Turn on the TV and you get a very different reality of what it’s like to be a tattoo artist. Truth is, most tattooers do not make out with rock stars, have prime seats at the Super Bowl, tattoo celebrities on private jets, or walk red carpets. Most tattoo artists spend days covered in ink and blood, suffer from bad backs and wrist pain, bounce drunks out to the street, and talk persistent people out of very bad ideas. Still want to be a tattooer? While tattoo artists on average don’t live the glamorous life, many will say it’s a charmed one nonetheless because they are doing what they love: creating art and making a living. To kickstart your career, we talked to some of the top tattoo artists and gathered the secrets behind how they got their start, the important lessons they’ve learned, the experiences that led them to their well-deserved reps, and a variety of stories you’d only hear in a dark bar after many drinks. Class begins now!
ON GETTING AN APPRENTICESHIP
Guy Aitchison of Hyperspace Studios (Creal Springs, IL) on how to get an apprenticeship: The first thing to remember is that you are entering a competitive field at the very bottom. You will immediately need to be ready to put in more effort than your peers. First: Can you draw? Do you have a portfolio? This is really the bottom line. You need some art to show your prospective employers. Your portfolio means more than your education or your resume. [For tips on building your portfolio, see “Drawing Board,” page 88.] If you have trouble finding any good prospects, try attending a few tattoo conventions, go to some seminars, watch artists work, and introduce yourself to as many people as possible.
Many apprenticeships are frauds where you are charged $5,000 for the honor of scrubbing toilets for six months, and your signature on a contract promising that you won’t tattoo in a 500 mile radius for the next 20 years or some crap like that. Avoid these situations like the plague. And try to avoid starting out with a beginner’s tattoo kit and no guidance. You will learn more in a long search for the right teachers than you will hacking away at people in your kitchen. It is easy to learn the wrong things early on and to carry these bits of misinformation as burdens for your entire career.
Daniel DiMattia of Calypso Tattoo (Liege, Belgium) on being selftaught: I went to tattoo artists in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany,and my home country of Belgium and couldn’t find anyone to teach me. Back then in the ’80s, European tattooists kept their secrets sacred. So I bought books like Ed Hardy’s Tattoo Time series and the new tattoo magazines coming out. I ordered my starter kit from the back of one of those magazines and started learning on myself by tattooing my thighs. This is why my legs look so bad. I also started going to conventions and watching the artists work. This helped a lot. Today, tattoo artists are practicing on fruit, or even those fake practice skins, which feel like the real thing, but you can always tell a tattooist from my generation by his legs.
Michelle Myles of Dare Devil and Fun City Tattoo (New York, NY) on earning an apprenticeship: One of my floor girls is dying to learn, and I’ve been trying to explain to her that she needs to earn her apprenticeship
by earning the respect of the shop. It’s a slower way to get started, as opposed to paying someone for an apprenticeship or just going at it, but ultimately, if she can make us want to teach her, she will have her foot in the door of a really good situation. Otherwise you get this crash-course type of thing that turns you loose with nowhere to go. There are a lot of aspiring tattooers out there these days, and just having a gun in hand isn’t enough to get you anywhere.
Brad Fink of Iron Age (St. Louis, MO), Dare Devil, and Fun City Tattoo (New York, NY) on paying dues: It is about paying dues in some sense. It’s not that I think people need to sweep and clean shit pots, but I do think
that people have to earn it in some way. There are artists today that go from art school to being this high-profile tattoo artist, and it’s crazy. But I paid my dues by cleaning the shit pots and sweeping the floors. I mowed the guy’s lawn who taught me how to tattoo!
ON APPRENTICINGDave Walin of Tattoo Culture (Brooklyn, NY) on his apprenticeship: I learned to tattoo starting in 1990 from Robert “Hack” Hackney in Dallas, TX. I came in early every day. Cleaned everything. Studied hard. Mixed pigments. Soldered needles. Ruined a lot of my clothes with black ink and purple powder, but no hazing, luckily. Then I started practicing on skin after six months of hard work. I brought in my friends and roommates who wanted free tattoos. My first one was a clean-up of an old Marvin the Martian tattoo.
Bob Tyrrell of Night Gallery (Detroit, MI) on his apprenticeship: I got an apprenticeship at Eternal Tattoos in Detroit, which lasted about three months. It was cool. I was going five days a week after work [making kitchen countertops], and after three months, I quit my job and started tattooing full time. I know it was quick. My apprenticeship was with Tramp, but I learned from everyone there. Tom Renshaw was working there and kinda took me under his wing. He really taught me everything, going way out of his way to help me out. It was the best apprenticeship I could’ve had because Tom is one of the best portrait tattooers in the world. He taught me everything from how to deal with customers to promoting yourself, to technique, the types of needles he uses. I was ready to scrub toilets and clean puke, but on my first day, Tramp showed me how to make needles, and after that, he really wanted me to watch and learn. One night, Tramp was mopping the floors and I said, “Dude, you want me to do that?” and he said, “No, you already know how to mop the floor, you need to learn how to tattoo.” And he’s a pretty old-school dude, so I had too easy of an apprenticeship, I think.
Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand from Pikes Peak Tattoo (Colorado Springs, CO) on learning from the legendary Sailor Jerry: I knew from the very beginning that he was a very important man in the history of the world, not only in tattooing. He was a giant. And so my moments with Jerry and anything I have from him are touchstones to something very real. He didn’t let very many people get close to him and work with him. Only a few people, really, and I was one of them. He hated women tattoo artists. Why he liked me, I don’t know.
Wallin on how he apprentices artists: I apprentice artists for about six months. It’s really self-paced, and some are fast learners. The apprenticeship continues for two years, regardless of when they start tattooing. Training involves constant drawing, studying, observing, learning responsibility, and even some basic psychology and customer service. I see it as: They are learning how to run their own shop one day, so it needs to be comprehensive. The most important lesson is respect: for the customers, your teacher, the traditions, and yourself. Give back something and move it forward.Gene Cofey of Tattoo Culture (Brooklyn, NY) on his apprentice duties under Dave Wallin: During my apprenticeship I had to get coffee and lunch for everyone, clean the shop, help the customers, set up appointments, clean the bathroom, clean and set up the stations, paint the walls, paint the sign out front, scrub tubes, make needles, do supply runs, read, study, draw, draw, draw, watch everyone tattooing, come in early every day and stay late, work every day, water the plants, change light bulbs, hang paintings, and pretty much anything else that needed to be done was put on me. I didn’t mind. Hell, I got to learn a craft that is awesome to get to do for cash. Now I get to earn a living making art all day. I think my apprenticeship was pretty easy compared to what some people have to go through.
Myles on hazing apprentices: Pretty much everyone that comes in to Dare Devil gets hazed. My shop is like a pack of wolves. They chew you up until you are accepted as one of the pack.
Hellenbrand on having to learn to pee standing up: I had to learn to pee standing up. Jack Rudy taught me that if I was gonna be one of the boys in his shop, I was gonna be one of the boys. So I learned. It’s a little trick that comes in handy once in a while.
Coffey on his hazing: When I was apprenticing and not making any money, strange and funny things happened a bit more frequently, like the time the guys here put two $100 bills in a condom, tied it in a knot and had me swallow it. I got to keep the money when it came out. I’m not sure, but that may be considered hazing.
ON GIVING YOUR FIRST TATTOO
Tyrrell on his first tattoos: My first six tattoos were on friends or people I worked with, free tattoos. After those six, I worked on paying customers, and that’s when I was really nervous. My hands were literally shaking. David Sena of North Star Tattoo (New York, NY) on trial and error: When I started to learn to tattoo, I went to St. Mark’s Place and asked the squatters and punks if they wanted free tattoos. I learned by trial and error.
Coffey on his first tattoo: I did my first tattoo in May of 2007. It was on my friend Jack, who had a little Mad Hatter tattoo on his arm. It was an old tattoo, so we retouched it. I was so nervous that I couldn’t get my hand to stop shaking. I felt really bad for Jack. It took me three hours to do a tattoo that I could do in about a half-hour today. But Jack was a champ. Honestly, I think that it was a pretty good job. I was so aware of everything that was going on that it was a pretty clean tattoo for my first one. I had it in my book for quite a while.
Joe Capobianco of Hope Gallery (New Haven, CT) on doing his first tattoo: My apprenticeship was anything but traditional, so I tattooed myself, the first time I held a set-up machine, inside of two weeks. That first time I let it rip on skin was my own ankle, and it was literally a handful of lines and some shading. My first free tattoo on another person was a tribal scorpion on a friend. I can honestly say my hands were shaking like a leaf. I can’t begin to say how freaked out I was putting needle to skin on another person. My apprenticeship included 13 free tattoos, done over the course of two weeks. Like I said, not a typical apprenticeship, and not one I’d recommend to others.
Fink on developing your own style: I used to get so bummed out that I wasn’t the next Filip Leu. I always strive for perfection, yet I didn’t feel that I was gaining my own style, and my biggest fear was that my tattoos would look generic. There are a lot of good tattoo artists out there who get a lot of attention, but sometimes I’ll look at their work side by side and not be able to tell who did it. It’s because there’s such a recipe of sorts, especially with big Japanese work. It’s impressive but also like driving a fake Porsche-you want the real deal at some point. I’m not criticizing. I’m just saying that, for me, I don’t get a sense of accomplishment when I blatantly make a tattoo look like another. I’ve always tried to keep a balance between doing work that’s technically perfect and also artistically valid and not ripping shit off. That’s not to say I’m not influenced by other work, but I try to do it in a way that’s still dynamic without making it look like anyone could have done it. More than anything, my conscience is always sitting on my shoulder telling me to put more flow into it or do it this way or that way and remember to make it yours and not someone else’s. There’s already a Horiyoshi III. I have no desire to be a Hori. I already did all that Hori stuff in my twenties. No more Horying around for me!
