By Ben Shaw
Tattooing is a passionate craft that some are blessed to do. And for the seriously dedicated it is a lifelong journey of progress and self reflection. To chase this dream is exciting! Especially when you find some measure of success and recognition with it. Being in high demand and consistently busy makes you feel great…for awhile. Then like anything we do day in and day out, it can become a job. The pros create some cons, and it takes on the form of work. We can find our passions waining or losing focus, and our purpose less defined.
Tattooing is popular. Lots of people want work and we can make a good living at this. Its gaining such recognition that we take on almost rock star status if we’re artistically talented enough. But even that doesn’t satiate the hole left by the day to day grind.
We were drawn to this craft by something deeper, more internal. Tattooing is an ancient craft, at the very least 5400 yrs. old says archeological findings. Personally I believe longer. Tattooing was done by tribal leaders and medicine men. There is a deeper potential to the craft that is lost in modern day high production and fad following. Doing tattoos with a high turnover rate, and not feeling the connection to the sacred process we’re involved in will turn this ancient prestigious craft into…a job.
How do the great modern day tattooers deal with these issues? If one has gone through the process of developing fame and success, stays consistently top notch and excels in the technical, esthetic and spiritual aspects of tattooing, they’re worth asking.
Who could fill these requirements and shine light on the issues of stagnation? Who can help guide and teach us to progress to a higher caliber of tattooing? I emailed the below questions to a few I believed could answer. To my surprise I received a prompt reply from the great Guy Aitchinson.
Rites of passage, healing, tribal status, endowment of protection…a tattooer’s purpose.
I’m not looking to get tattooed. Just want to get like minded tattoo artists to share how they translate our craft to the clientele. A small but growing niche of tattooers want to know what happens after we become successful tattoo artists… I know you are EXTREMELY busy. I hope it is the kind of busy you want. I feel like it’s time to inspire the Industry to grow past the consumerist rock star mentality chasing the next sponsorship and mag write up… Can you help me?
The short answer is that the process of becoming successful doesn’t really end at any point. Trust me, in some ways it becomes more challenging the more involved you become. But I get your drift. How does your role change once you’ve gained a reputation and are consistently as busy as you want to be?
If I’m reading you right, it seems that what you’re really getting at is, how do we keep ourselves focused on the important things- and what are those things? If you’re looking for the kind of success where you are doing the work you want while still putting food on the table, then this consists of several complimentary things: the client part, the art part, and the public part. All are essential for maintaining a strong career.
The client part is about both customer service and quality tattooing. The service part is key, like it or not- that part will keep them coming back as much as the art you’re putting on them. If they feel that you’ve listened to them and have given them the right tattoo as a result, that’s the kind of experience that breeds loyalty.
I bring this up because a lot of tattooers who are at that threshold of success seem to develop an attitude that might seem to others a little high-falootin’, to put it mildly. Maybe this is just a cover for the insecurity that comes with being at such a fast-paced and competitive stage in a career, but it’s ultimately going to be self-defeating.
People definitely will remember the way you make them feel. That will be imprinted on them within the tattoo itself. I’ve met plenty of people with nice ink that they don’t really like, because of a bad experience with the artist who did the piece. Often it’s about feeling disrespected.
Now, think about it: What is the purpose of getting tattooed? Of course this question doesn’t have a concrete answer, but a big part of it is that the person getting the tattoo work gets a little boost from it, a thing that makes them feel good about themselves. That’s one of the things that keeps them coming back again and again. So part of a tattooer’s purpose is to make people feel good about themselves. And that feeds right back into your own success, with repeat clients and positive word of mouth.
The client might come with an idea that has too many elements, or has a good theme but the specifics that they ask for are not artistically workable. From these pieces, the artist needs to find a solution that allows them to tap into their artistic strengths while still accommodating the client’s needs. There is an art to this, but at the core a lot of it is simply about being a good listener, talking respectfully with the client to find out the foundations of what they are hoping to get from their tattoo. If you’ve done that and talked them through the process of finding a more workable idea, rather than just telling them their idea is no good and suggesting a replacement- this difference is like night and day as far as the client’s experience is concerned.
