Posts Tagged With: apprenticeship

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.

DO’s

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.

DON’Ts

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,

Jason

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.

Advertisements
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

“tattoo apprenticeship pittsburgh”

these three little words come up with amazing frequency in this blogs “Search engine terms” catagory. What this blog does is catalog all the pages that people used to find my blog, so if you put “tattoo apprenticeship pittsburgh” in google (and apparently a ton of people do) then my blog is one of those which comes up as a result (most likely because of this posting). Since I made a topic about the subject im not surprised that it gets grabbed by search engines at all, what I am surprised by is how often it gets clicked.

Either one of two scenarios is happening, 1) one person is obsessively typing the same phrase into google 4 times a day and then clicking on my blog over and over or 2) there’s quite a few folks out there who want an apprenticeship in Pittsburgh. Im betting its the second one.

As I discussed in my previous post, my days of being angry and threatened by other folks wanting to be tattooers are behind me, in my post about apprenticeships i gave what I believe to be good honest advice about the correct way to go about gaining an apprenticeship. However recently I have had one of those encounters which make me shake my head and force the happy part of my brain to try to keep the angry part in its cage.

I was at a local art store and the girl behind the counter started talking tome about being a tattooer. In my past I would have shut the conversation down or told a tale of horror about the rigors of tattooing in order to scare the poor person away. These days I genuinely try to be helpful without encouraging people who aren’t serious, in this case the girl had no visible tattoos at all and asked me “How could I get an apprenticeship” to which I gave my stock answer, start by getting a lot of tattoos from an artist you respect. There are some very good reasons I make this suggestion, for one, by getting tattoos you learn quite a bit about the aesthetics, technique, and experience first hand what you potential customers will be dealing with, second it allows you to form a relationship with your potential mentor and decide if you like their approach (and vice versa), in becoming a client you also allow the tattooer to learn who you are and instead of being a stranger to him or her you become anything from a trusted client to a friend.

So I mentioned all this and her response was “Oh I don’t want tattoos, I just think it would be a fun job where I could make a lot of money.”

The angry part of my brain punched itself in the face.

I paused for what felt like a full 15 seconds before I responded. “Im going to tell you this nicely because im a nice guy” I told her, “But if you said that to almost anyone else in tattooing they would get extremely angry. That attitude is all take and no give, it takes a lot of time and responsibility to apprentice someone because you are teaching them a whole lifestyle and not just a job. If you dont love tattooing enough to have them then I dont think you would do a very good job of it.”

Blank look. I took my purchases, said have a good day, and left.

From this and the occasional email I get from people it would appear that people who are around their early 20’s dont see tattooing as a career or even as a lifestyle choice, they have no inkling of the arcane and intricate world that they would possibly be entering. Tattooing is not only a job, its what our grandfathers would have called “a trade”. You are not just a peg fitting into a hole they way you are at a retail store or fast food joint, you become an integral part of the shop you work at, your contribution is like a major ingredient in a recipe, too much or too little and you could ruin the whole thing.

The bald fact is that becoming a tattooer is the result of years worth of gradual accumulation of knowledge and effort. you train your mind AND your hands slowly, the way a martial artist repeats the same moves over and over til its mind numbing and boring and you are correcting tiny tiny nuances that you couldn’t even detect a month before. I’m not saying it isn’t fun, but it certainly isn’t fast or easy. It requires you to be exceedingly patient and humble (believe me the world is full of tattooers who quit being humble and, not surprisingly, wherever their skills were at when they got cocky is as good as they are ever likely to be). It is one of the few manual trades left that require both skill and determination, the blacksmiths and sign-painters are (mostly) gone, tattooing requires an apprenticeship because it cant be learned from any other source, a book, a computer, a video can only show you what it looks like, only an apprenticeship will really show you how to DO it.

