For People Seeking to Become a Tattoo Artist
by Madame Lazonga
Recently, I have been deluged with people seeking work or apprenticeships. It seems it is even more prevalent now than it was at the height of tattooing’s resurgence in the early ’90s. Tattooing is a bona fide profession, but many people don’t treat it as such.
Here is a recent letter that was sent to me:
“How’s it going? I’m sending you some of my work in the hopes of getting hired. I live in Montana, right now, and am planning on moving to Seattle in a month or two. I’m from Seattle, originally. I’ve owned a shop out here for four years and tattooed for about five years total. I lost most of my portfolio when our old computer finally died, do I don’t have that many pictures—a couple hundred I think. Here’s a backup disk I keep of my tats and some other shop shit. If you want give me a call on my cell phone, my number is xxx-xxx-xxxx or the shop xxx-xxx-xxxx. Thanx for your time.”
This is very typical of what I see almost every day and I hope I don’t have to mention all the things that are wrong with this letter as an introduction into a professional business. I also recently came across a couple of tattoo schools via the Internet. The sad thing about this is that, even though the schools might offer a lot of useful information, they do not prepare a person to become a professional tattoo artist. I don’t think spending a weekend or a couple of weeks at a tattoo school is the answer. It might help as far as information goes, but a school can’t give the person any real hands-on experience. The only way to really learn tattooing is to find a shop that will take an apprentice. That can be a difficult undertaking. I know, I went through my own apprenticeship and appreciate how hard it was. But it was well worth the effort and a necessary part of becoming a quality artist.
As you know, all shops are not the same and I’ve heard horror stories of owners taking advantage of their apprentices and not really showing them anything. That’s where research comes into play. How much time and energy are you willing to put in to researching tattoo shops and tattoo artists? Then, when you think you have found the right place, how are you going to approach them? They have something you want, so how are you going to prove to them that you have something that they should want from you? That’s the BIG question!
I see tattooing, nowadays, in the same way it once was in the music industry. In the 1960s and early ’70s, everyone was a “wanna be” rock star. I think any creative field is the same, in that you have to have some talent and work very hard and be very dedicated for a long time before there are any rewards. These fledgling young ones sometimes don’t really see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into being successful. I guess that’s a universal truth about anything successful. I know one very successful tattooist that hardly sleeps because he is so dedicated to his art and his business.
With tattooing, it doesn’t matter in the end how well you can paint or do other art media. Those disciplines can help you learn and are necessary as you develop as an artist, but putting on a good, clean tattoo is a whole different thing. Picking up a tattoo machine without proper instruction and going at it does not serve anyone well except maybe the person’s ego. In fact, you can physically damage people if you go about it that way. It’s only after years of tattooing that a person gets to see how many nuances go into creating a really good piece. I know a lot of really great tattooers that are extremely critical of their own work, seeing how they can always make it better. That is something that never goes away and, thank God, they don’t settle for mediocrity.
A young woman came into my shop and was applying for a full-time tattoo position. I looked at her application and saw that she had just been to tattoo school. I felt sorry for her because she just spent all this money and it is very unlikely that she will ever get a job tattooing, at least in the Seattle area. Two weeks of school does not measure up to an apprenticeship and good old hard work. This is also a good reason that most places of employment ask people to fill out a job application and hand in a copy of their resume. It’s a prospective employee’s first opportunity to make an impression on the owner of an establishment and an opportunity for the owner to look at their education, their experience and even their writing and personal presentation before spending valuable time on an interview. It gives prospective employees the opportunity to set themselves apart from the other hundred people who have applied for the same position. I can’t tell you how many people come into my shop thinking they are above doing any of that. So, I just politely shine them on and, unfortunately, begin thinking that we’re on a downhill path of de-evolution. In this column, I hope I can provide a little common sense and structure to those that want to pursue tattooing, no matter what.
These are a few of the ingredients that go into being a tattooist: dedication, humility, actual talent, being a self starter, doing artwork constantly, keeping the lines of communication open, networking, being able to market your work, having good people skills and having a good work ethic.
Here’s a list of dos and don’ts for those interested in an apprenticeship:
1. Get tattooed before you approach anyone. There is something to be said about having ink on your own skin and living it as a heartfelt lifestyle.
2. Draw all the time! Take life drawing classes and other art classes as much as you can. You really need strong art skills to excel in this business. This is your foundation.
3. Don’t ask for an apprenticeship. Everybody wants an apprenticeship, but not everyone is willing to go out there and work his or her butt off for it. Make yourself useful to the artist: run errands, hang out, learn, ask questions, sweep the floors, offer to answer the phone and don’t expect any wages. This is a very inexpensive price to pay, considering that most universities charge anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000 for a college education. If you are really helpful, this can develop enough trust and you may be offered an apprenticeship, or the artists you work for may introduce you to the right person. You will find that this is a profession where one has to prove his or her character over the test of time.
4. Expect to work hard for zero wages. In other words, find another job to pay the bills for a while. You will eventually need to work off all the time your teacher puts into your education. And there should be a written and signed contract between the teacher and the student, so there aren’t a lot of misunderstandings about the mechanisms of how things work.
5. Have a humble attitude. You are essentially asking a professional person to spend their valuable time teaching you a very detailed and challenging skill. Believe in yourself and your art. Keep at it and get opinions from people whose opinions you respect. Take their criticism in stride and incorporate it into your daily practice.
6. Don’t walk into a shop and not know anything about the shop you are walking into. Take some time researching who they are, what they stand for, their history, their art and their style. In the world of professional business, the prospective employee is expected to know something about the industry and the company they are asking to give them a job.
7. Don’t think that you can just buy your equipment from a magazine, scratch a few friends and then get a job in a shop saying that you have been tattooing for several years. We turn people like that away every week. Bad habits and no real training spell danger to clients and the shop’s reputation.
8. Have respect for yourself and the craft you want to learn, and take on the challenge of a real apprenticeship. Expect to spend several years learning before you lose the title “apprentice.” The word apprentice for some reason in this country has a negative connotation. Why? Well, I don’t know why, but what I do know is that an aspiring tattooist should feel proud to be someone’s apprentice.
9. Finally, here are some things not to say when trying to get a job or apprenticeship(And before I get too many letters, yes, I’ve had or heard all of these conversations in my own shop!):
Owner: Can I see your portfolio?
Prospective Artist: My girlfriend burned it and I don’t have copies.
Owner: What are your goals in tattooing?
Prospective Artist: I just want to tattoo; it seems like a fun job. Do I need goals?
Owner: Can you fill out this application for me?
Porspective Artist: Ummmm, let me take it home and I’ll get back to you later.
Owner: Why do you want to be a tattooist?
Porspective Artist: I hear you can make a lot of money in tattooing.
Owner: How long have you been tattooing?
Prospective Artist: I apprenticed for six months and have been tattooing for a year now.
Owner Artist: I see you like Jack Rudy? Your work seems inspired by him.
Prospective Artist: Who’s Jack Rudy?
Owner (on the phone): Madame Lazonga’s Tattoo.
Prospective Artist: Hi, honey. Can I speak to the guy in charge about the job opening?
Maybe if enough of us keep saying the same things in our own words then, finally, we will begin to make a dent in educating the public. Good luck to all of you who are on this quest to a life of permanent embellishment.
—Your sister in tattooing,
Vyvyn (Madame Lazonga)