Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What I used to do

Earlier today, a guy came over my house to buy some tattoo equipment. Have I ever mentioned once on this blog that I used to be a tattooist? I'm not sure if I have. That in itself is interesting (at least to me).

I started tattooing in 1995 and stopped on October 31, 2007. On the first of November I packed up everything in my small studio, threw it in the back of my car and Dick's truck, unloaded in into an unused room in my house, closed the door behind me and didn't look at it again until today.

I haven't even thought about tattooing. Twelve years of my life spent permanently marking peoples' skin, listening to their stories and telling stories of my own - suddenly it was all over with and it almost felt like it never happened. The only reminder I've had is my own skin, covered with tattoos.

I keep myself well covered. There are people I know who have no clue that I'm heavily tattooed. It's not that I'm ashamed. It's just that it isn't what I want people to see me as, nor do I identify much with the tattoos I have. They tell you very little about me, which may seem odd, but the reason behind most of my tattoos is that I wanted to learn how a particular artist worked. One way to do this is to watch, but the best way to do it is to get tattooed.

And the very best way to learn is to let them do exactly what they want (which reminds me, I have written about tattoos before, in the entry about why you shouldn't get one).

The fellow who showed up today mainly wanted to buy flash, the ready-to-go tattoo images that one usually sees on the walls of tattoo studios. I have books and books of this stuff, even though I tended to do custom work. He couldn't afford to buy the whole lot, so we sat down on the floor and went over each book, page by page. I told him which ones had been popular and which ones were not. With each suggestion came a memory or two (or three or four, depending on just how popular that image was).

The guy's shop is about two hours from here, further north, up near the paper mills and right at the edge of hours of unpeopled timber land. Evidentally, what's popular here is not up there (with some exceptions, but still, it was noticeable). He had no interest in the Bartels flash, stuff that is akin to celtic knotwork but made to look like stone. I practically made a living off that stuff. It was perennially in demand,and transcended any fads. I never minded doing it even if it was flash, for I always did it differently. I loved how I could mess with it in a myriad of ways, depending on what I thought the customer would want, and I would do this without asking questions. It was some sort of litmus test for me to gauge how well I could read a person, and I suppose I was very good at reading people, judging from their reactions.

For some, I did it straight out of the book, in black and gray and looking like crumbling stone, no fooling around. Others got a hint of color. Some wound up looking like pounded metal. It could be made to look like turquoise or lapus lazuli, or even glowing jade. It was always fun. If I could have tattooed with that much freedom all the time, maybe I wouldn't have gotten burnt out.

It's funny how I say that was pure freedom, for I wasn't drawing up my own stuff. From the beginning of my career as a tattoo artist, I wanted to do custom work and had quite a bit of disdain for flash. Ready-made tattoos? Who wanted that? Only fools with no imagination.

What I discovered is that designing custom work was usually more trouble than it was worth. Sometimes I would spent days drawing something up for someone only to have them never show up again. Getting a deposit in this neck of the woods was next to impossible.

I would belabor every piece of custom work I got, trying to find the absolute perfect image, when the truth of the matter is that most folks wouldn't have known the difference if I had settled on the first thing I drew up. On the other side of the coin were the people who were never satisfied, acting like dictatorial art directors without a shred of taste.

One time this couple came in and wanted me to draw up Yosemite Sam holding a diver's helmet. Simple enough, right? Ha. I spent hours on that stupid image. The wife kept asking me to move the arm holding the helmet until the piece of paper was hopelessly smudged and dirty from erasing and drawing, erasing and drawing. At that point, nothing would have looked good. Then I heard her whisper to her husband, "She can't draw. Let's go."

Normally I stayed calm and was polite. But by the time I heard her whisper, I was ready to wring her neck. "Why don't you sit down and draw it?" I said to her, "Go right ahead. Have a seat!" I was standing up, staring her in the eye. Oh, how I wanted to get into a real fight. But they just left, the husband looking kind of sheepishly embarassed. No doubt she gave everyone in her wake crap.

I didn't want to tattoo that image anyway. I may be covered with silly tattoos, but they pale in comparison to some of the truly idiotic things people come up with.

That was probably what got me in the end, all those stupid images. Or maybe it was simply the repetition of them. Y'know, I never minded tattooing a Tazmanian Devil. One time I did a huge one with pot leaves flying out from his whirling frenzy. That was a treat, a respite from all the wolf heads, feathers, sports logos and endless parade of the names of peoples' children that are popular in this area.

The worst, for me, was black tribal armbands. They are boring. They are the epitome of boring. No matter how creative you are, they all look the same (at least the kind folks wanted). And they are a royal pain in the ass. You ever hear that it's considered bad to have an armband that wraps around your entire arm, that according to Indian lore it traps the spirit?

It's a lie made up by tattooists. No tattooist in their right mind wants to do a full wrap black tribal armband. First of all, most of the time it's done on a guy who has a big biceps muscle. He probably has a good tan on it, for he either works outside or gets a lot of sun 'cause he likes to show off his big arm.

So, you got one side of the arm with nice taut skin that's a bit tough. The underside is a whole 'nother ball game. It's often soft and spongy and very white or it has a big gully in it that's hard to work in. One side is easy to tattoo and is the least painful place on the body to get one. The other side has every thing a tattooist hates. Impossible to get taut. Might even have stretch marks if the guy built his muscles too fast. And then there's the fact that it hurts like hell. And y'know, the bigger the guy is, the more of a wuss he is. It's almost always true.

And lastly, guys with big muscles aren't very flexible. Getting to the underside of their arms is quite a task. I would usually put them in the "now I'm gonna ask you the hard questions" position: bent over, arm behind the back and pulled and twisted as far as it would go. I came to discover it was easier to lay 'em on a table to tattoo this spot, but the sadist in me said anyone who wanted a stupid black tribal armband deserved to be twisted into a pretzel.

One shop I know had a sign that read "If you want a full tribal armband: $150 extra. Two weeks notice." I wish I could have pulled that one off. Instead, I just began telling people I didn't do 'em. No Indian folk stories, just the truth. Go somewhere else. I've had enough.

I suppose I had enough of everything. One day I noticed I had a reason not to do almost every tattoo request that was made of me. I started slacking. My machines wouldn't do what I wanted them to do. My hands hurt. My back hurt. My eyes hurt.

Today, I enjoyed talking shop with another tattooist and wondered if I'd ever do it again. I still think the answer is no.

Photo note: If I had gotten more work of this nature, I may have never stopped tattooing. The guy wanted the golden ratio and liked the "non-tattoo-y" work that I sometimes did. If I lived in a high population area, I could have specialized, but no, I live and worked in Bumf*ck, Maine, and so, along with everything I mentioned above, I had to do unicorns, cute dragons and argue with people about the fact that a tattoo didn't have to have a black outline and that I actually meant to not color it in solid.

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