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