Tattoo stuff

Before you ask me for an apprenticeship….(updated version)

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.

yer pal,


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.

Categories: Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Sharpening the pencil

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!

Categories: Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Gift Horses and their mouths

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.

Categories: Buddhism and life, Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

How to use reference without stealing pt.2

In almost any art form directly copying another artists work, particularly if said artist has a distinctive look to their work, is considered wrong and a sign that the copier has both a lack of creativity and scruples. In tattooing this is made all the more distasteful because the work being copied is being taken from someone else’s body and then applied to another’s body! The “violation” is not only against the original artist, but also taints the wearer of the original work And the wearer of the copy!

Because of the ubiquitous nature of internet and the popularity of tattooing, people who do bite another artists tattoos are almost always caught and called out, and if the copier seems to be a serial biter a reputation for being a hack follows them. Believe me, the only thing tattooers love to do more than bitch about tattooing is to pile onto an unrepentant biter! Of course, some times synchronicity happens and very similar tattoos are created accidentally, but it’s pretty obvious when someone has made an exact copy of a tattoo and especially so when they have done it many times. Sometimes when called out the copycat will justify their thievery with some version of “it’s what the customer wanted” or ” this is what they brought me and wouldn’t let me change anything”. This excuse is ridiculous because as tattooers we always have the right to refuse to do a tattoo and in all my years of tattooing I have never met a customer who didn’t want their tattoo to be a unique creation for themselves. More likely is that the copycat is lazy and rather than do the extra work of telling the customer why they would be happier with a unique version of the art they brought in, I they just slap it on the light table and commence to half-assing it.

So biting other tattooers work is clearly bad, and yet. . . . Looking at other tattooers work is an important part of forming our own unique styles, of stirring that creative stew in our heads, and of setting a bar to aspire to. Tattooing in a vacuum often results in the “monkey house” effect. When one first goes into the monkey house part of a zoo the stench is overwhelming, shocking even, but after an hour you get sort of acclimated to it and it doesn’t seem so bad as when you first walked in. Tattooing while completely cut off from what other tattooers are doing often results in the artist doing mediocre work and not knowing it since they have no frame of reference, they have been Inside their own monkey house for too long!

So how do you use other tattooers work as reference without stealing?

One way is to look at the technical aspects of work you like but  feel are lacking in your own work. If, for example , there is a tattoo with a wing I am particularly taken by, I will try to understand why I’m so enamored of that design. Is it drawn a particular way? is it the way the wing fits in among the rest of the surrounding area? is it the placement on the body? In short, I’m looking for the key to how to take the technical elements I like  find a way to use it in my own work instead of stealing the specific image and reproducing it. Copying someone’s tattoo won’t make me any better, but understanding why I’m so taken with a particular element of the tattoo can help me to refine those areas in my own work I’m not in love with yet.

If I have a tattoo coming up and am not totally confident with my ideas I will often look at similar tattoos for a clue as to how I can tackle my own upcoming tattoo, but I only do this once my own drawing is already finished (more on this later). The idea is to use the other tattoo to tackle specific areas technically, not to copy the previous work wholesale. For example, if we stick to the wing example, lets say I have a chest eagle tattoo coming up but I’m concerned as to how to keep the wings heavily shaded but not to the level that they become muddy or look like a cover up, I might take a look as several other tattoos of chest eagles and examine the ones whose wing shading I like the most. In this example I am still looking at other tattooers work, but applying the technique to my own drawing, not lifting the actual drawing of the other tattooers wing.

What, then, do you do if the customer brings you a picture of an existing tattoo and wants you to do the same thing on them? Personally, I start right out by gently explaining “I know that you want an original tattoo and I can’t copy this directly, but I am excited to draw you something with the same feeling that is custom for you”. This allows me to start out with my line in the sand (I.e. I won’t copy another tattoo) but let’s me present it without insulting the client or expecting them to have knowledge of tattooings arcane etiquette about copying. The fact is that most customers don’t know biting is considered a bad thing, it is our job to teach them (kindly) while at the same time showing them that we can do better for them. If they are adamant that they will only accept an exact copy (which has never happened to me in 16 years of tattooing) then I would politely decline to do their tattoo. However,  I doubt this will happen to you, and even if it does, there are always other clients. You only have one reputation and sense of self-respect, it is never worth it to devalue both for money.

