Hot! Tattoo Lettering 101—The Tattoo Industry’s Rock Star Syndrome

Yesterday I got a call from my old pal Sailor Cam Cook. Well, actually, it was more like a venting session for my frustrated friend from South Tacoma Tattoo Company. It seems my old pal is doing a “restructuring” around his shop in this Washington State military town. By restructuring, he means two people left his shop to work elsewhere, one long-time employee and the other an apprentice. One left on “honorable” terms. The other did not.

Let me digress by sharing an incident I had with a female employee here at my shop. This woman was hired after a heaping helping of full-on braggadocio about her thirst for knowledge about all things tattoo. I saw a solid portfolio, checked out some very cool paintings and I also know some of the people she has worked for. Sounded good; you’re hired. But, when I tried to sit down and point out some serious flaws about the lettering she produced, she went ballistic and got defensive. After a period of time, she settled down and came to understand that I don’t want inferior lettering coming out of the shop owned by the “Lettering 101” guy. Hey, I have a reputation to uphold. Since then she has opened up and become receptive and her lettering has improved. I think age has a lot to do with her malleability, as she is fast approaching forty. This is usually an age we would consider someone being an adult. Adults are much easier to work with than the children who seem to permeate the trade these days.

Sailor Cam was relating a similar story about his apprentice who would get all pissed off, when Cam suggested he study more Japanese tattooing, if he intended to draw it. Actually, Cam suggested he study a lot of things and was always met with apathy and antagonism. Yet, this young man would brag about how much he wanted to learn about the tattoo trade. Of course, as you may suspect, the kid had a “rock star” attitude. “I got news for you, kid,” Cam would rant, “even Rembrant threw stuff in the garbage now and then. Not everything he did was a masterpiece. Like every great artist, he studied what he was trying to master.” Of course, this wisdom fell on deaf, rock-star ears. (Makes sense, because most rock stars are at least partially deaf.) Our young example wanted to talk the talk and not walk the walk.

The apprenticeship concept has been around for a long, looong time. Thousands of years, in fact. Masons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians still have to serve an apprenticeship, to this day. Usually a four- or five-year apprenticeship is followed by a “mechanic period,” followed by a “journeyman” period. Only after at least twenty-five years, and after mastering all aspects of the trade, would a practitioner be consider to be a “master.” Today, there is actually a tattoo reality show called “Tattoo Master,” where wannabes carve up volunteers, in an effort to please the judges (not all of whom are tattoo artists). What a perverse misuse of the term “master.” The show should be better titled “TattooWannabes.” Either way, I don’t watch those charades. It’s like asking a mailman to go for a walk on his day off. So, in today’s short-attention-span, reality-TV-raised talent pool, the slogan “you reap what you sow” seems to be replaced with “fake your way through it and let your ego do the driving.” Apprenticeship? What for? I’ll just go to a tattoo school and learn how to tattoo in two weeks. Or I’ll just buy a video from a supplier.

Way back in my childhood, hanging around the sign shop with my father, we had a place called “Studio 88.” Google it. It was a big warehouse on an old dirt alleyway in Campbell, California. There were amazing artists there. There were musicians, painters, sign artists, photographers and even a Pulitzer Prize-winning sculptor named Norman Thomas, who hung out. I remember I felt like an apprentice pirate hanging out with all these super-creative people. They ripped at each other in playfully competitive ways, while chugging cheap beer and smoking cigars. The amount of art that came out of that place was amazing. I miss that. I miss the fellowship, and that’s probably why I found a new family in tattooing. Watching these “ art fusions” at today’s tattoo conventions takes me back. It’s super fun to participate, too.

When I try to teach people about designing lettering, I always suggest that they study the “legitimate” fonts first, the way my father told me. Only by understanding the rules about letter structure, tattoo design and the anatomy of the human body, can you understand how we can make a font that will work and be visually pleasing. After all, there really isn’t anything new under the sun, just remakes. Anybody who says they don’t borrow from another artist is a liar. You can’t learn anything about lettering by spitting it out of your printer and slapping it on someone’s arm. You can’t learn anything about how to make needles, if you are buying them readymade.

