Yesterday I drove my soon to be 15 year old daughter and her friend to the mall. In between listening to rock music and basking in the awkward silence that only teenagers can provide my daughters friend mentioned she definitely wanted to get a tattoo and asked me what age she needed to be. Instead of giving her a straight answer I (hopefully) scared her straight and convinced her NOT to get a tattoo anytime soon – preferably not until her 20’s at the earliest. Why? Why would I put the brakes on a form of personal expression I personally hold so dear? Two words. Tattoo Scratchers.
My daughters friend mentioned how she knew a girl who bought a machine off of ebay and was starting to tattoo. Insert shudder here. Minors and those barely old enough to get tattooed represent a juicy chunk of the market and there are many unethical and poorly trained “artists” or more accurately – scratchers out there ready to pounce. What did I tell this nice young girl about tattoos? I gently pointed out that whatever she thought was cool at 18 probably wouldn’t seem so cool 10 years out but the MAIN reason was the quality of the work.
Learning how to tattoo well takes time, patience, perseverance and dedication. Qualified tattoo artists charge a decent amount because they are worth it. Period. There are all sorts of things to try to save money on – tattooing is not one of them. The ability to hold the machine correctly and get the ink deep enough to hold but not deep enough to cause trouble is a subtle and tricky skill that takes years of practice. Literally. Yes, some people take to a tattoo machine like a duck to water but that is not the average experience – and it shows in the work of beginners.
Enter the “Tattoo School”. A tattoo school allows a beginner to take a pass on the whole apprenticeship thing and be shown the basics of tattooing in a matter of weeks or months – for a price. Google tattoo schools and you will see dozens upon dozens of responses. Many of the schools promise to be the Only REAL tattoo school. Some are on sunny beaches. Some are in strip malls. ALL mention how much $$$$$ you can make tattooing and present their course work as a fast and easy way to learn this lucrative trade. So what is wrong with that?
Wellll – quite a bit. This article from TAM – while not a great piece of journalism – is interesting for the comment section. There is a lot of passion around this tattoo school thing. People who have broken into the tattoo world the time-honored way do not want to see the door flung wide for any bozo with a machine and a certificate. Many would be tattoo artists are frustrated about the lack of apprenticeships and the difficulty of getting hired. Both sides are right. But here is a thought. How many tattoo artists does the world need anyways?
There is also a backlash in the tattoo world about this “shortcut”. Over the years as a waitress I have seen many would be bartenders apply for a job and proudly mention they had attended bartending school. Without fail if you put down “bartending school” under experience your application got filed in the trashcan. Why? It is not the right way to go about it. You have to learn on your feet, pay your dues, learn from an experienced bartender etc. etc. And that is just pouring a damn drink!
Many shops look askance at tattoo schools because of the end run they offer around the more arduous and traditional form of training most artists endure. Quality is not guaranteed nor is skill. Just the basics in safety and application. This is the kind of thing you would learn as an apprentice and then you would go on to learn the subtly of the craft. These schools don’t do the subtle part – just the nuts and bolts. Guy Aitchison – a world renown tattoo artist – gives an honest and thoughtful response to attending a tattoo school and how it may help/hinder your career.
Any time a trade or craft feels exclusive and exclusionary there will always be people banging on the door for access. In medieval times guilds were established for every conceivable trade including baking, carpentry, stone masonry and harness making. Members of the guilds were very protective of their trade and new members were only admitted through a rigorous apprenticeship where you had to meet the highest of standards. These workers received excellent pay for their labors and made valuable contributions to their societies.
Now I am not suggesting we get all medieval here but this tradition of protecting the trade and allowing access to those with the proper mindset, determination and yes…talent has a lot to be said for it. If you want to be a tattoo artist and you do NOT have a substantial portfolio of your own artwork then getting an apprenticeship is very unlikely. If you just want to reproduce flash that is fine but the so-called “big bucks” in the tattoo world go to the artists with the world class talent – not to the guy with the tattoo school certificate and empty portfolio.
Tattooing is also a harder job than it looks. It takes its toll on your body and set up and materials are very costly. Getting into tattooing for the fame, glory and money is essentially a poor plan. You have to be passionate and dedicated to make this career work for you. Thanks to schools, scratchers and discount amateurs you are very unlikely to make a lucrative career out of tattooing unless you have talent. Real talent. The kind you can’t learn just in school.
There are also many laws making their way onto the books to prevent scratching or at least stem the tide. Ironically this may foster even more enrollment in tattoo schools – which at the very least may help prevent some of the scarier disease outbreaks but will still not provide the careful mentorship that excellent tattooing almost always requires.
Tattooing is not for everyone. It is not. I love tattoo artists – practically worship them – but I will never be one. Why not? Well, I can draw fairly well but not nearly well enough. I also lack the dedication and drive to get better at this particular skill set. I think being a tattoo artist would be a great job but I know I don’t have what it takes to be excellent at it and the world doesn’t need another mediocre (or worse) tattooer.
And that is what I really tried to convey to my daughters friend. Tattoos are for life. Lasering is very expensive, very painful and can create scarring. Maybe one day they will perfect the magic disappearing cream for tattoos but not yet. And it is the very permanence of tattoos that lend them so much weight and importance. It is a huge commitment. I told her to save her money and go to the very best artist she can afford. I told her it was worth waiting for (and paying for) a beautiful tattoo and it is. Every time.
Here is a lovely example from Jeff Gogue’s facebook page of a young person getting a first tattoo the right way. I doubt this will be one she will regret!
“Single session thigh piece done today on @hannah_emilyy who happens to be the granddaughter of my high-school art teacher. This is her first tattoo, this appointment was set three years ago when she was 15… This was an honor for me today. I hope I never take tattooing for granted . I love my job. @offthemaptattoo Grants Pass, Oregon”
Part 2 implies a Part 1 – right? Here it is…