You know, I do a lot of thinking. A lot of introspection, and a lot of thought around this craft, and its many manifestations. I also read a lot of tattoo related blogs, articles, and watch just about every non TV-show related tattoo video I can get my hands on. And while everybody is trying to tell you what tattooing is or isn’t, I think at this point it’s fair to concede that it’s something a little different to everyone.
We’re riding a wave where the growth of the industry is so rapid, that the old ideas of what this is become more obscure by the day. I guess at some point we’ll even reach critical mass, whatever that means - maybe we’ll all just spontaneously stop getting tattooed, and everyone in the mall will instead turn to stare at the guy with no tattoos. At the same time, the art form, whilst slower than the industry, grows and develops as well, with its own pros and cons, as it flails through all the mistakes the oldtimers made long before us, and sometimes gently, sometimes forcibly still warn us about. With growth, comes entropy - in this country you can see both by the seemingly sudden plague of bad tattoos, spreading their grey and scraggly path through our public places.
We see the traditions, the etiquette and the ethos decay. Tattoo thievery runs riot as our clients demand catalogue style ‘custom’ tattooing, and with money and success poisoning their minds, young tattooists are ridden by their clients worse than an extra in Brokeback Mountain. Apprenticeships wilt, and respect wanes - being self-taught becomes some mythical mantle to throw around one’s shoulders, as artists forgo the wealth of working alongside the well trained, setting up home hepatitis studios, or running shops with work that just doesn’t hold up to any kind of educated scrutiny.
But what is it? At this point it has grown so far beyond the controlled and ancient discipline it once was, that it’s become many things, to many people. Technically, it was, is, and always will be the placing of ink under the skin. And that is all. In the current climate you can’t even say putting ‘art’ under skin, because let’s be honest - there’s a whole lot of shit getting laid down out there as well, and given that our definitions are becoming more and more open, not everyone’s out to make art, or to better themselves at it.
I realised recently that it’s no longer for any of us to define it, except for ourselves. For some, it’s pure passion, making art, and laying it down as close to perfect in one of the most challenging mediums possible. For some, it’s prestige, it’s cool - generally you’ll find these people rocking on about how awesome they are online, and posting picture after picture with their own hand scripted compliments to themselves. I grew up in an age where compliments were to be given to others, or received from others, not used as a mastabatory lube, but I get that not everyone was lucky enough to learn that stuff.
I also love those little social media jpegs with a half naked twentysomething sprawled behind a caption like “people with tattoos are just so much ridiculously more cool than everyone else”. You know what the truth is? People with tattoos are generally just more fucking mad than anyone else - and I don’t mean that necessarily in a positive sense. We really get to see every shade of batshit in here, along with the awesome. Concurrently, there are clients who simply count tattoos, as though they win some kind of social contest for having 30 odd twenty minute tattoos. They’ve missed the logical leap where the guy with a full bodysuit only has one.
For some, it’s a business model - another sad way for tattooing to go, but if I had a dollar (or a pound, actually) for every ‘great business opportunity’ that was offered to me by a non-tattooer, I wouldn’t be rich, I’d be working my ass for some dick who has no idea how to spot a good line from a bad one. I can’t remember the last time I did a tattoo for the money, and the money alone. I’m also a strong believer in tattoo shops run by tattooers, but that’s a thesis all of its own.
For me, it’s becoming more and more about ritual. The more I observe a reverent, deliberate path through my process, the more I watch the level of my work progress. I don’t necessarily work like everybody else, and then, with the myriad of polluted views on tattooing out there - why should I? I’m notorious for last minute designs, or even a complete lack thereof. In fact, I’ll even press my clients more and more to just let go, and trust the process. It’s no secret either, that I have a deep and cherished disdain for mundane tattooing. I guess I feel, for the first time since picking up a machine, like I know what I want to move towards. Up until now it’s just been what I want to move away from - although it must always be said, tattooing, if you listen, is a great and humbling teacher. Every time you feel you’ve made a stride, it will take the simplest little thing and beat you the fuck back down with it.
So I ritualise it. I make it about being centred, and clear, and find my own pedantic route to that place - a place that as time passes, is becoming more and more of a sacred creative space. A space to channel something larger and more adept than my own clumsy human hands. I dismiss clients that don’t resonate with me as much as clients out there fuss over their artists, and slowly I carve a way towards what is in essence, a complete experience. At the end of a piece, both parties should feel enriched by the journey, not just the client, and not just the artist. I still find it completely magical that a faithful image of almost anything can be put under the skin, and fucking stay right there, and I don’t see why the process should take away from that magic.
Not to say that that’s the space I manage to create with every client, but it’s definitely the one I aim towards. Nor am I saying that that’s the way it should be done, it’s more about recognising the way it works for me. People come to me to get tattooed, but for me tattooing is not just that - it’s a near all consuming part of my life. It’s the mirror at its peak - look deep enough, and it will show you every inadequacy you harbour, every fault line, every lapse in self-confidence. Whilst some preen and posture in front of it, it is, for me, one of the greatest challenges and largest vehicles of personal growth I’ve yet found, a teacher of exceptional magnitude. I’m ever grateful to be able to leave an indelible set of footprints through this world.