17 Apr Why Learn Tattoo
- Being good at drawing doesn’t make you good at tattooing.You can think about it like the difference between drawing something on paper and then carving it onto a pumpkin. It helps to have a natural aptitude for drawing, but it takes a long time to understand the difference between what you can draw and what you can tattoo. Like anything, your tattoo drawings will get better over time, but it’s critical to start out with simple designs.
- Plan to work for free for at least a year. Nobody’s great at tattooing until they have practice, and you can’t get practice without tattooing flesh. Some people practice on grapefruits, but a grapefruit isn’t even remotely like a nervous, sweating, breathing, vulnerable human being. So instead, you have to start as an apprentice, which is basically like unpaid training. At my shop, we tattooed for free for the first year, just doing very simple designs — you’d be surprised by how many clients you can get when you’re offering your services for free. Even a year or two after I started, I was still tattooing at a heavily discounted rate, because I wasn’t as fast or as good as other artists. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you do have to work a second job for the first couple years. I was a nanny and then a waitress; other tattoo artists I know worked as an EMT, a high school art teacher, and a barista during their apprenticeships.
- There’s a huge upfront investment in equipment. You need at least two tattoo machines, a starter ink set and tubes (which hold the needles in the tattoo machines) and disposable supplies, including needles, gloves, rubber bands, thermafax paper, skin pens, and so on. All in, it can cost upward of $4,000 in equipment to get started. In states where tattoo schools are regulated — like Oregon, where I live — apprenticeships cost somewhere around $10,000, and on top of state licensure fees. Even after you start making money from your tattoos, the salary isn’t all that flush — the median salary for a tattoo artist is around $30,000— and you still have to pay for all those supplies on your own. So if you want to be a tattoo artist, don’t do it for the money.
- Your artistic medium is a living, breathing thing that changes. Skin wrinkles and stretches and gets sunburned and scars and heals. When you paint on a canvas, you can preserve the way that painting looks for hundreds of years. But tattoos look drastically different even two weeks after the ink has settled in and your skin has healed. Sometimes, people don’t take care of their tattoos and they get ruined, which feels a bit like someone buying your painting and then leaving it out in the rain. We try to be really clear with clients about aftercare — no sun exposure for three weeks, only use hypoallergenic products, etc. — but sometimes things go wrong, and that’s just part of working with human skin.
- Sometimes you’ll feel like a therapist. People will bring you their most painful moments and ask you to turn them into artwork. During the Iraq War, I tattooed an active member of the military who was home on leave. He was so raw and wounded, and he wanted a tattoo of his company insignia to mark how he was never going to be the same person. Sometimes people talk through those kinds of memories during their appointments, but there’s also something inherently therapeutic about the process — it can feel good to have care and attention for a few hours. So as a tattoo artist, you can’t really bring your own emotional shit to the tattoo parlor. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a stressful morning; you need to learn to leave that stuff outside the door and be completely there for that person in the moment.