I bought a pure breed dog once. The first thing I wanted to know was the condition of the puppie’s parents. Where did this dog come from? How old were the parents? What was the temperament of the parents? These answers would help paint a picture of traits I might expect from the puppy. I wasn’t going to invest into a backyard breeder, I wanted quality.
The same concept of ancestry applies to tattoo artists. Who taught them? Where have they worked? For whom have they worked? Some of the vital traits of a worthy tattoo lineage would be: integrity, foresight, design interpretation, quality of craftsmanship, and professionalism. If you want to get started tattooing, your lineage will be your foundation, the groundwork from where you draw a solid reputation. One day these questions will be asked of you when looking for a shop in which to work.
I’m going to interpret the 90’s from my perspective. My first apprenticeship in the mid-90’s was at Iron Age Studios with Mark Andrews and Brad Fink. During that time tattoos slowly seeped into main stream culture and media. NBA players started sporting arm tattoos, and Angelina Jolie got a tattoo of her husband’s name. People who never gave tattooing a second thought became interested in this underground culture. With the enthusiast came the self-taught artist. The young artists were refused jobs from the established shops of the day. Not to be deterred, they opened their own shops. Since they had little experience, they couldn’t hire established artists, so they started to train tattoo artists to work for them. Those second generation artists didn’t have the traits needed to get a job at the established shops, so they open their own shops. From here the cycle repeats. So the 1990’s flooded the industry with poorly trained artists.
Very few of the self-taught artists gained much success in their craft. I know of a few, and I have much respect for them. Mainly because they took the long way around the mountain and didn’t fall off. Clark Medley, owner of Inkwell Tattoo, is one the few artists that have created solid footing in this industry. He took the road less traveled and came out with his own style and approach. Unfortunately, there are not many success stories like his.
Today, it is easy to get an apprenticeship at a half-rate shop. It is difficult to get an apprenticeship at a shop that has the values needed to get you on the right path. Tattooing is more than drawing pictures and giving high fives. Tattooing is giving an experience and helping a client through a moment of their life. It is a tremendous responsibility that is not to be taken lightly. Those who miss the point will wash out. Hopefully they get washed out before they do too much damage and ruin people’s lives. A strong apprenticeship will teach you the values needed to apply a tattoo.
Today, I still tell people I was apprenticed by Mark Andrews and Brad Fink of Iron Age Studios in St. Louis. I have travelled extensively in my career. More doors have been opened for me because of my solid foundation. A shop owner may not have ever heard my name before, but giving them my references helped to get my foot in the door. After that, it’s been up to me to live up to the foundation I was given in this industry.
If you want to join this industry, you are welcome to find your own path. If you do not set up a solid foundation, then it will be very frustrating. Don’t settle for less. Get your start from a quality establishment. Do what it takes. If you have to move, dump your girlfriend, sell your car or drop out of college, then do it…There’s a thin line between a foot in the door and a foot in the ass.