Why you are not what you do.

On one of my favorite tattoo forums there was an ongoing debate about whether tattooing has become “too mainstream” or not. With the gist being that many tattooers feel tattooing lacks the danger it once had. In fact none the guys espousing this opinion really was a tattooer (or even born) in the time period they are referring to (i.e. the 1920’s to the 50’s) and seeming to pine for.

Its not just tattooing either, when i was a punk all anyone talked about was how the people into punk at that time were just ‘posers’ the only ‘real’ punks listened to the germs and shot smack. In either case I’m fairly sure that this supposed ‘golden age’ was pretty miserable to actually have to live in. So what is so attractive about those ‘salad days’ that almost anyone, in any endeavor seem to wish for?

I’m not sure, but the one consensus seems to be that if the was a time when things were wonderful, It cant be this time right now! Even in the face of plain facts like the fact that tattooing generally sucked back then, was only able to support a few dozen tattooer through the whole country, and the artist frequently died broke and alcoholic these folks who ought to know better continue to claim the tattooing was somehow more pure ‘back then’. Why?

If I had to guess id say it comes down to control, or perceived control anyhow. All of us began tattooing with certain illusions of what it would be like, as soon as you actually start to do it though those get shattered, its one of the only times we as tattooers have to face that and adapt to the way things are instead of the way we wish them to be. Its a scary period, and every tattoo for the first months feels like a tightrope walk. Eventually we gain some facility with the machine, with handling customers, and with our abilities as artists, sadly this is when the stagnation begins. We just don’t like change, and as soon as we feel like we have “made it’ we want the change to stop!

I can clearly remember when photo-realistic wildlife became all the rage, i was terrified! I couldnt do single needle fine-line grizzly bears! I was convinced that it was all anyone would want and i would be back washing dishes while some wise ass kid who “didn’t deserve it” would be tattooing in my place! Of course the predicted disaster never came to pass, but that didn’t stop me pissing and moaning about it. I was scared, and the people who think tattooing is too “clean” or “easy” or “for rich kids” (whatever that means) are scared too. Most of them arent very confident and at the heart of their complaint is the idea that now that they have made it into the clubhouse that its time to pull the ladder up and not let anyone else in.

The obvious flaw in this mentality is the assumption that “we” actually have the ability to to freeze (or reverse) time back to the “good ole’ days”. All other arguments aside, the mere fact that they are mad about something as unstoppable and inevitable as change is an enormous waste of time and effort. Even if, EVEN IF everything these guys are saying about tattooing today is true (and I dont particularly think that they are) there still wouldn’t be one thing we could do to change it into what they want. For better or worse tattooing is popular, accessible, and it isn’t going to go back to the way they believe it was. So all the complaining really has no constructive benefit at all, its more of an opportunity to play “I’m more pure than you” as each person makes more and bolder declarations of their desire to put tattooing back into the stone ages when, they imply, only a real blue-collar hard ass like themselves would be able to handle the rough and tumble characters ‘cool’ enough to ‘deserve’ to be tattooed.

I believe that whatever chosen niche these kind of folks find themselves in it would be the same thing, from import-car tuners to scrabble freaks the forum would still be rife with “right now our thing is lame, it was better in the old days”. So whats the problem, if they want to waste their time being angry at the world for its natural movement and change why should i care?

In one way i don’t, Ive given up trying to change peoples minds, in fact these days I highly doubt that I’m qualified to judge such a thing. perhaps they are right and I’m full of hot air. . it wouldn’t honestly surprise me. But in another way do care because I genuinely like these guys, I feel like they are my brothers in a way, and I have been in this business long enough to see the pernicious effects of that kind of cynicism and self-righteousness.

Ive watched more than a few friends who began as bright, eager, awesome tattooers degenerate into bitter, self-hating defeatists because they simply couldn’t see the wonder and beauty of what we have right now through the fog of their unrealistic and unattainable fantasy world of ‘how it oughta be’. I really hate to see that cancer of delusion and ignorance take over otherwise fantastic artists. Its almost like they are afraid to admit that things are going well right now, it seems like they feel that it would somehow be un-tough to accept the world as it is. I wish I could show them that the hardest thing in the world to do is to let go of our own bullshit, but that when we do life becomes amazingly, unbelievably easy.

