The concept of bespoke, custom tattoos is a relatively new one. I am proud that Modern Body Art was the first custom only studio in Birmingham, and that we were at the forefront of a movement that is now ubiquitous. If we are being honest, it was really tattoo TV shows that popularised the idea that the customer can walk into a studio with a big back (sob) story and list of what they want. The problem is that like everything on the television, all is not what it appears. It is common knowledge in the tattoo world that the customers on such programs are hand picked long before they walk into a studio apparently off the street (to talk to an artist who happens to be sat with nothing to do). Any boring, bad or unworkable ideas are filtered out early in the process. Lately things have become even more detached from reality as complicated cover ups are shown fresh and looking amazing, when anyone with any experience of tattooing will know that they will not heal like that, and that old tattoo will be making an unfortunate reappearance.
If I am honest, I don’t think this way of working is always producing the best tattoos for people. People tend to come into Modern Body Art, or to me personally and give me an idea of what they want. They generally have an idea in their head about what it is going to look like and I set about and try and recreate that image for them. Most of the time the idea is great and the customer is fine. But sometimes the idea is a bit generic, or sometimes the idea is actually not very good. Sometimes the idea is fine but it is so prescriptive that there is really no room for any artistic input at all.
The artists Komar and Melamid did a show called “People’s Choice” where they produced art based on what people really liked – or in fact didn’t like, all based from surveys. What people liked was unfortunately bland, middle-of-the-road, generic crap. Is there a moral here for the tattoo world? (You can see all the paintings here.)
When someone has an idea that is bad, or boring, what do you do? Do you tell them that it is terrible? What then? They go away and think that you are an arrogant arse, or maybe they think less of Modern Body Art. Maybe they will go somewhere else and find someone to do exactly what they want and it will probably – but admittedly not definitely – be average at best. Maybe they are happy with it, or maybe they will eventually realise that it isn’t actually a good tattoo (although, if they are happy with it, who is to say it isn’t a good tattoo? That is a whole other subject).
I do sometimes turn down a tattoo if it isn’t something I think I won’t be able to do well, but am I getting ideas above my station? Should I do whatever the customer asks for, and just do the best I can. It is a job after all and I have to earn a living. I am not sure any customer really wants to get tattooed by someone who is only doing the job for the money though? Let alone by an artist who doesn’t believe it is going to be any good when it is finished!
So what is the solution? I am not sure I have one. In the old days (not really that long ago), you just picked a pre-drawn design from the flash sheets on the wall. Maybe that had more merit than we realised at the time?
The guardian has posted this article about “The Secret Life of a Tattooist”. You can read it here.
I enjoyed and emapthised with most of what was written, although I don’t agree that it is a “fact that tattooing full time will give you a bad back, neck and shoulder problems and damaged wrists”. I don’t have any of those problems, just do some exercise you lazy bastards.
Anyway, the sentiment of slight disillusionment with the industry, and a feeling of “it was better before it was mainstream”, is one I have heard many times before but definitely not one I share. I will elaborate…
When I first got into tattooing in the early to mid nineties, tattooing was growing rapidly but had yet to break through to mainstream culture. I am not sure exactly how you gauge that, but no celebrities outside of a few heavy metal stars were really tattooed, models were definitely not tattooed, there were no TV shows etc etc. What people have forgotten, or maybe don’t realise, is that there was a general sentiment within the industry that tattooing didn’t get the respect it deserved as a serious art form, and there were artists who did what they could to rectify that when given the opportunity. Well, like it or not, we now have that recognition. Maybe it still isn’t respected quite as much as fine art, but then within all forms of art, some are always seen as the pinnacle, or the more serious pursuit compared to others. We are at least now included in the conversation. Simply put, we wanted it and now a lot of people are complaining that we have it.
An argument to the above paragraph could be, “well I didn’t want it”. Fair enough, but tough shit. Tattooing isn’t your thing to keep to yourself or dictate where it goes or who likes it. We would all like to have control over the culture we love but it doesn’t work like that. Tattooing isn’t your cool little club and you don’t get to choose who can join after you were lucky enough to find it. The zeitgest is a complex thing and all you can do is control your little part in it and go along for the ride. And if you don’t like the ride anymore, then time to get off.
Now, I have always disliked the term “hipster”, and think it is too often used for anyone younger and more interested in fashion than oneself. If there is one aspect of it that does seem true, although really predates the recent use of the term, it is the “I used to like it/them before it was mainstream” attitude. I always thought that was stupid when people said it about bands, and think it is just as stupid with tattoos. Maybe you can have extra cool points for buying Bleach when it came out, but if you went off it when Nevermind exploded, you are a moron. If you only like something when it is underground, subversive or cool, then you are no better than someone who only likes something because it is trendy. If you only got tattoos because you thought it would make you cool and different, then more fool you.
I accept that you can still love tattoos, but just not like the direction that the industry has gone in since becoming mainstream, but why worry? Just do your thing, and ignore the rest. You don’t have to go to conventions or even be on Instagram. Just do really good work and look after your customers and you should still be able to make a comfortable living.
Finally, I heard a very well respected tattooist get asked if he wanted to leave the industry or if he still liked being a tattooist and he said, “Yes, I am an artist and this is my medium. I need to be creative and this is how I choose to do it”. What a brilliant answer and attitude.