theres an old joke that goes “Two fishermen were pulling up crab traps and throwing the crabs into a big box on deck. one of the fishermen noticed that one crab had climbed the side of the box and was about to escape over the side. He called to the other fisherman and asked ‘hey should one of us go push that guy back into the box?’ without even looking up the other fisherman replied, ‘dont worry about it, those are liberal crabs, they’ll pull each other back down”
One of the more frustrating things to witness is people who supposedly share a cause and outlook attacking each other instead of the “enemy” that all are supposed to be united against. I often wonder why my fellow liberal, progressive types are so quick to atack each other, to question our allies ‘purity’, and to nit-pick insignificant differences of opinion when on the whole we share common goals and beliefs. I used to think that this was a particular disease of lefties like me til I talked to other folks, conservatives, religious folk, even people in the same meditation groups or art collectives; all had found their own groups attacking inwardly before taking on the foes they had supposedly united against.
As a single example I recently began reading a website begun by a feminist who also was an actor director. The avowed purpose was to celebrate womens writing, point of view, and struggle. When the sites creator made a quick post about finding a favorite lipstick the comments erupted with angry readers blasting her for writing “unfeminist” things, rageful posts about her site was bullshit because it dared to mentio that this person liked make up. All the positive work this sites author did was immediately disregarded in the light of her “crime” of having a vision of feminism that the keyboard warriors disagreed with. Why, I wondered, was the reaction so visceral, why were the folks who had clearly come in support been so quick to turn on and attack the posts author?
Conservatives attack each other for not being “true” conservatives, even video gamers denouce those who play online wargames as not being “real” gamers. It made me think of my teen age years as a punk rock kid and the way we constantly sized up every other punk kid around as a “poser”.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that the fact that these people doing the attacking all followed a similar pattern regardless of the camp they identified with. I now think that the universal nature of this behaviour points out something in these folks that goes beynd their individual gripes. These folks want a reaction, they want to person they are questioning to feel it, they want some kind of emotional payoff as a result of their attack.
People tend to be attached to their groups because they have a very strong feeling for their cause, they care enough to invest time an energy in the cause and they believe that their cause is worthy of the effort they put forth. The irony is that whomever is the “enemy” doesnt give a shit about and usually actively belittles the “cause”. e all want a payoff for our effort and we simply dont get that payoff from the “enemy”.
For example, if you are pro-gay rights like me and you call Rush Limbaugh a homophobe he will just laugh and say “yea, so?” But if you call me a homophobe I get upset and feel the need to defend my pro-gay bonafides. In short, if you call me and Rush both homophobic you wont get any payoff from Rush, he embraces his shitty politics and sees them as a compliment while I will be upset and go out pf my way to try to “regain” your approval. Fellow believers hae a psychological interest in defending themselves while the “foe” takes it as a compliment.
the sad fact is that people part of a common belief system become frustrated at their lack of effect on the rival belief group and out of that very frustration they attack the only people who give back that juicy energy, their comrades! The only time a group seems to submerge this shitty self-testing is when a bigger, more dangerous belief system threatens. Take, for example, the times when anti-gay police harassment was rampant in New York in the late 1960s. After continuous, unprovoked police attacks and abuse, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn united to resist and fought back; and thus began the modern gay-rights movement. The first bottles thrown at the police were thrown by drag queens, who by necessity were allied with the gay, trans, BDSM, and bisexual patrons against their common enemy, the police. Today we have pro gay groups splintering off, banning Drag Queens from pride parades, the shunning of BDSM from “mainstram” gay rights groups, and conflict as gay groups divide along racial lines. It appears that as strides are made in the rights of Gay Americans the survival mentality then gives way to smaller and smaller sub-genres competing with each other for legitimacy and space within the movement.
The internet has made communication within your chosen community easier and spreads the word quickly and efficiently, unfortunately it also gives people instant satisfaction when trying to reach out and hurt someone. If you still get your jollies making another person squirm then attacking someone who is supposedly an ally will give you more of a reaction than attacking those who already dont give a shit about what you think. The ease and audience that social media allows those self-policing accusations to happen just further feeds the ego driven to try to force others to dance to their tune.
theres an old joke that goes “Two fishermen were pulling up crab traps and throwing the crabs into a big box on deck. one of the fishermen noticed that one crab had climbed the side of the box and was about to escape over the side. He called to the other fisherman and asked ‘hey should one of us go push that guy back into the box?’ without even looking up the other fisherman replied, ‘dont worry about it, those are liberal crabs, they’ll pull each other back down”
The thing about meditation is that it’s effects never stop revealing themselves. Sit for 10 years and there are still going to be those “aha!” Moments just as poignant and life altering as the ones that happen in the first couple months. In fact they might be even more striking because after some years of sitting you no longer doubt the trust of that inner voice when it says “hey dummy! Pay attention to this, it’s important!”
In the few months I tried out psychotherapy my therapist once commented “you are the kind of person who, if they know the right thing to do,you will do it” I agree, but for me the real trick is getting to the point where I realize what the problem (and thus the solution) is in the first place. I can count the number of “revelations” I’ve had while actually doing zazen on one hand, most of those moments happen when you are sort of not paying attention. however, I know that without the meditation those sparks of revelation wouldn’t happen at all. (I know because I had 34 non-meditation years of no revelations and whole damn lot of bone-headedness)
Not long ago I was listening to a podcast (’Stuff Mom Never Told You’ it’s awesome) about passive aggression and the light bulb went off. I realized that all the shitty behavior they were describing, all the bad results they mentioned were going on in my own life! Ouch. Almost all the recent friction I had suddenly began experiencing with my wife could be traced back to my passive-aggressive behavior! It had crept into my personality like a cancer and it was definitely fucking with our harmony. I had felt off-center for some months and was frustrated that I couldnt figure out why. However, once I understood what was wrong I gave the ’reasons’ scant thought. (was it living with a toddler and all the changes that brings? My mother dying last year? My getting older? Etc) Who knows (and more to the point) who cares!?
The fact is that knowing “why” was secondary to knowing what the problem was, because once I knew, then I could act. In one of my favorite Buddha tales the Big B describes us as being like a man shot with an arrow , but instead of just pulling out the arrow and patching the wound we start asking things like “who shot this arrow? Where did it come from? was it metal or wood?” We tend to worry about a lot of secondary shit that doesnt matter when the real correct action is to fix the problem! So I didnt put too much thought into how or why I had started to act passive/aggressively, I just determined to stop. After that it hasn’t been hard to keep an eye on what comes out of my mouth and I was shocked at how my the first thing I said was often couched in a passive-aggressive dig.
Suffice to say that cutting out this crap has had immediate and great effects. We get along much better, my long suffering wife is no longer constantly being subtly attacked by my insecurity and need for control, and I feel better and more at peace. At multiple points in my life I have become aware of problematic behaviour on my part and decided to correct it. Before doing zazen I believed, like many of us today, that my shitty behaviours were just “me”, that there was something called “Jason” which acted of its own volition that I was powerless to stop, it might have been my parents fault or society or my spouse who “caused” me to be an argumentative self-pity monster, but it certainly wasnt “me” and there was nothing “I” could do about it! Stupid world making me act badly!
