Tattoo Ink: (Supposed to Be) The Alternative to Elitism
Kimberly Sheridan explores the world of tattoos in her column Tattoo Ink. In “(Supposed to Be) The Alternative to Elitism,” she looks at the gatekeeping associated with tattooing.
While Vinny added a hand-drawn script tattoo to my inner left forearm, I asked him how one went about becoming a tattooer. It was probably an annoying and over-asked question, but he was kind and explained to me that breaking into the industry usually required working at a shop, putting in time, and building trust with the artists. Tattooing is passed down primarily through apprenticeships, and an apprenticeship is hard to get.
A month later, Vinny texted me that a new shop frontperson was needed at Red Rocket if I wanted to apply for the position. I was surprised and delighted he thought of me. Shortly after, I had an interview with the two owners on the roof of the shop in Herald Square, New York City. I don’t remember what they asked me or if they said that the position wasn’t a promise of a future apprenticeship, but I was ecstatic when they hired me.
I thought I’d found my niche, my home. I was often told my illustrations looked like tattoo designs and my work incorporated skulls, lady heads, flowers—common tattoo imagery. I had worked in various fields like fashion, sculpture, and interior painting, but hadn’t found a long-term fit in The Art World. I loved the lowbrow art scene—graffiti, T-shirts, comics, stickers—and I appreciated accessibility in art. Antithetical to some of the Fine Art snobbishness, the spirit of lawlessness in tattoo subculture felt comfortable and appealing. This world was supposed to be the alternative to elitism.
For an industry known for its subversiveness and outlaws, tattooing has countless rules. Insiders are protective of information and the apprenticeship model means tradition and indoctrination are often passed down alongside techniques. Many apprentices are young, and they learn how to “adult” responsibly at the same time they’re adopting drawing skills and tattoo knowledge. They spend all their free time hanging around a shop until someone gives them a chance. Some of the benefits of apprenticeships are one-on-one mentorship, ensuring someone is serious about the trade, and being the alternative to for-profit schools that would monopolize the industry. The downsides are hazing, guarding, false ownership, and scarcity mindsets that are resistant to change.
Teaching yourself to tattoo is heavily frowned upon and the derogatory term “scratchers” is used for those who have gone rogue and give tattoos without proper training.
Teaching yourself to tattoo is heavily frowned upon and the derogatory term “scratchers” is used for those who have gone rogue and give tattoos without proper training. There can be valid reasons for discouraging this—poor quality work, scarring, and unsafe or dangerous practices. But if it’s notoriously difficult to get an apprenticeship, where does one start?
In an interview with Metal Ink, tattooer Mike Bellamy recalls, “I was standing next to Jack Rudy, a long-time old-school tattooer. A young kid comes up to him and asks, How do I go about tattooing? He said, You don’t. You just quit. That’s the old-school way. He was testing him. He was testing his tenacity. If the kid goes yea okay and quits, then he wasn’t cut out for it anyway. But if he’s like, Oh, but I will! then maybe he’s got a shot.” I didn’t fully understand the dynamics at the time, but there was a confusing tension between being gritty and persistent and being respectful and not pissing off the gatekeepers.
I was grateful for Vinny, and I followed a more obedient route. I wanted to do it the right way, whatever I thought that meant. I didn’t want to hang over the artists while they worked, or ask too many questions, or neglect my actual shopgirl duties. I also didn’t stay after hours and draw at the communal table and nudge the tattooers for tips. In my free time, I did necessary freelance work for extra money and went to yoga and meditation classes. I can see where I was too hesitant in my attempt to navigate the unwritten codes of conduct, and too paralyzed to draw nonstop like I “should” have, although I felt unwaveringly invested and enthusiastic. Learning what worked and didn’t on skin and seeing what artists created to meet the various requests thrilled me. I also added to my own collection and acquired at least a tattoo a month for a year, on a zealous mission to get inked by each of the ten artists who worked at the shop.