Horitaka of State of Grace (San Jose, CA) on Horiyoshi III: I’ll never forget a lesson I learned some time ago when I saw Horiyoshi III tattooing a little dolphin on a client. I said, “You’re such a famous artist and great traditional artist, and you’re drawing a dolphin.” And he said, “That was what she wanted.”
Dan Henk of Lone Wolf Tattoo (Brooklyn, NY) on common mistakes by beginner tattoo artists: You definitely need to be able to draw, but that’s not all. There are tattooists who are great artists but can’t get the tattooing down. And there are those who are great tattooists but not great artists. A lot of it is technique. I went to art school and thought it was going to be easy to tattoo, and I actually have pieces in my portfolio that I did in my first six months of tattooing that are really inconsistent. Some people make the mistake when they first get into tattooing-I certainly made the mistake when I first started-that you think if you can paint it, then you can definitely tattoo it. That’s not the case. There’s a technique you have to learn:what works well with the body, how it flows with the skin, what’s possible to pull off, what isn’t. It’s a whole slew of different things.
Paul Booth of Last Rites (New York, NY) on how he chooses his crew: I like to see drive, hunger. And if they have down time, they’re drawing and I don’t have to push them to do it. There are two elements to tattooing-the art and the technical-and the way they merge together ultimately defines the tattooer. I see a lot of tattooers out there, more these days than before, who are incredible artists, but technically their work lacks, and unfortunately, people are not aware of that until the tattoo is a few years old. Then they discover, look, the ink is falling out. So there are all these factors in picking an artist.
These are a lot of the things I look at [in choosing to hire an artist]: I look at the way they approach a design. Are they paying attention to how it fits the body? Are they thinking beyond the scope of the image itself-are they two-dimensional or three-dimensional thinkers? But it’s not just their art and technical ability. Obviously, you want to vibe with them.
Roni Zulu of Zulu Tattoo (Los Angeles, CA) on tattooing different skin tones: Skin tone definitely affects design and color choice. When you see a tattoo, you are not seeing the design on the surface of the skin-you
are looking through the skin. A tattoo is initially placed into all layers of skin. When the tattoo is healed, the top layers exfoliate and only the underlying layers remain with pigment. A healed tattoo has a few layers of skin grown back on top of the tattoo. That is why colors appear dull and muted on black people but vibrant on white people. This affects design for the same reasons: White skin displays detailed work better than darker skin. Dark skin tends to scar more than white skin and should not be aggressively handled.Danielle Distefano of 13 Roses Tattoo (Atlanta, GA) on being a female tattoo artist: I can’t imagine saying that being a woman in a male-dominated industry could be a con; it opens minds, keeps things diverse. I appreciate going to a shop and seeing a woman there, even if I’m not going to get tattooed by them. Some clients just feel more comfortable with the idea of a woman for certain tattoos, either because of the placement or the imagery. I have had a few encounters of skepticism on my ability from clients over the years, but I have always thrived on being better and changing minds on what women are capable of.
Hellenbrand on the elements to being a great tattoo artist: Tattooing encompasses all other arts. Everything feeds into it. In order to be a great tattoo artist, first you should know how to draw. Then weave that with chemistry, metallurgy, electromagnetic principles, human principles, anatomy, physiology, biology, psychology … all these things come together.
Tyrrell on how to become a good tattooist: Draw your ass off. If you can’t draw, you shouldn’t be tattooing.
Tips from Guy Aitchison on building the perfect portfolio of your artwork before any tattoo artist will let you touch a machine, you’ll need to prove you can draw (and then probably mop a few hundred miles of shop floor). The best way to show off your artwork is in an organized portfolio that you can bring to tattoo shops and conventions on your hunt for an apprenticeship. “Your portfolio means more than your education or your resume,” tattoo master Guy Aitchison explains. “It’s your artistic passport.” Here are some tips from Aitchison for putting yours together.1. You’ll need to make a few copies and leave them with people, so your materials should be affordable. Try using half-inch three-ring view binders, which you can insert your own cover art into.
2. Keep it short. Twelve pages will tell them everything they need to know. Remember, attention spans are short.
3. Use only finished pieces of art. If you don’t have a dozen finished drawings or other pieces of art to show, you have a lot of work to do.
4. Consider doing at least a few pages of smaller tattoo flash designs. This is a part of the apprenticeship process and shows an ability to put together small, complete images that look good.
5. After printing your portfolio pages, insert them into three ring protector sheets. Open the portfolio with a short letter of introduction, mentioning any past artistic experience and describing your style. Follow this with your strongest artwork, and arrange the following pages with care and attention to detail. Make it something you’re proud of.
6. Upgrade your portfolio whenever you can. That way, you won’t feel the need to explain yourself when you hand your portfolio to people.