or talent to produce work of this type. Just as there will only ever be one Van Gogh, there will only ever be one Kore Flatmo. If you are one of the people lucky enough or dedicated, patient, wealthy enough to have a piece by one of these guys, then awesome. If you are not, then no amount of self delusion will make a lesser tattoo into an original from a great tattoo artist. There are painters who make a career out of copying great works. Most tattooist today are placed in the same position because of the demand for custom original work. Where once a good handle on the craft was all that was necessary to make a good living, now a tattooist needs to either be, or pretend to be, a good artist. The majority of really bad times for me in the business have come from pretending to be a better artist than I really am. Not that most people could tell the difference. I could. As I got older and more burned out and wiser and became a better artist through sheer perseverance, I became more comfortable discussing my limitations with clients. Most of them really appreciate the honesty. Some of them don’t want to hear it, can’t stand to have their myths busted. Oh well. I still feel there is a place for good solid, well crafted tattoos that aren’t necessarily original, custom images. Find a great image and make a tattoo out of it is what I tell people. If I could create amazing works of art, my work would be in collections and galleries around the world and in books of my own original works. What I can do is make a nice tattoo, and whether you’d like to hear it or not, most tattooists are in the same boat.
So if you want a great original piece of tattoo art, great. Just be willing to do whatever it takes to get to the guy who’s work you really admire. Be willing to travel. Be willing to pay whatever he asks. Be willing to wait until your name comes up on the waiting list. Just don’t delude yourself that your local guy is gonna give you that perfect Shige tattoo. He’s not, no matter what he says. I’ve never seen a Van Gogh copy sell for millions of dollars, have you? However, your local guy probably does have a few things he does particularly well, perhaps many. Tune into his strengths, his likes and dislikes and work with him to get your original piece. Just remember that if you insist on working with a tattoo “artist” it will be mostly about them. If you work with a tattooist, it will be mostly about you.
Or just walk in, point at the wall and pick one. Now that would be old school.
Okay here’s the thing. Tattoo shops like to stay busy. It’s how we make money. You would think that booking appointments would be a guarantee of staying busy. It’s not always the case. No matter how earnest the client seems, no-shows are a constant reality. To try and offset that possibility, we take a small deposit, that will come off the price of the tattoo when it is performed. You’d be amazed at how many people balk at this. Not surprisingly, you get a lot less no-shows if you are adamant about taking a deposit. The folks that decline to leave a deposit are exactly the people that no-show.
I can’t count the number of times each week that people call to make an appointment and are irritated that I won’t make an appointment over the phone. First off, I need to see the piece to know how much time to set aside. Second, I need to talk to the person about size, placement, and their desires so that I can have artwork ready when they arrive. If I spend two hours drawing in the middle of a busy day, that’s two hour less paid time for me.
Most shops will do walk-ins whenever they can. These are by and large, the best money makers for the shop. Small to medium designs, known as porkchop tattoos, perhaps because of their ability to put food on the table. I would rather do a day’s worth of porkchop tattooing, any day, than large custom pieces. Less homework, less stress and immediate gratification for me and my client. Large work is really great to impress your peers but after over twenty years of tattooing, I don’t give a fuck about my peers. I want to impress my clients and receive the rewards of doing so. Most people are just so happy to get a tattoo that doesn’t look like shit that they actually will give you more money than you asked for. Tattooing has become so busy and so custom oriented that a lot of artists will only take on projects that are somehow appealing to them. Projects that will stroke their ego and look good in their portfolio. That’s fine. More for me.
Now on the subject of walk-ins. When you call on the phone and ask if there is any walk-in time available, just remember that you are talking about “walk-ins”. A typical phone conversation goes like this. “Do you guys have any walk-in time today?” Sure we do! “How about at six?”. Well if I tell you to come in at six that would be an appointment wouldn’t it? I cannot say what it ‘s gonna look like at six because I have no idea who might “walk in”. Get it? This happens all day long and it just gets older and older all the time. “Well can I make an appointment?” We do walk-ins first come first served and appointments, but you have to come in and leave a small deposit to make an appointment. “So how about six?” AAAArgghh!
Let me start off by saying that I don’t find anything wrong with lower middle back tattoos. It’s a beautiful spot for a tattoo. As the years go by, it’s gonna hold up way better than a lot of other areas. It’s an inherently attractive spot for a tattoo. Nice curves. It’s gotten a lot of bad press, I can only think, because of the herd mentality of people these days. They all fell in with the new trend back in the nineties and now, to distance themselves from their past actions, are disparaging that particular type of tattoo only because it was incredibly popular then but not now. I’m not sure I fully understand the social dynamic but it is a daily reality at the shop. The new “tramp stamp”, although no one seems to know it yet, is the side tattoo, otherwise known by a few select forward thinkers as the “skank flank”. Certain tattooists are actively promoting the concept of “skank flank” as a way of getting out of doing tattoos on what is arguably, one of the most difficult areas on the human body to tattoo. Herds of young women, too cool for a “tramp stamp”, are now rushing into tattoo shops across the country to get their new “skank flank” tattoos. Moooooooo.
