Sunday, January 9, 2011

How to become a tattooist (a quick history)

Once upon a time, there were very few tattoo artists in the United States. I can't find the exact numbers, but I wish I could. I believe that there were something like 300 tattoo studios in the entire country in the middle of the 1960's. In 2000, there were over 20,000.

When I first started tattooing, just to give you a reference point, it was illegal to tattoo (or be tattooed) in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York City and its boroughs. It was illegal in some other states, too, but I don't remember where (and it doesn't really matter). I know about the northeast.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to learn how to tattoo. I went up to Spider Webb's shop, wherever it was just north of the Bronx, and asked him just how to go about this endeavor. He told me that I could be his apprentice. It would cost me $2500 and I'd have to be his sex slave. I thought he was kidding. He wasn't. I didn't do it, but I know some women who did.

The other option was jail.

So, I went to art school. Truth is, folks, if you want to be a tattoo artist, learning how to draw well is a very good idea. Doodling scary monsters and cute fairies in your sketchbook isn't the best preparation for tattooing. Why on earth aspiring tattooists don't go to drawing classes is beyond me. Maybe it's a holdover from the idea that tattooists are rebels who have no respect for authority and wouldn't set foot in a classroom. It's pretty funny considering that the traditional route to becoming a tattooist involves an enormous amount of respect for tradition and hierarchy. Here it is:

First, you get tattooed. A lot. You watch and learn as much as you can, and when you figure out that you can't learn just by watching and that the tattoo artist isn't going to tell you anything for free, you start asking for an apprenticeship. Back in the day, there were so few tattooists that getting an apprenticeship was really difficult. You had to be a really good artist (or willing to be someone's sex slave). Even then, you still had to be a good artist. On top of that, since there were so few tattooists, you had to be willing to live anywhere.

Apprenticing starts out with doing all the dirty jobs. You wash the floor, clean up people's puke, clean up the tattoo area, make coffee, scrub all sorts of things, run the autoclave, empty garbage cans. . .you get the idea. Maybe, just maybe, if you're really good, you get to draw up tattoos that you have to promise to pretend the real artist did. You must show you are absolutely 100% devoted to the person you're apprenticing to and you never say "no" to anything they ask you to do. You must watch every single tattoo they do.

When you've proved that you're willing to "eat, sleep, breathe, and shit tattoos", you tattoo yourself. Then, you tattoo someone you know. Four times. Then, you do a little tattoo. If it's okay, you do all the crappy little tattoos that the person you're apprenticing to doesn't want to do. You do that for at least one year.

Generally, you do all of this for one year without getting paid. After that year, if neither of the parties haven't killed each other, you get to work for a percentage, but you still do the crap work. You are finally asked to tattoo the person you've been apprenticed to.

During the second year, things usually heat up and the competition starts. For some reason, tattooists don't like to have anyone around who does things differently then they do, or does anything better. If you do anything better than the person you learned from, they usually will start messing with your tattoo machines, or telling customers how lousy you are, even if you work for them.

I forgot about making tattoo needles. In the old days, you couldn't just order pre-made tattoo needles. Needle making was an art. It was a messy, stinky, toxic art, but it was an art. Tattoo needles are not single needles (unless you're in jail). They are many tiny eye-less sewing needles soldered together. These needles are smaller than any you've ever used for sewing. They're soldered in groups that are round for outlining, and side-by-side flats for coloring. Nobody knows for sure when they first started being made, but around 1980 people started making "magnums", which are groups of flats soldered on top of each other and at an angle (hard to explain in words). There's also ovals, and some other truly esoteric variations, all of which are now a lost art. They're all hard to make, require the use of an eye loupe, a lot of concentration, excellent eyesight, and an even steadier hand than needed for the actual tattooing. It's easy to blunt or barb a needle tip, and if you don't catch one's mistake, it'll mean scarring and pain for a customer. Truth is, I was delighted when pre-made needles became cheap, but honestly, none of the them were as good as the needles I made myself, even though I loathed the work and feeling sick after every single time I'd spent a day making them.

Anyway, learning to make needles was a big part of being an apprentice. If you couldn't make needles, you were out the door.

You had to learn how to rip a tattoo machine apart and put it back together again in working order or better.

You also had to learn how to take shit from anyone. Nobody called it hazing, 'cause that'a frat boy term, but hazed you were. Women who wanted to be in the biz had to prove they could "take it like a man." This meant that you were intentionally subjected to every sexist behavior known to man and could laugh it off, or even better, be ruder and nastier than any guy could imagine.

