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Dawn Cooke: Art School

Dawn Cooke: Art School

Warning: If you do not like opinionated strong-willed women you should not read this blog! Do yourself and me a favor and don’t waste our time.

So what does it mean to go to art school? Most art school students enter college right out of high school. A lot of them have parents who are paying for their tuition. Those who do not have parental support are relaying on loans, grants and scholarships (mainly loans). Those who don’t go right out of high school usually had some life circumstances that prevented them from going to college such as poor guidance, no money or no ambition, just to name a few.

In my case, I had all of those reasons for not going to college after high school. In fact I was married at 17 and dropped out of high school. I promptly went and got my adult high school diploma. And that sets the stage for what I am about to tell you…

I went to art school, I graduated with high honors and I walked across a stage in my cap and gown for the first time in my life. It felt really good to do that in that moment. Despite these thoughts, for once in my life I felt that I made some accomplishment. I did it on my own without the help from my parents. I raised my two children without the help of their father all the while.

I was very lucky to have my fiancé, who is the most supportive person I have ever known. And I did get to know some instructors who were very helpful to me. However, because I learned critical thinking skills in college I can’t help but think about how fantastic it all seemed, like some big Shakespearean stage performance.

I actually made it through this system and I feel the urgency to share my findings with all of you, tattoo artists and aspiring artists alike. Since I just graduated I am not yet sure what I will get out of it. I know I nearly killed myself doing it. At first, I just wanted to learn and be inspired.

I received enough scholarship money to get a free semester. After that semester I was hungry for more, so I got loans. Then I realized I was going into debt and I needed to have something to show for it. So I started to peruse the paper because I figured I should at least get the degree if I were already in debt for it. Lucky for me I had been tattooing almost 10 years when I started school. I already had a means to make a living doing work in an art related area. I started out with a trade skill as an artist and tattooing supported my family and me as it still does. In fact, I enjoy tattooing still. I just wanted to become a better artist. So I went to art school.

I did become a better artist however what art school doesn’t do is prepare artists for the reality of the market. In my experience there were few classes dealing with this subject and since we live in a monetary system you would think they would provide this kind of information for their students. The Fine Arts likes to pretend that the art world is this big secret mystical arena. The truth is you must find a market for your work and this is a problem for many artists starting out in an ill economy. Art is a luxury and a commodity for those object makers.

For those bullshitters (and by saying bullshitting I also recognize this as a skill) I don’t know what art is for them except for a philosophy. In that case, academia is the right place for you. It is the only shelter you will have in your career.  But if you are lucky some idiots with more money than taste will buy into your junk that you call art. And if they do, awesome for you!!! If they don’t, keep going to grad school and teach, and good luck getting a job teaching too, but keep trying anyway!

I know some really genuine teachers and some that just collect a paycheck. For the object makers, be prepared to have a large place to store your work until the right person comes along and starts buying your skillfully crafted junk.

Me, I believe in magic and I don’t care to think about reality too much anyway! So I will store my junk ’til the end of time just knowing that someone WILL want it someday and no one can tell me otherwise! Or maybe I will burn it all and dance around the fire, chanting to my own made up gods. Yes, art school is delusional too, just like religion and society in general!

As far as tattooing goes, artists come out of school with debt and no possible hope of paying back the loans in a depressed economy where there are fewer jobby-jobs and way more college graduates to compete with than in past decades. So many artists both skilled and not skilled think they can just jump into tattooing. As if, obviously a monkey can do it. I feel really sorry for these people, because they are so mislead.

First, just because you have some drawing skill doesn’t mean you will automatically be great at tattooing.

Secondly, these people have no one who IS skilled at tattooing to teach them.

So they become kitchen jockeys. However, some of these people are naturals, but few. Very few in comparison to those who are hacking people up. And some of those artists mentioned WILL make it and go on to be good tattoo artists, though few. The majority will never understand the tattoo culture or even care to as long as they can make a buck. For this I blame the schools for not helping students understand the market and the economy.

