By Dan Henk
You know, I’m probably going to draw plenty of flak for this, but it’s not the first time, I doubt it will be the last time, and in all seriousness, I honestly don’t care.
I came from a punk rock back background. In high school I had a blue mohawk, painted up spiky leather jacket, and combat boots. And this was in conservative Virginia back in 1989. I was the guy that painted everyone’s leather jackets. I did the fliers for my friend’s bands. The political cartoons for their fanzines. All under the watchful eyes of the Fairfax County police, who have mug shots of me with at least 5 different hairstyles, and a file cabinet full of fabricated charges that sometimes kept me in the drunk tank overnight. I had a super christian,military dad that made me go to a psychiatrist every week and threw my brother in a mental institution. He’s a recovering junky now. I turned 18 and he kicked me out of the house and moved. To another country. I spent 8 months homeless. Like living in the woods, with a rock as my pillow, homeless.
I’m not saying all of this to cry “oh poor me”. Life is what you make of it. I went from washing dishes and being a bicycle messenger, to putting myself through art school and eventually becoming a tattoo artist that could actually pay his bills, do art for a living, and actually make it into a slew of books and magazines, both for my tattooing and my illustration.
And you know what? For the first time, I didn’t feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I wasn’t being fired for shaving my head. I wasn’t having to pretend like I actually gave a fuck about the people coming in the door to some corporate place I would never be caught dead in If I didn’t work there, like a tool.
I do art for a living. I honestly don’t know what I would do otherwise. I could see myself not tattooing, like as in being a painter, or a writer, or a comic artist. All things that I enjoy and do now as well. But I couldn’t pull the whole 9-5, corporate lackey bit. In fact, I don’t even understand the mindset that makes that acceptable. Which brings me to my point.
To me, tattooing is an exciting, dangerous, challenging, subversive culture full of peaks and valleys. I love to be a part of it. I listen to metal at the shop, wear what I like, and work on an appointment schedule that I set up. Now, we all know tattooing has changed. In fact, it has evolved over the ages from a witch doctor performing a tribal custom, to a fashionable European trend that involved importing Maori villagers, to the current mass of everything from that kitchen scratcher to the high dollar custom tattoo artist with a wait over a year.
People get into the industry for hugely varied reasons, but it seems to me they eventually fall into one of two categories. Those who just want to make a living, and the eccentrics. The iconoclasts.
I’ve worked at over 12 shops, guest spotted at plenty more, and there are plenty of people that just do it as a living. They might have a tattoo or two, if nothing else just to be part of the group, but their main interest is a high flow of traffic in the shop. Some put out a quality product. Some even have quite a bit of skill. A few are exceptional. But if they were offered a better paying job, they would drop tattooing like a hot potato. They might like the notoriety that follows being skilled at something, but that’s like winning the high school MVP trophy for being good at a sport, and they look at it almost the same.
Now there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s a fairly modern development, and a sign of the changing times. I just have nothing in common with these people. And my guess is, that the tattoo artists from the turn of the last century, the legends like Sailor Jerry and Mike Mallone, were the same way. It wasn’t possible to be accepted by society when you were doing, much less covered by, tattoos back then. And you certainly didn’t do it for the money. You did it because you had a drive to be yourself and fuck everyone else who didn’t understand you. You did art for a living. Personally, I couldn’t get up at the crack of dawn, put on that monkey suit, and shuffle off to serve the man every morning. I’d rather make no money doing what I love, than a fortune wasting my life on what I hate.
That’s my rant, take from it whatever you like. Everyone does anyhow.