Recently, an up-and-coming tattoo artist friend of mine got all “butt hurt” because I said his current tattoo was “not one of his best.” He said he did not need any negative comments. Then he went on and on about how his customers should dictate what is good and what isn’t. Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t another, experienced tattoo artist know a little more than a customer, who hasn’t had any training whatsoever? Is your ego so fragile that any small amount of criticism will signal the Apocalypse? Of course, customers are only going to give you positive input on their new tattoo. They are damned happy that you finished it and it doesn’t hurt anymore. Evidently, this guy feels that everything he does is a masterpiece. He’s very talented, that’s an undeniable fact. But let me say that ego will hold anybody back in their development.

Back to my conversation with Sailor Cam: I had to remind him that most people in the tattoo business are dysfunctional misfits. Bert Grimm called us a “bunch of whiney old whores.” We usually can’t make it in the regular job market so we managed to find a home in a craft that welcomes pirates and miscreants. But these new kids are spawn of the “Me Generation,” misfits who we can accurately label as “egomaniacs with inferiority complexes.” Start with an inbred sense of entitlement. Now, add to that a healthy helping of Attention Deficit Disorder and a sprinkling of misdirected, youthful energy combined with a dollop of chemical dependency and you see the problem we have hiring anybody who is not a complete retard. Or, if they manage to live long enough, what we have here is entirely too many power drinkers, forty-year-old adolescents and trustees of modern chemistry. This is the talent pool from which we are forced to draw. There is no sense of professionalism any more.

Here are the last four people I fired: a forty-two-year-old male with a $200-per-day oxycontin habit, who showed up loaded and late every single day; a thirty-two-year-old woman who refused to do the homework assignment I gave her to improve her lettering and other drawing skills; a thirty-eight-year-old male junkie (diagnosed since birth with schizophrenia), who disappeared for days at a time, who is also doing time for robbing a bank in Utah. (Ironically, he was the last guy to work at China Sea in Honolulu, before Mike Malone shut it down); and a thirty-four-year-old alcoholic, who, in a drunken rage, split his girlfriend’s face open by head-butting her, ending up with nine stitches in her forehead. At the shop, this guy was more interested in Facebook and getting drunk than he was improving his feeble portfolio. These people I fired do not include the people who quit mostly out of boredom with the quiet island lifestyle. I tell you, it’s hell trying to find good employees!

The quality of people who come in here in the tiny town of Hanalei looking for a job as a tattoo artist is laughable, like the guy who failed the State of Hawaii tattoo license test nine times! Let’s not even talk about his horrible excuse for a portfolio. A guy with whom he worked at the last shop beat him up for butchering the guy’s brother. Of course, most of the applicants who come in here have lost their portfolios or had them stolen (wink, wink). None of them ever took a blood borne pathogen course in their life. Most of them don’t even know what that is. I had a guy once who called an autoclave “that shiny thing.” I even had a guy come in here one time who had been tattooing for a whole year and told me he was going to open up a tattoo school. When I asked him what the three requirements were for steam sterilization, what a yoke was, what a capacitor does and even who Lyle Tuttle was, he had a “deer in the headlights” look on his face.

This is the information age. Get on your computer and you can find out how to do anything. There is plenty of information, but no training. All these really great artists have DVDs out now. Any moron can have a “how-to” video on YouTube. Unfortunately, reality TV has added more misinformation to the ravenous tattoo hungry hordes than it has actually helped. At least once a week, someone asks me “How much for a sleeve?” and “I need it done fast. My plane leaves today at 4 p.m.” Some think that just because their local scratcher uses new needles, that that’s all there is to getting a safe tattoo. One guy last week actually asked if the pressure inside the airplane would suck out all the ink from his tattoo. Then, of course, there’s the weekly phone calls wanting to know where to get tattoo equipment.

