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.