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!