Hot! 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.

Lettering tattoo back pieceI 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 Flower Black back piece tattoo 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!

Black sun tattoo back piece

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)


  1. Good article.

    I live in the 4 corners area of New Mexico. The tattoo industry here is like the wild west. No rules or any respect for the art. I think I will print this article and hand it out to these scratcher wannabee tattoo artists….

  2. Thank you for such a good article. All these new people in the trade are so caught up in all the Rockstar bullshit, there are so many shops now and like you said where is the history, thats terrible that someone would not know who Jack Rudy is. That says it right there, if you don’t know Jack, you don’t know Jack. People have sold their souls for the cash, the suppliers make it to easy for all these wannabe’s to get there non trained hands on the tools we as professional tattoo artist earned the right to have, I was asked by my teacher, I was a slave, but you know what, I worked my ass off to get the right to be called a pro, for Gods sake, these guys don’t even know how to make needles, if your someone in this trade and don’t know what National is, you should not be, have respect for all the great people who had it so so much harder than todays age, put your time in and do it right.

  3. For all the things that have improved in tattooing, so many have declined. I love your writing, Vyvyn.

  4. Thanks, Vyvyn, for a great article. I think in such an environment it’s really up to the consumer to do research and learn a little something about the tattoo world and to find a reputable shop that isn’t going to leave them with something crappy looking. The little garage shops seem to be popping up all over the place, but as I did my research I found out pretty quickly who I didn’t want to be my artist. If the consumer takes the time to look around, it becomes obvious which shop owners care about the past and future of tattooing and hire artists who also care. Thanks for doing what you do!

  5. I think every aspiring tattoo artist should know about and respect the history of tattooing, if they would like to be called a ‘pro’ one day. People who want to become tattoo artists just because they think it’s cool should really stay as far away as possible from a tattoo needle. However, I would like to say this: I’ve been trying to get a tattoo artist to teach me the art of tattooing for many years now and I just can’t find one that is willing to share his or her secrets with me. It’s not a lack of talent or artistic skills. In fact, most tattoo artists that have seen my artwork are quite amazed by it. Some of them even offered me money for my designs. It’s not a lack of commitment either, since I’ve been trying for years to become an apprentice.

    Maybe it’s because I live in Holland and the tattoo culture is different from the American culture. I’ve tried everything to get someone to take me as an apprentice. I offered to work for free in their shops, I offered to pay for teaching me, I begged and even harassed… but no luck. So, finally I was fed up with not getting any further and, since nobody was willing to teach me, I decided to teach myself how to tattoo. Of course I don’t want anyone to get hurt by my making beginner mistakes, so I started out by tattooing myself. As you might expect, I made every single mistake you can make, but I’m getting better at it with every tattoo. Now, some of my friends found my skills good enough to do some work on them, too, wich obviously makes me feel good and confident about my progress. I still have a whole lot to learn and I know that I’m far from calling myself a pro, but I know I will get there with or without the help and advice of others.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that talk is cheap, when you’ve been fortunate enough to be thought by the best and now have 34 years of experience. It’s easy to look down on the novice, when you’re a pro. But remember that once you were a novice, too. The only difference is that you had the good fortune of someone teaching you, while most people don’t. I think we should be glad that nowadays so many people want to be a part of the culture. Give people a chance before calling them wannabes, tattooing from their homes. The ones that are serious will last and make a name for themselves and the ones that think it’s ‘cool’ will soon decide that it’s not their thing and give up.

    Finally, I would like to emphasize that I respect and honor your history and that I can only hope that one day I will be as great as you are. I only pray that I will be more open-minded about the younger generation.

  6. I see the problem too, Marvin.

    What the original poster says is true, but to get to where an “old timer” will even consider you for an apprenticeship, you’ve already had to break the rules by building a decent portfolio and gaining enough experience for them to even consider you. So you’re kinda damned if you do & damned if you don’t but, YES, I AGREE, if you are serious it would be extremely beneficial to read up on the history, the mechanics and the styles of histories best Tattoo artists. You will gain insight, some procedure tips and even the odd advice, as well as tiny modicum of respect from any old timers you might run into.
    I’ve just had to pay for an apprenticeship but, whether that’s ethical or not, I’ll get minimally what I PUT IN TO IT. So if they’re happy with me setting up inks, sweeping up and going home, I WON’T be. I’ll be on top of any artist there as they’re inking, whether I have to bring binoculars or hold risque’ pictures of them hostage! :) J/K on the blackmail, but you get the idea.

    Best of luck to all.

  7. I myself have to agree with the maddam. I live in Pittsburgh, Pa. There is no board here, no legislations, and worst of all there is very little openings. We have tattoo shops in everytown, yet no openings for apprentices. So there are more scratchers than corners. I Myself began in a house. I fought tooth and nail to get an apprenticeship, researched shop after shop, spent $2500, hung out for two months, apprenticed for 11 months, got fired for talking to a senior artist from another shop about what it was like when he started(never got taught anything tattoo related. Did another apprenticeship, he didmt teach me anything, just told me to learn on my leg, found out the artist had someine else drawing for him (his entire portfolio was redrawn). Now after being in the industry for 3 years I have come to dislike a large portion of my local shops. We have so many shops who will work you for free, treat you like trash, and then fire you for drawing instead of reordering flashracks and checking doorjambs for bacteria. It is impossibke to find an opening in a shop out here. The last place I interviewed at asked me who I was tattooed by. Then told me he wasn’t interested because I didn’t have any special artists work on me. Nowadays I’m bkessed to have a clientele list because the scratchers in the hep joint down the road (healthboard inspected) post pictures of them setting up to do a flash piece without gloves and they bad mouth us REAL artists who put our heart on paper. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sick of old timers and amateur (professional career wise) not getting together and trying to understand eachother, and were we each come from. I respect and honor EVERYTHING someone who has more experience says. Us Amatuers want to be where the lovely maddam is. We just need the guidance to get there. Sorry for rambling, I didn’t want to take up too much space,

  8. And to touch on why agree with the maddam, I have 3 years experience as I said previously. People ask me to teach them on a regular basis, argue with me when I tell them to get out of a kitchen and do it the rihht way, then badmouth me for telling them alcohol doesn’t protect against or kill bbp. Every tv station has someone with ink on so every kid in america thinks they can tattoo. The worst was when a guy messaged me to ask me to teach him how to draw so he could become a tatyoo artist… Why would you want to tattoo if you can’t draw??? And I see the extensive amount of disrespect and lack of knowledge on the newbies part. I myself knew who mark mahoney was through a magazone at my local drugstore . I was watching jack rudy, big gus (before his tv debut), jared altymer, big tony from tattoo you, some of these names may not be big to all of you. But the last two are local artists. We need to push some of these “wannabes away yes… but we also need to educate them on why we are turning them down. I myself tell people the truth , I’m not ready yet in my career to teach someone. I’m still learning. I appreciate this post Vyvyn, and keep the great articles coming.

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