I’ve talked for some time now about how I’ve had personal struggles with tattooing. I’ve lost passion, found it hard to commit myself, and I get angry. I’m generally unhappy.
The truth though, is that I’m not unhappy with tattooing. I’m unhappy with things IN tattooing. I’m not going to praise the old days, because they were just as shitty for different reasons. I’m not going to take it the other direction and talk about lofty high scale experiences where you’re served kombucha from an ethically sourced woman’s shoe, because, well, that sounds like a patchouli scented nightmare.
I’m going to stay grounded in the oncoming opinion/rant, and be totally fucking real about how I feel. Those feelings are most certainly mixed, and at times full on contradictory, but that’s what existence is. Everything is duality and a shitload of grey areas, so I’m not going to downplay OR dramatize anything here.
These are the issues that have caused me so much internal struggle, so let’s dig in.
The good old days
“Everybody’s taking about the ‘good old days,’ right? Everybody! The good old days. Well, let’s talk about the good old days!”
I started tattooing June, 1998. That’s 21 years. More than half of my life. There’s plenty of people with more skin in the game (pun intended) but 21 years is a long fucking time. The changes that have happened since then are insane.
We didn’t use computers, didn’t use the internet, what the fuck is an iPad even, and people pull their kids away and managers follow you in the store to make sure you don’t steal, because you were heavily tattooed. You want to look at other people’s work? Buy a magazine. Want to talk to other artists? Walk into a shop you don’t work in. You made your own needles, what the fuck is a cartridge, and get ready for big laughs if you happen to find a rotary to use. You tattooed flash, and sometimes you were lucky enough to do something custom.
I started at the end of the first wave of new school, so things were already changing. People with art degrees were getting into tattooing. Even then, tattoo shops could be rough places. Anyone who’s been tattooing a long time undoubtedly has violent tales. You had to do things a certain way or it could be bad for your health.
Do I want to go back to that? Fuck no. I respect what it took to bring tattooing to where it is, but that shit sucked. I like Instagram, having reference on my phone, and a global network of artists to talk with and learn from. I like multiple styles of work, and doing custom tattoos. I like not asking the godfather tatter permission before I do shit.
Even as tattooing has grown, there’s still a lot of people trying to squeeze the last bit of life out of the cronyism and tough guy shit of the golden days, and frankly, that shit is tired. I’m a 40 year old man with a mortgage. I ain’t got time for that shit.
The wave of the future
On the other side of the spectrum, we have shops or artists who create a fully immersive experience, with fucking ferns and sparkling water and aromatherapy blasting in your face while their shop masseuse rubs your feet and your chakras are aligned using the appropriate crystals before they bless you with the tattoo design they’ve chosen for you.
I don’t think that’s actually a thing, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
We owe clients two things: convenience and comfort. While a lot of older style shops can be intimidating, the same can be said for the opposite. If you set your shit up like a fuckin upscale day spa, clients could feel just as intimidated. It’s like removing the humanity from a human craft.
With the proliferation of high end, private studios, convenience and comfort are being taken away. People put barriers between themselves and clients in the name of progress and professionalism. In reality, it’s mainly fueled by narcissism and ego.
The fucked up thing is, I was guilty of this 9 years ago, and even after Art Machine opened. But opinions evolve, unless you’re a caveman. Now I’ll call MYSELF out on some of this shit. I put barriers between me and clients. I don’t talk on the phone, and I don’t want drop in visitors. But hey, I said there would be contradictions and duality in this.
Party like a rockstar
How many rockstar tattooers do you know? The fuckin egos abound, dude. It’s obnoxious. We’re not special or cool because we draw pictures. Is it one of the coolest jobs? For sure. But ground yourself. Get humble or get humbled.
People like validation, I LOVE validation, but a pat on the back and some kudos for a sweet tatty banger don’t make you cool. It means you did your job. Every time I see these attitudes, I want to bash myself in the face. The self indulgent circle jerk of coolness is too much to handle.
I get embarrassed by it. I look and think “is that what we look like? Is that what people think of tattooers?” It makes me want to distance myself from the entire thing.
The over edit squad is like poison. Adjusting and blurring and over-saturating shit into oblivion. The completely unrealistic vision of the work they present to the public is distorting and warping perception of what’s possible with tattooing.
I’m not knocking editing as a tool. If you have issues with lighting, it can be necessary to alter a photo to give an accurate representation of a tattoo. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I encourage it and do it myself. I use a CPL lens to reduce glare because I’m an awful photographer and my lighting sucks.
However, too many people use those tools to misrepresent their work. They over saturate, darken blacks to an unholy void, and strengthen whites until they’re fucking blinding. They’ll smooth out pores and mag lines, and create what looks more like a painting and less like a tattoo.
It’s fucked up because people believe the tattoos look like that. A lot of these artists are already amazing, but it’s cool to over edit, so they do it. The altered pics get tens of thousands of likes on social media. It leaves other artists busting their asses to gain traction against what is essentially a fucking lie.
I’ll be honest and say I’m a baby about this one. I readily say it’s not fair, which is the warcry of the loser. It gets disheartening to see others amass followings on dishonesty, while others struggle.
The great trash heap
There’s way too many people who flaunt and revel in being shitty, trashy humans. Tattoos have always been associated with the lower rungs of society, and I don’t doubt for a second that customers are still primarily working class men and women. Most of us came from very little, but that doesn’t mean we should act like pieces of shit.
You shouldn’t take insults like white trash and then make it your platform. When grown ass men and women brag about getting in fights, how much they can drink, drugs they do, how many women they screw…my snob kicks in. Shit isn’t impressive, it’s trashy.
I don’t like being associated with that shit. Tattooing aside, I just don’t get down with it. But in tattooing, it’s a faction of people that are practically encouraged to act up and let the trash flag fly.
Instead of miring yourself deeper into the shit you came from, be the lotus. Be from the mud, but not of the mud.
“Can’t turn my back on the hood, too much love for them.”
There’s so much more to it than just this. This is a good start, though. These are some of the biggest issues that have been gnawing at me for years now. I was letting these things bother me on a deep level, and it was destroying my faith in and love for tattooing.
Something clicked recently, and I was finally able to understand. It’s like a light bulb went off. I realized that the values I’ve stood for and the values I desire at Art Machine Productions shouldn’t be affected by what’s happening in the rest of tattooing. My sole mission has always been to give a nurturing, growth oriented environment to artists, and to give a comfortable, easy experience for clients.
There’s no reason my frustrations with the state of the industry should affect how I operate, or how the shop operates. Neither are defined by the trends, but by our customers and how they feel. So I shouldn’t consider quitting, I should be doubling down on the strengths that we as a studio have.
That means better customer service. Better communication with artists. This place is my second home, and I’m not going to change that. I’m in for the long haul, and so is Art Machine Productions.
I won’t let myself get caught up in all of this shit again. If something is bothering me, I’ll let it be known so I can work it out and get back to normal. Frustrations don’t always subside on their own, and being up front and open is the best way to move past it. Apparently if I keep shit to myself too long, it’ll make me want to quit altogether.
I might not love the tattoo industry, but I love to tattoo, and I love my clients and coworkers.