Ok then, how could one use the clients magazine/internet print~out as reference to create an original tattoo? At this point I actually have a “technique” that has worked well in letting me capture the essence of what the customer likes without (deliberately or accidentally) biting the original tattoo. First, I will take a good look at the original photo, for about a minute or so, study the elements the customer expressed the most interest in, and then put it away from me. I literally put the original picture face down and away from my drawing area, and then begin my own drawing. The rule I establish for myself is to never, from that moment on, to look at the original photo while drawing. What I am trying to do here is use the fact that few of us have perfect memories to allow my own style to mix with my fading memory of the original picture. I might have tons of other reference about the subject matter at hand, but no pictures of tattoos, any tattoos. At this point the process is about my sketching of an idea divorced from the influence of any existing tattoos.

So, If the clients photo is of a rose tattoo; I’ll study it, put it away, then use my reference pics of real roses, and start drawing. I believe that the original minute of studying the client source photo is enough to get the gist of the theme and from there my own imagination takes over, but with the general memory of the original tattoo added to the mix of influences. When it is time to apply the tattoo I will allow myself to look at the original picture to see if there are particular technical elements the customer wants which I can transfer to my own drawing. It is important to note, as mentioned  above, that at this stage my own drawing is already finished and I’m not pulling specific imagery from the original work. In this way a customer who likes a particular color combination or level of dark/light can get a tattoo that feels like the one they brought in, but is unique to them and will never be mistaken for a copy of the original.

I’ve done this for years now and what never fails to amuse me is how different my drawings are from the magazine/print out picture and yet, every time, the customer loves it! They almost always tell me that they like “their” version “better than the original”. I believe that this is because even if they don’t know that it’s a tattoo culture taboo to copy anothers tattoo that they still want an original with all the personal elements in it that a straight up copy of another tattoo wont have. You might make a customer “happy” by biting a tattoo but i don’t believe that you will form that connection with them the way that a tattooer can if we take the time and effort to personalize the tattoo for them specifically. The difference between tattooing a person once and making them a part of your clientele is making them feel your genuine respect for them and the art of tattooing.

Respect seems to be at the core of all of this. In general, biters seem to be lacking that respect; for the customer, for the original artist, for his or her client, and saddest of all, for themselves.

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How to use reference without stealing pt1

When getting critiqued most of us hear “you should use reference “, its right up there with ” needs more black” in the advice you will hear the most. Yet I, like most tattooers, live in mortal fear of being a “biter”. The best definition of “biter” I can give is “a tattooer who deliberately steals an image from another tattoo”, otherwise known a a plagiarist, copycat, or forger. What complicates the issue is that in our business the client frequently brings you a picture (from the Internet or a magazine) of the “exact tattoo” they want.

The way I see it there are two kinds of dilemmas surrounding reference; one is using non-tattoo sources to make our drawings and the second is how to use tattoo images as reference without copying the original material. Lets start with the easy one first, using non-tattoo reference in creating our own original drawings for a tattoo.

So, who needs reference when they are doing a drawing? YOU do. “But wait”, I hear you say ” I’m an artistic genius so I can see whatever I’m drawing in my head so I don’t need reference, besides what I’m drawing is my personal style so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like a real picture of whatever, and anyway if I use reference it won’t have my special signature style!”. Sorry to tell you, but these kinds of folks need reference the most, not the least, here’s why; reference is a way to enhance your personal take on an image, not limit it.

Argument 1:” I can see whatever I’m drawing in my head so I don’t need reference”

The world is full of what I like to call play-doh tattoos. Tattoos that resemble whatever they are supposed to be but look like they were made of dough. Sure the basic shape is there, but they always lack detail, a sense of solidity, and usually get specific, yet crucial, elements wrong. They look like an outline with nothing inside. The viewer (and customer) can almost see the unsteadiness of the artist trying to fill in that blank space without knowing what goes inside that general shape.

I can’t tell you how many koi fish tattoos I have seen with a giant fat headed koi with kissy face lips, eyelashes like a princess pony, a dorsal fin that goes from their (tiny) tail up to their head like a mohawk. Same for anchors which look like they were made of those balloons they make animal shapes with and daggers that look like some safety Halloween prop for a toddler instead of a weapon to stab people with. And oh the faces! Thousands and thousands of sad genetic mutant pin up girls and hairlipped inbred gypsy. . .uh. . .girls. . . I guess.

