I know this is supposed to be a rant, but today was slow and the best type of customer came in. The type of customer that comes looking for you because they’ve seen your work and wanted some. The kind of customer that tells you they want a bird kind of like a picture they brought and kind of like several you’ve already done. The kind of customer that looks through the art books that you normally steal good stuff from, understands why you steal, and tells you that whatever you choose is fine. The kind of customer that doesn’t ask how much it will cost or how long it will take. The kind that trusts you to do a great job and charge fairly. The kind that rarely comes in the door. The kind of customer that gets your best effort and most reasonable price, then tips generously and appreciates your effort. The best kind, thank you.
Okay, this should be easy.
First let me say that this is in no way a rant on the contestants. They all seem like competent professionals. Each had good days and bad days and if there is anything to rant on them about, it’s going on a ridiculous show in the first place. Granted, a hundred thousand dollars is a pretty sweet incentive.
There seems to be no justification for a show that claims to be finding the tattoo master. I mean there is no real objective criteria that could possibly be used to achieve that goal. Tattooing is not a competitive sport. One can objectively assess the technical quality of a tattoo if you are willing to ignore the fact that all skin is not created equal and that different parts of the body make technically good tattooing more or less possible. One cannot, however, look at a tattoo and tell someone else that it is better art. Deciding what is good art, or not, is subjective. Can anyone tell me that a painting by a classical master is better “art” that a Warhol or an aboriginal wall painting? You can discuss the merits of each and certainly go on about the technical difficulties and quality of each, but I would maintain that it is impossible to place an artistic value on one more than another. There are way too many variables in the tattooist/client interaction to objectively decide the winner in a contest of this sort.
I would also like to know what pin striping has to do with tattooing. I, could see the design aspect, as in “please design a pin striping scheme for this vehicle”. The fundamentals of design are very similar for tattooing on a three dimensional body and striping a car, but the tools and techniques are completely different. It would be like handing Van Gogh an airbrush and expecting him to create a quality piece, with a time limit no less.
Speaking of time limits, their use, in my opinion, is verging on criminal. A great example is the episode where one of the contestants agreed to attempt to cover the client’s entire head with tribal work in the allotted time. As a professional tattooist, the artist should have known better. Perhaps he could have pulled it off if the client had held up, but who would expect anyone to endure five solid hours of that kind of hammering? In a normal situation, the artist would have broken that up into manageable sessions and done a great job. The work that he was able to complete looked awesome. Hopefully there were provisions for him to be able to complete the piece at a later date. Otherwise I would think the show is criminally liable regardless of the release forms used.
And what makes Dave Navarro the expert on what constitutes a tattoo master? Sure he’s a successful musician who has a lot of tattoos, but that’s like saying Mama Cass should be judging cuisine finals at Le Cordon Bleu.
I admit that all of this does make good TV. There’s drama, suspense, and you do get to see some realistic artist/client interaction (unlike any of the other shows I’ve seen). I just fear the long term consequences of shows like this sculpting the public’s perception of what tattooing is about, what it is and isn’t, and more importantly, how to act at a tattoo shop and what to expect from your artist. The only place to learn these things is by visiting some tattoo shops, interacting with some tattooists and deciding for yourself.
Of course everyone’s experience and perceptions are unique, and perhaps that is what this rant is about. In a world of homogenized, commercialized, dumbed down, co-opted subcultures, I would like to think that the tattoo shop is one of the last bastions of reality. Come into a shop and talk to real people, feel real anxiety, endure real pain, enjoy the very real satisfaction of having worked through a ritual that is older than written history, and realize that this is not TV. This is life.
Check out this awesome video. Close up slow motion tattooing.
Conversation between young couple who are about to mark each other’s names on themselves forever. The girl is getting her boyfriend’s name on her neck in fancy script. Upon seeing the design…..
“That’s perfect, but I think I want it bigger.”
“Oh baby, don’t get it any bigger. That would be trashy.”
You can’t make this shit up.
I actually love this shit. This guy remembered the tattooist who did it and DIDN’T want it covered up. I have a lot of respect for that. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. That’s tattooing and it’s forever (or at least as forever as you are). You get it, you live with it, period. Cool.
It’s amazing how people choose their tattoos. So many surf the web for tattoo sites and find something like that they want among the millions of tattoo photos available. Then they come in and ask for their “custom” tattoo. They say that what they really want is a unique tattoo and be sure to “put a little of your style into it”. No sooner do I have a drawing done, changing it enough to be comfortable with the fact that we are just ripping off some other person’s design, than they pull out their original photo, the one they found on the web, and start picking apart all the differences. What they really want is the exact tattoo, they just don’t want to admit it. They want to somehow believe that it’s their very own unique tattoo, but they don’t seem to have the balls to actually have a unique idea for one. Upon seeing it on another person it is somehow legitimized. If they haven’t seen it as a tattoo, they are hesitant to accept that it is actually okay to get, to risk their skin on. I’ve often created designs that, even though I am obviously biased here, have blown away the crap that they brought in, only to be rebuffed and forced to redraw it into something just as hideous as the original ripped off design.
It’s not that I ‘m against ripping off designs. I do it all the time. It’s a time honored tradition in tattooing. Ever look at a Sailor Jerry flash book and then find some much older Brooklyn Joe Lieber designs? Straight rip off. What I object to is stealing shitty artwork. If you are going to steal designs for your tattoo, you should steal only the best. Have the balls to find some great piece of original art, take it into your tattooist and have him turn it into a tattooable design, and have it done. You’ll have an original tattoo based on a nice work of art instead of some third generation, watered down pile.
You hear this from hair stylists quite often. People bring in photos of beautiful women and want the same hair style. The stylist knows that the hairstyle is only part of the picture. The client wants to look like the beautiful woman, and cannot seem to separate the face from the hair. When the style doesn’t magically transform her into a super model, she’s disappointed. It’s the same at the tattoo shop. A guy will come in with a picture of some buff hunk o’ man like the Rock or some cool ass rock star and point to the tattoos in the photo and say I want a tattoo just like that. I’m amazed that it doesn’t seem as obvious to them as it does to me, that they really just want to be that guy in the picture. It’s kind of pathetic really. They never, ever come in with a photo of some amazing tattoo on a fat ugly guy. I find this funny and somehow also annoying.
Today at the shop I had one of those unfortunate customers with extremely bad breath. We all have some unpleasant odors coming from our mouths once in a while, but on occasion someone comes in with breath so foul that just about any other smell would be preferable. I’m getting images of what it would be like to snort the ashes from days old Alabama roadkill that has been incinerated in a nuclear explosion. A reek of putrescence and death mixed with ash and burnt beans. A reek so bad that you are afraid that it might just be contagious. I can still get hints of it as I’m writing this several hours later. A guy has to know if his breath is this bad. I’d go to an emergency room if I thought odors even close to this bad were coming out of me. To make matters worse he held his breath for each line and then after the line was done, he’d let out a big sigh. It was like chemical warfare. Maybe I’ll get a big bottle of mouthwash and stash it in the bathroom with complimentary little paper cups. So please, the next time you’re coming in for a tattoo, brush your teeth, scrape your tongue, gargle with gasoline for all I care, but please be considerate. I have to concentrate on doing a good tattoo for you and it’s very hard to do that and hold my breath at the same time.
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.