After some years in the tattooing world it becomes pretty clear that snobbery comes in two basic forms. The most obvious and the one that most of us are familiar with is the elite tattoo type, otherwise known as the “rock-star”. Sometimes this is a person with a lot of talent and who knows it, far more often it is someone who thinks they have a lot of talent. The guys who brag about how they are friends with sports stars and celebrities, who have a pile of trophies proudly displayed on their website, or the guys who claim a special circle of other ‘in’ tattooers who have “secret” club tattoos and look down their noses at anyone who isn’t privy to the made up “secrets” they jealously guard. While these are the obvious snobs the fact is that they are a tiny minority compared to the other, more insidious kind of tattoo snob.
Im talking about the ‘tough guy’ tattooers. Usually these folks don’t have a whole lot of talent or personality so they have to fall back on the old saw of being more ‘old school’ or “street’ than other tattooers. Usually this take the form of bragging about how rough and ghetto their work environment is. And because they can’t actually compete on a quality level with other tattooers they use the volume of work they put out as an example of how they are more “real” than “those art fags” in their “private studios’. Somehow, in their strange logic, doing 15 mediocre tattoos a day is superior to doing one or two good tattoos a day. The lowdown elite are usually the first to grab hold of the traditional stereotype of old-school tattooers being rude violent people. Not only is this stereotype not based on facts, it actually denigrates the majority of mid-century tattooers who were simple working folk trying to make a living at a time when you couldn’t buy designer sneakers on a tattooers pay. Other forms of their supposed superiority are how many peoples ass they supposedly kicked, how drunk and/or high they get regularly, how much pussy they get, and how hard their apprenticeship/early years were. It should be clear to even a cursory reader that none of the aforementioned make the least bit of difference to the quality of work being put out, but all this nonsense is designed to camouflage the fact that the lowdown elite tough-guy doesn’t actually do very good tattoos.
Fortunately for the art of tattooing this type of foolishness is more and more being regarded as the bullshit that it is. There will never be a total absence of tough guys because a lack of self-confidence is most easily hidden under this kind of facade, but fewer and fewer tattoo customers are impressed (or even buy) the image. In fact, it might be this very fact that is the real cause of all the hand wringing and crying about why tattooing isn’t “as good as the old days”, the time when a tattooer could act superior to their clients simply because they were the one holding the tattoo machine are fading fast. these days you need to be able to draw, to tattoo wel, AND to be respectful of the folks forking over their money and skin. Some insecure folks don’t like that. Too bad.
One of the wonderful things about tattooing is its ability to absorb all sorts of freaks and misfits into a coherent community that is always pushing itself to excel. One of the few downsides to this giant umbrella is that there will always be those who put tattooing second or third (or tenth) on the list of importance in favor of their ego, image, or wallet. Tattooing has an extremely simple way to weed out those who are all take and no give, the work. look at the people who do excellent work and have a great reputation and the vast majority of the time they are the humble, talented, and considerate folks who don’t have time to brag about how lowdown they are.
So we tattooed Caras foot the other day, she wanted to keep this design very traditional. Some of the first pictures of tattooed people feature some amazing tattoos done simply and with bold graphic style, we tried to capture this same thing in her tattoo. The only color was a tiny bit of brown in the sails. Cara took it like a champ as always.
What makes a tattoo “Traditional”? Some folks mistake a traditional tattoo for one that is poorly drawn, and certainly the old days had their fair share of mediocre artists. On the other hand there were plenty of amazing tattooers, and the real reason for the simple style of drawing was twofold. First, in the ‘old days’ of traditional tattooing (1920’s to 1960’s) the primary clientele was soldiers and sailors, these groups would come in on leave from training or on shore leave from their ships. . .and they all came in at once! In order to pump out 100 tattoos in one day what was required was an art style that could be applied quickly, with strong graphic qualities, and that would be able to survive the less than ideal healing process most military folk put their new ink through.
Second, the technology of tattooing was different than we have today. there were no purpose built tattoo needles, the artists of the day had to use whatever sort of pins they could acquire from wholesale needle makers, these pins were suited for sewing but less than ideal for tattooing. To overcome the limitations a large group of needles were used for the outline, this resulted in a bold line that made up for the individual pins weaknesses AND meant that a line that would last could be applied in one pass. The drawback to such a bold outline is that small details wont work, faces had to be simplified on pin up girls and lettering had to be simple and straightforward to stand the test of time. The combination of the strong graphic quality and the need for designs that could be applied quickly resulted in what we came to call “traditional” tattooing.
I did this rose today on the back of Cara’s thigh, although I drew it from scratch I tried to remain faithful to the traditional aesthetic.
Another trait that an authentic ‘traditional’ tattoo has is a very limited color palette. In the same way that needles were not made for tattooers neither were pigments, in fact most pigments contained ingredients back then that could be hazardous in a tattoo. Tattooers would often order powdered pigment from a paint supplier and do a test patch in their own leg, if it didn’t flare up, cause a reaction or burn then it was considered safe to use as tattoo ink. In the old days the only colors that could be reliable applied without a customer getting ill were black, green, red, and yellow (and red was still pretty iffy. . . ) To this day a traditional tattoo looks the most genuine when only those colors are used, as soon as a little blue or purple gets put in there it ceases to have that old-school sailor look.
Whether done on purpose or a happy accident, it turned out that traditional tattoos had a great ability to remain readable and hold up for decades. Lots of old military folk have a pin up girl or eagle on their arm over 50 years old and most of them are still clear enough to read the faces and feather details. Lets hope Caras rose looks that good when she is 70!
Some traditional-ish work Ive been putting out lately.
I did this shark on another tattooers hand this week. There is always a little extra pressure when you are tattooing a tattooer, you know that every line will be scrutinized and evaluated. . . for the rest of that persons life.
Anyhow, this was fun to do and for once I managed to keep it simple and not blob it up with all kinds of needless detail.
Next I did this sweet scary horse (night-mare?) on a great regular customer. This is a little more straight up traditional, we limited the colors to the “traditional” palette. Black, red, green, and yellow and thats it. For me the problem has always been leaving enough skin tone, I used to color everything to the gills, it looked ok but it lost that old-school peppery color look. This time I kept it clean though.
This one came out pretty good, i think.
I love this kind of stuff. Still, on the horizon is some large Japanese work, Ive been super inspired lately. Im also working on some t-shirt designs for the shop and if they come out the way i think they will I’ll be stoked!
Cara has been coming in daily and did her first paying tattoo this week! In true tattoo trial-by-fire she got to do a name on some floppy boobs. hey, its not all rock stars and rappers (in fact, its never rock stars or rappers hee hee). She was a pro and has been working on her own legs (a very traditional way to practice) and kicking ass. Im so proud of her, our shop, the customers Ive been blessed with and if it wasn’t minus 4 degrees here I might think I was in heaven!