In the interest of lightening up a bit, I’ll attempt to steer this rant towards an interesting, I hope, story. It was years ago at the first shop I worked. I was doing walk-ins this particular day. In walks a very pretty girl, who’s name there is no chance of me remembering, looking to be tattooed. Nice looking, clean, dressed well but casually. She was not certain about placement, but was pretty sure she wanted her tattoo in an area that could be easily concealed. In the interest of modesty I showed her into the private area so that we could figure out placement.
At this point I’d like to break for a minute and discuss pretty girls as clients. I’m a happily married man and have been with the same wonderful woman for over three decades. That being said, I would rather work on women any day than men. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that I just like women better. Their prettier, nicer, usually smell good, generally have a higher pain tolerance and well, just more enjoyable to be around. If that makes me a dirty old man at this point, oh well. I can accept that.
Okay, so we’re back in the private space. My standard approach is to ask the client to show me the spot they are thinking of. At this point she lifts her shirt (no bra) and says that maybe here would be good, indicating an area very close to her breast. Then she proceeds to pull her pants down on one side (no underwear) and says she is also considering a spot on her bikini line. I’m beginning to notice that the room is considerably warmer than I remember it being when we entered. I am also getting the impression that she is fucking with me. You know, kind of “should I put it here?.. or here?” type of thing, little glimpses of pubic hair and areola. She sees me sweating and I think she’s kind of enjoying it.
So we finally decide on placement. Bikini line. I get my shit together, take a deep breath and head back into the room to get set up. She asks me now if it’s okay if her girlfriend comes in. Of course. Would I mind if her girlfriend plays some music? Not at all, I love music, all types, with the exception of gangster rap (but that’s another rant for another time). So her girlfriend shows up. She’s got a violin. Cool, I think. Turns out she’s a violinist for a symphony in a medium-large Midwestern city. I’m thinking to myself that this is gonna be great. Live music from a real professional, while tattooing in a private setting, sweet! A word about the room is in order at this juncture. Think cinder block, about twelve by twelve feet. Very intimate, small and RESONANT. I’m imagining some nice romantic table side selections that wouldn’t be out of place at a cozy little Italian joint. What happens next can not be adequately described with words alone. I mean this girl busted into a piece that could have stood up to the helicopter fly in scene of Apocalypse Now. You know the one where “Charlie don’t surf”. I’m not really very well versed in classical music. What I do listen to tend more towards Baroque chamber music. Nice mellow pieces to nap to, you know? What went down for the remainder of the tattoo was nothing short of mind shattering. Violins are loud! And in this enclosed space, even louder. I was actually seeing flashes of color. Concentration was impossible. I had to go on autopilot and rely on years of tattooing muscle memory and my stencil. It was one of the more surreal experiences I have ever had tattooing short of the breath holding contest I had to do for another woman; bikini line, not so pretty, not so clean, but that’s another story probably best never told. I must say in the end, I really enjoyed myself. The client and her girlfriend were very nice, I got paid, and I now have this compelling anecdote for you. The rest of the shop was, to say the least, curious as to what the hell just went down in the back room. All rants aside, it was one of those experiences that make me love this profession.
Once again I find myself in the position of sounding like a complete dick by expressing myself honestly, but here goes. There is a particular type of client that I see too many of because of my charming disposition, really, that I have no clear label for. These people come to me, it seems, because they have no other person in the world to interact with on any close, personal level. Sometimes while inflicting what can only be described as pain, I get the sense that this is as close as these folks ever get to intimate, caring contact with another human being. I know it sounds weird but when I am tattooing a client, I lay my hands on them in a deliberate, soothing, nurturing way. I try to make their ordeal as easy as possible. Now before you accuse me of being soft hearted, I must say that my motivations are mostly selfish. If they have an easy time, I have an easy time and often receive generous tips for my efforts. But I get the impression that some of these people come back fairly often, not because of the tattoos I do for them, but for the time spent being touched and cared for on a close personal level. I almost feel like I’m betraying a trust here, but then again I’m not a priest, or therapist. I’m a tattooist for Christ’s sake. If you want to pay for close personal, intimate contact, get a hooker. You’re giving me the creeps.