It really IS possible to care about tattooing (or whatever you particular personality foundation is based on) too much. Its important, but not as important as living awake in the world right now, right here, as it comes to us, not as we want it to. Over the years I have struggled to shed the layers, I don’t care anymore whether people know what I was, that isn’t me now. I don’t need to trot out my various phases of life, my conquests, my story of how my struggle was so tough and hard to prove that I deserve to be here now. I realise now that I deserve to be here now simply because this is actually where I am, and thats enough. I am not what I do. I do tattoos for a livng and I try with all my heart to be the best at it I can, but I am not “a tattooer”. I love my girlfriend with all my soul but i am not “a boyfriend”. I listen to many kinds of music and it moves me to the center of my soul but I am not “a punk or rasta or stoner”. And I even follow the precepts and method of Buddhism, and i feel it has saved my life, but I’m not “a Buddhist.”

Im just me. and so are all of you. And because of that reason, where and how we are right this very second is the best time that has ever been, can ever be, and will ever be.

Please enjoy it.

Categories: Buddhism and life, Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “Why you are not what you do.

  1. First thing that came to mind about the “salad days” (wtf does that mean?) is that everyone was an outsiders. So I guess it is somewhat about the non comformist aspect of it all? There was a brief discussion in Nick Baxter’s board about change and what to do about it


    Nick sees it as normal progress, which it is and he doesnt feel the need to stop it. Or his personal beliefs go against stopping it. I do agree that we shouldnt act as some overlords, but still, I think some of the ethics and “rules” that tattooers have taken along with them all these years, should still be upholded. I do agree that change is good, but that doesnt mean that change is allways required. What if the moment you are in now, doesnt need changing? As you said Jason. “right this very second is the best time that has ever been, can ever be, and will ever be.” So the ethics that apply to tattoo info maybe shouldnt be changed(?) Why is constand change allways required. Or as you said, why is going back to the old ways required? Can we have both? Not trying to stop the info (relating to the discussion I linked above) but still not setting the old ways aside. We could have both. Change doesnt have to mean that you disregard the old.

  2. To make it clearer. When it comes to new tattoo styles, I dont always see them as good. What is with the constant need to “take it to next level”? If we constantly try to “improve” things, when do the things we try to improve actually have the change to be something that can and should be improved? How do we see what we have done, and then learn from it, if we dont have time to live with it? Where is the learning curve? It has taken me somewhat close to 11 years to come grips with my problems. And that is just “me”, my own little world. Then when we talk about tattooing, that means thousands of people. Relating to that and the need to take tattooing to the old days, maybe it is also about trying to KEEP the old ways still intact in tattooing? Maybe when tattooers say that they “want to go back to the good ol’ days” are trying to live in the now. The now being that certain things in tattooing shouldnt be changed.

    Of course it is about we as you said. The idea of what tattooing should be. But it has allready changed. So I dont see any reason that why some of the aspects shouldnt be kept in it. Maybe It is tattooing at it most zen, the traditions. Like if someone follow the buddha heart in them. What means that tattooing cant have buddha heart in it already. But instead of learning to find it, tattooers are fighting to not to loose it. And the CHANGE being the “big bad ego” who makes it harder for us to see our true self.

  3. hot damn awesome post.

  4. PD you misunderstand. Change happens always and forever. Constantly and without end, its not about us changing anything, its about being in tune with the changes. When you try to freeze anything, you make it brittle and artificial, eventually it breaks because when you try to hold something apart and seperate from the rest of the universe all you are doing is hanging onto a corpse.

    Tattooing is what it is, I would love to know where these ‘rules” you speak of are written down, do they apply to each and every tattoo each and every time? I doubt it.

    Tattooers dont have to fight not to loose anything, we just need to be real and honest and all the rest of this stuff that seems so important really will take care of itself. Dont worry about one leaf when there is a whole tree that needs watering, buddy.

    In other words tattooing isnt “our” thing in need of regulation and control, its just another stream we decide to ride in. You dont need to control the river to get where you are going, just your own boat.Its done just fine by itself and will continue to do so (maybe not in a form we like, but still . . ) long after we are gone.

