By Jason Sweet
Professional associations; most professions have them. Tradesmen have unions, Doctors have the American Medical Association, Dentists have the American Dental Association, the National Basketball Association, the Professional Golf Association, The American Motorcycle Association; the list could continue for many pages.
Tattooing has two professional associations of its own. The National Tattoo Association (NTA), and the Alliance or Professional Tattooists (APT). This article is part one of two, regarding tattooing’s own professional organizations. Part One will focus on the Nation Tattoo Association. Some members of the NTA are members of the APT as well, but the two groups are distinctly different in focus and therefore deserve individual attention.
I often have felt pretty lucky to be able to call the tattoo artist who gave me my break in tattooing my mentor. He is a pretty well-known tattooist; whom I knew nothing about when I met him. I just knew that he was a friendly guy who I asked to teach me to tattoo. He said NO for six months, but still encouraged me to continue my search for an apprenticeship and offered to help me achieve that end. During my search in the early days of my relationship with him, I would tell him that every shop I have tried to get into is telling me No, because there are too many people tattooing already. He said that was nonsense and that tattooing was wide open for newcomers. Eventually, he agreed to help me become a tattooist.
Most of my career I have thought it was luck. Maybe it was. Maybe it was lucky for me, and service for him? He is a member of the National Tattoo Association. His positive attitude of the “glass half full” instead of “half empty” was the reason I kept coming back to him. After I had been tattooing for about a year professionally, he encouraged me to go to one of the NTA tattoo conventions. I explained to him that I was not a member, and he told me that it did not matter. Anyone who is a tattoo artist was welcome at the convention and most of the tattoo seminars were included in the price of registration. I looked up the convention and saw that Jack Rudy, Brian Everett and Ed Hardy would be giving seminars on tattooing, and these were just the big names.
I went to the convention and there were hundreds of people attending. The convention went on for six days, with the first four days dedicated to social functions. In those early days of my tattooing career, I found this particular convention very informative, but outside of that, I had no reason to join this organization. I was busy tattooing and the business was overwhelming to me at the time. I was simply treading water and trying to figure it all out. I talked to a few tattooists about membership in the NTA and if it was even worth it. Several people I talked to told me it was pointless. I was told rumors that someone had to die before they would let me become a member. A few people talked a bunch of shit.
Why should I spend $50 a year for some newsletters? What is the point for me to become a member of a professional organization? What will it get me? The last question is probably the most important one. What about me?
That thought process was exactly the problem. What about me? Actually, who really cares about me?
This is where professional organizations become an important part if tattooing. The NTA offers a lot more than simply “membership” in a trade organization; they offer friendship and social outlet than cannot be found anywhere else in tattooing. As tattooists, we live in a unique world; a world where we cannot go down to the local bar like some 9-5’er and unload our problems about work to the bartender, often because we tattooed that bartender and half the customers in the bar. If we start grousing about miss-spellings and customers that would not just shut up for five minutes or the cheap skates that keep coming through the door, we might scare everybody off.
The National Tattoo Association was founded in 1976 by the owners of National Tattoo Supply, as a social organization. Originally called the National Tattoo Club of the World, the organization was unofficial and had no requirements for membership; not even dues. In 1978, through the urging of friends and members, the National Tattoo Club of the World was officially created as a non-profit organization. The first Officers were Philadelphia Eddie, President, Don Makofske, Vice President and Flo Makofske, Secretary/Treasurer.
I recently sat down with Flo and she described some of the history of the NTA to me.
“We originally had National Tattoo Supply. We started the National Tattoo Club of the World in 1976 as a way to pay back the tattoo community that had given us so much. We wanted to promote tattooing as a legitimate art form. However, I want to add, that we are not a political organization. It was started as a social club,” Flo said.
Flo continued, “The National Tattoo Club of the World started out as a newsletter that promoted tattooing to other tattooists. You needed to be recommended by two members to prove you were a legitimate tattooist. Eventually, as the organization grew, the National Tattoo Club of the World decided to change it’s name to the National Tattoo Association. In 1984, Shotsie Gorman had suggested that the National Tattoo Club of the World was not a great name. The name National Tattoo Association was created.”
The NTA has gone through some changes over the years. Originally, a prospective member had to be recommended by two tattoo artist members and the membership was capped at 1000. At the time, there were only about 300 tattooists in the whole country, so 1000 seemed like a lot. Eventually as the popularity of tattooing increased and the membership reached capacity, the NTA voted to create an associate membership category. The prospective members would have to be associates for three years before getting membership. The membership cap was removed, the associate membership period was ended and the requirement of being recommended by two members was reduced to one member recommendation. Today, to become a member, one must simply fill out the application form along with a member recommendation and pay the yearly dues.
The NTA hosted it’s 35th annual convention in Garden Grove, CA in 2014. When they held their first tattoo convention, nothing like it existed in the tattoo world. There had been other tattoo conventions held, but they were far and few. In 1979, they put on their first tattoo convention in Denver, Colorado. They sat down and discussed some ground rules. It was decided that the convention would be to promote tattooing only. It would have social events and tattooing, but no tattoo suppliers would be allowed (a rule that still stands today).
