Posts Tagged With: tattooing

7 things to know before your first tattoo

Every time I see one of those links to some article about “how not to piss off your tattoo artist” or “10 things you need to know to not be an asshole at the tattoo shop” it gets on my fucking nerves. Yes, ive had annoying customers and yes some folks act like the tattoo shop is a place to show how tough, wacky, or horny you are, but for the most part people behave themselves properly and when they do commit some “faux pas” it is usually out of ignorance, not malice. There are a lot of tattooers out there who act like cry babies when some customer acts in a way the tattoo “artiste” doesnt expect, and while some things are common sense behaviors for any place, not just a tattoo shop (dont show up drunk, do show up showered, etc), tattoo shops often have some special customs and rules that someone may not know if they are new to the world of tattooing.

It is in the spirit of assuming that “people will do the right thing if they know what it is” that I present this list of things that will make your visit to the tattoo shop more pleasant and will no doubt fill the heart of your crabby artist with joy if you come in already armed with this knowledge.

1) Wear a tank top and bring a flannel (or other warm long sleeved shirt) with you. Yes even if its July and 400 degrees outside. You never know how your body will react to tattooing on a given day and you never know if you will be sitting right in front of a heater or air conditioner to get your tattoo. Many times I have gone to get tattooed in the dead of winter only to walk into a shop that felt like an oven! If all i have on is a wool shirt then im going to be sweating my ass off in addition to dealing with the pain of a tattoo. If you start to get hot you can strip down to the tank top and if you start shivering you can use the flannel like a blanket, if you are particularily prone to getting hot/cold bring shorts or extra thick socks with you. Peoples reactions to tattoos vary greatly and Ive been sweating my face off while tattooing a client who is shivering with cold, be prepared for a costume change no matter the weather!

2) Bring food and water. I know, you are too nervous to eat, you dont want to get up to pee every two minutes, and you worry that they wont allow food near the tattoo station. Trust me on this one. Bring a snack (something neat and not smelly; bring something like a granola bar, jerky, or shelled nuts. Leave the Limberger and sardines at home. . .) and a bottle of water. Getting tattooed is stressful, and even if the stress is very minor (which it usually is) that discomfort can cause your body to eat up its stores of energy and the sweating can dehydrate you as well, particularly on long sessions. Having a snack and some water can recharge the batteries before you bonk. (bonking is what runners/bicyclists call the state where your body begins using fuel more rapidly than you can recharge it with food/drink. Bonking can lead to feeling light headed or even “passing out”) If your tattoo shop has strict rules about food/drink then take a bathroom break and eat away from the work area. The more energy you have the greater your tolerance and ability to hold still during the tattoo process.

3) You might want to bring a friend, maybe. Many of my repeat customers began by bringing a freind(s) and after a few sessions stopped. If you have a chatty tattooer a friend can actually be annoying as you try to pay attention to both (or all) the people talking to you. Besides, we all tend to want to make sure our friends are having fun, when getting tattooed this extra stress can make the tattoo (and their presence) do more harm than good. Also, be sure the person you bring is the kind of person who makes you feel more relaxed, dont bring your wild ass wacko friend who makes kooky noises and likes to bust your balls because their shenanigans will quicky go from amusing and distracting to annoying and distressing. In general the environment you want to create with your companion(s) is closer to a comfortable coffeeshop hangout than a party.

4) If possible, bring cash. This is like tipping your tattooer before you even begin. Credit cards, even where accepted are an additional hassle for the unique business model that most tattoo shops are. In most shops the artists pay the owner a percentage instead of the other way around so if the cards are run through a shop machine (some artists have their own individual services like Square or Paypal) then the artist has to wait until he gets paid out by the shop, Ive been places where this can take up to a month! Add to this the fact that all credit card processors take a cut of the money means that your artist is paying out on every transaction. If a card is all you have and the shop takes them, then by all means use it, but if you can get cash and you dont mind stopping at the ATM then your artist will certainly appreciate it.

5) Some tattooers like to talk, some don’t. Many tattooers feel that they cant properly focus if they are talking or being talked to while they work, this doesn’t equal that they are mean or unfriendly. Some like to chat and use the dialog to check up on how you are holding up or to tease out details which might add to the tattoo, this doesnt mean that they want to hear about your dramatic break up or gory car accident. Touching and being touched automatically makes us feel connected to the person but sometimes this can lead to over sharing or feeling awkward when the tattooer isnt reciprocationg the conversation. Start by keeping it light and follow the artists lead, if they dont talk then dont take it personally. Think of it as their way of giving your tattoo all the attention they need to do a good job. I have have had some deep conversations with customers, but even if you get talkative tattooer its good form to not start right off talking about who you hate, how bad you have it, or how so-and-so sucks at tattooing.