It was bullshit. Had “bad” things happened to me? Of course, Im human and that is the price of being a human, but was I powerless to change the results of these things in myself? I discovered that this was not at all, the case and within weeks of begining meditation I began to realize that this thing I called “me” was infinitely malleable! Far from being impossible to change I realized that it was taking me a LOT of work to maintain this image I had of myself as this wounded victim of the world! As long as I had believed that other people were responsible for making me feel ok about everything I was passively (but petulantly) waiting around to be “fixed”. It was never going to happen, those who “wronged” me would never fix it, those I loved couldnt, and as long as I was a fucking asshole no one in their right mind would try. Ive met quite a few folks like this who were my (middle) age and its a sad, annoying person to encounter! So, once I began to see “me” as this constantly changing collection of habits and patterns I realized that I could change those patterns which caused suffering, once I realized which ones they were. It was liberating to take back that responsibility for my own being in a way that is impossible to describe.
Meditation has always worked like this for me, once you realize what it feels like to not be uncomfortable with yourself, any sort of imbalance becomes quickly apparent. The word Buddhists use to describe the cyclical world of suffering, avoidance, greed, and ignorance is the sanskrit word “Samsara”. Apparently the root of the word samsara once described a wheel where the central hub was not centered, as it rolled ove the ground your wagon would bump bump bump as the uneven wheel jarred everything, you would know that something was out of kilter. I lived much of my life with that feeling, like a perpetual pebble in your shoe I felt irritated by life and could never shake the feeling that something between me and the world was separate and uncomfortable. Samsara. I even got a skeletal hand holding a banner with the word tattooed on the back of my neck to never forget what a painful and deadly path Samsara is.
The biggest change for me since I began sitting was a growing comfort with the world. I cant describe how profoundly strange this felt to me at first! But the reality is that no matter how weird our haircuts and how many wacky chemicals we ingest we are a part of this world, not something seperate from it. When we allow ourselves to be natural the world embraces us (and shows us when we stray into unnaturalness) To live at odds with reality becomes impossible in the best possible way. Obviously I had and still have a lot of work to do, I always will, but without the baseline that daily Zazen has given me I doubt that I could or would respond to those quiet reminders which alerted me to my bad habits.
As times change society changes with it. As standards evolve we as a group must learn to evolve with it. But society has a memory. We, as a people, have a collective standard still preserved in our minds, and while we can change with the changes, there still lingers the ghost of our old ways. And these ghosts are powerfully hard to exorcise. When they do finally let go it is slowly, almost resentfully, and even so these traces seem to leave traces themselves. It takes a long time to become truly free of old ways of thinking and behaving in a culture.
Recently the social media world has been in a tizzy because a plus sized model was signed to a major modeling contract. She was not the first “plus sized” model to do so, but she might be the biggest physically in current memory. “News” like this normally slides onto and off my notice instantly, it makes no difference to me who or what is a model, but the responses to this did catch my attention because it illustrated something ive been thinking about for some time.
Some folks were naturally jubilant that this person was being accorded the respect that other, slimmer, models enjoy. These people saw this as a milestone in ending our societies undeniable fear and/or loathing of overweight people. It was a sign, they said, that being proud of yourself is a right regardless of where you fall in the body size scale that fashion institutions attempt to impose on us. Others, predictably enough were not happy, lets call them the “antis” for short, and it was these folks and their response that I found particularly telling.
The Antis didnt post things as blatant as, “shes so gross” or ” that is disgusting”. Instead there was a surprising amount of “concern”. The posts against this model usually looked something like “Good for her, but Im afraid of what message this obese person being a model sends to kids” or “is this the type of health image we should be rewarding?” More versions of the same thing popped up, with the gist being, “im not judging, but wont rewarding this person with visibility teach people that being obese is a good thing?” Now, of course, if you have lived in the western world for any length of time it is patently obvious that these arguments are bullshit. For one thing we live in a culture that punishes the overweight at every turn, so there is no way that one single model signing a contract will suddenly make millions of girls go on a cheese fry binge. Second, this model is one person not a trend, to have so strong a reaction to one single exception to the “norm” while the health of hundreds of clearly undernourished models is unspoken belies the idea that this issue was of concern for the health of this (or any) model.
The truth is, as far as I can tell, is that lots of people read a sensational news story about a plus size woman and really, really wanted to point and yell “ewwwwwwww she’s sooooo FAT!” Its the same instinct that makes the “mainstream” voice concern over how my tattoos will look when im 60, or the same urge that makes “normal” people worry where vegetarians will “get your protein from!?” Disturbingly, It is also the same reason that “urban” has become a cover word for black person.
Did these people suddenly become nutritionists? Sociologists? anthropologists? Sadly, not. They are racists, bigots, and whatever you call people who hate tattoos (squares?) and they have been denied their ability to voice their true opinions. What is frustrating for them is that the denial came not from a government edict, it came from the same society they live in! These days we live in a world where it is no longer socially acceptible to gawk at or make fun of fat people, where being anti-tattoo marks you as “uncool”, where using racial slurs to routinely refer to black people marks you as an ignorant racist instead of a middle-of-the-road American. But, and this is important to remember , these are relatively recent changes! Less than 50 years ago things like Freakshows, blackface, and anti miscegenation statutes (laws forbidding black/white dating and marriage) existed, even less than 10 years ago gays were routinely portrayed in all media as silly perverts. The wave of sentiment against judging and calling out “minorities” for special abuse is still new and is only slowly becoming the norm.
Until this new morality has thoroughly soaked into the social conscience, the ghost of a time when fat people were “funny” and a fair target for public condemnation will linger. Those who still want to feel superior have had to find sneakier ways to mock and compare themselves to those who were formerly a fair target. Some of these folks rail against “political correctness” even when all they are really looking for is a way to avoid changing with the rest of a society that is growing up around them. For others the new way of mocking fat people is this bullshit concern for the plus sized models health. These folks don’t care about the health of this person, they simply want to point out that they themselves are not as fat! That they are somehow morally superior to someone they still characterize as lazy, gluttonous, and stupid regardless of the real facts about their chosen targets character.
As long as someone feels so compelled to elevate themselves by shitting on another, especially shitting on another who belongs to an already denigrated group I have to wonder how small this “anti” feels inside! Heaping blame and/or abuse on someone considered to be ’lesser than’ (whether socially or economically) has come to be known as “punching down”. It is result of someone so insecure that the only group/person they feel comfortable trying to belittle is a victim they perceive as being unable to “hit back” (due to their inferior position in society). As our culture grows and matures, this kind of thing becomes frowned upon and the only way these insecure cowards can punch downward is with false concern and pity.
So the next time you detect that whiff of faux concern or the not-so-well camouflaged code word for a minority, might I suggest that instead of trying to argue against the “antis” specious “points” that you instead just point out the underlying real reason for all this sudden “concern”. If there’s one thing the insecure abuser hates its for their real motives to be revealed as the sad ghost of a shittier time that they miss so much! When these folks racism/bias/bullshit is clearly (but compassionately) revealed we can all help to exorcise those rotten old ghosts a little quicker.
I like this quote a lot.
“Nonviolence does not mean non-action.
Nonviolence means we act with love and compassion.
The moment we stop acting, we undermine the principle of nonviolence.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
To act in the real world often means holding (and acting out of) seemingly contradictory views. To be non-violent and still take up effective action sounds at first glance like a clear contradiction, but as we have seen over and over, it is actually the MOST effective in the majority of cases. We are taught from the earliest ages to see the world as an either/or environment, and yet it only takes the most cursory look around to see how false this premise really is!
The world around you is not either in winter OR spring, the reality is that it goes slowly from one into the other. In fact, the change of seasons is so gradual that we spend as much time in the “transitional” seasons as we do in the “official” seasons. To use another example, how do we know when “childhood” ends and “adulthood” begins? Or how about why a sad movie can make us cry and yet still feel good at the same time? How can we both be embarrassed by and still enjoy the funny biting comment a friend makes about us at our expense?
