This was originally published on my MySpace Blog, Sunday, April 13, 2008. It seemed like a post worth reposting...
So You Want To Be A Tack-Too Artist, Huh?
Category:Jobs, Work, Careers
A lot of people have contacted me through MySpace to ask me about how they, too, can become a tattooer.
Tonight I answered a letter to a guy who seems like a better candidate than anyone else who has asked me thus far, and even to him I gave what is probably a very discouraging reply.
To save time and effort on my part in the future, I have taken most of that reply, added a bit to it, changed a few things that were specific to him, and am now posting it as a blog to which I can direct future inquires:
About getting into tattooing...
Ahhhhh, where do I start.
I guess with: if you truly love it and it's what you need to do, you'll find a way to do it. If it's not, it's best to leave it alone.
It doesn't just consume your life, it becomes your life. Right now, with 2 kids and all, I'm really contemplating hanging up my machines and getting a "square" job with benefits and a pension and stuff. Tattooing is a fabulous single man's life. Not so great for a family man- late nights, uncertain income, no health care, etc, etc, not to mention if you want to make a "name" for yourself you have to travel a lot (which I loved, back in the day) and socialize and self promote at all the "right" places and events (which I always hated).
Furthermore, the money is being spread too damn thin these days, with every vo-tech drop out watching Miami Ink thinking they could be the next hot shit tattooer, buying a starter kit, and fucking up all their friends. They're taking $ out of professionals' pockets while creating ugly, unsanitary tattoos (and animosity towards tattooing.) Honestly, after almost 10 years in the business, I'm earning LESS THAN HALF of what I earned my first year tattooing. Partly cuz of all the new "ink slingers" out there, but also partly because with a family and all, I can't go hang out at clubs and bars and drum up business with "the cool kids" who are spending serious money for good tattoos. I'm not part of "the scene", as it were.
With all that said...
If you're serious and committed, like I said, you will find a way. Here is some advice for some dos and don'ts.
First and foremost, DO get a real apprenticeship with a real tattooer. Not everyone who tattoos, or even everyone who owns a tattoo shop, or even several shops, is worthy of training an apprentice. There are a lot of unscrupulous people who will just take you on as free labor, teach you nothing, and kick you out the door in a year or so. There are also people who think they are a lot better than they really are, and who want the ego trip of having an apprentice, who will teach you CRAP- which is worse than teaching you nothing. There are also well inentioned people who just can't teach.
A general guideline is that if someone offers you an apprenticeship right off the bat, or really easily, they're probably not qualified to take on an apprentice.
It took me 13 years from the time I decided I wanted to tattoo to the time I found a mentor.
Also, if they charge you a fee upfront (usually 5-10,000 bucks) stay away. They're crooks.
don't go to a "tattoo school" either. They're just highly motivated crooks.
Find a shop that has good artists working in it. Get a lot of tattoos from them. Hang around the shop. Pop in just to say hi and stuff. Maybe bring in a pizza. DON'T start asking about an apprenticeship on day 1. Wait until you know they are good, ethical, and above all else, CLEAN tattooers, and THEY know that you are serious about tattoos. Also be sure that they are people you could imagine spending all day, every day with. Cuz if you get an apprenticeship, you will be joined at the hip to someone for a good while.
Most shops won't allow employees to have apprentices- only the shop owner. Others will. It depends on the owner.
Keep in mind, by asking a tattooer to apprentice you, you are asking them to create competition for themselves. Don't get pissy if they don't want to do that. If you make it through an apprenticeship and become a tattooer, you'll be reluctant to do it, too...
Put together a good portfolio. Nothing looks more half assed than just a notebook or sketchbook with a bunch of drawings in it, even if they're GOOD drawings! Put some effort into presentation. Have works in different media- tattooers love to see watercolors in particular- but as many different media as you can muster.
If you have experimented with tattooing your friends with home-made machines and stuff, FOR GOD'S SAKE, DO NOT INCLUDE THE PICTURES IN YOUR PORTFOLIO!!! Trust me, they look like crap, no matter how bitchin' your friends told you they think they are.
Seriously, have someone who doesn't care if they hurt your feelings evaluate your portfolio before you take it into a tattoo shop. Friends and family think you're great, regardless of whether you suck or not. Tattooers still have a bit of pirate left in them, and won't hesitate to tell you you suck.
If you suck, please stop.
Find something you ARE good at to do, that WON'T fuck people up forever.
DO NOT buy a starter kit and try to teach yourself!!!!!!
I can't emphasise this point enough.
Most especially if the starter kit includes the book "Tattooing from A-Z" by Huck Spaulding. It contains a lot of outdated, bad, and deliberately false information.
"Teaching" yourself how to tattoo will instill in you a LOT of bad habits that are very hard to overcome if you later receive proper training. More importantly, you really really really need proper training in blood borne pathogens control. Giving someone Hepatitis not only fucks their life forever, it fucks all tattooers and tattooing, too... I have yet to see a starter kit that includes an autoclave. An autoclave is THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT piece of equipment a tattooer can have. If you don't have access to one, don't fucking do tattoos. Period. End of discussion.
I'm sure there is more info I should be telling you here, but it's not jumping to mind- my typing is so slow because of how tattooing has fucked my wrists and arms up, now my hands can't keep up with my thinking.
Oh, so yeah, if you start tattooing, be sure to do a LOT of stretching- particularly in your wrists and fingers, and be very concientious of your posture. Get a massage therapist and a chiropractor. Do it BEFORE you're all fucked up and crippled.
Tattooing has been very good to me. It has also been very hard on me. I accept the good with the bad.
It ain't all sunshine and blowjobs, like you see Kat Von Douche doing it on TV. Don't believe the hype. You're not going to be famous.
Turn your TV off, and draw.
Draw a lot.
Look at source material OTHER than tattoos. Throw out your tattoo magazines.
Look at fine art books throughout the ages. Look at R. Crumb comix. Look at coloring books. Look at graphic design and advertising. Billboards in particular. Look at any and all visual forms of communication, and see if you can comprehend why they work, or why they fail.
Anyway... if this is your calling, this info should help get you on the right path. If it's what you need to do, I wish you the best of luck.
If you're not born to this, devoted to this, MEANT for this... it will chew you up and spit you out. It is a very hard life to start, to maintain, and to succeed at.
You have been warned.
If there's anything else you'd like to know, please feel free to ask.
Oh, and one last thing- don't be a junkie. No one likes junkies, and there are too damn many of them fucking up the industry already.
Partying occasionally is fine, but know your limits. Stick to beer and weed. Don't get wasted if you're supposed to tattoo the next day.
Suddenly earning loads of cash on a daily basis, and being a "cool guy" that everyone wants to party with, has gone to more people's heads than I could ever possibly count. Don't become just another also-ran, cuz you confused "tattoo artist" with "rock star".