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!