As if some tattoo shops don't seem shady enough, there are certain brands of businesses in the tattoo world that needs to be exposed with the bleaching light of daylight like so many cockroaches hiding under your refrigerator.
Tattooing as a business is sort of a backwards affair because good tattooing means putting reputation before profit. I guess I can only speak for myself but I'm more focused on the quality of my output versus how much revenue I can generate. I figure that the money will arrive if I stay true to the course of doing my customers right. I feel like an old man yelling "get off my lawn!" but really it feels to me like being honest in business is quickly becoming an outdated philosophy. I would rather be broke (okay, broke-ish) and have the respect of my peers and clients than be rich and indignant.
There are however three brands of business that operate within the tattoo world that couldn't care less if they're reviled within their own industry. These are leech companies; parasites feeding off the ignorance of the uninitiated.
I would offer my advice to you, dear reader, as someone who's been a professional tattoo artist for over two decades. I have no horse in the race to profit in any way from the derision of these shysters, instead its my love for the betterment of tattooing as a whole that is my motivating interest here. I also will not name or give web addresses to any examples of theses businesses simply because I don't want to give them any free exposure. Ten minutes of Googling is all you need to start your journey down that rabbit-hole.
Here are three examples of charlatans and interlopers within the tattoo world that you need to avoid.
1) Skin advertisers
Believe it or not, there are people stupid enough the sell their bodily real estate as advertising space. Web sites exist that connect advertisers to people willing to sell their bodies. In 2005 an online gambling website payed a Utah woman $10,000 to tattoo their URL address across her forehead in three inch high letters. The woman claimed the proceeds would go to the betterment to her child's education and you can take that claim at face value (har!) but really the unbalanced nature of that transaction is more than skin deep (groan).
$10,000 does seem to be a lot of money for most of us - something that could contribute to making a considerable improvement in one's quality of living and I don't have to explain how obvious it is that getting your forehead tattooed with a web site address is a completely bat-shit insane thing to do but to a corporation making millions of dollars a year, $10,000 in context is nothing more than the advertising budget for a portion of a page print ad for a single day in your local city newspaper.
Ten grand is also the exception and not the rule to how much advertisers will offer to those gullible to give up skin space. The rewards for tattooing yourself with corporate ownership is meagre, usually just free products or a few hundred dollars at most or sometimes simply the offer to only pay for the tattoo.
I don't want to discount those many clients who feel passionate enough about their sports teams or favourite motorcycles to voluntarily ink a brand on themselves forever but anyone whoring themselves out for the advertising market's equivalent of pocket change may want to reconsider their sense of self-worth. Unless you feel that your forehead has less value than the back page of your super saver coupon cutter.
2) Tattoo Schools
There's a tattoo school in Michigan state that claims to teach you everything you need to know about how to tattoo professionally in only two weeks. Oh yeah, don't forget the part where your tuition is almost $6,000. The president of the school and lead instructor is not actually a tattoo artist, rather he's a chiropractor who insists on being called 'Doctor' by his students. Allegedly he also runs a Vietnamese rub-and-tug parlour within the same building as his tattoo school. Allegedly.
Universally and through history, tattooing has been taught by apprenticeship. Almost always done over the course of several months to sometimes a few years, tattooing is taught one-on-one from a master tattooer to an apprentice pupil. This method is wisely considered industry standard because it helps to allow an even flow of new tattooers to the work force. If you introduce too many new tattooers to the community, the market gets saturated with the would-be talented. Like so many wolves and not enough deer, hostility and self defeating competitive tactics erupt in the economy of tattooing. It simply does not self serve to bring forward an over population of artists because it destroys the market everyone draws business from. On the other hand, not introducing enough new tattooers strangles our cumulative innovation as we don't have fresh vision and ideas being brought to our collective efforts.
Tattoo schools vomit under educated wanna-be tattooers in to the work force. Most tattoo shops will outright refuse to consider tattoo school graduates as serious job applicants because time will be needed to train out shortcuts and bad habits inherent in a tattoo school's stunted curriculum. The schools are actually aware of this so instead of offering job placement which is de rigueur to any other type of vocational school, they upsell their graduates an opportunity to purchase a tattoo shop franchise on the way out the door.
Television network TLC recently aired the series "Tattoo School", documenting a typical two week course that's meant to replace years of actual apprenticeship. The show was met with an enormous amount of social media backlash, mostly from purists and artists but their argument against the show reached a critical mass where the media was forced to acknowledge the building resistance including several Facebook groups, which garnered hundreds of thousands of followers between them.
3) Tattoo Designers
Custom tattooing; meaning an original tattoo design commissioned for a specific client is a relatively novel concept in tattooing. From the 40's through to the 90's getting tattooed meant picking a pre-made design off the wall of the shop. These flash designs were the bread and butter of the 20th century tattoo shop. It was the arrival of the tattoo reality TV shows that made mainstream the personalized creation of every tattoo and very suddenly it was passe to get anything that wasn't custom drawn for you. Of course, many of the designs we tattoo in the pursuit of being one-of-a-kind is really just material rehashed a thousand different ways from Sunday but my life is now consumed by designing tattoos and no longer simply reaching in to a filing cabinet for pre-drawn stencils.
Getting a custom created tattoo should be a simple undertaking. The hardest part is sometimes finding the right artist to work with. Once you have 'your guy' (or gal) the process begins with booking a consultation with that artist, then present your ideas and allow that artist to interpret your ideas in to a work of art. Usually a deposit will be requested before an artist starts drawing for you but always that deposit will be refunded from the final cost of the tattoo. If you don't get tattooed, that deposit goes towards the artist's drawing time but its industry standard that the cost associated with design time is rolled in to the finished cost of the tattoo.
Although customers demand custom design, some customers get confused as
to the process of how to get a tattoo designed and there are websites
that prey on their confusion. Offering to design someone's tattoo for someone else to tattoo seems like a fairly innocuous transaction to anyone unfamiliar with the tattooing process and I genuinely think that even the people who run these design sites are so out of touch with tattooing that they don't see the redundancy in their business model but what you got here is a classic case of the cart being put before the horse.
The cost of design is included in the cost of the tattoo. Paying a middle man to design the tattoo for you is not only a waste of money, it's unnecessary because undoubtedly the tattooer will have to redraw the design to suite their own tattooing style and sometimes a redesign is necessary just to conform to the boundaries of what's technically tattoo-able.
Furthermore, a huge part of the design process is before hand, physically measuring the anatomical space to be tattooed. Clear, face to face, back and forth communication is also the correct strategy for creating a custom tattoo; something that cannot be achieved with only Internet correspondence through a web site.
For one specific design company I found, I would almost give these guys a pass for just not doing enough (any?) market research before launching their service but they proved themselves as having actual diabolical intent by how they advertise themselves using their Facebook presence. Seemingly they scour the internet to steal tattoo portfolio photos from some of the best tattooers in the world. They publish these beautiful works of art on their Facebook page pretending to be actual examples of the finished product that they provide and then link each picture back to their web site, as if claiming copyright. Fuckary!
It is sort of amazing to me that the tattoo industry, which sometimes seems so seedy that it can be stereotyped as a gateway to the underworld, is in reality filled with some of the most conscientious individuals, endowed with some of the greatest integrity in their work that you could possibly imagine. I think this is because most tattooers consider their integrity a necessity to managing respectable reputation.
Tattooing is a market where word of mouth is king and reputation is everything.
Rose Gold's Tattoo
San Francisco, Calfornia