  5. One more thing PD, I know you love tattooing and have a huge respect for its past, but dont fall so in love with it that you forget the reality. Those old school guys, if tattooing today, would be doing the same kind of stuff we do now, with the same style and the same effect. When sailor jerry found a good purple, he did a shit ton of tattoos with purple, he wasnt sticking to the ‘traditional apllette” because he wanted to, he did it because they had to.

    Second, all this “ethics, tattoo morals, tradition” is stuff we INVENTED. Its a bunch of stuff (some good and some bad) that we slap on top of tattooing to make drawing pictures on people sound more important than it is. its a false front, scratch any tattooer and under that veneer is a person who has broken some or all of those sacrosanct “rules” i promise you. Dont get too hung up on the concept of ‘right and wrong” in tattooing, each of us invents it for ourselves as we go along. . .i believe for tattooing thats how it should be.

  6. “Tattooing is what it is, I would love to know where these ‘rules” you speak of are written down, do they apply to each and every tattoo each and every time? I doubt it.”

    What I meant by that is showing respect, is that I dont see that change always a thing for the good. If others see it as good thing, then by changing you can perhaps forget the past. And by that I mean traditions. Not every single thing, but things like not sharing tattooing, how its done and so on, to every single person.

    If things are good, like health aspects, not being treated as scum, but a artist, then change is fucking great. But not neccecarily everything.

    Because I see this as like so: if we look at things from a buddhist view, change is welcomed, couraged (it is inevitable, no matter how we look at it), but I think it can become a selfish thing if we push towards change even if it will hinder the lives of others. If others arent ready for it, and we still push it forward, isnt that selfish in a way?

    And I do agree with not falling in love with it too much. It has happened, but I have learned to walk more of a golden path. To not feel all high and mighty etc. And all the “unity stuff” I do for other people too, not just tattooers. Bands, strangers if possibe, friends, my mom etc.

    And change is constant. When we hold onto it, we suffer. I do agree on that. So open mind is important. I dont want to hold onto past just for holding onto it. But in modern society, everything seems to become “microvave shit”. Instant. So I think we need to remember and cherish the history too. Not just because some mental ideals we have.

  7. “Dont get too hung up on the concept of ‘right and wrong” in tattooing, each of us invents it for ourselves as we go along. . .”

    This is true also. I have ALLWAYS heard it is a real taboo to drink, smoke weed etc., when tattooing. But in my interview with Mike Giant, I asked this and he answered.

    “What are the best memories that you have from your tattoo years?

    As I mentioned before, working at Everlasting in San Francisco was the high point of my tattoo career. It was a lot of fun and really inspiring working there. I particularly liked the days that Mike Davis and I were working alone, listening to gangster rap, drinking beer in plastic cups, and smoking grass between appointments. Good times.”

    And I respect Mike Giant. Everyone respects him. So you are right that everyone invents themself as they go along. But still, I cant help to think that there must be some so called “golden rules” that most of the tattooers hold onto. Can you think what they are? Would be cool to hear. Maybe by reflecting on them, other tattooers can see themself of what thigs they hold in their heart and what are holding them back.

  8. One more thing 🙂 Its not about style. I love the “older” style myself, but people like Jesse Smith, Nick Baxter, Eletrick Pick and so on are artists that I dig and respect also.

  9. Here is a thing that is ironic.

    Im not a tattoo artist. I wouldnt even be able to pass down any info. So, why do I care so much that someone who has the info passes it down?

    It is about control and fear. I fear that my idea of what tattooing should be (and I know people agree with me) would be taken away. My ownself, the image I have created for of what my tattoo world is, would be destroyed. Im holding onto my ego and it is creating friction. I cant stop it, because then I would have to stop other people. Become fucking hitler.

    Interesting. So where indeed goes the line for caring things for the sake of history and being affraid that the I is lost? Is all history preserving based on fear of loosing who we are, or think we are? Is history, or knowing it, needer for knowing how to better yourself? If change is constant, then the past and future doesnt matter. The know does.