You need reference because our minds are designed to take in a general outline of the world, not to memorize minute details. If our caveman (cave person?) ancestors took the time to memorize the exact shape of a saber toothed tigers fangs, well, we wouldn’t be here because one of those fangs would be through his face. One of the reasons those rare autistic people who can draw entire gothic churches from memory are so impressive is because we can’t.

When you look at a photo or a real koi (to stick with that example, but feel free to insert anything you are drawing in that space) our brains pick out details that we would never remember, the right number of fins, the general shape, the proportions and relationships of one part to another. When you put that on paper the end result is still filtered through your unique lens into a drawing, it still looks like you (and only you) created it but all the bits are correct, this makes for a better tattoo.

Argument 2: “what I’m drawing is my personal style so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like a real picture of whatever”

Reference can be used for realism, it’s true, in fact that realistic tattooing is simply the art of recreating reference in a way. What about other kinds of art though? What about twisty chrome new school , multi layered biomech, or super simplified traditional? What about whatever the hell you call what it is that you do? What if you are so unique and your style so personal? Well, lets look at the non-tattoo world for a second, at the Dalis, the Picassos, the Blakes , Matisses and Freuds, the guys whose work was so out there and unique that they spawned entire artistic movements? They all used reference, in fact they all spend years in art school drawing live models, still life’s, and pouring over anatomy books! The wildest artists around had a firm grounding in reference before they could spread those metaphorical wings on flights of fancy.

Argument 3: “if I use reference it won’t have my special signature style”

When you draw something you are taking your memory of that object and transferring it through your hand, which is great except that there will always be elements of that object you would want in there , but you can’t remember. Your unique style is actually choked by the bottle neck of only coming from your inaccurate, generalizing, and incomplete memory. Don’t feel bad, we all have shitty memories! If you have a special signature style then reference will only enhance it the way spices enhance a meal, no chef thinks pepper dilutes her work because she sees it as just another tool to put forth their own unique take. Reference does the same for you.

Your style is what happens when creativity comes through your hand, all that you have seen and experienced in your life is part of that moment, if you are using reference then you are simply adding more accuracy to what you are going to render in your own style and everyone will notice it as an improvement, even you!

Ok so how do you use reference?

It used to be that you could tell how serious a tattooer was by the size of their library. In the age before google, and ready made tattoo reference material a tattooer would buy an entire book for one good photo! We would take a day off to go to the library and photocopy books of birds, ships, faces, swords, animals, anything that might some day be useful in drawing something. It kind of sucked! You would have some guy come in and ask for the one thing you didn’t have a book for!

Thank the tattoo gods for the internets! Using google alone can emulate a library of a million books, and since our phones and tablets are so ubiquitous we almost have no excuse to not use this incredible resource.

These days when I set out to draw I will try to find 2-3 images of whatever I’m drawing. More than that and I tend to get over-referenced and confused as to the bits I like best, less and you are limiting yourself to one view, pose, size, and details. Besides, we’re not copying the reference, we are adding it to the stuff our mind already knows about whatever we are drawing. By using multiple references we keep from getting too focused on reproducing the photo. I’ll lay the books/pages out around my drawing area and rough out my first draft, looking at the pages here and there to add elements that my eye likes, refining the proportion. Once I have more of a finished draft ill clean up the line work and look for areas that feel unfinished or empty, one look at your reference material is usually enough to spark an idea for how to tackle a problem area. I’ve been doing this for years and never once has my drawing looked like someone else drew it, nor has it ever looked exactly like the reference!

If I am drawing a pin up or a face I will often use images of old time (30’s-60’s) pin up girls or vintage stills of Indian actresses since the poses and expressions are much more dramatic than todays stilted, bored looking actors and models. Much like using an artists manikin this helps keep the proportions correct. In fact, if I used reference for no other reason, I would still use it for anything based on a human body, our brains seem especially sensitive to something being “off” when it comes to people.

Even when doing traditional imagery I find that looking at photos of a real rose makes my traditional roses look better and less like the 300th copy of a copy of a sailor Jerry rose. Real daggers and anchors and hourglasses make the drawn versions of these things so much better without ruining the “old-school ness”. The folks who gave us that wonderful bank of images, the Bert Grimms and Sailor Jerrys and a hundred more were using reference to craft their flash. Many of the old stand bys were actually popular advertising and illustrations of the time that the old timers of the era referenced and created in their own hands. And looking at a profile photo of a real woman will, I guarantee, improve those gypsy girl heads, the traditional guys who passed that imagery on to us were looking at images of popular actresses and models of their day when they drew them.