One afternoon, Jonny was behind the counter making a stencil and he said to me, “Why do you even want to be in this ugly industry? Why don’t you go teach yoga or something?” It might have been a snub; it might have been a genuine wonder; it might have been both. It might have been condescending, too, but it didn’t offend me much. It might have even been a kindness. My brand of persistence was stubborn idealism and calm optimism, but maybe he thought I’d be destroyed and maybe he didn’t want that for me.
The first and last time I tattooed someone was at our shop’s Christmas party. After we ate and drank at our local pub, we returned to Red Rocket and exchanged Secret Santa gifts. I received an olive-green Sailor Jerry hoodie with a ship on the back and an anchor on the chest. I felt like a part of the family. Then, we all tattooed each other. I can’t remember even being nervous—I was just elated I’d get to put machine to skin. I’d set up and broken down artists’ stations but I’d never used the equipment myself. Our tattoos were silly and drawn on the spot. I sketched a one-inch skull with a Santa hat and placed the little stencil on a coworker’s lower leg.
With a small crowd around me and some helpful pointers, I got to work. Everyone seemed excited about my excitement, pleased with my unadulterated joy. Unsurprisingly, my tattoo wasn’t good. Maybe I should have cared more about trying to impress them and proving I had natural talent. Maybe they wondered up until this point if I had been sneakily practicing on oranges at home on a relentless charge towards my goal. But I wasn’t. I didn’t finagle my way into some equipment and break the rules. I was waiting for permission and this was my first taste of it.
Sixteen months into my time at the shop, I was on the verge of getting the coveted apprenticeship with my talented boss, and the obnoxious commentary started ramping up. After hours, it was only me and Mark left in the studio and he said to me, “You know, so many people would give up so much for an apprenticeship with Adam. Men would move their whole families across the country just to have this opportunity.” I just kind of nodded: Yes, yes, I know. Of course, I knew. The gates were large, clear, and it wasn’t lost on me that it was men who would move for the opportunity. We didn’t discuss why it would have been an unwise idea for the hypothetical guys because apprentices don’t make money. These men would have had to find full-time work in pricey NYC and manage the workload of an apprenticeship with families to support. I, however, was the thirty-one-year-old woman who had invested over a year in the shop. I was barely able to pay my bills, but I was willing to hustle and struggle to pursue this path.
If they had wanted to get under my skin, they finally were. I felt like an imposter and my enthusiasm was co-opted by apprehension and cynicism. A year later, Mark’s comment would make me roll my eyes. He was a male artist, years younger than me, who had done his apprenticeship and paid his own dues while living at home rent-free. He’d never had another job and he thought he was going to teach me the ways of the world. Luckily, it was never Adam or the other shop owner who acted like this—it was some, not all, of the artists who felt the need to make sure I had it as hard as they did, or that I knew my place, or that it was clear they didn’t want me entering this Kingdom at all. And I knew they gave Adam a hard time about considering me, even though he was their boss.
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A mix of circumstances led to my never becoming an apprentice, but Jonny was right—the industry wasn’t for me, at least not in the iteration that it had assumed in 2012 America. But it didn’t mean I lost my fascination with tattooing … I just lost interest in proving anything, deciphering mixed messages, or waiting to be allowed through the gates. The more I listened to, read, and gathered, the more I realized the subculture that was supposed to be the alternative to elitism was anything but. I’d continue on to ask tattooers, especially women, how they started. The answers were more varied than I had come to expect given all the emphasis on The One Way, although most of them admitted the undeniable presence of gatekeeping.
I asked Michelle Myles—tattooer, owner of Daredevil Tattoo Museum, and NYC tour guide—about her apprenticeship experience when I took her tattoo-history walking tour a few years ago. She had started in the ’90s before tattooing was legalized in NYC in 1997. Michelle laughed and told me apprenticeships weren’t really a thing back then, that women would have been turned down or asked for sex acts. “I controlled my own destiny,” she said with a big smile.
My heart jumped.
That’s the spirit, I thought. That’s the damn spirit.