Inked AU/NZ – Authentink Article – September 2010
by Kian ‘Horisumi’ Forreal
A hot topic these days it seems is the question of why established tattoo artists are unhelpful, rude and downright nasty to wanna be tattooers. I mean they get really upset when the art of tattooing, with all its secrets, rituals, suppliers, references, ethics, procedures and tricks…. all that stuff isn’t just handed over to whomever asks for it. Say again?
What other business or trade can you expect to just walk in off the street and say ‘Hey! I want to learn how to be a _____ will you teach me for nothing’? Not too many will be helpful, and especially not an underground industry peopled with hardnosed characters like tattooing.
I mean really, would you ask your neighborhood drug dealer on where to get and how to sell dope in this neck of the woods? And yes, it is just like that.
I’ll preface this article by saying that this is just my opinion I am speaking for, although many artists around the world no doubt share it as most of my friends do. You may think these opinions to be arrogant, elitist or self-serving or whatever, they probably are but that doesn’t change the fact they are relevant to most working tattooers today even they are wishful thinking to some degree. The only tattoo people that open the door to help everyone that comes along is either a con man looking to make you pay or a charlatan that has nothing to teach and needs his floors swept daily.
Established artists have worked their asses off to get where they are, and most times it has been on their own with little or no help from anyone else. We all struggled and found our way in and there’s no way in hell that we’re sharing or giving away that knowledge easily to all comers. And on top of that, tattooing needs to be protected, more on that later.
Most places if you walk in and ask for either supplies, needles ink etc.. or for an apprenticeship or just how to be a tattooer, the quick answer will be a finger pointed toward the door. The long answer will something along the lines of ‘get the fuck out’ and a boot up your ass. It really depends on the shop but they all have their place and time.
Tattooing is not a profession full of brotherly/sisterly love, caring and sharing, it’s not a holiday camp where we sit around doing crafts together and it’s certainly not for the weak minded although it may appear like that from magazines and TV shows, let me assure its not. It’s a dog eat dog business at every level where the untalented biters are ridiculed, the hacks are paid out on and the cream rises to the top. In most shops this applies.. I am sure there are some exceptions with the feel good types but you get the idea.
There is no faking being a good tattooer, either you are or you’re not and other tattoo artists can tell pretty quick which one you are. And so while there is a level of camaraderie amongst us tattooers it really only goes so far as your portfolio and your work ethic. A hard working tattoo artist will most likely help out another hard working tattooer whom he likes, but would not help out a lazy crappy tattooer that he also likes, this is pretty universal and obvious.
The whole point of this is if we regulate our behavior so much amongst ourselves then how do you think we feel when someone outside of the circle comes along and wants in with nothing to show for it? No free lunches hey! It takes years and years to get good at tattooing, taking lots of shit from both mentors and clients alike, and for someone to just come and ask for that knowledge with their hand out. Well, it’s downright insulting.
And also, who has time to teach? If you’re busy tattooing,and have something worth sharing with the world you are probably putting in a lot of hours, how are you supposed to balance that with teaching a newcomer the trade every time one comes along… the answer is you can’t. And again..We get called the selfish pricks for not helping everyone out.
In my experience the truth of it is that most of these people given the opportunity would not bother to learn all the way through to the end, after 6 months or so they think they know it all, they tell their ‘master’ to take a hike and they go and open yet another dodgy tattoo shop somewhere down the road from a respected tattooer who has spent years cultivating a business, building peoples trust and making nice consistent tattoos on the locals.
You only have to look at a few Australian cities to see what I am talking about.
And that new shop with the pimply-faced scab vendor can fuck that up pretty quick if he does things wrong. On top of that, who is going to willingly share their business with you and perhaps lose clients permanently to your new ‘shop’ when you decide you’ve had enough of cleaning tubes and toilets and making needles and think that you’re ready to go it alone.
Not too many people, that’s who. And this is only one piece of the puzzle.
The other part of the mystery is like I mentioned earlier, tattooing itself needs to be protected from outsiders. Maybe even from you. An amateur tattooer in a licensed shop spreads around a staph infection for instance to his young clientele, this makes the news and suddenly tattooing is once again in the spotlight in a negative way, parents are calling for legislation and everyone’s clients are worried about getting sick, the council wants to regulate and no one wins. Or perhaps just an amateur pervert who is trying his hand at tattooing and giving the ladies a hard time or scummy operators ripping people off or tattooing drunks, or using cheap and nasty supplies… the list goes on. The bad apples spoils the bunch with tattooing and it really doesn’t take much to tarnish the name of tattooing. A lot of folks in power hate tattooing, lets not make it any easier for them.
Even the good press that we get in the mainstream newspapers and TV view us with suspicion and contempt; there are never positive stories in the news about tattooing. And for this reason it is important to keep a lid on what is said and not said publicly about our business.. the established generation of tattooers are the gatekeepers of tattoing (at least they should be) and will pass it on in good time once we’ve had our share and we have found the right people to continue the tradition.
If you come into a tattoo shop with no visible tattoos, no book of drawings, an attitude that says ’the world owes me something’ and ask for a easy doorway into the circle then you are definitely not that person to carry on the tradition of good tattooing. If on the other hand you get heavily tattooed, build a rapport with an artist of achievement, work your ass off developing yourself, artistically and otherwise then the tattoos gods may smile upon you and grant you access. But only if you deserve it.
One more thing so to the nay-sayers…
All these kids buying cheap tattoo machines online, having tattoo parties and disfiguring each other, is that the fault of professional tattoo artists not helping out the next generation? Or is that more likely just a bunch of muppets with a complete lack of respect for what tattooing is and no matter how many proper apprentices there were taken on, that would still happen.
Easy answer that one! Until next time…
Kian Forreal is a professional tattoo artist with 17 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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