Often people will ask me if it’s okay for them to get a tattoo. Pregnant? HIV positive? Diabetic? Now as a professional tattooist, I am aware of some of the problems with each of these scenarios but my answer is invariably, “Ask your doctor.” I am not a physician. I cannot tell you with authority if getting a tattoo is safe for you in your condition. Actually there is inherent risk involved with anyone getting tattoo. You are putting foreign material beneath your skin through a barbaric, invasive, damaging process. How your particular system is going to react to that process is anybody’s guess. Arguably most people heal just fine. But what about the severe diabetic that is having trouble with his toes or eyes? What about the AIDS patient who is suffering from lesions and has trouble with even minor cuts and scratches. I’m not even going to get into the pregnancy thing. I am a tattooist, but please don’t ask me to sign off on the your tattoo. I am not a trained medical professional and I cannot tell you it’s okay. My personal opinion is that if you have to ask, it’s probably not. Why would anyone risk their health, let alone their unborn baby’s, over something as ridiculous as a tattoo.
Let’s talk about pricing. Now in any business, pricing is always one of the most difficult things. Retail, you just figure your percentage and go with it, but service industries become a bit more of an issue. The art and science of pricing can be the difference of making a living or not and since you don’t have the material cost of passing along a physical product of a particular price, your pricing becomes a matter of subjective decision making.
Most tattooists look at any given tattoo, if it is actually available to them in physical form, guestimate the time involved, calculate the shop’s hourly rate and give a price. A lot of other variables come into play. Customer attitude, tattooist’s hunger, the ease of dealing with the particular piece all make a difference. To say that it is objective and fair would be a lie. Taking into account the amount of business available on that particular day is often a key element. If you have five people all clamoring for a tattoo, you are much less likely to cut slack to a client that is looking to milk you of an hour of drawing time and then your very soul. You will invariably quote an unreasonably high price to either a: run them off or b: make it worth your while. If they leave, you have any number of willing clients in the wings and if they stay, you have a job that you don’t really mind spending time on. A teacher of mine once told me that the correct price for a tattoo is the amount that makes you happy to do it. The rationale being that you would perform the task to a higher degree if you felt like you were being properly appreciated, i.e. paid. This seems to work well. Conversely if a client comes into the shop and tries to talk you down on price, the unspoken message is that they don’t think you are worth the asking price. That you are somehow not worthy of such a lofty amount. Fuck that! If they are successful in obtaining said, lower price, the chances of you giving your complete and undivided attention to the piece are greatly reduced (read nonexistent). I’m not sure what goes through people’s minds when they come into a shop and try to bargain for a better deal. You can certainly arrange for a less expensive tattoo. Less time involved means less cost.
It’s amazing to me as well that people of average intelligence somehow seem to feel that they can coerce you into giving a better price by promising to bring you a lot of business or coming in to finish a sleeve later. Come on folks, after over twenty years in the business, don’t you think I haven’t heard it all? “Dude, hook me up ’cause I’ll be coming in for the next year to sleeve out this arm.” Yeah, right. And I’ll look forward to it because you’re a cheap bastard that always wrangles for half price. I’ll probably do my best work for you the whole time. Sure.
The bottom line is that when a tattooist gives you a price, the smart answer is yes or no. If you agree to his price, you are saying that you trust him and have confidence that he will do his best. If you say no, he might just rethink his position and cut you some slack to get your business. As a tattooist, I have learned to quote somewhat high. If the person is okay with it, I know they are going to be okay to work with. Then if the tattoo goes okay, I cut them some slack. It’s a win win. I’ve built in a safety net if things don’t go easily and the client’s trust is rewarded with a lower than agreed upon price. Everyone is happy.
Okay, the word is tattoo. It’s not “ink” or “tat”. It’s not “inking” or “pushing ink” or “scratching” or “tatting” or tackin’ it back”. It’s tattooing. It’s not a gun it’s a tattoo machine. Please learn this and know it. Every time someone tries this hard to be cool in a tattoo shop they look like an idiot. You don’t want to look like an idiot, do you?
Here’s another one people don’t want to hear. Most tattooists are NERDS. I know, I know, the image is one of late night work sessions followed by debauched parties with rock stars and drugs and liquor and loose women (or men), but the reality is that most of those successfully tattooing in these days of demand for “fine art” tattoos, are the same dweebs that used to sit in the back of the class wondering what it would be like to be in the “in” crowd, to be liked by other kids in their class. We were the ones drawing multi-level stick figure battle scenes in the margins of our notebooks. Just like cool jazz musicians who were once the pimply dorks in band class, today’s tattooists were the dweebs that didn’t fit in. I can’t think of one tattooist that was the high school football star, or cheerleader, or class president. We were and always will be nerds. Only now instead of doodling in our notebooks, we doodle on you. Cool huh?