There are some tips I have learned specifically for Japanese tattoo imagery I’d like to share. Japanese tattooing is unique in that it is based on and still very heavily reliant on ukiyo-e woodblock prints instead of “real”images. In fact many of the greatest tattoo masters in traditional Horimono tattooing lift images directly from these ancient prints. It is not considered wrong or improper to use a Hokusai or kuniyoshi print, and even current masters consider it fair game. I recently attended a seminar taught by Horitomo whose Japanese tattooing is some of the best around today when a fellow attendee asked him “Do you get offended if a tattooer uses one of your drawings for their tattoo?” He answered “if you can’t draw a better one than me, then you should use mine”. Note that Horitomo was referring to his drawings not directly referencing one of his tattoos.

It’s seems clear to me and I think to any tattooer that reference can only be a benefit to our work. If we agree that each and every tattoo we do should be our very best effort then I think it’s obvious that we should be using reference for each and every tattoo.

Next time Ill give you my take on using other tattoos as reference without copying.

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Great Unsung heros of tattooing (part 1)

If you are a tattooer chances are that you know the names of the people who paved the road of tattooing before us. Giants like Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, if you have dug a little deeper you might know some of the slightly less famous folks like Cap Coleman or George Burchett upon whose shoulders we all stand. But most tattooers don’t really know about the people and inventions which have directly and pointedly changed tattooing into what it is today. These people and milestones aren’t just important because they left a legacy of artwork or an ethic we can aspire to, in many cases these folks literally invented the stuff we use daily and we don’t even know about it!

My first candidate is also my personal choice for the tattooer who has done the most for the technology of modern tattooing, Bill Baker.  Id be willing to bet that 90% of tattooers reading this right now don’t know who Bill baker is, note that i said “is” not “was” because he is still alive and still doing stellar work in Toronto at the Pearl Harbor Gift Shop. In the late 80’s and early 90’s He did the first real scientific testing on tattoo needles and eventually came up with a theory of needle manufacture that led to the first high quality, textured, really sharp pins available in various thicknesses. Today it is a given that needles made specifically for tattooing are available, but prior to Bills work the vast majority of tattoo needles were actually milliners needles or other sewing type needles.

That should be enough to consider him an unsung hero of tattooing, but he didn’t stop there, he founded a company to make and supply those needles called Eikon. Through this company he released his research for free online for any tattooer to study, also through Eikon he literally changed the way we all think of tattoo machines when he created the very first power supply that not only powered your tattoo machine, but told you real, heretofore unknown data about how that machine was running. What do I mean? Prior to Bill producing the EMS power supplies and meters it was commonly believed that a tattoo machine ran at about 25 to 50 strokes per second. Imagine our surprise upon hooking up those first power meters produced by Bills company and finding that our machines ran hundreds of cycles per second! Some power units could tell you how much voltage they were sending to the machine, but none told you how “efficient” it was (the percentage of time the needle was in the extended position vs. the retracted, Bills meters did. In short and overnight we went from a world of tattoo superstition and old wives tales to hard facts and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it turned out that most of the “common knowledge” out there was flat-out wrong!

So these things would definitely be enough to put Mr. Baker in our hall of fame if he had gone no further, but, of course, he did go further. In a series of “zines” put out by Eikon over several years Bill broke down the functions of a tattoo machine scientifically, tested, experimented, tested again and all the while he made this information public! He figured out exactly why and how a tattoo machine works, how to adjust it, and how to make it do all this efficiently and using repeatable, testable, information. Information that was only gather-able because of the meters he invented! He didn’t hide it like most “old timers”, he wanted to better tattooing as a whole, and he most certainly did. Because this blog is open to the general public I wont go into technical details, but rest assured that dozens and dozens of technical things about tattooing changed from the way they had been for decades! I can’t speak for other tattooers, but those zines were the Rosetta stone of tattoo machines for me, I could finally know exactly what I was doing when I built and tuned a machine, my tattooing got better almost instantly and a load of phony tattoo “lore” went out the window. The great shame is that Bill was forced out of the company he founded and provided the innovations for, if he hadn’t been sidelined by the ouster and ensuing legal battles how much more would he have been able to contribute to tattooing?