Everybody wants to be a star, and nobody really wants to learn how to tattoo. Most young people don’t understand that the idea of learning any craft from a seasoned, experienced master is the best way to go. I can’t honestly say that this apathy towards traditional apprenticeships applies to everybody who is interested in tattooing. I just want to know where the real goodhearted people are. Sure, there are unscrupulous people out there who rip off snot-nosed kids who pay $10,000 or more for an apprenticeship, only to be left hanging after a few weeks. There are plenty of shops out there who have no business taking in apprentices. Apprentices aren’t shop help anymore, they’re status symbols for young rock star tattooists who learned from some other rock star, who thinks having eight apprentices makes him legit and uber cool.

A good friend of mine from the Central Coast of California practically drove himself out of business by taking in all these “apprentices,” and each one of them left after only a few months to open up their own shops. Now, there are shops everywhere in this tiny town, and he had to reduce his huge shop to only one booth. Here’s the order: Get hired, have a falling out, open up down the street, talk shit about the guy.

In my seventeen years of tattooing, I’ve only had one apprentice who actually made something of himself. When he left my shop, he studied even more under some very accomplished tattooists. I’ve had three other apprentices who weren’t willing to draw or perform the homework assignments I gave them. Buh bye! They lasted two months each. I remember my old pal Erno Szabady telling me how he was going to apprentice his girlfriend. He told her, “First, we are going to make needles.” She said, “I don’t need to learn that. I can always buy them.” Erno said, “The apprenticeship is over!” It ended right then and there, because she was unwilling to learn.

When I had my old shop, Studio 13, in California, I had a constant barrage of ex-cons, who just got out of the two nearby prisons, come into my shop looking for work. I never hired them. It wasn’t because they had no references or portfolios or equipment or even any talent. I could not hire them because they were un-teachable. They already knew everything. Every time I tried to instruct them on safety or design, they took it personally, like I was trying to make them “look bad.” Then they became combative. Ugly, childish. My ex-girlfriend hired the one guy who I told her not to hire and, sure enough, all the artists left and went elsewhere, and the shop is no more.

I don’t know what it is with America these days. Is it because we’re telling our youth that doing everything on your own is the best way? Are we telling them that our experience is worth nothing anymore, that they are all special and incapable of doing anything incorrectly? Has the value of the character-building experience of failure been eliminated from our vocabulary? I totally understand that religious and political and enforcement authorities have been lying to us for thousands of years, but does this apply to the humble life of a tradesman? Is humility going the way of the dinosaur?

From now on, when I hire someone, they will have to be as good as me as a tattooist or better, with a healthy attitude. I haven’t had an apprentice since 2001. I have a generally optimistic outlook on humanity, but people tend to disappoint me with regularity. (Yes, I know I am dangerously close to sounding like my father.) I also know some very fine young tattoo artists with great attitudes. I know they are going to do well and contribute positively to a growing trade. Unfortunately, they seem be a rare breed.

I simply can’t wait for the day I retire, get a wad of cash, throw someone the keys and say, “Good luck, pal.” They’re going to need it.

Faithful servant to the trade,

—Uncle Tim Heitkotter



  1. I couldn’t have said it better myself. 16yrs in, & I’m STILL trying to learn & improve. I’ll never take on an apprentice again. Not worth the wasted time, effort or the inevitable, ungrateful behavior. Thanks for the great article. Respects!!!

  2. The most unfortunate of the points you call to light is the lack of respect for hard work, appreciation for the lessons learned from failure and any personal strength and accountability for almost anyone in my generation, not just in our industry. Imagine how it must feel for me, I’m still pretty young and a young tattooer and I look around me in not just my profession, but my world and see that my peers are mostly minimally functional egotistic mongoloids who are completely focused on their narrow view of the world.