Flo explained the reason the tattoo convention was created. “The tattoo convention gives tattooists a chance to socialize with their forerunners in tattooing. Years ago when you wanted to learn something new in tattooing, it was almost impossible to get any information out of anyone. It was hush-hush and secret. We decided to have seminars to pass on knowledge to each generation of tattooists and to help promote tattooing as a viable art form. Now, we refer to the annual convention as “The Family Reunion.””
The tattoo convention is arguably the embodiment of the NTA. Tattooists from the generations of tattooing attend the show. The convention the NTA promotes, allows us, as tattooists to get together in a non-judgmental forum. A place to get together and talk about the unique lives we live as tattooists. The tattooists who attend the convention put on by the NTA have very little concern for whether you are a “name” in tattooing; they simply want to know your name. Tattooists who have been tattooing 10-15 years find themselves as babies in the pecking order. The modern trailblazers of tattooing attend this show. You have such tattooists like Jack Rudy and Brian Everett, who could be considered old timers in their own right, with the previous generation of tattooists like Good Time Charlie Cartwright sandwiched in between them. There is so much experience at this show that it can be overwhelming. Rather than judge one another from afar, the tattooists drink and play and dance until the wee hours of the morning every day. The convention is six days long, with the first four being dedicated to parties, seminars, a charity golf tournament that anyone can play in, regardless of experience or lack thereof and many other social events that vary from year to year. Friday is the day of contest judging. No tattooing is done on this day so everyone can attend the contests. All registered members are encouraged to participate in the judging. The contestants are paraded in front of the audience, then a panel of tattooist judges and finally to a photographer for modeling. Many tattooists brought several of their clients along for the contests. Following the banquet, the awards were given to the winners of each tattoo category.
Saturday and Sunday are tattooing and more seminars. Saturday night is a banquet that everyone attends in formal dress. Most people wear suits or evening gowns. After the banquet dinner, is the awards ceremony where the awards from the contests on Friday are given away. One plaque is awarded in each category for, “People’s Choice” and “Artists Choice.” Additional awards were given to “Enthusiast” of the year, achievement awards were given for service to the tattoo community and money raised through fundraising activities were given to members who had fallen on hard times or had medical problems. Finally, on Sunday evening is the yearly roast; where an NTA member tattooist is roasted by his or her peers.
The yearly convention is very enlightening and positive. Everyone is incredibly friendly and virtually no one cares if you are famous or just a tradesman tattooist. Stars of television give the same respect to everyone that they are afforded. The old timers are given the respect they deserve from everyone. Anyone attending knows and is comfortable with their place. No one is looking to be doted upon. Quite to the contrary, they are volunteering their time to help run the convention or teaching seminars about tattooing.
The idea of giving back to tattooing through service to one’s community is a cornerstone of the NTA. The modern trailblazers of tattooing give back by volunteering. Many of the members volunteer their time to help run the NTA or the NTA tattoo convention. Every aspect of the convention is run by volunteer members. The tattoo convention is literally a “convention run by tattooists for tattooists.” Many of the members give seminars on everything from pigment mixing, how to run a business, dealing with difficult clients, needle making, tattooing techniques, politics and political legislation in tattooing, machine mechanics, just to name a few. The members of the NTA know that they need to pass on the valuable information they have learned over the years to insure the art form continues to grow and the younger tattooists have all the tools they could need to move the business of tattooing forward. The tattooists volunteer their time to help their fellow tattooists in hard times as well as further tattooing by sharing their knowledge. Rather than selfishly keeping that knowledge for themselves to prevent other tattooists from learning their secrets; the tattooists at the NTA show realize that if they don’t share their knowledge with the new generations, the art and business will not move forward and tattooing as we know it today, would perish.
Mike Martin, owner of Flesh Skin Graphics Tattoo in Imperial Beach, California, whom has over 30 years’ experience tattooing, explained why he has been a member of the NTA for 25 years.
“The National Tattoo Association is more of a social organization. The beauty of the NTA is that is helps members when they have a problem. There is a scholarship fund and there is the Colonel Todd Hardship fund. At the awards dinner this year, we gave an NTA member $15000, who is terminally ill. The money was raised through contributions from our members. The NTA is also publishing a book of member art to help the member’s family after he passes away, to insure his family is not left homeless.
I personally was involved in a motorcycle accident and injured severely, and the NTA gave me $3500 to help me get back on my feet. The NTA is definitely an extended family. I have made lifelong friends through the NTA.”
In the last 20 years, tattooing has grown by leaps and bounds. It is literally in our homes weekly through the power of television and the internet via social media. The NTA has done everything in its power to adapt and change with the times. However, the older generation of tattooists can only do so much. What fuels tattooing and its future is the younger up and coming generations. Many of the older tattooists such as former NTA President, Bob Shaw, Terry Wrigley and Colonel Todd have passed away and many more are getting on in years. The NTA realizes that young people are the future of tattooing and is actively encouraging new membership.
If you are reading this article and are interested in more information on the NTA, becoming a member, or attending the tattoo convention, please visit the website: www.nationaltattooassociation.com/ One of the best ways to meet the members of the NTA and see what they are all about before becoming a member, is too attend the annual Family Reunion Tattoo Convention.