6) There are some ways that you can accidently insult your tattooer if you are not aware of them. One of the most common i have encountered is the insinuation that tattoos are not “art” or that your tattooer is not an “artist”. When you talk about other forms of art by referring to them as “real art” you are implying (however unintentionally) that tattooing isnt real art to you, and when you mention that your friend who paint is a “real artist” or that you cant “find anyone to draw my tattoo” you are tacitly saying that you think of your tattooer as someone who “just” tattoos. These days most tattooers can draw what you want, and paint, and sculpt, they have simply chosen tattooing to be their “real art”.

Another no-no is being openly jealous of your tattooer in the sense of saying “you guys must make a lot of money” or “I wish i had a job where I could dress how i want/listen to metal/ touch pretty girls / come in at noon/ draw for a living/ kick out people i dont like/ etc”. Beside sounding like an accusation this also implies that your tattooer has not earned what he has. The customer sounds to us like he or she is saying “My life is not as good as I project yours to be, and I dont think you deserve/earned it”. I can assure you that if your artist is busy and talented then they have put in weeks, months, and years of struggle to get where they are now, nothing has even been handed to an artist who is good at what they do no matter how effortless they make it seem now. It is rude in general to discuss someones wages, and particularly if they are about to offer your a service and then expect payment.

In short; dont make it weird.

7) Tipping. Almost every tattooer will gladly accept a tip, but most of us dont expect it. There is no standard, and I am leery of giving a “rule of thumb” since each person has their own rule in this regard. Personally I don’t expect a tip and don’t think anything less of a customer who doesn’t, I appreciate that tattoos are not cheap and I am grateful for anything over the amount I quoted initially. Tipping is nice, but dont break the bank or stress over it too much.

That’s all for now, as you can see Tattooing has its own customs and to quote the old saying ” When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, meaning each shop will have a preferred way of doing things, but in general some of the tips above should help you and your artist feel more comfortable walking into a shop for the first time.

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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!

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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.

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

(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”.

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The book

I’ve been writing this blog for a few years now, and in that time I also had the honor of apprenticing my wife Cara in tattooing. The surprise which shouldn’t be a surprise is that I have learned as much in the process as I tried to teach. It’s a funny thing, we often know how to do something effortlessly and when the time comes to teach someone else that skill we just don’t have the words. It’s a whole separate discipline to take our knowledge and turn it into something that can be imparted to another. Teaching Cara has also taught me, it’s forced me to examine (and sometimes alter) the way I do things. Sometimes I would tell her to do things one way only to realize that I didn’t actually do things that way, this meant that I either had to change my “lesson” or change the way I tattooed to be in line with my words.

At the same time I had been practicing Zen Buddhism for years and had enough time to be able to look back and see what a huge difference it had made in my life. While I don’t think I would be qualified to teach anyone else Buddhism, I can share my own story and experiences as long as I made it clear that they were just that; one mans trip through life with Zen as my guiding philosophy.

Which is a long winded way of saying that I’m thinking of writing a book about tattooing and zen. I’ve come up with the wildly imaginative title of “Tattoozen”, and I plan to it to be a sort of guide for tattooing while being a balanced human being. What it won’t be is a a book that tells someone how to tattoo, I won’t be giving away technical tricks or the few “secrets” that others have been generous enough to share with me in person. In the same vein I also will strive to avoid any illusion that I’m teaching Buddhism, I really do think that should be left up to those with a lineage and years of experience. Even with those guidelines I feel like I have a lot to say that would be of use to tattooers.

So I’m already planning for this book to be aimed at a narrow audience, tattooers and perhaps artists in general. But I do feel that if anyone needs a book on balance it’s tattooers! I love tattooing and I love my fellow artists, and I hate seeing people sabotaging themselves the way I did for years, this is my way of trying to help folks avoid the dumbest mistakes I made myself.

My plan is to write the book (I’ve started, but its early days yet) and if I can whip it into some kind of reasonable shape do a kickstarter and see if I could get it funded for self publishing. My wife will be having our baby in less than a month, it’s our first, so I don’t know how much I will be able to work on a book in the immediate future, but I figure if I put it out there in Internet land it has a chance of getting accomplished.