Art school kids aren’t the only people who think that tattooing is a good way to make a buck. Pretty much everyone who watches reality television thinks they can tattoo. I’m just pointing out the obvious, I guess, but I digress.

Back to my original point about art school… Here is where school is good: it promotes critical thinking, which is the foundation of positive progress in my opinion. Art school forced me to really question what I was doing and why I was doing it and pretty much everything. It also allowed me the time to spend focusing on building other skills. Most importantly, I met some people that I appreciate very much.

The interesting, and bittersweet thing about all that is that you really don’t need college to do any of it. The college just facilitates those kinds of happenings. Also, the facility at the college I attended was great, if you could take advantage of it. It is a trip to look back and realize that colleges are like any other business or government institution. Colleges that are private are in business. Colleges that are state ran schools are tied into the government. So it’s not that they are good or bad. It’s that art school doesn’t make any sense. Art doesn’t have to make sense. But art school is a business and it ought to make sense! It might as well be a business school except they don’t teach you business at art school when actually they should!

My best advice for art students is to sharpen some skills in a few focused areas, simultaneously finding a market or purpose for your work and study. If you have no skills, can’t write, draw, paint, sculpt, make shit and have no useful ideas… GO to business school, not art school. You would be wasting your time and money at art school. And for god sakes, don’t just try to tattoo because you think it is cool and you have no other way of making money! There are millions of ways to make money! Do yourself and the world a favor and invent a new way of making a buck! Use your creative thinking skills to make it happen.

If you must go to art school, the facilities and instructors are where you will see value in your experience. Find out what the alumni are doing and ask them about their experiences. Most people are going to want to steer you in the right direction. But really think about what you expect to get out of the experience. Write down your expectations. Part of fulfilling those expectations has to do with your commitment, but the other part has to do with how realistic your expectations are. You can’t have real expectations if you have no idea what you are in for.

So who needs art school? Good question. The answer: I don’t know? Just ’cause I went to art school don’t expect me to have any answers! Truth be told, I haven’t met a single person that has any real answers! That makes life exciting don’t you think? All this quest of knowledge and understanding and science is the closest thing we get to an answer to anything. Yet methods are proved and disproved all the time! What a topsy-turvy world! What do I do now that I don’t know anything? At least before I had beliefs and that is all I needed no matter now irrational! Who needs art school? Magic 8-Ball says, “ASK ME AGAIN LATER.”

For now, I am back at the shop full-time. I am setting up a workstation for myself at the studio and I will be traveling some. I have some great ideas and tons of projects to keep me busy and happy!

(Dawn Cooke is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine can be found at Depot Town Tattoo, 33 East Cross St. Ypsilanti, MI 48197 and


  1. Wow, really great post. I was led here by a tattoo artist friend and former illustration major buddy. We both poured thousands into a private art school, he became a tattoo artist, I went a different route, but sadly we are some of the very few from our class that are actually working artists. We had one “self-promo” class that taught me all the ways to promote and NOT get noticed. I’d have to agree that the time to focus on art was valuable as was the teaching staff, but was it really worth the debt? So many artists want to keep their heads in the clouds when it comes to the business side of things, (oh it just sucks the fun out of my art) but like you said, the school was a business! There are projects that come my way that may not necessarily be something I’m thrilled to work on, but how lucky am I to get to draw every day and earn a living from it? Anyhoo…sorry for the long comment, just really thrilled to see this post.

    • very well said! i have no business sense what so ever. I see all kinds of so called “tattooists” (they dont even want to be called artists) that make more money than talented “artists”. I just don’t like the way our system is set up. Money, Money, Money. Because of the economy, we have to deal with…”Buy one, Get one FREE” bullshit in the city I live in. Seriously, thats what it has come to. $20 tattoos right down the street. and it seems there is no educating the public, they are blind.