Every modern tattooer is using some piece of the knowledge that Bill Baker contributed to our world, if you use needles and a power supply to tattoo then something Bill created, modified, or perfected went into making them better.

To finish off this first episode of the great unsung heroes of tattooing id like to briefly mention the contribution of a piece of technology so common today that we seldom notice it, the Ink Jet printer. It’s almost impossible to imagine at this remove what it was like before cheap, highly functional photocopiers/printers were as ubiquitous as they are today. The fact is that even as recently as the late 1990s a copier was huge, expensive, and seriously limited in its functionality. One of the great advantages to the shop where I served my apprenticeship at was that it was half a block from a Kinkos copy center. I’m not kidding, this fact alone made us stand out from the more suburban places where the tattoo you got was the same size as the one on the wall and that was it! Today it is no problem for a customer to ask for a tattoo to be 10% bigger, but until the availability of the modern inkjet this meant either a trip to the copy-store or using some contraption to enlarge the image in order to retrace it.

Perhaps, then,  it is no surprise that since the advent of these copier/printers that tattoos have gotten larger and larger as the artist is able to take a small drawing and blow it up until it fits around (and with) the contours of the body. The irony is that a technology which made doing the same image over and over has actually helped steer clients away from flash and towards one-off client specific tattoos. The cheap copier made accommodating the customers preferences easier and helped to make custom tattooing the norm rather than the exception.

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Newness (shop and tattoos)

So the new shop is open. Its been about 3 weeks and already I feel like I’m settling in like we’ve always been there. In addition to Cara, myself, and Jesse, we hired our good friend and fellow new dad Matt Macri .  So while I have stopped doing walk in Thursdays, we still have at least one artist almost everyday who can handle walk ins, at least until they get booked up too! Another big change is that I am now taking thursday off to hang out with Luna and Cara is tattooing all day Thursdays. I feel so lucky that I get to spend so much time with my daughter and that I have such reliable friends working for me that I can give Luna all my attention and give her mom a much-needed break from baby duty, even it its only one day a week so far.

We had a great “grand opening” party, tons of friends showed up, Kevin Sousa provided the food and Full Pint Brewing donated beer and Cara and her good friend, local fine artist Thommy Conroy hung the crazy amount of art we moved over from the old shop.  I took a second out of the busy night to snap a couple of pictures which i stitched together to give you an idea of how much BIGGER the new place is compared to our Oakland locale..

party pic

I totally based the idea for the open floor plan and oak toolcarts that we tattoo off of my trips to get tattooed in New York, specifically on the Kings Ave. Bowery location. I really liked the open room idea, and it has already been conductive to a relaxed ability to exchange ideas and critiques as well as a more free flow of conversation between artists and customers. I’m a worrier by nature, and naturally moving across town into a building with a completely different format and with new people should have really set off my panic buttons, but this time I wasnt all that stressed out. I guess I knew that this was a step up for Cara and myself and I was confident that the new space would be a benefit to all of us in the Black Cat family.

I have been working on some really fun stuff and with a few more artists I have been able to focus more on the specific stuff I want to tattoo. It’s always tricky, because I don’t want to sound snobbish or picky, but at 42 years old I feel like its time for me to specialize in the kind of tattoos I can do a really good job on and let the ones that would be good but not spectacular go to people who would do a better job on them. I confess to feeling a little guilt because, if I’m being honest, I’m also a little burnt out on doing tattoos that are not in my area of enjoyment. I guess I have earned the right to pick and choose, others people certainly reassure me of this, but I still feel a little concern that by not taking any and all tattoos that I have somehow become a big-headed rock star. The mind is funny like that, as soon as you get what you want you either want something else or you feel guilty for getting it. Thats why Shunryu Suzuki called the untrained brain the “monkey mind”, jumping and running around this way and that, never stilled. One of the nice things about sitting for a few years is that I can see this monkey mind from a little distance, I still have the crazy running around thoughts, but these days I can watch them without having to pick them up and play with them, sometimes I start to go into that cycle and a little voice says , “ah, best not to go there, buddy” and I can back off.