One thing that a lot of newly successful up-and-coming artists seem to forget is that the client’s input is an asset, not a burden. Once an artist reaches a point where they have a developing style and are doing mostly custom work, that does not free them of the responsibility of working with the client’s needs. It simply means that the client should be aware of that artist’s style and be coming to them with an appropriate project. From there, the artist has the task of taking inspiration from the client’s request. So, I would say that this is another part of a tattooer’s purpose: To work with the client in translating their ideas into something that will look good on skin. With regular clients, this relationship can reach a point where the client needs to say very little for the artist to know just what to do. This is an ideal situation which usually only arises after working with a client over the course of a few projects, but is well worth all the hard work.
So those are two of the major points concerning the service end of your question, which is all about what happens between you and your client. The actual tattooing is the next important part, and that’s a topic you could never fit between the covers of just one magazine. Improving your work is such a big topic that it’s hard to know where to begin. But if you are in the up-and-coming stage, you already know how to draw. You have sufficient command of the tattoo medium to build a good portfolio and get plenty of return business. So it’s about building from there.
One thing I always recommend is to pay close attention to which projects you like best, or what parts of your better tattoos seem to stand out the most. This is a way of identifying your strengths, which can in turn inform you in terms of where to push yourself next.
It’s about finding your interests- the right subject matter should have the double advantage of being enjoyable for you to do, while producing some of your best work. It may take some repetition, but if it’s a subject you enjoy, this repetition should be fun and should remain interesting to you.
If these subjects of interest don’t seem obvious to you at first, you just need to get out more. One big mistake is to spend too much time looking at other tattoo work. It’s nice to see what’s being done in the world, but your influences need to be far broader than that. If you start to develop an interest in Victorian ornament, don’t just look at ornamental tattoos- get some books on Victorian ornament. Redraw some of the stuff you see in there, translate it, make it your own. Then take a field trip: Hit up some local architectural wonders, bring a camera and a sketchbook, see it from your own unique perspective instead of through someone else’s lens. Make some art pieces from your own hand-picked photos. Dive into the subject and see what you do with it.
So I would say that this is a third part of our purpose as tattooers: To develop our own styles, to discover what we do best so we can share this vision with our clients and give them the best that we have to offer. But how can we translate all this hard work into some kind of career success?
This answer is multifaceted, and changes every year as the media scene keeps evolving. But at the core of it all is the common meeting ground that has been bringing tattooers from all over the world together for decades: The tattoo convention scene. During my apprenticeship, I was lucky enough to have a boss who wanted to see what was happening outside Chicago, so we were going to conventions pretty much right from the beginning of my time there. In the course of meeting all the incredible people at these events I learned that there are a lot of right ways to tattoo, and that the tattoo medium had more possibilities that any of us could have ever imagined. These first few events I attended set the pace for my whole career, which in due time would bring me through hundreds of different events: Tattooing, teaching, learning, hanging out with other artists.
Some artists feel that the conventions are a waste of time, since most shops that have booths there are lucky to break even and many go home financially in the red. But this misses the point of being there. Of course it’s nice to stay busy on the floor so people can see you at work and are attracted over to the booth so they’ll take a look at your portfolio, maybe buy a shirt or something. The time we spend working on the floor is for many purposes, and making money is only one of them. Many artists attending the shows can easily stay just as busy in their shop, so why travel?
There are a lot of incentives for this, once you get past the financial part. There’s the social aspect of it, which is not only enjoyable, but can put you face to face with great tattoo work that you’ve never seen before, or put you in a barstool next to someone who an hour of conversation later has invited you to do a guest spot at their shop. It’s the real flesh-and-blood social networking, the kind that’s been around since long before we had our smartphones, and there’s nothing that compares with it. In addition, you’ll have the chance to take informative seminars, collaborate with others, watch live art performances and countless other things.
It’s all about keeping a progressive attitude toward your art, something that keeps you developing and evolving. That would be another part of our purpose as tattooers: To cultivate an open and forward-thinking outlook on art and tattooing, a perspective that keeps us growing instead of stagnating. And there’s nothing wrong with getting a magazine article here and there- that doesn’t in itself mean a rock star mentality, it’s just good publicity. Just don’t let a little success get to your head, because it won’t last if you get too comfortable.
I hope this at least partially answers your question. It’s something that a whole book could be written about, and it was challenging enough to compress it down to just a couple pages. Keep your mind open and your standards high, and you should do just fine. Remember that hard work is nothing to be afraid of, and can in fact be quite enjoyable if it’s the right kind of work. The learning never stops…
I am deeply honored my question spawned such a truly masterful answer. Your teaching style is impeccable. Very precise, understandable and all encompassing. I’ve read this column several times over and I am now dissecting it to extract the essence of your wisdom.