A lot of clients want to be your friend when you are a tattooist. Although not all of them want to, too many of them do. Some want to become your friend temporarily just to get the “bro deal”. As if by becoming instant “bro’s” you will feel obligated to cut them slack that the ordinary clients aren’t entitled to. Some think being your friend wold be cool because of the perception that tattooists are, by their very nature, cool. Some are just desperate to have any friends at all.
Every once in a while a client does become a lasting friend. I’m not sure if it is something that can be explained. Just like elsewhere in life you meet people all the time, but for some reason there is a mutual attraction with certain individuals. Buddhists believe that some souls are somehow tied to others in some quantum way. That life after life, certain groups just end up being drawn together over and over. It’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever heard. Some people you are just comfortable with from the very first time you meet.
I’ve had the pleasure and honor of having a few friends like this. One or two from my life as a tattooist. A very few rare individuals that really want nothing from you other than to interact on a somewhat regular basis just for the mutual energy that seems to be generated from doing so.
One client/friend, let’s call him Will, started coming into the shop I was working years ago. He wanted some small things added to his already substantial collection of tattoos. To say this guy was rambunctious would be like saying Hurricane Katrina was a mild blow. He’s a massive super nova of positive energy bounding around the universe. He’s my complete opposite and somehow that works. While I tend towards cynicism and darkness, he tend towards optimism and vibrancy. Before you start thinking I’m in love with the guy, let me say that I am. I’ve watched him go from a high stress job in finance, to a heart attack, to unemployment, to court for his somewhat unruly son, to a job at a nonprofit helping troubled teens. The guys been through addiction and recovery more than once. Yet somehow every time I talk to him he seems to be just as stoked on life as ever. It’s a lesson to me to not let things get me down. I like to think that, conversely, I may in some small way be a calming influence for him. We don’t speak very often but when we do there is that feeling of ease that is so rare.
Over the years I’ve done everything from small names, to bugs, to some very eclectic/esoteric folk art pieces on him. He’s always been appreciative and a huge amount of fun. It’s rare to meet people like this and a more special treat because of it.
I’m looking through a bunch of photos today on my new iPad and it got me to thinking what a spoiled bastard I am. Revolutions in the middle east, tsunamis in Japan, earthquakes in New Zealand, people starving, slaving and generally having a hard time just staying alive. The idea of ranting about a perfectly great job where I can make a comfortable living becomes a bit, well, perverted.
Tattooists as a whole are a spoiled lot. We show up late, leave in time for an evening of leisure, interact with new people every day who tell us how wonderful our work is, how wonderful we are for doing it, and then pay us arguably stupid amounts of money. Then we have the temerity to bitch and moan all day long, hiding in the back room while front people run interference agains all the repetitive and annoying questions. We’ve pretty much got it made. Well except for the fact that we get no employer paid health care, no paid vacation, no retirement plans other than the ones we figure out for ourselves. Well no one said life was gonna be a bowl of cherries. But it is a box of chocolates for those of us lucky enough to avoid disaster, starvation, disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, and civil unrest.
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.
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.
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?
scumbag: We’ve all heard stories from clients of tattooist that scammed them at one time or another. The classic move is getting someone to pay in full for a large tattoo before the work is completed, then skipping town. These stories are invariably accompanied by other stories of drugs or prison time. Face it, tattooists historically are not thought of as paragons of human virtue. If there is a way for a guy to scam someone out of money, some tattooist somewhere has probably done it. Selling broken equipment, watered down ink, finishing an outline and then feigning surprise that the client wanted it colored in. “Oh you want it shaded in? That’ll be another fifty bucks”. With a few notable exceptions, it is only in the last couple of decades that trained artist have begun to gravitate towards tattooing. The money is better than most graphic artists can expect to make and the lifestyle can be attractive. I mean how many graphic artists in ad departments are stopped on the street or in a bar by admiring clients wanting to thank them for the awesome job they did, let alone pay them extra (tips). Feels pretty good and leads us into the next section, tattooist as rock star.
rock star: I heard one time that Gil Monte, a well known L.A. tattooist, said that everybody wants to be a rock star but rock stars want to be tattooists. I’ve always loved that one. The fact is that even though most people don’t get it, tattooing is every bit as much a performance as getting on a stage and playing for a crowd of people. It’s just as stressful, perhaps more so. You don’t get a second chance with a tattoo. Your client is your boss, your audience, and your critic all in one. Almost any tattoo could be your last one. You don’t have the luxury of having a bad day, a day to just coast through and screw around. You have to be “on” all the time. Tattooist I’ve known, including me, go through serious performance anxiety as well as the exaltation of a job well done. Ask any performer about pre-show anxiety or the high experienced while performing well. It is a total rush and one of the reasons tattooing is so addictive as a profession. The other side of that coin is the inevitable burn out that follows several years of cumulative stress. Most tattooists I know battle with ulcers and anxiety issues related to adrenal fatigue. Some make it through, some disappear, some become hopelessly cynical assholes. Someone should warn these folks of the dangers of the profession. I guess I just did.
