Tattoo Art 101 with Madame Lazonga—The Importance of Being a Tattoo Artist
By Madame Lazonga
As with many other artistic industries, in tattooing there are technicians and there are artists. I think there is plenty of room for both. Some people took offense in my article on apprenticing when I said that I don’t look for artistic talent, first off. Let’s address that issue, and talk about how to push our own boundaries and be constantly inspired.
On the technician side of tattooing, there are those who can beautifully reproduce pre-produced images in ink on skin. I’m not including artists who work on portrait or realistic work, as there is an artistic level there beyond the technician’s ability. I’m speaking about the person who knows the mechanics behind putting on a clean and beautiful tattoo—nice lines, great fill, appropriate shading, simple beauty. These folks can often modify existing art and create small pieces on the fly, but tend to struggle when asked to create wholly original work, based on the most basic of ideas
The technician is a true staple of the old walk-in style of tattoo shop, and very important to our industry. These tattooists are often the first that the newbie public encounters, and their ability to tattoo well and leave a positive impression makes it easier on the rest of us, when people decide to commission larger, original tattoos. It was this aspect of tattooing I was thinking of when I spoke of looking for apprentices with integrity and people skills over artistic ability. All the artistic ability in the world can’t help you if you can’t work with the public and a crew of people. We would miss out on many great tattooists if we passed them by because they struggled creating a Mucha-styled sleeve, especially since many a technician, given the right atmosphere, has blossomed into a great artist. It’s often more about potential and presentation than pure raw talent.
Still, all of us have struggled through our own technician years, even if we could already paint full canvas portraiture in oils. The medium of ink and skin is a constantly challenging one. As human beings and artists, repeatedly tattooing names, butterflies and fairies and more names, butterflies and fairies often drives us to lose the lust that brought us to this medium in the first place.
I spent a great deal of my career as a solo artist, and therefore a solo businesswoman. If I didn’t tattoo, I didn’t pay my rent. It is sometimes a more difficult road to follow, especially without a partner to share the financial load. But it was my choice, and I’m sure many other artists out there can empathize. I’ve only recently collected a talented crew to handle the more technical work and am finally able to start choosing what I want to work on. This is after 34 years of paying my dues and working hard to build and keep my reputation. Even now, I find it harder and harder to be inspired by the art that people are commissioning me to do.
So, how do we continue to be inspired? Customization to the needs of the client was only developed in the last 40 years of tattooing, pushed into the mainstream by pioneers like Sailor Jerry, Don Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven and Don Nolan. Today, customization is the bread and butter of tattooing, as clients become savvier. The days of flash-only shops are numbered, in my opinion, as even flash-based shops now sport talented artists who can draw anything, anywhere, anytime, and are only stunted by the imagination of their clients.
Still, being a commissioned artist is not easy. Tattooists are constantly being asked to jump from one style to the next, sometimes during the same day, and sometimes by the same client. First, we consult and do an initial collaboration with clients, discussing the possibilities and restrictions of their ideas. That’s before the research phase. Once there is enough subject matter to utilize, the rendering begins. Like all art, sometimes the images just pour out without effort, but there are also those days when drawing is a struggle, and hours are spent thinking, drawing, redrawing and researching over and over. This is, of course, before you begin the actual tattoo. And then, there are the many minute modifications made once you actually get to skin. You cannot create great art in minutes. It takes time, thought and effort to excel in your media, and create the best piece of art for your client. Now, multiply that process by four or five consultations a week for larger work. The demands of creating literally hundreds of original pieces every year are enormous.
The trouble is, after years of those kinds of demands, even the most motivated artist can become bogged down with too many client folders and no place to create his or her own art, let alone create inspiring work for his or her clients. In some ways, the customization has created an internal monster that each of us must face and conquer. Personally, I find that creating a sacred, creative space at home, away from the business of the shop, helps immensely. Also, spending time in nature, going to art shows and connecting with other artists keeps me motivated and fresh.
I’d love to know what everyone else does to keep fresh. Do you take a class, try a different medium or take a vacation? What keeps you motivated and doing your artwork? What speaks to your artistic self and helps you push through those days when it seems like you can’t create one more blankety-blank cherry blossom? As always, I’d love to hear from you.
—Your sister in tattooing,