  3. Zulu’s approach to tattooing remains different than many other American tattoo artists. He requires a potential client to meet with him several times over a period of months. During this period Zulu talks to the client about the tattoo they want, what it means to them, and whether it’s really right for them. He consults the mystics of different faiths to get a sense of how to shape what the client desires. He believes intimacy is an important component of the tattooing process and strives to make a connection with the client–he doesn’t tattoo “strangers”–and if the connection cannot be made, he does not do the tattoo. If he does move forward, he gives the client the artwork when the tattoo is finished; each piece is unique and will be used on no one else.

  4. You are tattooing 17 years. The last apprentice you had was in 2001, 11 years ago, at which time you had been tattooing 6 years.
    If you entered tattooing as an entry level apprentice, served your time in a workshop under a master, completed your journeyman time, completed a masterwork, offered it up and were granted status as a master craftsman, having had your LAST apprentice at 6 years must mark you out as a prodigy.
    Where did it all go wrong? The hands and face, to name only 2 quick defects, on that pin up are barely above entry level, and definitely not up to the standard that would be required from a journeyman before he would be allowed to leave a masters workshop to commence his further training in the workshops of other masters. And to work for PAY at the RATE.
    Uncle Tim, you are as responsible as anyone.
    Please, commenting on apprenticeships, journeyman trade/craftsmen or master trade/craftsmen, leave it to those who know.
    Thank you.

  5. Yeah, I did that pinup ( a Mr. Lucky flash piece) back in about 2000 I think (12 years ago). I did not design that one, but I like it anyway. We all improve. Or we die.Thank you for you comment, Richard.

  6. This is all “why” the old school artists had a closed society you had to earn your way into “the right way”.
    I’ve seen em come & seen em go over the last 38 years I’ve been in this business.
    I could go on & on elaborating on this.
    But enough said – cause if you get it, you get it….. and if you don’t, you don’t.
    Unfortunately…..most do not get it and never will. It’s been this way from jump street.
    Oh how I wish to go back to the way it was before it all became a tv show fad.

  7. You’re an awesome, stand up, to the point, intelligent man & I totally respect you. Props to you Tim :)

  8. I’m inclined to say that you present some of the best reasons for why there needs to be more standards in what newbies have to know in order to graduate from grapefruit to skin (earn their ticket so to speak); and some kind of restrictions on who should be allowed to teach these skills.
    All I do is teach since my carpel tunnels decided to cramp up permanently – and I’ve met/worked with/worked for/dated/and taught these “rock stars” over the decades. In fact, if I lived/worked closer to you, I’d say a few of the employees you fired were my exes…
    But if I had one wish it would be that there be a standard set of guidelines on the skills required to be able to “graduate” and to be able to teach. I’ve had kids come to me after graduating one of these crash-course schools or after serving a half-assed apprenticeship. It’s the height of frustrating to undo some of the damage, it’s even more frustrating to get these kids to purge the plate of crap they’ve been fed (not to mention deflate the ego). 2 or 3 weeks of intense learning is not even the “b” in beginning to learn this trade – so, in my opinion, these schools should not exist. They are not doing these kids or this industry any favors…
    As for these reality shows – they irk me only because they show some very unhealthy, unsafe things that would never fly in a real shop in the real world where there are real inspectors who’d love to shut them down. When I see that it gives me the hee-be jee-bes like someone saying “headlice” at a kindergarten class recital… I do watch those shows because it sparks some great debate with the kids I teach. A learning tool on what not to do most of the time.
    Those shows have done a lot to main-streamed tattoos, so as someone who used crash on the couch in the back of the shop and starve most of the time – I think the popularity has it’s blessings, good artists are eating and actually living in their own homes these days.
    Anyway, respect to you. Best wishes on your retirement when you get there. Great articles – keep them coming.

  9. Really appreciate these articles Tim. I was reading some of the comments here and I guess its to no real surprise that a “rock star” had ironically left a comment, unwittingly reinforcing your point… Well nuff said. Many thanks!!!

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