Tattooing has long been a subculture of society which has been watched from afar—intriguing members of the general public, but still just precarious enough to keep them from dipping a toe into the muddy waters of the inked life. But, thanks to television shows like Miami Ink and InkMaster, the tattoo world suddenly became mainstream. It was beamed directly into the living rooms of America, bringing the day to day life of tattoo shops directly to those not quite ready to brave crossing the threshold of these unique businesses.
But, while these shows helped to bring tattooing to the forefront of American culture—aiding in widening tattoo acceptance across society—they may have also had some setbacks. Although you do see a lot of common situations in these shows, the fact of the matter is that it is still TV. Slapping the word ‘Reality’ in front of it does not mean that situations aren’t coaxed or scripts aren’t written. Even if the artists themselves act as normally as they would if there weren’t cameras in their shops, the television studio still has to make a profit. Highly skilled editors and producers sit behind the scenes splicing and chopping the recorded material into a show that will keep viewers from flipping the channel. And viewers love conflicts.
Of course, these shows are not the only reason for the stereotypes that seem to plague the tattoo industry. With the dubious history of American tattooing and the fact that the industry has remained relatively sheltered from the mass media (until recently), many beliefs have been formed about tattooers and the industry itself. Many tattooers, as well as tattoo enthusiasts (like myself), strive to set these stereotypes aside, portraying the industry as what it truly is—an art form which celebrates human emotion, culture, and history. Others tend to let these stereotypes lie, believing it helps keep the industry real, saving it from becoming a mass-marketed, bandwagon affair devoured by society.
In my own personal opinion, tattooing should be celebrated, illuminated. In many cases, tattooers get a bad rap, as do those of us who wear a heavy amount of ink on their skin. The looks are still there in the parent pick-up lines at school, the comments still come from the strangers in the grocery store. We are people, whether we have ink on our skin or not, and just because we happen to have pictures embedded in our flesh does not immediately set us up as criminals or unsavory individuals.
This is not the only stereotype facing tattooers these days. Here are some examples of common misconceptions about those who craft a living in this impressive industry that the general public needs to stop thinking right now.
Fame & Fortune
Today, there are several tattooers who have become household names, thanks in part to the increased television coverage of the industry. Ink slingers like Kat Von D and Chris Nunez have redesigned what the general public believes about the job, but it may not be quite accurate. Sure, they’ve hit it big and they’ve made quite a substantial living off the industry—but, just as not every singer (no matter how talented) can be Taylor Swift, not every tattooer can be Kat Von D. These artists are the exception, not the rule.
Tattooing is an industry that one gets into because of a love… a passion for the craft itself. Nobody goes into tattooing with the belief that they will be driving around in a Lamborghini in a couple of years. If they do, they’re just asking to be set up for failure. Tattooing is an art form, a product and/or service that is not a must-have, but rather, a want for consumers. While you’re unlikely to starve in the industry (unless, of course, you’re truly terrible at the job) the phrase “starving artists” doesn’t exist for just any reason. There is a cap, in reality, of how much an artist can truly make in this industry and while it is enough to keep your family afloat, it’s unlikely to bring you fame or fortune—in the average of cases, that is.
This particular stereotype does have some truth to it, although, not much anymore. In the early days of tattooing’s rebirth (think the Sailor Jerry years), tattooing largely consisted of flash pieces of art stuck to the walls of the small shop, in which customers would select from a pre-set design. Nothing really custom, nothing detailed. Simple, quick pieces of flash. Back then, artists only had to have a simple understanding of art. Technical precision wasn’t analyzed and scrutinized the way it is today. As long as the tattooer could operate a machine and could draw a relatively straight line, they could be a tattoo artist. Today, however, the tattoo industry is flooded with formally trained artists who have a clear understanding of lighting, shading, and technical precision. They are masters of art on paper as well as art on skin. Often, their portfolios are flooded with everything from tattoos and line drawings to watercolors, oil paintings, and the like.
With the increase in technical mastery over the years, artists have had to adjust and keep up. Tattoos are no longer just simple etchings of anchors, hearts, and liquor bottles. Today, they are realistic portraits, watercolor paintings, and exquisitely ornate pieces. Custom pieces have replaced flash drawings in popularity. In fact, it’s rare to find shops that even still work with flash art. But, despite the skill level of most artists today, it’s still quite frequent that people will employ another artist to draw up their wanted design. In addition to costing extra, as you’re paying the regular artist and then the tattoo artist, but replicating another artist’s work in exactly the same manner is virtually impossible for most artists. And, quite frankly, it’s a silly idea. Why would you pay TWO artists? Not to mention, why wouldn’t you want the artist who will be inking the design onto your skin actually creating the piece on paper? They know what is technically for the best—what works in a tattoo, what lines will blur, what placement will look best.
As I mentioned earlier, regarding the reality television programs situated in tattoo shops, most of what you see is plotted, scripted, or influenced in some format. The easiest way to notice this common factor is to pay attention to the conversation that takes places after the stencil is applied and the tattoo is started. These TV tattooers will almost always ask the client why they are getting this particular piece of ink, what it means to them. While getting ink can be therapeutic (I wrote a previous article about it here), your tattoo artist is not a licensed therapist, despite what television producers will lead you to believe.
A Tattoo is a Tattoo, Regardless of Who Does it
All men (or women) are created equal does not apply when it comes to tattooing. Just like some artists can only work with one medium, certain tattoo artists are better at some styles of tattoos than others. Take a look at the big-boy shops and you’ll find that one artist will be recommended to you for traditional while another will be suggested for portraiture work. That’s just how it is. Now, this isn’t to say that they aren’t all phenomenal artists across the board—it’s just that some artists have a higher technical skill in certain areas.
This also brings us to what we call “Scratchers.” Because tattooing is not a formally taught profession, sometimes you stumble upon that one ‘artist’ who probably shouldn’t be in the industry. This also includes your cousin’s best friend’s brother’s buddy who tattoos at parties on Saturday nights. When you’re looking to get a tattoo, it is important to thoroughly check the artist’s background, portfolio, and reviews in order to find someone who fits your needs and won’t dig you up.
The Customer is Always Right
This is not Target—this is a tattoo shop. If you walk into a shop asking for a portrait of your favorite pet, realistically done, and the size of a business card on the palm of your hand, you’re going to get told no. They don’t care if you get upset, it’s their shop and they’ll do what they want. But, while some tattooers can be just plain dicks (as with every profession), the general consensus among artist is that they want your money, but they’re not going to do something they know can’t be done or won’t hold up. A true tattoo artist’s business operates mostly on word of mouth. Those designs they’re inking into people’s skin are their business cards—their advertising. Having you walk around with a piece that blurred out or looks terrible is damaging to their career… and in turn detrimental to providing food for their family. If what you want is just not going to work in the long run, the tattooer will tell you no. Sure, they want your money, don’t get me wrong there… but artists have to think down the road when it comes to this business and having a shitty piece out there walking around does not bode well for them in the end.