People do, however, treat you as some sort of celebrity, and I guess in a way you are. Every person who walks out the door with your work is irretrievably marked and will remember you… forever. I’m often stopped while in public by people who I have tattooed and I have to say it is a bit of an ego boost. No wonder so many tattooists are such assholes. Everybody tells you how wonderful you are. How could they not? If they decided you sucked, then they would have to examine if their tattoos might also suck, and then where would they be? One of my mentors always said that tattooists have a psychological advantage because people want to believe that their tattoos are good. Otherwise they would have to deal with permanent scars that they don’t like. So most tattooists hear all the time how awesome they are whether it is true or not. The problem arises when the artist starts to believe what everyone is telling them, even though most of those people wouldn’t know a good tattoo if it jumped up and bit them on the ass. A guy or girl who starts tattooing at a young age and hears this praise for several years has a slim chance of being objective about their own abilities. Suddenly all that attitude in shops these days makes sense.
It’s not brain surgery, but there is a lot involved in doing a quality tattoo. Years of training and practice are required to do a really competent job. Of course anyone can make permanent marks that are technically tattoos, but if you learn to look closely you can see vast differences in line quality, pigment density and shading quality among different tattoos. There are two sides of your brain, each with different skills. Most people lean one way or the other. To simplify obscenely there are artists and there are technicians. Every tattooist also leans one way or the other. I’ve known GOOD tattooists that couldn’t draw their way out of a paper bag. I’ve also known GOOD tattooists that couldn’t put in a consistent outline or area of smooth solid color. The only GREAT tattooists I’ve ever met, somehow can do both. In other words they can somehow exist in their left and right brains at the same time. Great artists can get away with second rate craft because their artwork is , well, great. Great artwork can cover a multitude of sins. On the other hand, great craft can also stand on it’s own. Look at a well done tattoo; solid linework, solid, smooth color and shading. It stands on it’s own, regardless of the quality of the art. If you don’t believe me just look around at the amount of “old school” tattooing that is so popular right now. Most of the artwork could be performed by a first grader but if it is done well it is a good tattoo. Once in a while a tattooist shows up on the scene that can really perform the art and craft of tattooing at an exceptional level. They are the ones that history will remember.
Personally, I lean towards the technical side. I learned to be a craftsman from one of the best. I’ve always been able to recognize good art when I see it. My problem is creating it. I’ve spent my entire career coming to terms with my limitations, and they are many. The vast majority of stress in my career has been from me trying to pretend to be the fine artist that I am not, trying to fulfill the wishes of clients that haven’t the faintest idea about practical, commercial art and illustrating. My solution is to steal the best art I can possibly find and adapt it to tattooing. That is my strength and what has helped me do well in a business where increasingly being a good artist is essential. Well, maybe not essential. There will always be room for a good craftsmen. There are still plenty of people that just want a well executed tattoo of their own choosing.
Okay this is gonna be touchy. I was a bartender for several years and still fill in occasionally for a friend. A lot of people talk about the bartender as therapist. Well I can tell you, it’s true to an extent, but not nearly the extent that tattooists have to deal with. Tattooing is, for lack of a better word, a very intimate experience. It’s hands on, in your space, and at a time where everyone, your tattooist included, is under an unusual amount of stress. For some reason, since normal barriers of personal space have been crossed, people seem to feel comfortable, even obligated to share WAY too much information about themselves, their lives, loves and issues. I feel for them, I really do, but over the years I’ve had to build a defensive shield against this sort of emotional vampirism. I’m getting paid to produce a clean, well crafted image that will last indefinitely on someone’s body and my job is stressful enough without the added rigors of coming up with feel good solutions to my client’s problems. There are professionals for that very purpose. They’re called therapists, and they’re trained to handle that kind of shit. They probably have entire classes on how to remain emotionally detached. I had to learn these skills the hard way, trial by fire, and I’m still not very good at it. So give me a break. I’ve got enough problems of my own to fill a book (or blog). Take your problems to a professional and leave them on his couch.