If you have been dabbling in tattoo culture for a while you have probably come across the term “scratcher”. What are tattoo scratchers exactly? Well according to Urban Dictionary a scratcher is, “An untalented tattoo artist. A tattoo artist who scratches up your skin rather than applying a clean smooth looking tattoo. “ amongst other colorful definitions.
As tattooing has gained tremendous popularity and publicity many unskilled persons have flooded this previously exclusive field to try their hand and make a few bucks. Back even 10 years ago the road to becoming a tattoo artist was a long one. First you had to find an established artist willing to teach you the trade – not an easy process. The number of people wanting to learn tattooing skills far outweighs the number of skilled artists willing and able to take on an apprentice.
Not sure what an apprenticeship is? Here is wikihow’s terrifyingly incomplete 15 Steps (with pictures!) What makes this so off base? For starters the underselling of the amount of time required to learn this skill set. The average apprenticeship can last 1 – 5 years depending on your dedication, inherent talent and a variety of other factors. Bigtattooplanet.com gives a much more realistic glance at this process here
So if you clicked over you might be thinking, “Damn, learning how to tattoo seems like a long, hard road.” and you would be right. This is an exceptionally nuanced skill set that delivers an end product that becomes a permanent part of someone’s life; it is worth the effort. So what about all these scratchers? What is up with that?
Well not too long ago you couldn’t really buy proper tattoo equipment without being an established artist. Most artists also made their own equipment or at least modified existing equipment to meet their own styles and standards. How to properly tattoo was a closely guarded secret that established artists passed on only to those they felt were worthy. Of course this was not the case for every artist all the time but by and large the world of tattooing did an excellent job of building their trade slowly and with care.
Did they shut out some deserving people because they didn’t “fit the mold?” – certainly. Especially in regards to women tattooers; but overall tattooing stayed in a fairly tight knit group that protected their craft from encroachers and hacks. Then a few things happened.
The first volley came from TV. Miami Ink followed by L.A. Ink lit up the reality TV landscape and introduced the world of tattooing to millions of viewers; many of whom had never set foot in a shop. The combination of good and often excellent ink coupled with personal stories, drama and girls proved to be catnip to television audiences and began to shift public opinion of people with tattoos and especially tattoo artists.
By the time L.A. Ink went off the air Kat Von D – a respectably talented tattoo artist – had literally become the most famous tattoo artist in the world largely based on her media presence more than her portfolio. The reality train kept running and now we are awash in these shows and the voyeurism and show boating they foster.
Some shows are better than others and some very respectable artists have either received a much deserved boost in their careers (London Reese, Teresa Sharpe) or had the spotlight shined on their already well-established and well-deserved excellent reputations (Hannah Aitchison, Kim Saigh, Joe Capobianco) but over-all these programs have proved to be a shit show for the tattoo community as it created a huge groundswell of wanna-bes trying to “get in on the action” hoping to become famous and make a million.
Let me just say right now that being a tattoo artist is a lousy way to become a millionaire. This is a difficult and demanding job that requires thousands of hours of commitment to the craft. But Reality TV has nothing to do with reality. Now we have thousands of people picking up machines and giving it a go without going through a proper apprenticeship. This explosion in interest in tattooing led to the second volley – the demystifying of purchasing tattoo equipment.
A quick search on ebay or Amazon (so not linking to that)will offer tons of cheaply made, inexpensive tattooing equipment and “how to” videos. What’s wrong with that you ask? Imagine being able to buy dental equipment on ebay with a how to video…ahhh shit – you actually CAN buy dental equipment on ebay! The point is having the right equipment does not deliver the skill and proper safety measures. Watching a video is a far cry from learning directly from a skilled professional. You don’t really want your teeth drilled by a guy who got his kit on ebay and watched a video do you? Then why would you want a tattoo from a similarly “trained” “tattooer”?
The final volley? The marketplace. When anything becomes extremely popular the knock-off artists will rush in and offer cheap imitations of the real thing for a fraction of the price. Purses, watches, shoes and yes – tattoos all fall prey to these types of scammers. Maybe you don’t mind having an inexpensive knock-off PRADA purse but how will you feel about that $20 tattoo that looks like crap?
There are some things you should NOT try to save money on. Dental surgery is one and so is tattooing. Shop around for a tattoo artist you can afford that offers a strong portfolio? Sure. Go to a cheap scratcher and hope your screaming eagle tattoo looks like the picture? No.
But wait you say – plenty of really excellent tattoo artists have started off as scratchers! And you would be right. Sort of. Many highly respected artists – including some of the best in the world – have stared their careers tattooing out of their kitchens. Right now there are many tattooers working out of unlicensed home shops offering fairly solid work in a clean environment but as the consumer you have to be very wary.
The now established artists who started out working in their kitchens and tattooing friends also dedicated hundreds of hours learning their trade and increasing their skill set. Most if not all moved on from their humble beginnings to proper apprenticeships and learned a large part of their skills at the side of a qualified mentor. It is OK to start small and humble as a tattooer but once you have decided this is the career for you you owe it to yourself and your future clients to up your game and get some formal training. There really are no short cuts.
Next week I’ll talk about tattoo schools and how the industry feels about them and also what types of laws are being passed to limit or eradicate scratching – and why this is important and necessary. So hold off on that $20 tattoo for a few more days because you should ALWAYS Think Before You Ink