    Shit. Heavy shit. I need to think about it more…

  10. My good man Mr. Castello pointed me in the direction of this discussion. Since I am working strictly with Irezumi I am based in a tradition, so maybe my thoughts around the subject could make entertaining reading for anyone interested on this aspect. In order to try an create Irezumi it is important to start somewhere. Just jumping in will lead to confusion and all the energy will be spent trying to figure out where you went wrong. I know this, because I did this when I first started. After many years of “professional tattooing” and further time spent delving into traditional western tattooing I ended up at Irezumi. I have no real clue to why this came to be, and in the beginning I tried to analyze, but I have since long given this up. It is what it is.
    In order to create Irezumi it is necessary to find a starting point, and learn basic rules and traditions. It’s just so much more efficient that way. Something that has taken many centuries to evolve is better to approach with a lack of ego. When I started this Irezumi journey I was full of “self”. I was already pretty famous, and had a strong following locally (stockholm), so I figured it would be easy. At first it seemed. But after a few years I felt strongly that I was still doing what I did before arriving at the gates of Irezumi, running in circles. So I threw “mstti” away, admitted to myself that I knew very little about the whole thing, and started over.
    Contradictory to popular belief, Irezumi is not a “fixed” tradition. It varies from school to school, master to master. It constantly changes and evolves depending of time, place, people. Still the final tattoo takes on the apearance of Irezumi. It’s foolish to think that Irezumi always looked the way it does today. It didn’t. The strenght in the Irezumi tradition is its ability to adapt, grow, change, evolve in a natural unforced manner.
    Remaining fixed in your positions leads to stagnation and ultimately death.

    Horiyoshi III made a point of pointing out that every tradition is brand spanking new in its beginnings. It becomes tradition after a while, and remains tradition as it evolves over the centuries.

    Just relax and let everything become what it becomes. One has no chance of freezing time, and one can never go back to what was before. It just doesn’t happen. I paint my irezumi designs with inkbrush and Photoshop 3 as well. To me, the brush is just an older Photoshop. In certain situations the brush suits me and incertain situations I prefer my Mac. Is it traditional? Hell Yes.

  11. And Jason, my dood man, you said the same thing in your original post, which I concluded after couple posts and thoughts. This part

    If I had to guess id say it comes down to control, or perceived control anyhow. All of us began tattooing with certain illusions of what it would be like, as soon as you actually start to do it though those get shattered, its one of the only times we as tattooers have to face that and adapt to the way things are instead of the way we wish them to be.

    So. How does the concept of history come in all of this?

  12. Dood man? Good man 🙂

  13. Ok, I keep posting like a moron. The goal is, should be, to have both. New and old. When it comes to looking things trough historical stance. Thats why I respect Horimatsu as well as I do Nick Baxter. And not just the other because they do completely different kinda tattoos.

  14. “It’s foolish to think that Irezumi always looked the way it does today. It didn’t. The strenght in the Irezumi tradition is its ability to adapt, grow, change, evolve in a natural unforced manner.
    Remaining fixed in your positions leads to stagnation and ultimately death”

    Exactly. Thank you both for your thoughts!

    The problem is that in the west we latch onto a tradition and then try to freeze it in place. In Japanese martial arts there is what is known as Shu Ha Ri. It means to learn the foundations of your art, then perfect them, and then go past even that and create a new tradition. I first heard about Shu Ha Ri from reading A Horiyoshi III interview years ago and it struck me the proper way to “do” tradition.

  15. Matti and Jason, I agree. I was actually so full of my own self that I forgot (how can you FORGET shit like that?!) that indeed all tradtions have had to have growth to become one. As Matti said, it would die othervise. Or wouldnt be relevant in peoples life today. I was talking about my friend about this stuff just now and she said that You need to remember that there is a difference between respecting and studying history and trying to implant it to your life, to this moment, exactly like it is. That is the root of it to me.

    Dont get fixed on a certain thing. I can respect traditions and that doesnt mean that what someone is doing (if it doesnt “uphold” some tradtional aspects) should be frowned upon. That will in turn become tradtion also. As Nick said in his board.

    as has been discussed in other threads, the issue comes down to wanting and trying to control other peoples’ behavior. i have no interest in that. so i dont try to control crappy tattooers. i’d rather do a small part to help them do better tattoos. the world doesn’t need more external control and ‘rule’ being handed down from above, in my opinion. generally if you want to do something , and someone tells you no, you become defiant and want it that much more. basic psychology. generally, if someone is helpful to you as opposed to trying to control you, you are more inclined to take what they say seriously, and in turn to care more about your own actions.

    Focus on the positive and the rest will follow.

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