Anyhow, here are a few recent things I’ve been working on.

alison back

A good friend and ray of sunshine in our lives has been talking about a back piece for some time. She has a special affinity for Ganesha but was torn between the elephant headed boy and a Medicine Buddha to honor her herbalist/holistic healer career. In the end we combined the two ideas doing a Ganesha but in the more Nepalese Buddhist style of art. Back-pieces are no fun for the customer 90% of the time, even folks with very heavy coverage and lots of years getting tattooed are surprised at how bad the pain can be. We ended up doing this outline in two sessions.

jim chadw dragon

I finished this dragon on a long time customer and we blended the background a bit up into some tribal blackwork we did a few years ago. I think I am done doing tiny dragons on arms, this piece is a great size and allowed us to get a lot of detail and readability. nurse gypsyI love doing traditional inspired tattoos like this nurse/gypsy, It might seem strange to do Japanese and traditional American t first glance, but in reality they are very similar in technique and graphic punch. They both have a long history of stories and meaning that a tattooer can draw on to add depth to a tattoo and if done correctly both will look good for the clients lifetime.

tricia owl

Some tattoos become popular and then fade never to come back, some are perennial favorites that have been around as long as tattooing and will still be getting done  generations hence. I have done owl tattoos for 16 years and they never seem to fade in popularity, like a lot of tattoos which have that kind of staying power, an owl tattoo has a visual power which affects everyone who sees it on a subconscious level, it goes beyond the simple image and into a symbol. When we see a heart we think of “love”, when we see a skull we think of “mortality, and when we see an owl we think of “wisdom“.

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(Dis) illusion

It is a sad cliche that our heroes often, in time, are revealed to be all to human. Sometimes this is because they espouse something that they can’t live up to, or because they commit some action that seems to be counter to everything they stand for. Very often it is because our own expectation and ideal of them is unrealistic and after a time it dawns on is that this person we held up in our minds as a hero is simply, disappointingly, human.

Sometimes though, our heroes stop being so heroic in our eyes not because they failed, or because we weren’t looking at them realistically, sometimes they stop being our heroes because we become better than they are. It’s difficult to articulate something like this and not sound like you are giving yourself a compliment, but being honest with oneself includes not only finding our own faults, but also in seeing our own progress. If you only ever think “I suck” then you are as deluded and full of horse poop as someone who only thinks “I’m the best”.

Many years ago when I first became a tattooer I devoured any kind of information on tattooing that I could. There wasn’t so much media as these days and the few books out there (aside from Ed Hardys excellent “tattootime” books) were dated and generally full of mediocrity. So most of the best stuff came from tattoo magazines, and the best of those came from Europe since almost all the u.s. magazines were full of biker shit and shitty supplier ads.

I picked up an Italian mag called “tattoo planet” regularly. The art was awesome, featuring guys like Filip Leu, Theo Jak, Permenant Mark, and others who I idolized. One guy in particular whose interview and pictures inspired me to the point that I set my plan for my entire tattooing career on his example. This artist was an American like me but had eschewed the street shop and “low com denom” flash ( as in; mediocre art which appealed to the greatest number of uninformed tattoo public) that was my world at the time in favor of having a private studio off the street, doing large scale Asian inspired work, and generally avoiding all the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. Despite the fact that I was a pretty bad to average tattooer at the time something in the this guys approach resonated with me and right then, a mere 2 years into tattooing I decided that someday I would be doing that kind of work in that kind of environment.

Pretty lofty for a guy who couldn’t pull a straight line or draw better than a high schooler, but I knew that the goal was something for the future.

After a long time I got better at tattooing, and eventually did open my own shop off the street, doing mostly larger Asian stuff, with few of the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. In short, I actually did reach the goal I set in 1997, I never forgot that interview, and I still don’t know to this day if my life would look the way it does if I had read that piece. I was, and am, grateful to that tattooer for their inspiration, I would occasionally look for their work in books or online, but nothing really new seemed to show up.

Enter Instagram. I saw this persons comment on another tattooers thread a month or so ago and was really happy, at last I would get to see their newer work! Maybe I would write this person telling them how inspirational they had been to me. So I clicked on their name and was shocked. There was a few nice pieces but in general it was pretty average, and surprisingly, it was worse than the artists stuff I had seen in the 90’s! I kept following their work for a few weeks but eventually “un-followed” them, I use Instagram to be inspired by people who are killing it, people who I may never be as good as, but who inspire me to try anyway, and this persons work wasn’t anymore.

I want to make it clear that I am not saying that this artist is “bad” or that I am better than they, I also still owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for showing me what was possible outside of the tiny fishbowl of tattooing I had lived in, but it was still a disappointment.

