Please don’t call or email and then get upset that you cannot get an appointment without stopping in. The thing is, we cannot plan our day around vague notions of what you “might” get if you decide to actually stop in. We have no way of knowing, without a drawing in hand, to size, that we have both agreed on, what the price might be, or how long it will take.

To accept the promise of strangers that “I’ll definitely be there” is nice, but truly about 50% of them never show up.

So please, just stop in with your design ideas and reference PRINTED OUT (not on your phone, pad, or computer), talk to your artist, and leave a small deposit to show that you are not just wasting their time. Remember, it takes serious time and effort to draw designs up for tattooing. Don’t expect a stranger to take time out of his day to create something for you without reciprocal effort on your part.


grow a set! or please leave

It’s been a good while. Life and work have been pretty tame, and good. Now that it’s slowing down for the season, I once again, have more time to rant!

So I get a call from a young sounding girl about coming in for a tattoo. She gets the standard “We take walk ins first come first served and to make an appointment you’ll have to stop in” talk. She says the tattoo is actually for her dad. Okay, this is my first warning. Anyone who has his daughter call the tattoo shop for him is a douche. This is the beginning of a handholding exercise that could drag on forever. People who really want a tattoo come in and get one, or at least call themselves to see what’s up.

In they come, daughter and father. They are from a well to do suburb and the daughter starts it off by telling me what her dad wants. This is the next red flag. I proceed by making eye contact with the father and forcing him to talk to me directly and eke out of him that he really doesn’t know what the hell he wants. Well, actually he has a phrase in mind, a bible quote. Okay good. He’s not quite sure where he wants to get it, or actually knows where he wants it, but is afraid it might not be a cool/good spot. I give him my “there is no right or wrong, just what feels good to you” speech, which goes right past him. You see he’s looking to me to decide for him, which I can’t, or to be more precise, won’t. If I decide for him then it’s no longer his fault, responsibility, or decisive action. The burden has, in his mind, shifted to me, where it is safe. So of course I’m thinking this guy need to grow a set of balls and started making some decisions.

I explain the process of finding a type style that works for him and at this point his daughter starts asking him what mood he wants to set. My third red flag. Look folks, I’m a tattooist. I cannot draw moods. Please don’t ask me to do feisty, or pensive, or casual, or more feminine, especially when we are dealing with fonts. There is an entire industry of people working full time trying to come up with fonts that evoke these types of emotion, and to think that after looking through a pile of pages full of different fonts, that you have universally rejected, I will be able to create on the spot a typestyle that will match the vague image in your head that you can’t even articulate, is ludicrous.

So I take the bold step of suggesting a nice old style from the Book of Kells. Cool. He likes it but wants to see the phrase drawn up. Cool, no problem. He likes it but now wants to see it stenciled on. Cool,, looks good.

“Can I make an appointment for next week? I want to let it slowly sink in”

Maybe between now and then he’ll grow a set.

acts of courage

I was talking with a friend and she told me about a conversation she had with a tattooist. She was commiserating about stress issues that her husband, also a tattooist, was dealing with. She was told. “You must understand that every tattoo that your husband starts is an act of courage”.

I like that.

tattoo masters

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.



The day started off like any other. The shop was waiting as usual. My partner was in the back room drawing for his first appointment. A slight hint of sulphur funk from the drain downstairs in the basement accompanied the usual satisfying green soap, blood and adrenaline odor that is the signature smell of tattoo shops around the world. The warmth of the shop is a welcome treat after the biting chill of early January.

My first appointment, another shading session, looks to be a no-show. Probably a miscommunication on my part. I have him marked down next week as well and probably just forgot to erase this date form my book. My next appointment isn’t until 5:00 and I haven’t worked much at all because of the holiday season. Hungry is the term. Short on liquid funds and feeling a little like we’ve tattooed everybody in the world and the business as we know it, is done, the party is over, the fad has run it’s course and there is nothing left to do but find another way to make a living. Of course it’s the same every year and shortly after the holidays are over, the business returns, but today I’m feeling a bit low on funds and so am happy when someone walks in the door. Actually, to be more precise, I am a bit uneasy. It’s the same whenever the door opens, a twinge in the pit of your stomach, the suggestion or mere hint of adrenalin pumped from a gland somewhere deep within that instantly awakens receptors throughout your body. What walks through the door could be the greatest thing you have ever done, or the the end of a long career, the best experience of your life or the beginning of the most prolonged hell on earth imaginable, sweat dripping from your forehead into eyes that would rather not see, but are needed to help dig yourself out of the hole that is a tattoo in progress. It is a bridge that has been jumped off of, a door that has been irreversibly passed through. It’s a gambler’s sensation and a gambler’s life. Day to day not knowing whether you’ll walk with hundreds of dollars or nothing at all. But I digress.

In through the door comes a young lady with a toddler and a small infant in a carrier in tow.

“How much for a name?” she asks.

Well our shop minimum is fifty dollars and I tell her so as she squirms and makes a face as if I just farted. One part of me is not willing to compromise on this and during any normal, even remotely busy season, I wouldn’t, but it’s the holidays and as I mentioned earlier, I’m a bit “hungry”, with not a lot of hope for the early part of my day. I tell her if she chooses our standard nice cursive lettering, Diana Light, that I could possible do it for forty, which is what the style sheet says anyway, having been made when our minimum was forty, and not that long ago I’m thinking.

“You do them anywhere?” she asks.

Now this was my second warning sign, the first being her reaction to our shop minimum. When someone asks if you do tattoos anywhere, what they usually mean is “do you do tattoos in uncomfortable, dark, impossibly difficult, smelly areas that no one in their right mind would want to see, let alone touch or be in any way intimate with?” as I said I was “hungry” but I was starting to lose my appetite.