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Neither here nor there

Tattooing is great for debates! Do you call your self a tattooer, a tattooist, or a tattoo artist? Do tattoos look better done simply and graphically or painterly and realistically? Rotary or coil machine? Is thick ink better than thin? There is no aspect of the tattooing world which is not ripe for opinion and argument, especially since tattooing is a term which covers a huge variety of things that almost everyone involved is knowledgeable and passionate about. Perhaps one of the most contentious debate is the one about whether tattooing is an art or a craft.

Those who claim it is an art point out that tattooing generally requires some artistic skill, is a creative activity, and can often (though not always) express some visual indication of the abstracts of the human condition. A tattoo can, like a painting, poem, or sculpture, give physical form to an emotion, a state of mind, or an aspiration and in this it is clearly in the camp of things generally accepted as “art”. On the other hand, those who feel that tattooing is a craft believe that the tattooer is generally following another persons directive, design, and ideas about what the tattoo is, they also prefer to connect tattooing to its long history of blue-collar/ military foundations and not what they say  is the more selfish “arty farty” aspect of the tattooer using another person as a “canvas”. Tattooing is a service, they point out, like being a house painter or a mechanic, it requires the skills of s crafts person as opposed to the more (in the traditional view) free form self-expression of the artist.

The fact that this debate has been around for years and is so dependent on what each person deems “real” tattooing should tell us that there can be no “right answer”. However unlike the choice of inks or machines I do not believe that this question is simply a matter of opinion. I do think that there is a “real” answer and I do think that the secret to a resolution doesn’t lie in one side presenting more evidence than the other or in one persons chosen side being older, more popular, or more passionate than the other side. I believe that the real answer to the question of whether tattooing is a craft or an art is not found in the answer at all, it is in the question. More specifically I believe that the question “is tattooing art or craft?” is actually wrong even in the asking!

I believe that tattooing is outside of the question, and that it cannot be definitively landed in either category because tattooing is, by its very nature,  beyond either a craft OR an art. There has never been anything like tattooing. And despite the fact that tattoos are very much like an art or a craft Tattooing is none the less outside of those concepts altogether. Tattooing  hearkens back to an older time when there was a slew of activities which spanned the line between a “pure” art and the craftsman’s domain. When buildings were built to be both functional places of life or commerce AND were bedecked with ornament and were supposed to uplift the viewer even if they had no business inside the building itself. There was a time when a fork, or a flintlock pistol, or a suit of armor was crafted to be as functional, and as efficient as possible and yet was still built to be a delight to look upon as well. The deadly efficiency of the samurai’s sword was melded with exquisite laquerwork scabbards and elaborately carved tsuba, and even the humble kitchen chair was turned on a lathe and carved with scroll-work and clawfeet for no other reason than every crafts-person was also an artist and every artist worked with their hands , art was craft and vice versa. As the world becomes more and more obsessed with pure functionality the gulf between something built for function and something built for beauty widens. Louis the 14th would have found a house designed by Frank lloyd Wright to be a boring and soulless thing!

An old zen teacher once described comparison as “the lowest form of thought”, and yet we live in an age of comparison now, where everything must be named, compartmentalized, analyzed, and described in its opposition to anything else. A shovel is only a shovel because it is not a rake, and a lawyer is a lawyer because he or she is not a doctor. We like thick black lines drawn around everything in our world so that we can more easily measure it against everything else. It comforts us in our unsure minds to think that we have the name of everything and thus control it the way ancient sorcerers supposedly controlled demons by knowing their “true name”. Many of us who tattoo for a living feel like we have to put tattooing in one of those boxes as well, we must call it new-school or traditional, bold or soft, art or craft and we believe that by putting the conceptual wall around it that we are somehow “defending” tattooing.

But real life has no thick black lines around it, the divisions between this and that, tall or short are revealed, in the end, to be the product of our minds, our notoriously unreliable, un stable, unobjective minds. Tattooing, it seems, is beyond our naming and our concepts. It is an art AND a craft and it is neither. It exists as its own thing and it doesn’t care what camp we prefer it in. It is a well-known contradiction in science that light can be observed to act as both a particle AND a wave which, according to everything we know about physics, should be impossible! The light doesn’t care that its impossible, and just goes right on being both and neither simultaneously!

