By Jason Lambert
I guess that question is not exactly accurate, perhaps I should say “I think that most tattooers love their ideal of tattooing, but they hate the reality of tattooing.” I like to ask the “why” questions, and I have found that the easy answer is seldom ever the real answer…
For example: If you were to ask the average tattooer what is wrong with tattooing they might say something like it has lost the “magic” of when it was less popular, or that scratchers are too common, or that younger tattooers don’t try as hard, etc.
If you were to take all the complaints about what is “wrong” with tattooing and put them into one statement it might go something like this, “I don’t like that the reality of tattooing doesn’t match my ideal of tattooing.”
Whatever the gripe, however valid, whoever the questioner is, the basic gist is that tattooing, as it actually exists here and now, is far away from what that tattooers expectation of how tattooing “should” be.
So using that as my starting point I have to ask, “Is this gap between reality and ideal the real problem that tattooers have with tattooing?” When I talked to a number of tattooers, read numerous interviews, and really mulled this question over I came to some conclusions that surprised me. And since I have not heard them before, I suspect they may surprise you too.
I believe tattooers get so grumpy about the state of tattooing because (to quote the Righteous Brothers) they have “lost that lovin’ feeling.” You see, becoming a tattooer is often like asking a pretty girl (or guy) to marry us, many of us don’t feel that we are “in her/his league” and yet we go ahead and give it a go anyway, and surprise, surprise they say, “Yes!”
We are so happy just to be in the clubhouse called tattooing and so aware of how far we have to go to even be considered mediocre, that it’s like a honeymoon period with your new spouse; nothing is bad, they are perfect in every way, and you feel lucky just to be with them! You are literally living in an “ideal” world, that rare moment in our lives when our vision of reality is synched up with our experience!
So what happens next? Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that eventually your new spouse starts to look a little more human, his or her little quirks go from being cute to irritating, the magic starts to fade not because of anything you or your spouse do, but because the day-to-day reality steeps in. In tattooing this is the part where our dream job becomes just our job.
For tattooers all those little things that once seemed like no big deal become annoyances: The other guys in the shop play nothing but Norwegian death metal, someone keeps using all your tracing paper when you’re not there, the boss charges you a huge cut and yet you still have to buy your own gloves, customers demand stuff you don’t like tattooing, your ass gets fat (or flat), you still can’t bang-out masterpieces and you are living on take-out pizza because you don’t get home ’til 11pm. All of the sudden what was an amazing dream a few years ago feels kinda like. . . work.
When this happens in our metaphorical marriage you either do one of two things:
a) Learn to deal with your wife/husband as they really are and forget the dreamy “ideal” you believed in before.
b) You get mad that they are no longer that ideal you made up in your head! You blame them for all those new fights because “they aren’t the person I married anymore!”
This new reality often ends in divorce for marriages. The problem is that we really do love tattooing for all that it irritates us and for all that new-found sucky reality. We have given our hearts to the old girl so we can’t just walk away. When our ideals smack up against reality, reality always wins.
One of the ways we deal with this perfectly natural chain of events is to decide that somehow it is not “us” and our fantasies that have changed, it’s everyone else! We think, “It’s not my fault that tattooing isn’t a new, fun, exhilarating experience anymore it’s those guys that have ruined it for me!”
And “those guys” can be anything we want it to be; regulations, tattoo reality shows, scratchers, sleazy suppliers, dumb trends, whatever the gripe-du-jour, as long as it isn’t us then we can still cling to our unrealistic hope! The hope that if only all these things we don’t like about tattooing were to go away, that somehow, magically, it would all feel fresh and new to us again!
It won’t, it can’t. You can’t live your whole life in that first naive flush of excitement about entering a new world. The more we try to make tattooing fit our ideal, the more cynical and bitter we become. Of course tattooing isn’t perfect, and of course it could be better, but tattooing is just what it is, and it’s really not that different from before.
We can all change our little part of it, and if enough of us do that then it does get better… But complaining about it and hoping it magically goes back to our ideal just causes us to forget the love we first had when tattooing was our life and not just our job.
(Jason Lambert is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Jason can be found at Black Cat Tattoos in Pittsburgh, PA.)