Running an Ethical Business
By Madame Lazonga
I decided to write about tattooing, running my business and ethics. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a few months and feel like it’s time. This profession seems, as the years go by, to be losing its integrity and honor. I remember when this profession was run by a handful of old timers who all knew each other (or knew of each other) and who took pride in every aspect of the profession, from drawing flash to building machines and running a tight shop. It seems that those who practice the integrity of old timers such as Colonel Todd, Bert Grimm, Smokey Nightingale and Paul Rogers are overshadowed by shops that bought their equipment from mail-order companies. So what you have is a lot of ignorant people teaching more wannabe tattooers that don’t care about anything except what they can instantly get out of it―and that includes the big tattoo corporate promoters and tattoo schools.
I have my own opinion about the corporate tattoo promoters. It seems the only thing the corporate tattoo promoters are promoting is their pocketbooks. You know the type I’m talking about. They are the same people that don’t know a thing about tattooing but open tattoo shops and just sort of wing it as they go. What happened to the people that paved the way, opening the door for them to exploit us? If they wanted to be smart about it, they would be promoting reputable tattooers, billing their shows with recognized and respected names like the old Dennis Dwyer and J.D. Crow Tattoo Tour shows of the early ’90s. If they were really into promoting in a professional manner, then everyone could be a winner and more ideas could be shared.
It’s very interesting to see all of these young people coming into my shop looking for work with their beat-up portfolios and their poorly-done, mock-up versions of Sailor Jerry-style tattoos. They actually think they’re doing good, professional work. I remember this one guy who said he had been apprenticing for about six or eight months at a local shop and was looking for another place to work. I didn’t get into it with him, because I could tell from his persona and his portfolio that he was another one of those wannabe tattooers who wasn’t going to listen to an old fart like me. His work was an awful attempt at Jack Rudy-style, or at least that East L.A. single-needle-style. I asked him if he knew who Jack Rudy was and, of course, he said, “No.” Then I asked if he knew anything about my shop and he said, “No,” and looked surprised. Then he said, “Should I?” Someone else in the shop said, “Well, I think you should, if you want to get anywhere in this profession.” The guy left right away. I’m sure he thought I was just some old, over-the-hill person who doesn’t know anything.
In a way, it’s not really the fault of the young ones who really don’t have a clue how to look for work as a tattooist. But I also feel there’s a responsibility of existing tattooers to uphold a set of professional standards. I think it’s so amazing how many people are roaming the streets looking to get into a professional shop and, when they can’t find work, they set up shop out of their houses, apartments or garages. If they had an open mind and were willing to spend the time to do a real apprenticeship, then maybe the owners wouldn’t mind teaching them. It goes against the grain of society, when we want instant gratification. I still refuse to buy into that mentality. For most of the young generation, they probably can’t understand what the hell I’m talking about. It’s just that I have history behind me and have seen so much.
The first thing I would tell these people is to, at the very least, do some research about whose shop you are going into and do some research about which artists do what kind of work. One place to begin is to communicate with Chuck Eldridge at the Tattoo Archive in Berkeley. Chuck has an extensive collection of historical data on most tattooers from this last century. I’m talking about the old timers that paved the way for all of us. If anyone ever went into a shop and had historical knowledge of tattooing (at least in their own area) and some knowledge about the place where they are about to apply for work, I’m sure that would make a very positive impression on the shop owner. In the corporate workplace, most companies won’t take you seriously unless you know something about the company and the products they are selling. Tattooing is only going to get the respect that we demand of it or, should I say, create of it.
I was at a shop in town a few months back and we were talking about tattoo conventions. I told them I was on my way to the National Convention. These people didn’t even know who or what National was. I guess that’s just the way it is now. People don’t even know the most famous tattoo conventions or the best artists in the field. How are we going to educate these wannabes? Anyone have any bright ideas? I don’t claim to know everything, but I see a lot of young people harming others in their quest to be a tattooist. It seems that, eventually, they will pick up ideas here and there through osmosis but, meanwhile, many will be hurt in the process. It’s so odd to see the profession I have given my life to for the last 34 years suddenly polarized like this.
I really appreciate the way the old Japanese masters taught their apprentices. It was usually handed down through the family line and, like any craft of the renaissance, every aspect of it was perfected over a period of years by discipline and practice. Usually, the apprentice would have to do menial work and slowly build their trust with the master by doing prescribed tasks in a certain manner. I see this aspect of tattooing as very archaic now. Everyone wants to start at the top and work up from there!
I met up with one guy who was tattooing out of his house and, of course, buying tattoo equipment from a local tattoo shop. I looked at his portfolio and thought, Oh my God, he’s doing so much large work and it looks like crap. Of course, I didn’t say anything. In a way, it didn’t surprise me, but I thought, Whatever happened to the idea of doing a real apprenticeship? Are those days over? I had to think about it overnight, then I called him the next day and told him that I thought the best thing he could do was get an apprenticeship from the shop where he was buying the equipment. I’m not sure, but I think he didn’t appreciate my telling him that. I think he thought I was going to welcome him with open arms and tell him that I’d teach him. I value too much what I went through as a lone woman in this profession and what I had to go through to pay for my apprenticeship to give it thoughtlessly away like that. This is just an example of one story of many that I’ve experienced. I’m sure all shop owners have experienced this, too.
I had a young, sweet girl come into my shop that had taken a five-day seminar on how to tattoo somewhere in Chicago or Detroit. I was so curious, because I hadn’t heard of that one before. I looked at her portfolio and saw all of these categories that she supposedly had passed and been given a certificate. One of the categories was Permanent Cosmetic Tattooing. I asked her how much this cost her and she reluctantly told me it was something like $7,000 or maybe it was $14,000, I don’t remember the exact amount. But I remember it was a lot of money. I felt sorry for her, but I wasn’t in a position to take on an apprentice and, even if I was, I don’t think she would have the money or time or energy to do an apprenticeship, after all of that.
This is the era of a new millennium and I will do the best I can to uphold the values I grew up with, regardless of what is popular or faddish. If anyone has any ideas about the onslaught of mediocrity, I’d like to hear about it. Thank you for listening to my rants and raves.
Your sister in tattooing,
Your sister in tattooing,
Vyvyn (Madame Lazonga)