The very best and the very worst thing that ever happened to tattooing was the tattoo reality shows from cable television over the past ten years. The fallout from street shop tattooing being beamed in to the living rooms of middle America was that tattooing was more than just our craft. Suddenly tattooing was a lifestyle.
Tattooing has always been a really good way for high school drop outs with a small modicum of artistic ability to seek gainful employment. I've always likened a successful tattooer to the status level of a 'feature performer' stripper. Nobody ever got in to tattooing to make it rich. Folks got in to tattooing because like stripping, God gave you a bit of talent that could be exploited for fun and a very modest profit and if you were lucky, you could reap a bit of local notoriety and the free drinks that would garner.
Tattooers enjoy a social status rung set just slightly higher above hairdressers (sorry hairdressers). Even with the advent of tattoo reality shows some tattooers are now household names just like the famous hairstylists before them (what's up Kat Von D and Vidal Sassoon?) Tattooers and hairdressers also live fairly parallel lives of being able to skate in to work usually never before noon.
Here are five deeply entrenched fallacies that you need to stop believing about tattoo artists right now because all of these items were invented by cable TV producers.
1) You can get rich and famous tattooing.
I know that the term 'rich' is relative.
If you work two shit jobs and save and scrounge like a crazy person to stuff bills in to your tattoo fund, forking over several hundred dollars a session for a few hours of work makes your tattoo artist seem like he's making fat stacks. But those few hours of tattooing that you pay for gets split up between the shop and the artist and is then filtered through the various overhead and expenses that go in to making the work you enjoy on your body. I like to say that what a client witnesses when in the chair is a very slim skim of cream on a giant vat of milk that is all hard work and dedication.
Tattoo artists also do not have employee retirement funds, health insurance benefits or paid time off.
When a tattoo artist gets ten years in to the game a realization washes over them that there is a cap to how much money one can actually make tattooing and that cap is usually at the monetary level of some mid level video game designer rendering hockey pads eight hours a day at Electronic Arts.
The rare exception is usually the aging artist who semi retires from tattooing to instead pursue business ventures aside from their art, such as tattoo supply companies or owning real estate and other various side investments (usually shady).
2) We're all Therapist Mind Readers.
If you stream a few episodes of LA or New York Ink on Netflix you'll start to decipher their program formula. After the stencil is put on and the needle starts buzzing the artist on the show will always ask the client verbatim "so what does this tattoo mean to you?" Make no mistake about it, this is a contrivance created by television producers and because of it, all of a sudden we're therapists and mind readers as well as tattoo artists. Suddenly we're also expected to interpret your emotional state with our artistic impression. Honey buns, I have no idea how to create an image for you that expresses your inner feminine energy of a warrior goddess. That shit for serious means nothing to me.
Its not like we tattooers are cold and callous people. We are like any other folks and regular people need time to build relationships with our clients. We're not shaman who can peer in to your soul and pull out a magical tattoo design created by our instantaneous bond that will resonate perfectly with your vision. Tattoo artists speak a language of imagery. We need to know what it is exactly that you want to get tattooed, how big you want it and where you want to put it. If you want to see my eyes glaze over, just say the word "whimsical" to describe your design idea. I have no fucking idea what "whimsical" means and I don't think you do, either.
3) Tattoo artists can draw?
It floors me just how much agonizing effort some customers put in to getting their tattoo designed prior to even speaking with a tattoo artist. Having someone else design your tattoo other than the actual tattooer who's going to apply it makes about as much sense as bringing your mom's lasagna recipe to a restaurant and asking the head chef to cook it for you. No matter how much effort you put in to having something created before you set foot in to the tattoo shop, inevitably the tattoo artist will have to redraw your design to make it tattooable. The craft of the tattoo is constrained by technical limitations that only your tattooist will understand and because of this, he or she will need to ensure that your tattoo is rendered in a way that makes for a tattoo that will not only look good when finished but also stand the test of time.
4) The Tattoo Shop: Where the customer is always right.
Having problems finding an artist who will agree to do your photo real painterly watercolour pitbull portrait the size of a silver dollar? Why do so many tattoo artists scoff at doing all white ink or black light responsive tattoos? It's because reputable tattooers want your tattoo to look good and look good for a long time because it's our name and reputation attached to each and every piece we do.
People ask me all the time if I turn down tattoo requests and my answer is yes, all day, every day. Its not because I think someone's design is offensive or stupid its because people come up with some cockamamie tattoo ideas that completely fly in the face of the technical limitations of what makes for good tattooing.
Listen, I play for the long money with my business. I want you as my customer to be happy for decades with the tattoo I give you. I don't want some half fallen out and faded disaster to be my calling card. One satisfied customer is better for business than three customers steeped with regret.
Customers can get hyper focused on their preconceived notions of what it is that they want and some will absolutely not listen to any direction or suggestion that I as your artist will offer and this is always the biggest mistake any customer can make. Your artist is there to guide you in to avoiding regret but you have to listen. You will always find someone who will tattoo whatever it is you want without giving you guidance but those tattooers are short money bitches. And guaranteed when you go back for the inevitable touch up, redo or cover up, that artist will either not be there anymore or the shop will be closed up and boarded.
5) All tattooers are created equal.
You're finally ready to get your first tattoo and you've got your design picked from someone's wall on Pinterest. That sucker is loaded up on your iPhone gallery next to last night's nightclub dance floor selfies. You've driven by that one tattoo shop on Queen Street a thousand times and what's one tattoo shop compared to another? Some guy named Psycho Steve has got some free time right now and his minimum charge is $20 less than the guy down the street so let's do this thing before I chicken out!
The oldest saying in the tattoo biz is 'Cheap Tattoos aren't Good and Good Tattoos aren't Cheap'. Don't put less effort in to decided who does your tattoo than what you're actually going to get. Not only are artists more and less skilled than one another but styles of tattooing will vary drastically between each artist.
I will be the first to admit that even after 20 plus years in the trade that I am not the best tattooer in the world - far from it. I consider myself to have a small but genuine amout of talent and ability. With as much modesty as I can muster, I know that my tattooing is above average but not mind blowing on a level that even competes with the best in the world. I work my ass off every day to become a better tattoo artist not to stroke my own ego but because I care about the quality of work my customers will wear every day for the rest of their lives. Because of this I know that I'll likely be rewarded with some job security in what's an overwhelmingly competitive marketplace.
You can keep your made for TV tattoo artist lifestyle with your fedoras and fancy trousers. If you see a tattooer with a motorcycle collection or driving a fancy sports car, keep in mind that sports car is probably leased.
Rose Gold's Tattoo,
San Francisco, CA