The reason is that there really is no hard division between most things in the world and that our existence means literally balancing seemingly opposing thoughts, observations, and feelings all the time. We use our minds to separate the world into discrete unite to make it easier to understand, but unfortunately we are not taught that this splitting into boxes of reality is just a technique for simplicity, not true reality. Even so, and despite the fact that we are taught dichotomy from our earliest age, we handle these contradictions easily and intuitively. The problem comes when we are asked, or ask ourselves to consciously pick a side. There is an old zen saying that goes “Comparison is the lowest form of thought”. We are told and believe that one has to pick a side, or to prefer a team, to make a mental heirarchy of value. In short, we believe we have to make an either/or decision. We cant simply enjoy our cookie, we must compare it to the other cookies we have eaten, even if such a “decision” makes no difference at all! To the extent that we believe that these choices are based in “reality” or can somehow apply at all times and in all situations we suffer and cause suffering.
Of course we have to live in this world, we cant pretend that we dont have preferences or that or choices dont matter at all. They do. No sane person would tell you that you shuld feel as enthusiatic about eating mud as you would be about eating chocolate, we prefer comfort over pain, we rank kindness as better than cruelty, and rightly so, but the trick is to do this without becoming blind to the provisional nature of this conditioned reality we all live in! We may prefer comfort over pain, but if we always opted for the former over the ladder no one would get tattoos, or work out, or eat a healthy salad instead of a fast food burger! Even in this example we realize that the contradiction disappears when you simply act out of seeing reality. Sure being comfy is great but not at the cost of harming ourselves or others!
To return to the Quote which began this article, if the Ghandis, Mandelas, and Dr. Kings of the world had resorted to violence then those oppressing them would have had the (false) moral excuse of “protecting” the society to use violence against them. If the Ghandis, Mandelas, and Dr.Kings had sat passively by and waitied for change to happen then perhaps India would still be an oppressed British colony, South Africa still segregated, and Blacks denied the “white only” sections in the American South. These wise leaders took action, they confronted injustice head on, but they did so in the spirit of the old saying “when fighting devils, beware not to become a devil yourself”. The nonviolent protests changed the game, it made the inequality so manifest and so clear that not even the most ardent defender of the status quo could say a word against them. Once the truth was presented, once the violence of their respective systems was revealed it was only a matter of time until those oppressive organizations fell. To sick dogs and peaceful protesters, to bludgeon a peaceful march did more to destroy corrupt regimes than a molotov-cocktail hurling riot could have.
The state of balance won out over the profoundly imbalanced. It always does, eventually. The trick within our personal lives is to live with that balance. This first requires a rigorous honesty, and I have found no better method of attaining this compassionate self-analysis than meditation. It really is a bullshit stripper! If you want to live like all your thoughts are true and to feel like your opinions and ideals are correct and impervious to being false then dont start meditating! I dont care what your upbringing or beliefs are or how strongly you hold them, after a few months of daily sitting you will be questioning some or all of them. The interesting thing is that rather than make you feel insecure or without moral anchor you actually feel free to have real compassion, real morality! It turns out that be internalizing all these rules and codes, and patterns we actually allow ourselves to behave like assholes! “Its not my fault” we say to ourselves, “this is just how the world works”. But once you begin taking responsibility and stop taking a kneejerk side in every situation your real, and I believe, inherent compassion allows you to act out of accord with what is most effective. This feels amazing! It was equally amazing to watch things I had fervently “believed” and patterns I had repeated until I truly believed they were “me” drop away one by one to be replaced by the ability to truly react appropriately to each thing as it cames up instead of trying to use my old programming and comparing mind. I am far from perfect at it, (after all we all have decades of bullshit conditioning), but even the small amount of it that has fallen away has made an amazing change possible!
The fact is that you are not a statue or a corpse, you are an ever changing whirlwind of contradiction and so is the world, by allowing yourself the natural ability to be what you really are you will be in accord with the world! As the Walt Whitman once brilliantly pointed out in a poem:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”
The original version of this article was written in 2009, at the time I was getting asked for apprenticeships all the time, usually via email, usually by people who clearly were not in love with tattooing. One of these potential “apprentices” told me when I asked if she had any tattoos herself, “oh I dont want any tattoos myself, I just think it would be a cool job I could make a lot of money at”. So perhaps you can understand the exasperated tone of the original version of this article.
I still agree with everything I wrote, but the 6 years since I originally wrote it have changed me and tattooing and I felt it was time for a rewrite and to update the information. One of the biggest changes is the end where I answer several of the comments and complaints that folks had about the version 1.
A lot of people want to be tattooers, and I can understand why, it seems like one of those jobs where one doesn’t have to follow “the rules”, and even as tattooing has become more mainstream it still retains that cache of being by and for the outsider. Unfortunately the same kind of personality that is attracted to tattooing is often the same type that resists any sort of rules or tradition, and tattooing, despite what anyone tells you, is full of rules and traditions. These rules and traditions are not arbitrary, they are not there because tattooers are mean or are afraid of competition. They exist because tattooing is a very old fashioned artform (even the newer styles) and is best taught in an old fashioned, one on one, mentor/student way. In other words, by an apprenticeship. This has been bourne out over and over again through ancient history right up to todays photorealistic, pneumatic/rotoriffic masters, and when people eschew an apprenticeship, when they try to “figure it out” or find a “short cut” the result is the same; some poor sod (or hundreds of poor sods really) get shitty, unsafe tattoos.
Few tattooers would write an article like this, it is considered best to slam the door in the faces of people who want to become tattooers, and if that worked I would slam the door myself. I actually believe that just by saying “fuck off kid” that we professionals are causing more people to order crappy kits and tattoo out of their house! When we don’t show these prospects that there is any “right” way to go about it then it should be no surprise that they choose the only way they see availible, the wrong way. What if, instead of the same stonewall approach that clearly doesn’t work, we showed folks the right way to get an apprenticeship, not an online how-to tattoo manual, but a guide on how to seek the proper training?
This article is my point of view based on 18 years of experience, having done an apprenticeship, and on seeing the results of dozens and dozens of fellow tattooers stories. Some did apprenticeships that were good, some bad, and some folks just winged it. I took on my own (and only) apprentice in 2008 and learned a ton from that experience as well. You dont have to agree with this article, I dont care either way, but you should at least appreciate that this article is something Ive never seen given out, for free, by someone who has the experience I do, its a gift for the 1% of prospective apprentices willing and able to someday become, not just tatooers, but great tattooers who are a positive boon to the world of tattooing.
1. DO get into tattooing through an apprenticeship. Sure you could ‘figure it out” the same way you could “figure out” how to defuse a bomb. The reality is that it’s far more likely that you will blow yourself up, and in tattooing you will be fucking up on real live humans who deserve better. Everyone has a story about how so-and-so awesome tattooer just started scratching out of their crib, but even these (extremely) rare exceptions will tell a newcomer that an apprenticeship is the way to go.
2. DO start the whole process by getting tattooed yourself! I mean a LOT. Sleeves, large work, all that. No one is born knowing what makes a good tattoo, its an acquired language, you need to be exposed to it personally before you even consider tattooing others. Getting tattooed is a secret door into understanding tattooing. Even clients with no intention of being a tattooer become knowledgeable after getting hours of work in the tattoo shop environment, it’s like learning a new language by living in a foreign country instead of just reading about it in a book. Getting a lot of work also shows a prospective mentor that you love tattooing and not just the image of it. Frankly, most tattooers won’t even entertain the idea of teaching someone who can’t be bothered to get tattooed themselves.
