Australian Ink – Authentink Article – August 2009
By Kian ‘Horisumi’ Forreal
‘On the Road’ Tattoo Artist or ‘Guest Artist’ as we are sometimes known; most everyone involved in tattooing or getting tattooed has heard the term used at least once but what does it really mean for you the client and for the artist him/herself that is traveling around making tattoos in foreign cities around the world? I’ll try to give some perspectives from both sides of this coin.
Being a successful guest artist is an art unto itself for many reasons, the main reason being that you are the perpetual outsider in someone else’s domain, tattooing someone else’s clients and having no authority of your own in a shop full of artists that may or may not be on the same artistic level as you are and being a city without a safety net. You usually find yourself in a kind of hierarchy limbo, a guest artist is at the mercy of the shop owner but free to leave at any time if he wishes to and yet his second full time job after tattooing (some would argue before tattooing) is keeping EVERYONE in the shop happy to some degree or another or risk being cast out for a perceived slight, bruising someone’s ego or just plain causing jealousy. A daunting task in a creative environment let me tell you!
The joys of traveling are obvious, new sights and sounds, new people, new experiences, carefree adventures of every sort. As a tattoo artist the purpose of being ‘on the road’ is to gather new ideas, be exposed to exotic cultures and artwork and be free to try new things. Most importantly though is to gain fresh inspiration from the talented folks that lead the world of tattooing, and if you’re lucky and charming enough you can get close to and work shoulder to shoulder with them and learn a few things along the way. I did this for 10 years before settling in Sydney and it definitely molded me into what I am today. I would not change it for anything.
But there is also the downside, outside of the shop, to being a traveling tattoo artist that few removed from the experience see and it does take its toll. You learn to live with less; cheap hotels are your home, eating out for every meal is a given, and with carrying all your tattoo gear in your suitcase with you that means there is a lot less room for other things, like a variety of clothes, shoes and books, creature comforts, it can be an ascetic life to some degree apart from the copious amount of alcohol you drink! And it is very very hard on relationships.. if you can even maintain one while traveling, there should be an award for traveling tattoo artists’ partners that survive the ordeal.
That said it is a fantastic experience sharing art and techniques and what you learn in one town with the artists in the next town and learning what tricks they have up their own sleeves in return, it is true cross cultural tattoo pollination, and it really shows up in the end product. You, the clients, tattoo.
Nothing knocks you off your high horse better than when you’re the big fish in town and a virtual unknown tattooer rocks in and his work blows you away, its great for the local artists to get free outside influence, help and inspiration and great for the traveler to get a place to work a learn and lay his head. The perfect symbiotic relationship.
One of my good friends refers to tattoo shops as Embassies, and it is not uncommon for a locally unknown tattoo artist to roll in from another city half around the world with only a referring name and to get treated like family; place to work, bed to sleep in, home cooked food to eat and new drinking buddies. I have had this experience too numerous times to mention and yet it still blows me away every time it happens.
But what does the client get out of all this? Well, I would argue that the client gets a tattoo that they would not normally have access to in their hometown. A mixture of styles, techniques, inks and aesthetics that could only have been obtained from making all those voyages around the world in person, seeing and learning those things themselves and putting it all together in their own special way. You cannot learn tattooing from a book or dvd, period. And you can only learn so much sitting in your studio alone or with co-workers bumping out Cherry Creek flash.
You will probably pay a bit more to get tattooed by a guest artist, he has extraordinary expenses associated with constantly traveling and living out a suitcase and usually gets paid less than a full time artist by the shop. And he may or may not be there to touch up any problem areas in the tattoo or continue on a large piece.
That said, if he build ups enough of clientele in a certain place and gets along with his employer and co-workers he will most certainly make a return journey to tattoo friends of clients, finish work, continue large pieces and of course touch up finished tattoos. So if you choose wisely then the rewards far outweigh the risks of getting a guest to tattoo you.
And as I said in my last column, it is ALL about choosing wisely. Check out his history, where and who with he has worked and look at his portfolio. He or she might just be a fly by night scab vendor bullshitting his way around and working in any shit shop in any red-light district he can find or he may be another Filip Leu boy-genius doing his world tour before taking the tattoo art scene by storm! Caveat emptor
In the end, get a feel for the shop and the artists there, a good shop will most likely have good guest artists… a bad shop might have a good guest now and then but a great shop will usually never have a bad guest. Compound this information with the rigors of getting a good tattoo from my last column and you can’t go wrong. For Real!
Kian Forreal is a professional tattoo artist with 16 years international experience and specializes in traditional Japanese tattoo work and script lettering. He has worked all over world and has studied under some the leading tattoo artists of today. He is based in Sydney at Inner Vision Tattoo in Surry Hills. His website is:
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