In my mind there are not two camps, but three! Art, craft, and tattooing! When someone asks how a tattoo feels we often ay its a bit like a cut, or a scrape, or that its hot or that it stings sort of like a bee but not exactly when in the end it is really like none of those things, in the end a tattoo feels like a tattoo, and thats it! The answer is the experience itself!

So our feeble words can describe only things that is not like, but  our language can’t capture the subtle million ways that tattooing exists in our world and trying to cram it into a box (even a box as wide and unspecific as “art” or “craft”) is like trying to describe the taste of an orange to someone who has never had one.

Categories: Buddhism and life, random dumbness | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

2011 end.

12 months used to seem like a long time to me, like a road that you can’t see the end of over the curve of the planet. Hell you can form a human being (albeit a very rudimentary one) in 9 months, and by the time a year goes by you may hate those you once loved, you may have lost one or many you cared for, you may forget millions of thoughts and memories. A year seems like a long time. Or, it used to anyway. There’s a funny thing that happens as we get older, time (like Einstein told us when weren’t listening) stretches and contracts like elastic goo and the months, the years begin to come fast and somehow for all their speed with less urgency.

2011 has seemed to fly by for me even faster than last year, even more so when I realize just how many amazing people I have become close to this year alone. I worked conventions with Cara in 5 cities this year alone (and most of those in the first three months of the year!) I celebrated my one year anniversary and mourned the one year since our great friend Erica passed away. I have watched nieces and nephews grow up and begin to form the seeds of personalities. That mysterious process where one brother becomes a tiny gentleman and the other a tiny terrible viking, when a babies incoherent goo’s and bababa’s suddenly, almost imperceptibly begin to mean something.

I’ve wasted huge swaths of my year brainless and out of touch with reality, it’s a curse I often find myself battling. I slowly fade out and disengage from the world, sometimes for days, sometimes for months til one day some spark in my head flickers and I realize I have been sleepwalking and that its time to open up my eyes and really live! Maybe this is what depression looks like since I’ve started meditating, instead of curling in a ball and giving up I just robot my way through life til the gloom lifts? I don’t know, but the sure symptom is an overwhelming urge to play video-games for 6 hours at a time! (it might just be time to blow up my x box and computer)

I’ve felt the tiny step forward with my tattooing, I’m really sensitive to it these days. I’m hyper-aware of each miniscule bit of data and i jealously file it away in my brain knowing that eventually that they will pile up just enough for me to go up one small level closer to how I want my tattoos to look. I’m beginning to be patient with the process, beginning to see every line, every shading as practice. Drilling the new lessons into my muscles til they respond automatically and execute an idea that I could only imagine weeks or years before.

Cara and I have also begun to try to have a bay of our own in the past few weeks. She is awash in books and new information about things like basal temperatures and cervix positioning, its like she is studying for a graduate degree and having babies I feel sort of  lazy and stereotypical as I sit back and just wait for her to tell me when its the optimal time to give it a go. “Durr, jus’ tell me whar yew want this sperm, ma’am.” We have also had some interesting conversations about our relative readiness to have children, we may be fooling ourselves, but we both feel like any children we may have now will turn out a lot better than if we would have had them when we were younger, dumber, and far more self-centered. It’s a curious fact that its only after ones “optimum” child-bearing  years that we get our shit together enough to be the sort of parents any child of ours would deserve. Fuck, 25-year-old me couldn’t be trusted with raising a cat let alone something as complicated as a human!

So 2012 may be the big one for us, we are certainly hoping so, if we wait much longer my kids may have grampa-dad syndrome where I yell at my own kids to get the hell off my lawn!

Most of all right now i feel an enormous sense of gratitude. I am incredibly lucky to have been born into this life, to be surrounded by such loving and patient people, to be given a chance to make a living while at the same time always being challenged by that livelihood. I am truly lucky to want so little and to be given so much, so are all of you, I hope that in 2012 all of us can realize what a gift this life is.

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

art & the future of tattooing

Art is a strange thing. its one of those “things” that gets more and more diffuse the closer you try to examine it. Take a plain old leaf and put it under a microscope and it becomes hard to tell whether it is an oak leaf or a strawberry bush leaf. If you put it under a really really powerful microscope and all you get are atoms, molecules and lots and lots of space. It ceases to be a “leaf” at all at those magnifications.

