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.
It seems the harder you make people work to get an appointment, the more they perceive you as some kind of awesome unobtainable talent. Not that I have done it on purpose, and it’s not that I haven’t gained a few skills over the years, but without really thinking about it, I’ve raised my brand equity just by not being around as much.
It’s funny, but I used to know a shop that said that they were booked up for months, even though they weren’t. People got the impression that these guys must be awesome and would do almost anything to get an appointment. The shop would then book these folks for the “future” and then cherry pic the ones they wanted to do and when, and call up the client claiming they had a cancellation. I hated the scam but had to admire the brilliance of it.
I now find myself with less time to tattoo and you would think I just got twice as good or something. People will wait forever just to get in. Nothing has changed except the availability.
It’s kind of weird that the worse you treat people and the longer you make them wait, the more they tend to think you are the shit. I’m sure there are textbook explanations for this but I still find it strange.
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.
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.