So, now we've got a lot of tattoo shops, more tattoo shops than we could possibly need. Truth is, tattooing is an excellent paying profession, and better yet, most of the money one makes is under the table. In this economy (or in any) it's a great gig.

But, things are slowing down. What's a tattooist to do?

Well, one thing that's happening is the old apprenticeship system is being thrown out the window. Once upon a time, I would have said "Great! It's about time!"

Now, I'm not so sure. Instead of having classes at art schools, what's going on is that tattoo shops are setting up their own little schools. Generally, they're charging something like $1000 bucks a day for "talented artists" to learn the basics of tattooing.

Back in the 90's, a shop in Florida tried this, and they got death threats. It was absurd. How to tattoo has been a well kept secret, or at least how to tattoo well, and others wanted to keep it that way. You are not supposed to sell this knowledge. It has to been given in the traditional manner. Anyone who breaks this code is, well, subject to death.

When I heard of this, I thought that if tattooing got more popular it would probably wind up being taught in schools. Real schools, mind you. Nothing wrong with that, in my humble opinion. If it was taught in schools, maybe the sexism and the abuse would slowly fade away.

It's interesting that even though tattooing has become pretty much mainstream, it's still an outlaw's job. The people who own the shops may not be the misfits, but the "artists" still are. Now, the person behind the operation wants to make as much money he or she can, and what with all the tattoo artists out there, and the fact that the majority of people only get one tattoo in their lifetime, dangling the carrot of becoming a tattooist in one week for less than the price of a semester at college seems like a really good idea to these entrepreneurs.

Sadly, right now I know of two guys who are freshly out of prison who think they've been favored and privileged by having their artwork judged worthy enough to get into one of these scam classes. One person was told "we'll waive your fee!" He's all psyched up. Guess what he's going to do? One week of unpaid labor in a tattoo shop, at the end of which he'll be told to go around asking other people to be an apprentice. Just like in the old days.

One really lousy shop in Maine did this for years. They were only open during the summer in a very busy tourist town. Each summer, they had people paying them to work there, in addition to making who-knows-how-much money doing little tattoos at $175/hour.

I'm feeling a little amped up over this subject tonight, as must be obvious from my rambling.

The little town in which I opened the first tattoo studio now is home to two. One is owned by someone who owns a few, and it is a corporation. Nothing wrong with that, but it does speak volumes to me about the owner's number one priority: money and liability issues. Tattooists and customers alike generally believe in near mystical ideas of what getting a tattoo and being a tattooist mean, and owning a corporation is not part of it. Once upon a time, being the star of a reality TV show would have been seen as selling out, too, but that's another story.

These days, everything has changed, but a lot of folks haven't quite gotten that. Most tattoo studios are as authentic as Hot Topic. They're carefully designed to look like places where you'll have an outsider outlaw experience, kind of a Disney-ian idea of a tat shop. The average tattooist is still a fuck up, and the shops hire and fire 'em quickly. The really good artists generally open small studios that only do custom work.

One thing still hasn't changed a bit. Tattooists and shops still talk shit about one another. Some of it's true, and some of it isn't, but when was that any different?

In 1961, New York City made tattooing illegal. The reason was that tattoo shops spread hepititis. The real reason was that there was so little business that some tattooists spread a rumor that another shop was spreading the disease. Their rumor backfired. No work for anyone.

If there's a moral here for the present day, I can't pull it together.

Image note: This is where you'd sit to get tattooed by Tatts Tommy, the first person who opened a licensed tattoo studio in Maine. Contrary to what most people think, Tommy was not a Mainer. He had been a tattooist on the Bowery in New York City in 1961, when it was made illegal. Having always enjoyed hunting and fishing in Maine, he came up here to ply his trade. It was a good move. The guy was not much of a tattooist, but he was a colorful and sometimes truly offensive individual. When I first met him, I stuck out my hand to shake his. He was the oldest living tattooist in the country, so I was thrilled to meet him! Well, no sir, he would not shake my hand. He pulled down his lower lip to show me the "Fuck You" tattoo he had hidden inside. Then he said, "A woman's place belongs in the bedroom and kitchen, naked, not in the tattoo parlor." Heh, I'm glad I met the guy.


Kenny Cole said...

Loved this story!!!

Julie H. Rose said...

So glad, Kenny! I had edited it, but the edits seem not to be here. Ah well. I'll leave it alone now.