3. DO draw a lot. Draw everything. So you have gotten that one skull down pat? great, now draw a fairy, a beaver, a motorcycle, a flower, and a face. If all you can draw is skulls then you are useless as a tattooer. For me the first big surprise in learning to tattoo was how rarely I did “cool” stuff! Especially in the beginning our artistic skills will lag behind our vision, even the best artist on paper has some adjustment time when they begin using a tattoo machine, practicing with subjects outside of your comfort zone is great preparation for being a professional tattooer when you never know what idea is coming through the door.
4. DO read every book, magazine, and website on tattooing you can. Learn the history and mystique of tattooing. Respect for tattooing is worth a lot to a prospective mentor. All that “old stuff” isn’t just for historical curiosity, there are lessons to be learned even from the crudest old work. Studying where we came from gives us a huge bank of ideas and images to draw upon. In the modern world of tumblr/Instagram tattoo pages a new artist can find a level of work to aspire to (not copy), having a goalpost to aim for helps to focus a new artist on getting up to speed quickly.
5. DO remain open minded about every kind of tattooing. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is “declaring your major” too early. In the beginning you should be open to all sorts of tattooing, because all have something to teach you and after several years of work you may find that your passion has led you to a totally different style than what attracted you at first. Besides, to a prospective mentor an apprentice who declares that they are too good for tribal or tasmanian devils is someone already too big for their britches.
6. DO get lots and lots of work from the person you plan on asking for an apprenticeship. Someone walking in cold and asking for an apprenticeship is all take, take, take. By getting work you show the tattooer you are serious, interested, and they have a chance to spend some time with you and a chance to gauge your dedication. Getting tattooed by your prospective teacher is probably your best bet for getting an apprenticeship if you dont already know them personally. Don’t treat tattooing like the kind of thing you drop off an application for, this isn’t a summer job, its a whole new life, treat it that way.
7. DO be willing to sacrifice. You might be expected to work at the shop for free and still keep a job on the side. You might have to move to a whole different city to find someone willing to apprentice you. If you have tried every shop in town and no one is taking apprentices there is probably a reason, perhaps business is slow in your town and no one wants to create another mouth to feed at their shop. You might be also be asked to do all kinds of menial shit like cleaning, running errands, dealing with customers. Some of this is hazing to weed out those who dont “really want it”, some of it is teaching you how to clean and set up tattoo equipment safely, and some of it is “payment” for the training you are receiving. If you cant deal with some hard work, critiques, and ball busting, don’t even bother.
8. DO understand that to be a tattooer is not merely a job, you become a representative of an artform we have given our lives to. It becomes your lifestyle, your hobby, the hill you climb forever, I know a dozen tattooers who lost girl/boyfriends when they started apprenticing because it was so all-consuming! Most tattooers feel that taking on an apprentice is special, its damn near sacred. Understand and respect what a huge amount of trust and respect taking you on as an apprentice is. Look at your desire honestly, if you think it will be easy money, lazy work, or a way to be a cool kid then stop now, it is none of those things and you will be a poor representation of tattooing if you half-ass it.
1. DONT waste our time telling us how much you want it, how many years you have dreamed of it (especially if you are only 18), don’t tell us how “good at it” your friend/mom/baby momma thinks you would be. Talk is cheap, show us by doing not saying. Most prospective mentors want someone who is a hard worker who is humble not a deluded maniac who will talk a good game and then balk when they are asked to mop, practice drawing hands, or do other unglamorous parts of their apprenticeship.
2. DONT badmouth other tattooers, even if it is your prospective mentors worst enemy. Being a shit talker is simply proof to that shop that you will one day, sooner or later, be shit talking them, too. Even if your mentor is the worst gossip around, it is a bad habit that will only hurt in the long run.
3. DONT ask via phone, email, internet, letter, do it in person or don’t bother. Anything else tells the tattooer that the gift of a tattoo life isn’t worth your time and personal appearance. An apprentice is an investment of time and effort, why would we give that to someone who cant even be bothered to talk to us in the flesh? Not only will asking “hey, you taking apprentices” on Facebook rub most tattooers the wrong way, it might even make it even harder to get a foot in the door at all, word gets around the tattoo community and badgering folks online will not get you a good reference.
4. DONT show up without some artwork. Bring examples of your artistic ability. Paintings and Photoshop art are nice, but what most tattooers really need to judge are drawings. It doesn’t have to be photorealism or japanese, but it should show a confidence in line, shading, and some understanding of how colors work with each other. I can’t tell you how many folks have shown me their “drawing while high” doodles on a notebook cover or napkin and acted amazed when I wasn’t interested in teaching them. We may dress like 19 year olds, but we are professional artists, approach a prospective mentor in a professional manor with a professional body of work if you want to be taken seriously.
5. DONT be surprised if you are asked to pay for your apprenticeship, especially if you don’t personally know the artist. There’s a lot of ways to weed out those who are not serious, paying for your apprenticeship is one of them. (BUT beware those shops who turn out 20 apprentices a year for money, chances are you will end up paying 5 grand to mop floors for 4 months and then get fired for some made up infraction). This can be tricky and is why it helps to familiarize yourself with tattooing by reading and getting tattooed, know who is using apprenticeship as a trick to fleece the uninitiated.
6. DONT ask just anyone. Some tattooers cant tattoo, an apprenticeship with one of them is just the blind leading the blind. Educate yourself as to what a good tattoo looks like before you start asking around. In all seriousness, the book “The Complete Idiots Guide to getting a Tattoo” has some fantastic info on how to spot good work from bad. Learn the language a bit before you start asking. Some tattooers are so bad that learning from them is effectively a step backward and I have a few friends who did these sort of “apprenticeships” and spend years undoing the poor habits that were instilled in them.
7. DONT expect to start tattooing right away, there is a LOT of groundwork to do first. Lots of apprentices don’t even touch a machine for a while! No matter how good of an artist you are, tattooing is a skill acquired via repetition and practice, you will most likely be drawing a lot of roses and butterflies months before you tattoo even the most basic stuff. Just learning to safely and efficiently set up and break down a machine is a skill you will have to learn, in a good apprenticeship you will be making lots and lots of baby steps and gradually building on each previously learned bit one at a time. Patience in learning to tattoo (and life) means that you will have a strong foundation when you start learning new skills.
8. DONT mistake the art of tattooing for an excuse to get up late, be lazy, dirty, drunk, high, or snotty. You must be your own taskmaster. A good blue collar attitude towards your apprenticeship will help you learn fast, thoroughly, and with respect from your peers. There are guys who are jokes in this art form and don’t even know it, there are lots of tattooers who have a ton of talent and skill that can’t get hired anywhere reputable because their known attitude problem, drug habit, or poor work ethic. The best artist in the world is useless to a shop if they are perpetually late and unprepared. A hard worker trumps a rockstar every time.
9. DONT pretend to be “in” already. You don’t have to be meek and submissive, but don’t act like the hipster cool guy either. If you get an apprenticeship you will be working closely with the whole shop, be the sort of person you would like to hang out with day in and out. Your mentor will be your primary source of info, but everyone at the shop will help you, as well if you are approachable. My own apprenticeship was by 2 or 3 other people as well as my mentor, and they each helped teach me something that rounded out my skills, if I had come off like a cocky know-it-all these guys wouldn’t have told me anything. Mouth shut- eyes open was my mantra!
lastly, BE CAREFUL!