Art is like that too. But being the kind of creatures people are, we always try to dissect and categorize it into little conceptual packages so we can “understand” art. We describe art as fine art or lowbrow, as illustrative or abstract or primitive. This sort of conceptualizing makes it easy to know what you are talking about with others, but we don’t just accept that its simply a label, once we name something we insist that it become the name we gave it. Art doesn’t like to be pinned down this way, it wriggles and morphs and fights labels and categorization. And when you put it under a microscope is disappears completely. Something that gets labeled pornographic or amateurish may well be hailed as genius with the passing of time. The art in question didn’t change, the observers did.

Beauty, the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. However, the definition of beauty is also in the eye of the beholder and is not, can not, be fixed.

Which is a long way of saying that tattoos, which are beginning to enjoy a respect and admiration that was all but unimaginable a scant 20 years ago, have come around the bend at last. The long circular path from being considered crude and merit-less to cool and respectable has finally been walked. It would be tempting to believe that the influx of talent and the refinements of tattooings artistic aesthetic  made this all happen but I suspect the truth lies in the other direction. I believe that in its earliest years of growing popularity it was that image of crudeness and outsider-ness which appealed to people the same way a slightly dangerous, but cheap neighborhood attracts bohemian artsy types. Once they start to fix the place up the rest of the world finds the formerly shunned neighborhood the most hip place on earth to be. So that is where we find ourselves now, on prime real-estate for the time being.

I have to admit that I would like it to stay that way, I am comfortable in this world of tattooing and as I have grown with it I feel something of a familial bond. When other tattooers talk of tattooing impending doom or of it being so watered down by the deluge of popularity I get a little defensive. I suspect that this is mostly because I am afraid somewhere in my heart of hearts that they may be right. However, the reality of the situation is that none of us, neither the cheerleaders  nor the nay-sayers really know what is going to happen and the universe seems to delight in coming at us from the one angle we didn’t think to guard against. If I had to place a bet on what would happen to tattooing in the next 20 years all I could confidently assert would be that whatever form it takes wont be as “bad” or “good” as we would want it to be. It will endure and change and we will grasp onto certain traditions we deem the important ones while letting others fade away for no other reason that it is not what we currently believe is ‘good” about tattooing.  (lots of people pine for the days of traditional eagles and anchors, not many wish for the return of fineline wizards and dreamcatchers)

When he was once asked whether the Chinese government would ever leave Tibet and return it to its pre-invasion status the Dali Lama replied “In the short-term I have no hope, but in the long term everything changes.” Note that he didn’t say “everything will be the way I want it to be” just that, sooner or later, things would change noticeably. So it is with tattooing, it is always changing and evolving like all art and it is always beyond our defining. We can’t pin it down to specifics and so we certainly can’t change how or what it is except on a personal level. Which is really the crux of the matter, personal responsibility.

How much easier to complain about the sad state of affairs or to sit back and point out who or what ought to be changing to suit our ideas of tattooing. But how much harder is it to point the lens at ourselves! How many who decry the state of tattooing come to work hung over, or high, or on 3 hours of sleep? How many draw a tattoo they want to do and then browbeat the customer into something they don’t really want in order to do it as a tattoo? Who among us hasnt finished a tattoo and thought “that is going to look great in my portfolio” instead of “I hope this tattoo makes the customer happy”? There are as many ways we fail as we have pointed out others failures and ours are no less harmful to our beloved tattooing than the worst scratcher. Really.

There is a solution, of sorts. Of course we can’t fix tattooing any more than we can “fix” jealousy or road rage, but we can take our tiny part in the larger whole more seriously. We can lay off the drugs and alcohol that dull our abilities, we can draw to our customers desires as well as our own. We can treat those around us as equals and not inferiors. We can hold ourselves to a standard of conduct that is in tune with the real world as it is instead of some made up old-school tough guy mentality that never existed anyway. Does that sound like a small thing? I believe that it changes everything, and that is no small thing. The cool part is that you don’t even need anyone else to do it either, our world has already changed dramatically just by holding ourselves to a higher standard. The energy I used to waste by bitching and worry over other tattooers actions now goes to my own art. Whether you like my tattoos or not, they have gotten a damn sight better since I pulled my head out of my ass. When we point all that we want to see different outside of ourselves the result is wasted effort and suffering, when we point that desire inward the result is change and improvement. The funny part is that when we do change ourselves for the better the world really does follow suit! Not because we forced it to (might as well ask a gnat to force a mountain to move) but because the universe follows what you do not what you talk about doing.

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

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