      • Mike,
        It is our job as Tattoo artists to teach the public every day in a kind and polite way that the art and tradition of tattooing is valuable and it’s practitioners are different and more learned than the scratcher dow the street. We can be proud of who we are and value our work without being rude about it. :) But it does suck that one has to compete with those “deals”…..Maybe I will meditate on that and write my next blog about it.

    • Thanks for the comment! It is cool that this blog has reached you and that you are not a tattoo artist. Really cool. Thanks for the feedback. It is good to hear what other artists in different fields are doing.

  2. kellie fredericks

    I am a grandma with a grand daughtrer who wants to be a tattoo artist. She wants to go to a very prestigious fine arts school. So being older and more experienced My research has led me here. I am so greatfull to have an experienced artist account of school. My instincts have been againts this as a pathway to tattoo artistry and so I have sent my girl to this blog and TAM in general as a source of real life info. I will support her in her career path but not by throwing money in a direction that will not be very helpfull in achieving her goal. Thanx again, mamaw

  3. Dawn,

    I am seventeen years old, I just recently decided on my career path as a tattoo artist. I’m still undecided when it comes to art school or if I want to just do another form of college for back up reasons.

    I’ve been, recently, promised that If I decided to intern under some famous tattoo artist and I had to pay for it, no matter the cost, it would be paid for me. I was wondering, if paying for an internship seems wrong to you? I already understood this from the beginning that some interns have to pay while others don’t have to pay but also don’t get paid. I don’t really mind any of those options.

    I want to become a tattoo artist not because I want to make money or be famous or anything like that. I want to translate my art onto skin. I got my first tattoo when I was fourteen as a way of self healing for a loved one that passed and I want that same form of therapy to help others, because thats what it was to me. Healing.

    So, is it wrong, in your very honest opinion, to pay near ten grand for internship or do you think it’s worth it?

    • Oh Man Jasmine!!! The mother in me says one thing and the tattoo artist in me says another thing. First off jasmine youmust understand that what you see on reality television is not a true representation of the art or culture of the tattoo world. Not everyone gets tattooed because it will heal them or help them. Some do, but most don’t. I have talked many times about th ereasons people get tattooed and there are too many to discuss here. The mother in me doesn’t want to crush your dreams, so i will not do that. The tattoo artist in me wants to tell you the truth, so I will do that and try not to be a dream crusher. Most people who get into tattooing struggle to find thier way in. You can never just buy a good apprenticeship no matter how much loot you have. You need to be rooted in the cultiure to find a way in. Also you are 17!!! you aren’t even old enough to get a tattoo in most states! Wait longer and get a little older and get a bunch more tattoos first by artists who you admire, then make the choice once you really know something about it! If you have access to all that money you shouldn’t spend it frivilously! Art school is good for people who still need to sharpen thier skills and gain life experience. For you maybe art school would be good, more so if you have parents who will pay for it and not leave you in debt!!!!! Go to School Jasmine! Mama’s don’t let you babies grow up to be tattooers!!!!!!!!

  4. As discouraging as that is to read, it doesn’t deter me from my dreams. I still want to become a tattoo artist no matter how hard it is to become one. I rarely ever base what I say on telivision as I don’t watch much… maybe an hour in a week. I base tattoos off of the ones I have. I currently have two, my first one I got when I was fourteen. They were both matters of self-healing. I know not all tattoos are meant for this process, but I know some are, whether it be self-healing or appreciation of art or whatever reason it is, I want to tattoo people. My whole family is very supportive of this… and if they weren’t it wouldn’t matter anyways.

  5. Hi Kiddo, I loved your blog. Very honest. I know how hard you struggled with being a mom, wife, student and artist. I’m happy that going to school helped you in some areas. But you have always been a great artist ever since you were very young. You are fortunate that you where born with this awesome talent. I still treasure the 1 piece of art I have from your early days.

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