For little while anyway.

A strange thing happens when we have our illusions dissolved, even apparently beneficial ones like the inspirational illusion I had all those years ago. Assuming that we dont run right out and fill the void with another delusion (which is what we usually do) a space is opened up for the truth to sit where the illusion had been. I found myself suddenly inspired to draw a particular set of 1/2 sleeves that had been poking around in the back of my mind, I had a weird rush of new ideas fora big project we will be announcing soon, I suddenly felt at peace with my (slow but steady) progress in my own tattooing. In short, I like to think that letting that image go opened me up to new inspiration.

Illusions (and delusion) are a part of human nature, you can’t stop them for happening but we can learn to let them go. Sometimes we can do it quickly, like when we look at a menu at Arby’s and think ” that’s gonna taste good” and 10 minutes later feel like throwing up. Other times we have been indoctrinated with them from so early on that we don’t even realize its a delusion til something happens to shock us out of it (like realizing that getting a bunch of money and power still doesn’t stop us being miserable). But the end of an illusion is a wonderful opportunity, the humanizing of our heroes is a wonderful opportunity to be inspired by something greater and one person or ideal, it’s a chance to be inspired by the truth, by yourself, by all of us (which, coincidentally, are all the same thing anyway.)

Categories: Buddhism and life, Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ink Master?

I don’t watch the reality television show “Ink Master”. I have tried to watch a few episodes but it’s just not my thing, I don’t hate it or care enough about it to get riled up about its existence. I don’t expect the world to change to suit my needs and if a television show is not to my liking I simply choose to turn it off. Lots of folks in the tattoo world get extremely angry when something relating to tattooing is presented in a way they find distasteful, and tattoo television shows usually generate a ton of vitriol. However the fact that these shows continue to be made means that someone is making money off them so I don’t expect them to disappear as long as that is the case. I don’t like stepping in dog shit but I wouldn’t go around demanding that all dogs have their assholes sewn shut.  My vote it to simply not watch tattoo television shows.

Imagine my surprise when a friend sent me a cell phone picture of a tattoo that was on a recent episode of Ink Master season 2. It was a picture of this tattoo:


Which I immediately recognized as a copy of some flash I painted last year that looked like this:

2011 Japanese Set tiger


Let me state right away that I was not mad about this at all. The design in question is flash, it is designed to be sold and reproduced. If I have any beef at all, it’s that the tattooer in question should have stuck to using the clouds I put on the original (his are terrible) and that one of the episode judges said it looked “like a man in a tiger suit humping a rock”. (although that is actually pretty fucking funny.) Yes, I watched the episode online once I found out about my flash making a “guest appearance”.

Frankly I think that if a tattooer can not draw his own tiger better than me then I’m all for him or her using flash for this purpose. At the end of the day the highest we can aim for as tattooers is giving the clients something  they can be proud to wear, I’m not sure if this tattoos counts as that, but I shudder to think of what this tattooer would have drawn on their own. So, to be clear, Im totally OK with my flash having been used, in a way its flattering to think that this guy figured my version of a tiger was better than anything he could come up with himself, but that does lead to a question. . .

The (ridiculous) premise of the show is that the people in the contest represent the best tattooers out there and that by the end of the contest one of them will be deemed the “Ink Master“. In other words, one of the contestants will come out having been crowned the “best tattooer in the world”. Of course this is silly on many levels including the fact that the worlds best tattooers don’t try out for this sort of side-show and the idea that an “Ink Master” is someone who does each and every style of tattooing with equal proficiency is, frankly, stupid. There are many talented tattooers who are good at a wide array of styles, but no one does every single kind of tattoo with equal skill, the very best in fact do the opposite by focusing on one or two particular areas of tattooing.

But even granting this silly notion that the winner of this show will be the “Ink Master” should said master of inking not be able to draw his or her own tattoo? Judging by the tattoo of my flash I very much doubt that the artist in question is an “ink master” and the fact that they didn’t bother to draw their own work even knowing it will be seen by millions of television viewers tells me that they probably should still be an apprentice rather than a prospective “master”.