“Well, anywhere that is tattoo-able. I won’t tattoo the bottom of your foot or the palm of your hand.” I say, not even mentioning her face, fingers, toes, etc. She says okay and leaves only to show up again in a few minutes, presumably having checked in with the other tattoo shop right down the street.

“Okay I’ll do it.” she says.

At this point I use my get out of jail free card because I’ve already wasted more time on her than any forty dollar tattoo is worth, especially considering that I’m feeling she’s probably gonna want it on her bikini line, which is under an unhealthy fold of belly flesh from the aforementioned children and a probable lifetime of Cheetos and Mountain Dew, a prospect that is not very appealing to say the least and horrifying to say the most.

“I can’t tattoo you with your kids here.”

She actually asks me why not. So I mention the fact that there are all kinds of troubles a toddler could get into while I’m holding her down trying to tattoo her. I don’t even mention the implications of her dropping her drawers in front a complete stranger in front of impressionable children, considering that this argument would probably be lost her. I told her she would need to either drop the kids with a sitter or have a friend watch them in the front room while I tattoo her. She calls a friend. Damn!

“Okay, I’ll need to get a copy of your ID and we’ll get you signed in.”

She looks up, kind of dumbfounded, as if I’m SS asking for “ze papers”. I explain that the health department requires that we make a copy of every client’s ID and keep it for a few years. She says she lives right around the corner and needs to go get her ID. She’ll be right back. I’m practically giddy with the prospect of her leaving at this point. Most people in this situation leave and never come back, regardless of what they say. I’m thinking hungry is not so bad compared to the bullet I just dodged. Buh bye! My partner today also leaves the building to run an errand. Like I said, it’s slow.

I go back to what I was doing, or not doing as the case may be, confident in the knowledge that my five o’clock is reliable and will provide me with some income as well as a pleasant evening of tattooing. But as usual, just in case, I draw the name up as “momma two babies with no ID” wanted it, in the event that she actually returns. Just as I’m beginning to relax, the front door opens again and in comes my girl, her two kids and her friend, the sitter. I’m thinking to myself that I just need to get this done. I’m a professional tattooist and it’s time to work. Okay.

“Come on back and we’ll get you tattooed.”

I get her signed in, bring her into the back room and motion to the chair where I will eventually have her sit. I’m running through the pre-recorded brain spew that is my normal pre-tattoo banter while I reach into my cabinet for a tube and liner set up. I turn around and there she is, standing with her pants around her ankles, no underwear unless you count the tampon string that is curling it’s way out from among the other black curlies as if it too is trying to escape this nightmare. At this point you must understand that as a tattooist, I’ve seen more weirdness, grossness and thankfully beauty than the average person. You learn to take it in stride and as the 70’s admen said “Never let them see you sweat.”, but I’m sure I looked startled. I sure felt startled. It’s not too often, especially in the Midwest, that you get a client that is so unabashedly immodest. So I tell myself to keep it together and get this over with. Arguably it’s not the best attitude for a tattooist to have but fuck it. This is not a normal scenario. I can do a nice name with my eyes closed, which is a very appealing prospect at the moment. She’s indicating to me where she wants the tattoo. Pretty much on her thigh as high as it can be without crossing the crease onto her pubic mound. She indicates this by spreading her legs and lifting the belly flesh out of the way. If she saw me react as if I’d been struck across the face with a moldy, putrid piece of sirloin, she didn’t show it. All right, keep it together. I print my stencil after she takes a trip to the bathroom to shave a clean spot. She travels all the way there and all the way back with her pants around her ankles and her goods, if that is what I should call them, bads?, hanging out. Yes, I sent her there to do it herself. There is only so far I’ll go in the pursuit of my cut of a forty dollar tattoo but like a gambler that is down and just trying to recoup some losses I stay at the table and persevere. I’ve spent too much time and emotional currency to give up now.

So I print the stencil and she looks in the mirror and says it looks a bit small. I tell her that for forty dollars it’s as big as it’s going to get. She decides it’s okay and starts to sit her naked ass on the chair. Whoa there! I put down a paper barrier sheet like you see at the doctor’s office, wondering if two might be better, and get her laid back and comfortable. I get to work trying to ignore the string and the sickly sweet thickness that is the odor seeping into all of the dark, moist, hidden corners of the shop at this point. The tattoo goes well. She holds reasonably still. I’m doing my best to see how well my reading lenses work at arm’s length and in a few minutes it’s over. She walks over to the mirror, once again with her pants around her ankles and has a look. She’s concerned that it’s a bit small. A bit late at this point but her friend assures her that it looks okay and I’m not going to disagree. I’m just glad it’s almost over. I put a bandage on and give her instructions for aftercare. My partner re-enters the shop with a look like “what the fuck is that smell” on his face. Baby momma pays and thanks me, tells me she’ll definitely be back for a lot more tattoos and exits with her friend and two children. My buddy asks me if the smell in the shop is dirty diapers and I tell him it’s not dirty diapers, it’s pussy. I thinks he threw up a little bit in his mouth at that point. We opened the doors at either end of the shop even though it was about twenty degrees outside to cross-ventilate and looked up drugs on the Internet that induce memory loss. I douched the whole area down with Madacide and practically showered in one of the shop sinks. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful.

Tattooed in Detroit?

Just watched some of “Tattooed in Detroit” and I have to say, with all due respect to Tom Renshaw and his amazing tattoos, what a load. I mean people come in all the time for tattoos of their dead pets, relatives and friends but that doesn’t mean that their tattooist is in any way qualified to do anything other than a quality tattoo. Therapy? Go to professional. Tattooists are not trained or qualified as grief counselors.

abandon all hope