I dont want this to come off as a rant, but I would like people who are looking to become tattooers to understand that you do not understand what is involved if you are asking google for an apprenticeship. Tattooing is just too old-fashioned for the sort of cold interface of a computer, you have to go out and do it by hand, laboriously, just like applying a tattoo there is no short cuts, not tricks, no easy way out. the moment you put that first dot on someone you are committing to taking the long, diligent, exhausting way to finishing that tattoo.

Finally, if there really would ever be a tattooshop that advertised an apprenticeship online I would run as far the opposite way as you could. Chances are they would be charging a lot of money to not teach you anything but how to get burned for alot of money.

Categories: Tattoo stuff | Tags: , | 8 Comments

Before you ask me for an apprenticeship. . .updated November 2014

The original version of this article was written in 2009, at the time I was getting asked for apprenticeships all the time, usualy via email, usually by people who clearly were not i love with tattooing. One of these potential “apprentices” told me when I asked if she had any tattooers 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, i seems like one of those jobs where one doesn’t have to follow “the rules”, 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 afraid of competition, they exist because tattooing is an old fashioned artform (even the newer forms) that is best taught in and old fashioned one on one, mentor/student way. In other words, 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 te 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, we don’t show these prospects that there is any “right” way to go about it so it should be no surprise that they choose the only way they see availible, the wrong way. What if, instead we showed folks the right way to get an apprenticeship, not how-to tattoo, but 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 felow 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 good tattooers who are a positive boon to the world of tattooing.

DO’s

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,mother 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. ting 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 wans 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 “rally want it”, some of it is teaching you how to clean and set up tattoo equipment safely, an 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.

DON’Ts

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 shit talker 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 someone 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,

Jason

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 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 start tattooing.

“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 is 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 a 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, but 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 ask than just say “fuck off” and have them go order a Chinese tattoo kit fro. 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: random dumbness, Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , , , | 28 Comments

In other news. . .

Cara finished up a pretty damn big piece on a co-workers back yesterday. Its a solid black piece and it was her first time using as big of a needle group as that. In what it rapidly becoming standard she rocked it and I really only stood over her shoulder a few times as she tattooed and chatted away. Im very proud of her.

Any small doubt I had is now gone, she is gonna be good. She will certainly be good enough to rock the shit out of some flash and I have every confidence that with continued diligence and practice she will be customizing the hell out of some tattoos in short order.

I’m going to take a minute now to say NEENER NEENER to the haters who didn’t believe she could do it. IN yo face!

No one starts off awesome in tattooing (at least not as awesome as they will be after a few years), but with a good apprenticeship you move up the ladder of difficulty in lock-step with your skill level. I made the mistake early on of trying to do work that was way above my head, Cara wont be making that same error. For this, and many other reasons, I’m glad I never even thought about apprenticing anyone til i had a decade of tattooing under my belt.

Its such a dance of the technical, the artistic, and some undefinable magic that its almost impossible to articulate into words, it scares me to think that there are books purporting to be able to tell you how to tattoo. There is no way that could work without the personal attention of someone who knows whats up. I guess you could trial and error that shit, but my god is that rough on your customers and they end up with some shitty tattoos till you clunk along enough times to get OK. Ive seen one or two exceptions to this, but Ive also seen hundreds of self-taught tattooers who have 5 or 10 years in tattooing and they STILL cant do anything right, clean, or artistic. At this point i remain convinced that without an apprenticeship of SOME kind you are just trying to take one step forward while also taking two back.

Its neat to see how Caras painting is progressing with her tattooing, art feeds off of art. Even LOOKING at great art helps to carve those pathways in your brain i think. Its not like her painting helps her with the physical act of tattooing, rather it seems like the process of painting helps the process of tattooing. The way of looking at a blank page and thinking what will go there, and how it will interact with this other stuff is the same thought process with all art, tattooing or otherwise, so its gotta be a benefit.

Next up, im gonna throw some fine-line lettering action her way, on me!

Categories: Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.