Categories: Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Things I think I think, unpopular edition

1. lets talk about aliens. More specifically lets talk about all the “science” networks non-stop marathon of shows about UFOs and ancient aliens. Put aside, for a second, the ridiculousness of putting these programs on a “science” channel and lets just look at some basic facts.

a) the nearest star to us is Proxima Centauri, which so far has shown no signs of planets orbiting it, but lets just be generous and say that an advanced alien civilization lives in orbit around Proxima. This planet would be 4.2 light years away from us (about 93 Million miles!) Since we know, thanks to Albert Einstein, that you cannot travel as fast (or even nearly as fast) as light , lets give a hypothetical alien craft the speed of the Voyager probe (38,200 miles per hour!) and if they left tomorrow how long would it take them to reach the Earth?

2434 years. two thousand and thirty four years!

Even if we double their speed to 76,400 miles per hour (in deference to their hypothetical advanced technology)  it would still take an alien craft traveling from the very nearest star to earth over one thousand years to reach us. Do we really believe that an alien race would expend the manpower (not to mention the generations of astronauts) to come to our little dinky planet? Really, a THOUSAND years to look at our monkey faces?

b) If they decided to help the Egyptians build the pyramids (more on this later) then they would have had to have left Proxima when the Egyptian empire consisted of some few primitive traveling tribes. Which leads to some questions, like why the fuck would they bother coming here? How did they know our planet existed since they would have had to find it without radio waves which we have only been emitting for 100 or so years? We can barely identify gaseous giant planets which are millions of times the size of our Earth (and only in the last couple years) so our planet would be almost impossible to find visually.

c) Before we talk about the “ancient aliens” let me ask you this, who built the Coliseum ? the Romans, right? who built the Parthenon? the Greeks right?So, who built the pyramids? Aliens? Why is that? Why?  Because we live in a culture that is so suffused with racism that we sometimes don’t even realize how racist we are! We have no problem believing that “white” races built all sorts of amazing things like castles, cathedrals, and discovered electricity but apparently all the “brown” races required alien assistance to do the same thing!

The Mayans? Brown people who needed alien help. The Egyptians? Brown people who needed alien help. The Macedonians? white folks who could scale mountains with fucking elephants unaided by aliens. No one thinks Ben Franklin had alien help, but lots of otherwise smart people believe that ancient people of color couldn’t invent anything without outside help.

d)The fact is that ancient alien belief is racist and based on nothing more than our inability to imagine that anyone who came before us had the brainpower to invent and innovate. The fucked up thing is that we know how all these ancient people built their great works using manpower, math, and planning, its all there in the archeological record, no aliens required. It is also the rather egocentric belief that we are so fascinating that an alien race would sacrifice the tremendous amounts of resources to come to Earth. I do believe that in a universe as vast as ours that there are other planets with life and some with life as advanced or more than us, I just can’t see any evidence or logic for how or why they would come here.

e) Why do I care? Because one of the most destructive things is delusion, in this case the delusion robs certain people of their true history and accomplishments, it reinforces the self-centered idea that we are the most important thing in the universe, and it distracts otherwise great minds with looking for a fiction when they could be curing cancer or looking for real phenomena that could help the very real and present problems we are actually dealing with on this tiny planet. Sorry, true believers, I don’t accept that it’s just a harmless diversion.

2. The instagram app has shown me once again that the world of tattooing is more amazing than ever! Time and again a name I have never heard of is putting out work so amazing and so beautiful and every time I open the app my mind is blown. There are many things that I and others would prefer were different about the world of tattooing these days, but if the main measure is the overall quality of work then I would have to declare right now the glory days of tattooing without question.

3. Do you know what this is?

That is an ultrasound picture of Cara and my little baby at about 18 weeks! You can’t tell much by an ultrasound of the personality or actual appearance, but you can know, with startling clarity, that there is a wee human inside my wife’s body and that 50% of the little boogers genes are from me! He or she (we don’t know and wont find out til he/she is born) was going bananas inside there, kung fu kicks, spinning, back-flips and its teeny tiny heart banging away like a demon. This baby looks like its going to be cah-ray-zee active!

Cara and I also took a couples prenatal yoga class, this was my first yoga class of any sort and it definitely reminded me of zazen in some ways, the further we get into this pregnancy the more grateful I am for the stability and sanity that Zazen has brought into, I can’t imagine being ready to be a dad without having my own shit at least a little bit together. I can’t pretend to know that I’m “ready’ to be a parent but i can say without hesitation that I’m at my very best mentally and spiritually these days and that’s got to help at least a little I hope!

Categories: Buddhism and life, fatherhood, random dumbness, Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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