1. BE CAREFUL of tattoo “schools’. They are a huge scam and not a single one is worth 2 shits. Some states require a license from these shysters and its a damn shame. The fact is that learning to tattoo means taking in small bits of information, learning to apply that info until it becomes automatic and then learning a new bit on top of the previous one. This takes time and practice, something no 2 week (or 6 month) course could teach even if the “teachers” were any good. If not absolutely necessary save your money!
2. BE CAREFUL of scumbag tattooers who see an apprentice as a way to get free money/labor/sex. Tattooing is wonderful, but nothing is worth being exploited, if you find yourself in that situation then get out, regroup, and start looking again. Never stay in a situation you feel is unsafe.
3. BE CAREFUL in learning the basics of cross contamination and how to maintain a safe relationship to the bloodbourne pathogens you will be encountering in tattooing. It wouldn’t hurt to read up on this stuff/take a class before you begin any apprenticeship.
4. BE CAREFUL to avoid the disease of ‘rock-starness”. Humility will carry you miles further in tattooing than all the talent in the world if its wasted on an egomaniac. Stay humble, know your real ability level, and don’t tackle stuff so far above your head that you (and your customer) will regret it.
5. BE CAREFUL of someone willing to take an apprentice who has less than 4 or 5 years under their belt. I didn’t take my (only) apprentice til I had 12 years of tattooing under my belt and almost none of us know enough about how we do what we do without many years of tattooing behind us. Skill in this business is measured in decades not years.
Now good luck, don’t give up, and don’t email me anymore about this stuff.
Frequently asked questions about this article:,
“Who are you to decide how someone should get an apprenticeship”
I’m the guy writing the article, you don’t have to like it, this article isn’t about “likes”. It’s information I obtained through doing that I’m sharing. Do you think the way it works is not fair? You might be right but either way this IS the way it works in tattooing. So you can take what I am giving you (for free) and use it or ignore it, I dont care either way, but you had better understand that I am trying to help. If you can’t see that, there’s nothing I can do for you.
“Joe So-and-So didn’t do an apprenticeship, and he is better than you!”
Cool. Go ask him for a job, tell him you don’t want an apprenticeship, that you just want to start tattooing and see if he hires you. Or ask him to write you a 4000 word article on how to get a proper apprenticeship.
“Why can’t I just look at the youtube/scratcher bbs/how to website?”
You can, but you can’t ask them the questions a real trained professional can answer for you. The beauty of an apprenticeship is that ideally it is a personally tailored training regimen. Few skills these days are taught one on one, crafts person to crafts person and there is a reason tattooing still is. A cyber apprenticeship is to a real apprenticeship as cybersex is to real sex, it just isn’t the same thing.
“Why are you so mean”
If you think I’m mean then you haven’t asked many people yet for an apprenticeship. This is my nice way of saving you getting yelled at by some guy whose been asked 400 times that week for an apprenticeship by unprepared yahoos. If you walk in prepared and with some knowledge, you are already looking better to your prospective mentor than 99% of the people who ask us.
“Is there anything you aren’t telling us”
Yes, and I am sad to say that the number one way people get an apprenticeship is that they already know their prospective mentor. It sucks, it’s not “fair”, but it is true for most jobs that are above entry level. The old “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. My teacher was my brother, most folks I know who got into tattooing legitimately did so because they were some tattooers friend or other relation. This is why I encourage you to get work from the artist you want to learn from, you need to build that relationship if it does’t already exist.
“This article is bullshit because some tattooer I know said something different”
It’s entirely possible. This is my version and the best advice I can give based on my experience. It might be totally different where you are from.
“There’s too many tattooers, why help these kids become apprentices”
Because I’d rather help someone at least learn how to askthan just say “fuck off” and have them still go order a Chinese tattoo kit from the internet. Like I said above, if just slamming the door stopped people from scratching then we wouldn’t have scratchers, but we do, so the current wisdom of just trying to close it up isn’t working. If the worst that happens from this article is that a bunch of kids learn about tattoos, get lots of work from prospective teachers, and go around asking to be properly trained then I’m happy with that.
A lot of the older teachings compare the teachings of Buddhism to medicine. Its an apt analogy for many reasons, if suffering is the sickness then the medicine would, logically, alleviate suffereing. The comparison works on another level as well, something that I only recently became aware of. Like medicine, Zazen and buddhism in general, seem to only be measurable in their results and not in the actual actions themselves. What I mean is that when you have a headache and take an aspirin the action of taking the pill does not bring instant relief (despite what the ads would have you believe), popping that pill does nothing for your headache at the instant you swallow it. Rather the medicine must be dissolved in your body and then travel throughout your bloodstream until it reaches the specific part you are trying to affect. After enough time has passed for all this to occur then you begin to feel the effects of the aspirin, you feel relief from your headache once the medicine has had time to be processed through you, not the second that you swallowed it.
I feel like it is safe to say that anyone doing Zazen (meditation) for more than a few months will develop doubts about it. After all, we are told over and over again that there is no goal to our sitting! Without a goal our normal, conditioned minds think “why the fuck am I bothering to sit here with my knees aching and my brain doing somersaults if there is no goal!?” Ive done it many, many times myself. At first I outwardly agreed with the “no goals” message while secretly hoping for some kind of pay-off like peace, or enlightenment, perhaps an end to my struggles or even just wishing for cessation of my desire for a goal! After awhile even those goals will go away and this then is when the “dark night” of the Buddhist soul begins, because once you stop secretly having goals the mind says “why bother?” and without that secret goal I think a lot of folks quit sitting all together, I quit a few times myself and thats when a funny thing happens…
See, the whole time you have been sitting “wrong” it has still been working on you. Like medicine you dont “feel” the effect at the moment of ingestion, the effects are only noticeable in how they affect the “symptoms”. If you have been sitting regularly and then skip a few days you will notice that a lot of old conditioning comes back, for myself that manifests as feeling very edgy and irritable, I begin thinking of scenarios and old grudges where I felt humiliated or attacked. The first time I quit meditation I was shocked at how quickly I turned into the same dissatisfied, frightened, angry person I had spent my whole life being. I was argumentative, unable to compromise or move passed a perceived slight, I just felt at odds with the world instead of in accord with it. Once I got my dumb ass back on the cushion all those negative habits and thought traps quickly disappeared. It still happens, I suppose I am “cursed” to meditate for the rest of my days but if all it takes to get my shit together is 10 or 20 minutes of meditation a day then I’m glad to do it.
The funny thing is that when I’m actually meditating, as in when I’m sitting on a cushion (called a zafu), I don’t feel any of this change occurring. It’s usually boring, often distracting as my monkey mind send one thought after another that I dutifully let go of and return to my breath. These days the knees don’t hurt anymore and I don’t find myself lost in a daydream for 8 of the 15 minutes I’m sitting for, but I also am not feeling more “peaceful, enlightened, or calm”, I just feel like I’m sitting and not much is going on. Now, however, I know that something is happening though I can’t feel it, the medicine of meditation is working on some level I can’t (or even care to) fathom. Amazingly, the years of doing “nothing” have produced something wonderful, a life I could never have imagined. I have learned to trust that when I take the pill by actually sitting daily that the suffering is alleviated, it’s not quick or “exciting” but it does work astoundingly well.
Even if I can’t feel it.
