Those of us with at least a decade in the tattoo industry remember a world quite different from today. As for the old-timers… hell, they probably don’t recognize their own shops anymore. The nervous laughter and palpable fear of those yet to be tattooed is gone. Instead, quiet cadres glued to the 5600K light of a handheld revolution occupy our waiting rooms. Prospective clients gain reassurance that the process ahead is “no big deal” from an ever-growing web of search results.
What used to be a rite of passage for more questionable members of society (and more than a few good servicemen) is now served up hot to hoodie’d teenagers, housewives and your cousin Frank. You can’t even check out at the grocery store without a family of five cooing in unison, forcibly comparing their future projects and former mistakes to yours. I didn’t sign up for this – I just wanted some ice cream.
At some point, you have to wonder: “What the hell happened?”
Coming up in a small town, tattooers in magazines took on a heroic glow. They seemed so far away, their greatness vast and unattainable. As an apprentice, you poured over piles of moldy outdated magazines; tattooer preschool was all about taking notes of the good (and bad) aspects of others’ work. Next you began observing the guys you worked with and the dudes down the street; studying their style, approach, and remembering their names was your job.
In those days, even the guys a couple blocks over might as well have had miles of barbed wire around them. The only way to gain access was a chance meeting in a bar; perhaps you’d get lucky and someone would introduce you. To get a glimpse of their sticker smudged and road-worn portfolio meant manning up and walking into their shop, a frightening endeavor indeed. Understanding the industry relied on the realization that you owed other tattooers everything, simply for carving the path ahead of you.
Back then tattooing was still massively unappreciated by the mainstream. It was a remote career, a venture regarded by all but the most subversive as a “bad move” – to pursue this was professional suicide. No one in their right mind would encourage you, and threats from disapproving parents hung in your head like nooses. But for all the nooses they tied and the gallows erected, nothing held the same allure as old timers’ stories: neon in the windows, shitty pool table out front; the hum and buzz off in the dark distance, the unknown.
You couldn’t get enough of it; the allure and majesty of an industry that didn’t want or need you, quietly carrying on in the shadows.
Epicentral to it all was a collection of nicotine-stained flash art, hung in blessed disarray. A shop’s flash collection was it, man: the fiercely guarded and revered mother lode. Despite the disproportionate quality to quantity, stealing flash was treason of the highest order. The names of people and stories of their deceit remain burned into young tattooers’ minds for all time. Theft of someone’s custom work meant kissing your ability to wipe your own ass good-bye. Copying, tracing, or otherwise stealing a custom design was akin to signing your own death warrant. This was ingrained in all of us – it was lesson one.
Reference materials were limited to naturalist illustrations, a few good photos, and some Japanese shit so secret, you weren’t allowed to look without its owner’s express permission. The wall of secrecy around tattooing could only be overcome through YEARS spent carefully chipping away—and that was what you worked for; that was your goal. Looking back, that secrecy’s importance presented itself, as many things do, only in its absence.
Some of us had websites, but they were flimsy and difficult to navigate. Magazines were still the dominant medium to gaining mass recognition as a tattooer, and getting into them was either easy because you knew someone – or impossible, because you didn’t.
A carefully manicured hard copy portfolio was still your best bet for getting work. A tattooer that couldn’t produce images of their work on demand was hiding something, and likely a filthy scratcher.
Before the digital revolution, you had to put in the hours, make the connections, and earn your notoriety. Promoting yourself was something you had to earn the right to do. And then it struck. A stray bullet from an unforeseen Philip K. Dickian future.
Networking took a notable turn with the first websites tattooers actively posted to: Myspace and Facebook. Promoting yourself through the baby-fresh face of social media was approached with a shrug and a “why not?”
That changed with the popularization of the iPhone. At first it was a ‘gimmick’ most of us laughed off, an item purchased only by those with too much expendable income.
The ribbing died down once we realized the ease with which we could shoot and share our work. A pocket-sized portfolio at our fingertips? That was nothing to laugh at. Eventually, we all caved. Inadvertently, we changed the industry forever.
Social media became the final stick of dynamite wedged in a hardened wall of secrecy that had stood for decades. By trying to expose ourselves to a larger audience, we removed all of the barbed wire, turned on all the lights, and made all that was hiding in the magical dark accessible to anyone.
Today, any amateur with a smartphone can amass a following seemingly overnight, rivaling what someone else worked their whole lives for. People who’ve never set foot in a tattoo shop know the names of every potential great. Critiques on tattoos take place in forums about cake decorating. Painstakingly produced custom designs are ripped off, copied, perverted, gimmicked, and destroyed by pathetic tracers before the original artist has the chance to lay claim to their idea. Trends blow back & forth across the globe in a cheap wind. Within hours, a single great idea is bastardized and forgotten by a constantly churning sea of ingrates—and the inexperienced are heralded as gurus, geniuses and greats.
A trade thick with tradition and respect has been unceremoniously bent over, violated and left for dead. Integrity, already in short supply, dried up like a puddle of spit in the sun by people possessing no more artistic depth than the fluids they excrete. Tracing is commonplace, and no one seems to realize or care about its devaluing nature.
For all of this, a lot of it has made our lives easier: modest public acceptance, professional respect, and comfortable incomes… even parental endorsement! These are the benefits afforded by cultural countenance.
Contacting amazing artists the world over is now simple; new collaborations occur daily. For those that cut our teeth the old way, or just happen to have a good head on their shoulders, it’s a very exciting time. There is much work to be done and new ground to tread.
The benefits are there as sure as you read this, available only in digital format, now that seeing things exclusively in print seems inconceivable. We should be awed by the power of the digital medium, and owe a lot to the ingenuity that fixed the path… and to the people that take the time to Like and Reblog our work daily. All of this fans the fire that now warms us.
The question remains: Are we better or worse for it? A quick flip through your battery powered magic 8-ball reveals: “ASK AGAIN LATER.”
As we stare blankly for hours, flick endlessly through scrolling tiles, and search for ideas we don’t believe we could produce alone… we learn one valuable lesson: No matter what the future brings, there’s no such thing as instant gratification. We must offset the flaws of our situation—we must continue to work our asses off, and allow ourselves to still be mystified. We must cultivate respect and integrity. Most of all, we must be conscious of the need to protect our seedy, sacred industry in the onslaught of the digital age.
See more: Mike Moses on Tattoo Snob