Posted by: Dave
As many of you know, I moonlight as a tattoo artist several days a week. This is something I've been doing for about two years now and it has made an enormous difference in my life, both personally and artistically. Most artists are acquainted with the fact that it's nearly impossible to make a living from art, and even should someone accomplish this goal, there is no long term stability thanks to the ever changing economy. Thus, most artists have a part-time job or teach, or come up with other ways to monetize on their art. Thanks to a few flukes, I stumbled into tattooing. It uses my art skills and provides me with well-paid work, so that when I do paint, I can focus on making my art great without the concern of sales overriding everything.
I get emailed several times a month from other realist artists and students asking if tattooing is a viable side gig for them, and if so, how to approach getting into the industry. But should one do it? The tattoo industry is well-known for it's hurly burly, wild west bad assery, so you have to be tough like me.....I kicked some kid's ass once in 6th grade and got detention. There are more tattoo artist positions out there than art teacher positions, and the compensation is far better ($100-180 per hour, depending on your shop and city). It's surprisingly economy proof, whereas art sales and teaching decidedly are not, and it's a fun job most of the time.
First and foremost, if you don't like providing customer service then this job is out of the question. You are not only working with people, but you are up close and personal with them in their physical space. Now, the social element can be rather enjoyable depending on the client. Unlike a visit to the dentist, most people are really excited to get tattooed, even though they are in for some pain. Almost everyone likes the work they receive, and you get to hear their appreciation right away (unlike fine art clients whom I rarely ever hear from). It is even customary to tip your tattoo artist on top of the hourly rate if a customer is really happy with the work. However, there is a flip side to this coin. People can be demanding, have unrealistic expectations, or simply smell like stale McDonalds. Learning how to deal with these people can take almost as much effort as learning to tattoo. There is a strategy to it, and part of any business is how you present yourself and how you interact with other individuals.
Secondly. Being an excellent draughtsman is extremely helpful, but learning how to tattoo is not easy. You watch people on TV and think "pffft, I can do that, I like, draw way better than that chump/chumpette." However, tattooing is NOT drawing and painting. Yes, it utilizes the same principals of art like line, shape, color, value, etc, but putting ink in skin is a very difficult skill to learn. Common mistakes are overworking tissue, going too deep or shallow, and blow outs. It is its own art form and should be treated as such.
So, how do you get started? Are there schools? Internet night classes? Well, most people have to seek an apprenticeship under an experienced tattoo artist. Apprenticeships vary greatly in length and intensity. If you have a solid art background, it tends to go faster. However, it does take lots of practice on a machine to gain any real mastery of it; I'm talking years. Some places will charge for your training while others will have you act as a shop hand in exchange for teaching. I was lucky enough to start my training under Joshua Carlton, whom many people consider to be the top realist tattoo artist in North America, and I was able to finish my apprenticeship in my home town under Mike Gariepy, in whose shop I now work. First and foremost, it is important to study with an artist whom you respect, and who has a mutual respect for you (I earned a lot of street cred because I took Taikwondo as a youth so people know I roll hard). However, convincing someone to take you on as an apprentice can be hard. In many places the market is completely over saturated with tattoo artists. You have to demonstrate right out of the gates why you are a better canidate for training than others, and having a great drawing and painting portfolio can be one important component. However, do not assume that because you can draw and paint, this guarantees anything for certain. You still have to be friendly and likable. More importantly still, you need to actually be passionate about tattooing. If you do not enjoy tattooing as an art form, or do not see its validity, then you shouldn't do it. Tattooing can't be treated like a side job that you do for the paycheck. In fact, it is difficult to do part time at all and continue to improve.
Of course, there are many drawbacks that I need to talk about. Physically, the job can be taxing. Not from lots of movement, but lack of it. You are hunched over for hours on end and it does a number on your back and hand. In addition, you are working around blood and open tissue, which has to be handled accordingly. Lastly, everyone will make fun of you if you drive a VW Golf when everyone else has a motorcycle.....so I heard.....errr.....from a friend......I rode a Vespa once......
So, if anyone out there is looking for resources (or an artist for that matter) visit Tattoo Art Project or Tattoo Now to see what's happening around the world or even in your home town.
And remember, artists can come in all shapes in sizes. You don't have to feel inadequate if you don't look like me. It simply amazes people that I have the exact build as Ian McKown.