Every time I see one of those links to some article about “how not to piss off your tattoo artist” or “10 things you need to know to not be an asshole at the tattoo shop” it gets on my fucking nerves. Yes, ive had annoying customers and yes some folks act like the tattoo shop is a place to show how tough, wacky, or horny you are, but for the most part people behave themselves properly and when they do commit some “faux pas” it is usually out of ignorance, not malice. There are a lot of tattooers out there who act like cry babies when some customer acts in a way the tattoo “artiste” doesnt expect, and while some things are common sense behaviors for any place, not just a tattoo shop (dont show up drunk, do show up showered, etc), tattoo shops often have some special customs and rules that someone may not know if they are new to the world of tattooing.
It is in the spirit of assuming that “people will do the right thing if they know what it is” that I present this list of things that will make your visit to the tattoo shop more pleasant and will no doubt fill the heart of your crabby artist with joy if you come in already armed with this knowledge.
1) Wear a tank top and bring a flannel (or other warm long sleeved shirt) with you. Yes even if its July and 400 degrees outside. You never know how your body will react to tattooing on a given day and you never know if you will be sitting right in front of a heater or air conditioner to get your tattoo. Many times I have gone to get tattooed in the dead of winter only to walk into a shop that felt like an oven! If all i have on is a wool shirt then im going to be sweating my ass off in addition to dealing with the pain of a tattoo. If you start to get hot you can strip down to the tank top and if you start shivering you can use the flannel like a blanket, if you are particularily prone to getting hot/cold bring shorts or extra thick socks with you. Peoples reactions to tattoos vary greatly and Ive been sweating my face off while tattooing a client who is shivering with cold, be prepared for a costume change no matter the weather!
2) Bring food and water. I know, you are too nervous to eat, you dont want to get up to pee every two minutes, and you worry that they wont allow food near the tattoo station. Trust me on this one. Bring a snack (something neat and not smelly; bring something like a granola bar, jerky, or shelled nuts. Leave the Limberger and sardines at home. . .) and a bottle of water. Getting tattooed is stressful, and even if the stress is very minor (which it usually is) that discomfort can cause your body to eat up its stores of energy and the sweating can dehydrate you as well, particularly on long sessions. Having a snack and some water can recharge the batteries before you bonk. (bonking is what runners/bicyclists call the state where your body begins using fuel more rapidly than you can recharge it with food/drink. Bonking can lead to feeling light headed or even “passing out”) If your tattoo shop has strict rules about food/drink then take a bathroom break and eat away from the work area. The more energy you have the greater your tolerance and ability to hold still during the tattoo process.
3) You might want to bring a friend, maybe. Many of my repeat customers began by bringing a freind(s) and after a few sessions stopped. If you have a chatty tattooer a friend can actually be annoying as you try to pay attention to both (or all) the people talking to you. Besides, we all tend to want to make sure our friends are having fun, when getting tattooed this extra stress can make the tattoo (and their presence) do more harm than good. Also, be sure the person you bring is the kind of person who makes you feel more relaxed, dont bring your wild ass wacko friend who makes kooky noises and likes to bust your balls because their shenanigans will quicky go from amusing and distracting to annoying and distressing. In general the environment you want to create with your companion(s) is closer to a comfortable coffeeshop hangout than a party.
4) If possible, bring cash. This is like tipping your tattooer before you even begin. Credit cards, even where accepted are an additional hassle for the unique business model that most tattoo shops are. In most shops the artists pay the owner a percentage instead of the other way around so if the cards are run through a shop machine (some artists have their own individual services like Square or Paypal) then the artist has to wait until he gets paid out by the shop, Ive been places where this can take up to a month! Add to this the fact that all credit card processors take a cut of the money means that your artist is paying out on every transaction. If a card is all you have and the shop takes them, then by all means use it, but if you can get cash and you dont mind stopping at the ATM then your artist will certainly appreciate it.
5) Some tattooers like to talk, some don’t. Many tattooers feel that they cant properly focus if they are talking or being talked to while they work, this doesn’t equal that they are mean or unfriendly. Some like to chat and use the dialog to check up on how you are holding up or to tease out details which might add to the tattoo, this doesnt mean that they want to hear about your dramatic break up or gory car accident. Touching and being touched automatically makes us feel connected to the person but sometimes this can lead to over sharing or feeling awkward when the tattooer isnt reciprocationg the conversation. Start by keeping it light and follow the artists lead, if they dont talk then dont take it personally. Think of it as their way of giving your tattoo all the attention they need to do a good job. I have have had some deep conversations with customers, but even if you get talkative tattooer its good form to not start right off talking about who you hate, how bad you have it, or how so-and-so sucks at tattooing.
6) There are some ways that you can accidently insult your tattooer if you are not aware of them. One of the most common i have encountered is the insinuation that tattoos are not “art” or that your tattooer is not an “artist”. When you talk about other forms of art by referring to them as “real art” you are implying (however unintentionally) that tattooing isnt real art to you, and when you mention that your friend who paint is a “real artist” or that you cant “find anyone to draw my tattoo” you are tacitly saying that you think of your tattooer as someone who “just” tattoos. These days most tattooers can draw what you want, and paint, and sculpt, they have simply chosen tattooing to be their “real art”.
Another no-no is being openly jealous of your tattooer in the sense of saying “you guys must make a lot of money” or “I wish i had a job where I could dress how i want/listen to metal/ touch pretty girls / come in at noon/ draw for a living/ kick out people i dont like/ etc”. Beside sounding like an accusation this also implies that your tattooer has not earned what he has. The customer sounds to us like he or she is saying “My life is not as good as I project yours to be, and I dont think you deserve/earned it”. I can assure you that if your artist is busy and talented then they have put in weeks, months, and years of struggle to get where they are now, nothing has even been handed to an artist who is good at what they do no matter how effortless they make it seem now. It is rude in general to discuss someones wages, and particularly if they are about to offer your a service and then expect payment.
In short; dont make it weird.
7) Tipping. Almost every tattooer will gladly accept a tip, but most of us dont expect it. There is no standard, and I am leery of giving a “rule of thumb” since each person has their own rule in this regard. Personally I don’t expect a tip and don’t think anything less of a customer who doesn’t, I appreciate that tattoos are not cheap and I am grateful for anything over the amount I quoted initially. Tipping is nice, but dont break the bank or stress over it too much.
That’s all for now, as you can see Tattooing has its own customs and to quote the old saying ” When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, meaning each shop will have a preferred way of doing things, but in general some of the tips above should help you and your artist feel more comfortable walking into a shop for the first time.
For a long time now I have been answering the question “how long you been tattooing?” By saying “15 years”, I said it without thinking, and without really counting. Then the other day I actually counted and it turns out that it was actually 18 years (!). It was quite a shock to realize that I have reached that point where I can legally tattoo people who were BORN the year I began tattooing.
This is crazy to me not just because it’s been so long and yet I still feel like a beginner, but also because in my mind there are milestones measured in years and to have one pass me by without recognizing it seems like a missed opportunity. Some of these marked experiences I only understand in retrospect, like when I hit the 5 year mark and realized that I still didn’t know shit and was still technically far from proficient. It shocked me that I could do something for “so long” and still suck at it. I owe a big thanks to biomech master Don McDonald for the eye opener. I was crying to him at a convention about how I had been tattooing a whole 5 years and still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. Don just laughed a little and said “Relax man, NONE of us knew what we were doing at 5 years!” At that moment I think I finally began to understood that the tattooing path wasn’t going to be measured in months or years, but in decades!
I remember hitting the 10 year mark and being stunned that I had done something, anything, for that length of time! At ten years I knew that I still had a long way to go, but at that point I was getting critiques regularly and had a lot more technical ability, thus I was able to focus on the art part of my tattooing which was, to be honest, sorely lacking. I had also begun to really focus on Japanese tattooing. Horimono (traditional Japanese tattooing) had been a passion of mine before I even began tattooing, after a decade I was finally beginning to be able to start studying it in earnest.
Which brings me to the 18 year mark. If I have realized nothing else in my time tattooing it is that after enough practice that we finally find our groove, our style. Once we get to a certain level of technical ability we are able to focus on ones favorite particular style, to me this is when the real growth can begin. Up to this point we are still fighting with one hand tied behind our backs in a sense. We are fighting the machine as we try to figure out the proper tuning for our work speed, we are fighting the gap between the images we see in our minds versus what comes out of our hands, and we are fighting the conflict between doing any tattoo that walks through thedoor in order to pay rent and the desire to tattoo the images that specifically inspire and motivate us. After enough time these battles are resolved by repetition, study, and hard work, it is then that we can take the blunt instrument which has been our tattooing up to that point and begin to refine it into a fine tool of expression.
Which is all a very long was to introduce the topic of this blog, namely that after 18 years I feel that I am ready to specialize. I am lucky enough to have had the pieces have fall into place for me to be able to narrow my focus exclusively to Japanese style tattooing. I must admit to having some trepidation, not because I think I wont be busy since the vast majority of my work currently is already Japanese, but because I came into tattooing at a time when artists were expected to “do everything”. That old programming can be hard to overcome, I always seem to have a version of the ‘tattoo police” in my head ready to “call me out” for being “too cool to do whatever walks in”. The truth is, of course, that plenty of tattooers decide to stick to one particular style of tattooing, traditional, portraits, black and grey for example, but for almost 20 years I have tried to do most styles and making the transition from considering myself to be a “working class” do-whatever-tattooer to an “specialist” is a little bit of a mental leap. It was probably this self-imposed leftover self image which made making this (admittedly not that big of a deal to everyone else in the world) choice take so long.
The amazing thing about tattooing in general and japanese tattooing specifically is one can do it for decades and still have only scratched the surface of what is possible. There is literally not a week that goes by that I dont learn of some new myth, story, or image in Japanese history and folklore that adds another awesome idea to the seemigly bottomless stockpile of ideas. There is always the need to refine my backgrounds better, to soften that black and grey a little bit, to learn why maple leave, crysanthimums, and sakura can tell a story all by themselves. To me Horimono is like opening a giant box of legos or cracking open a new sketchbook, the possibilities seem endless!
I know some of my regular customers and folk who have been wanting a non-horimono style piece from me will be inconvenienced by this, some have already told me so, but the fact is that when I do non Japanese type tattoos I feel like im not able to really execute with the confidence the way I do with horimono. In the end I see no reason to do a tattoo on a person that is not the very best tattoo that they could have. When I do japanese Im confident that the client is getting the best that I can do, otherwise I wouldnt do it. Fortunately, I work with 4 other tattooers who are extremely talented and who do focus on the bold traditonal work I am no longer going to be doing. In fact, they do this type of tattooing better than I do!
So for me, the first 18 years were about getting to the point where I could spend the next 18 getting really competent at my specialty, I’m very excited to see where this focus leads me!
When Cara was pregnant somebody said “having a baby will make you think about your parents”. I dont recall who that was, but it was so spot on and surprising to me (since Im a know it all I cant allow anyone to think that they could tell me something I dont already know), but I didnt know that. I know it now and Ill be sure to tell someone else as if I made it up myself at some point. Cara being pregnant did make me think a lot about my parents.
When you are preparing to raise another human being, your thoughts naturally go to that place where you have the list. I dont know if you have the list, but I and every person i have ever mentioned it to does, and it is a catalog of your upbringing, a collection of good and bad things you believe your parents did in raising you. Let me start right off by saying that the list is mostly bullshit, I mean if your dad hit you with a tire iron or your mom gave you away to a psycho psychologist to raise then you probably have a legitimate beef, but for the most part its a selfish retelling of history to explain why its not my fault that I’m not happy all the time. It makes sense that the list is full of little things our folks didn’t do right because the list was created by us starting in our teenage years and teenagers are selfish assholes. We tell the story long enough to forget that we created it when we were young, dumb, and full of. . .er. . . hormones, we were also, as teenagers must be as they discover their place in the world, self-centered sociopaths who saw our parents as nothing more than vehicles to make US happy.
So as Cara grew bigger and bigger with the baby I began to think about my folks and I realized that not only was my own list mostly bullshit, but that even the few things I did still have energy about were things that had passed decades ago and that no matter how hard I tried I was never going to be able to go back and change. Whatever hole I still felt in my psyche was never going to be filled in a way that would satisfy me because I am only alive and active right now and no amount of self-pity, anger, or resentment could change that. I also realized that memory is a pretty treacherous thing and our egos like to tell stories that excuse us from any responsibility for our life. We don’t just do it with our parents either, I was unhappily married for 14 years and spent most of that time believing that if only my Ex would change into the person I expected her to be then I could be happy. In hindsight it was ridiculous and unfair to both her and me, but in a strange way it was easier to be miserable for years than to take responsibility for my life.
I suppose you could say that I “forgave” my parents by the time Luna was born, but really they hadn’t done anything to require forgiveness. They did the best they could with no family around and 6(!) kids to raise, I think they did a pretty good job too, but I might be biased. . . . I was able to take all the things I liked about my childhood and determined to bring those to Luna.
My mom was very excited to have granddaughter number 3 the way that only someone who had raised 5 boys (holy shit) can be. She doted on Luna like she did all her grandkids.
She passed away this January in her sleep, she had just begun to deal with pancreatic cancer, diabetes, and some blood clot issues, so while it was a tremendous surprise I had already been coming to terms with her possible mortality for months already. In fact I have been amazed at how much more upset I was when we first found out about her tumor and the long road she would have been starting of chemo/radiation thann I was when she passed away. In a way I think I was more sad and upset for the thought of her dealing with all that fighting cancer entails than about the news that she quietly died in her own bed surrounded by her ridiculous bichon doggies. Frankly if the choice is to go the way my mom did, as early as it was, or to be slowly dehumanized and disassembled in a hospital then Im choosing the way my mom went.
If anything, the hardest thing for me has been not having the grieving I expected to. I really thought I would be a mess, in fact I had some guilt over the lack of devastation I felt. I was and am sad and have been extra spikey and short fused lately, but I honestly expected to be more destroyed by what is one of the most feared things we ca go through. I suppose meditating, a loving partner, and having a toddler who requires non-stop love and attention make that less possible.
One thing that my moms death has brought home is that the List needs to go. It always did, but even that irrational childish part of me which created it in the first place knows that with her passing that there is no one out there to “fix it for me”, if I want to be happy and responsible for my own feelings then its up to me to live that life right now. It always was, but now I realize it.
I miss my mom a lot, I grieve for the fact that Luna wont remember much of her, wont get to experience my moms amazing ability to act like the crabbiest person i the world in a such a way that no one ever believed it. She was hilarious, she was sweet, she was fierce and If Im very lucky and
skilled maybe I can pass a little of her magic onto my daughter, Barb would have liked that.
*mom was famous for getting grumpy at holiday time and threatened to cancel the turkey every year. Even years after my sister took over the cooking, mom would still “cancel” thanksgiving, we would laugh and she would (unsuccesfully) suppress a smile.
An old zen story goes like this:
“There was once a man who loved his horse more than anything on earth (not that kind of love you sickos), it was some kind of thoroughbred and he loved this thing to the exclusion of everything else. Every day he would comb its mane with a golden comb, he hand-picked only the tenderest grass and vegetables for the horse to eat, he layed silk blankets over the floor of the stall so the horse wouldn’t hurt its hooves. He was so obsessive that he would catch its urine and poop in a giant ceramic seashell and take it away before the horse would have to smell it. Get it? He really, really loved his horse.
One day he was cleaning the horses stall for the 10th time that day when a big ol horsefly landed on the horses butt. The man went to slap the fly off of his beloved steed which startled the horse. The surprised horse did what surprised horses do, it kicked out with its hind leg hitting the man in the forehead killing him instantly. “
the point of the story is that just because you love something (or do something nice for it) doesn’t mean that the object of your gifts can understand that love. The man doted on the horse, but the horse was just an animal and when startled, it did what animals do.
So, I got an email today about an article I wrote years ago. To understand why the email was so misguided you have to understand a little about the world of tattooing. It is an extremely hermetic world, almost everyone in it is secretive and protective of tattooing. Sometimes (as the letter writer asserts) this is because some folks are afraid of too much competition, but far more often it’s because we have all seen terrible work put out by untalented hacks and we try to protect tattooing as much as possible by freezing out scratchers.
I appreciate the protectiveness, I do the same thing, but I also think that we can protect tattooing by showing folks the smart and effective way to go about things. I try , in this blog and my life, to show people the correct way of going about being an aspiring tattooer without deluding people into thinking that they could a)learn from this or any other internet source how to tattoo and b) helping them to see that just buying tattoo equipment and fucking people up will never result in them being a competent tattooer. In other words: I’m not trying to train all the people who want to be tattooers, but I am trying to help them to find the correct, effective, and ultimately safest way for them to do the work themselves of becoming a professional tattooer.
This isn’t the first grumpy email I have gotten about that article, but it neatly contains almost all the complaints that people have about my article (that they get for free on the internet. . .. ) so i see it as an opportunity to address them all at once. Here it is in its entirety except I have omitted this persons name and facebook page info.
“First off. I have NO aspirations of tattooing I do not the artistic talent to do it. that is probably why i love visual art soo much
Second. I must point out the Hypocritical aspects of this
I could go point by point but I will just hit on a few
“DO get into tattooing through an apprenticeship.” but if you ask me the answer is NO
This is the answer you hear 98% of the time when you talk to or read posts form tattoo artists.
I partly Blame good tattoo artists for there being so many Bad Tattoo artists. They will totally talk shit about anyone and shoot them doing for not being an apprentice then refuse to apprentice anyone. The Hypocrisy is Thick. Dont goto tattoo schools they are shit. Dont figure it out yourself it doesnt work that way. NO I will not apprentice you.
Is It because they dont want to create more competition? maybe. but Saying you dont have enough time in an industry thats already over saturated it bullshit! If you dont have alot of time getting an apprentice would be great for you. I dont have enough time for SOMEONE ELSE to make my needles. Clean my station and set it up and Clean all of my instruments. Go Bullshit someone else and tell the truth………I dont wanna teach you so you can take away my work.”
So lets address this point by point starting with the fact that this person is angry with my article on how to properly get an apprenticeship but has no aspirations of being a tattooer. There’s a lot of anger in this email considering he doesn’t actually want to be a tattooer. I get that, I also like to speak up for the underdog. Unfortunately, like a lot of folks, the author is using all their sympathy and compassion for the poor aspiring tattooer, but when I wrote that article I was looking out for the wannabe tattooer AND their potential clients. I’m not being mean to potential apprentices, rather I am looking out for both them and the poor souls who might end up getting bad work and hepatitis from them if the fail to learn properly. Also keep in mind that as far as I know I am the only person with 16 years of experience telling people who want to be tattooers anything at all, the letters author doesn’t seem to see this as the gift i intended the article to be because he has the idea that not taking any and all comers as apprentices is somehow unfair.
Second, I’m not sure if this person understands that the article I wrote is an instruction manual for how to get an apprenticeship, I promise you that if I was greedy i could have packaged the article as an “instructional” CD, and I would make a MINT, especially if i lied and said that it would make getting an apprenticeship easy. I didn’t want to profit from people’s aspirations, i wanted to help them to go into whatever shop they choose and at least have the basic tools to not get a door slammed in their faces. Also, the letters author doesn’t seem to understand what an apprenticeship is, again, I dont blame him. We live in a world where everything is convenient and everything can be had for the right price. He doesn’t seem to understand that an apprenticeship is a hold over from an earlier world. A world where one craftsperson takes you under their wing and teaches you their whole life, guards you from bad habits, shows you a little at a time as you master each part guiding you onto the next level while keeping you from fucking up your clients (I realize that’s pretty idealistic, but for the most parts that’s what it is). It’s the tattooer saying “OK im going to do my already stressful job AND take on you at the same time”. The letter writer also can’t seem to come to terms with the reality that sometimes wanting something really bad isn’t enough. Its sad and it sucks but some deserving folks will never get a shot and some craptastic ones will, all we can do as tattooers is try to keep our little corner of the world fair, but it never ends up being very fair. As Dogen said “Flowers, though beloved die while weeds, though despised, flourish”, sometimes the world isn’t nice or fair, but compared to many folks in this world who can’t get any education, safe food, or a nights sleep without hearing gunfire, some kid not getting an apprenticeship is a pretty mild shit end of the stick for life to hand you.
Lastly, the competition thing. Man, he really things he’s got the secret right there of why I’m being so “mean”. Obviously, in his mind, if I wasn’t afraid of competition I would apprentice every kid with a dream and a made in china tat-gun, right? Well, it might surprise people to learn that I have a clientele already, and a waiting list of very nice, patient people, and 6 months of a wait to get tattooed by me. My hands and back are wrecked at the end of a week and when someone cancels at the last moment I’m secretly happy sometimes for the break. I’m good on business. I’m lucky, blessed, and try like a motherfucker to make my customers happy, but I am perfectly happy with the level of business I have. Besides, not to be a dick, but some tattooer with a year under their belt isn’t really going to take my business away. In fact when a new tattooer (a professional one) talks to me I’m more than happy to share whatever I can with them, we trade critiques (yes trade, I need critiques as often as I can get them) talk tech, and wherever I can I try to help. So im afraid that , for me at least, the whole competition thing isn’t a motivation at all. Ironically, anyone who would be worth getting apprenticed by would be good and busy enough that the competition thing wouldn’t bother them either. Id also like to point out that almost no one makes (or has an apprentice) make their needles anymore, I did it for 9 years and since the advent of cheap (Chinese) premade needles I wouldn’t ask anyone to do that shit, and by the way,I pay “someone to clean up my shit” and he got his job by promising to never want to learn to tattoo.
I guess the point of this post is to assure you folks who are angry with me for offering the “How to get an apprenticeship” post that I appreciate that you want this whole tattoo career thing to be easy and accessible for folks. I get it, but the fact is that there is a limited supply to feed the massive demand, my article was an attempt to give the promising folks (who have the talent and drive) the tools to approach an apprenticeship safely and with some chance of getting in. If you misunderstood it as a way to keep people out I humbly suggest you go ask some tough guy tattooer how to get an apprenticeship and see if their answer is nicer or more helpful than mine.