How I got offered a Tattoo Apprenticeship.

Remember the popular tv-shows Miami Ink and LA Ink, that caused a mayor spike in the amount of people wanting to be tattoo artists or at least get a tattoo apprenticeship? Yea, I was one of those people.
At age 19 I saw those shows and thought “Man, that’s so cool! I wish I could draw all day for a living.”

(This article uses a mix of red and black text. This is to make things easier. Black text is the storyline, whereas the red text is a rational insight into the events of the story itself. Let me know if this bothers or excites you in the comments below. – I took the idea out of a book called ‘Expect Resistance‘ by  CrimethInc.)

Ever since seeing TV shows like Miami Ink and LA Ink, I wanted to be a tattoo artist. I knew I wanted to do something with art but I hadn’t got a clue on how to make a living out of it. Luckily, reality tv showed me the way! Those shows made becoming a tattoo artist seem like a valid career path. I had finally found my purpose, I was going to become a tattoo apprentice!

I had no clue how to get started. I just asked.

In the summer of 2010 I was in Berlin at Marko Djurdjevic’s MADE Art Symposium (check out the after movie, ‘Draw or Die’, It’s good. Link – 37min.) Among many talented artists on the line up there was Shawn Barber. He had brought his girlfriend Kim Saigh with him, one of the artists in L.A. Ink’s first seasons.

Kim Saigh painting, by Shawn Barber.
Kim Saigh, by Shawn Barber.

I asked her, ‘How do I become a tattoo artist?’ Being seemingly tired of getting frequently asked that question after having just quit the show, she replied with another question.

‘Do you have any tattoos?’
‘I haven’t, yet.’
‘Well, you might want to get one first.’

She was totally sweet about it but I couldn’t help but feel like an ass. How could I be thinking I could become a tattoo artist without having at least one tattoo myself?
A month later I got my first tattoo and a lot more followed quickly. Each time I got tattoo’d I asked the artists questions about how they got started, where they’d learned it. Trying to get a grip on how all of it worked.

A dodgy industry.

By the time I got my fourth tattoo and started asking my usual questions, a breakthrough happened. The artist looked up and said “I can teach you if you want to.” I didn’t know how to answer. He smiled before continuing.
“Come back next week with some drawings and we’ll talk about it.”
I went back, showed my work and helped around the shop a couple of times but never really got started on a tattoo apprenticeship. Before we could officially begin, he required me to sign a contract. The contract was clearly designed to tie me down with responsibilities, having me give up half of the money I would earn by tattooing, having to pay rent for working in the shop,… You could argue that those were reasonable requests since the established artist puts time and effort into training me, so it’s fair they want a financial return. The real problem was that there was no mention of his responsibilities. He was not required to help me or train me in any way. If I were to sign it and he didn’t follow up on his promises, I would have had no leg to stand on from a legal perspective and I would still be obligated to pay rent even if I didn’t work in the shop anymore. There was a way out of the contract though. In case I had signed it but wasn’t happy about how it turned out, I could pay a cash deposit of €20.000 and all would be forgotten.

I followed my gut feeling and backed out. Later on I heard from other tattoo artists that that one in particular was known as a con artist. He had conned many people in the past. Looking back I believe his huge Bentley might have been a clue.

It’s hard to say who or what can and cannot be trusted. That call is still up to you. My advice is that you run away from any contracts unless they want to employ and pay you. If the contract says you have to pay them, get out. If you’re young, don’t have a lot of cash or a steady job, this is not a burden you want.

Hustle and build relationships.

One bad experience richer, I continued my search. Going around the city I went into each tattoo shop I could find, showed my work and asked if I could apprentice. Most liked my portfolio but the amount of requests for tattoo apprenticeships they received was enormous. The spare time they had to possibly train one, was nonexistent.

A large part of their reason not to take anyone on is that this is still a business. Training someone to become your future competition is just not a good business strategy.
Reality tv might have given people the impression that artists owe it to beginners to help them out and show them the rules of the tattoo game. Truth be told, I thought it was like that. In actual reality, people don’t owe you and don’t need you; especially if you’re a beginner.

I continued searching and ended up at a tattoo parlour in a nearby city. I had contacted the owner via facebook, got invited to swing by and when I did, I walked out with a commission. I had shown them my work, they immediately told me they had no room for an apprentice. They were already training someone but my background in digital design and experience in T-shirt printing had spiked their interest. The owner was always on the lookout for ways to make extra cash and saw an opportunity in selling T-shirts at the shop.

From that point on I frequently designed various things for them. The owner would call me and explain his idea. I would draw it out on my computer and once he approved the design, it got printed and sold. I never asked them my full price, almost worked for free. It was an opportunity to build a relationship with the shop and gain some favours. I still wanted them to teach me how to tattoo.

Getting a tattoo apprenticeship isn’t a matter of walking into as many shops as possible, hoping someone will take you on. Most artists that I’ve met shared the philosophy that a tattoo apprenticeship and thus the apprentice/mentor-relationship, should be based on mutual trust. (Not contracts.) As far as I know, tattoo artists don’t easily trust just anyone that walks through the door. It takes time to build it.
Swinging by the shop every so often, saying hi, showing new sketches (aka showing that you work hard, are dedicated and can improve) helps. What gets you in the door the fastest is by helping them out with something they can’t do themselves, or maybe just not as well as you do. In my case it was my knowledge of new media and technology that helped me get a foot in the door.

As a guideline, finding a way to help fill their pockets or make their lives easier, is your best option. Tattoo artists love cash and as all humans, want things to be easy. If you can provide that without disturbing too much, they tend too keep you around. Keep in mind that tattoo artists get approached by an insane amount of people looking for a tattoo apprenticeship. Try to set yourself apart from the herd. Ask yourself, “What can I do, that no one else is doing?”

Know what you really want.

At the same time I had my own business going as a graffiti artist. My clients were split 50/50 in companies and average joe’s. Work was good but dealing with the average joe’s was a pain in the ass compared to my other clients, professionals who had specific demands. They knew what they wanted and how they wanted it. Working with them was clear and easy. Dealing with the average Joe’s on the other hand, was the complete opposite! It showed me that my life’s purpose wasn’t painting children’s bedroom walls with superheroes. Although I do still enjoy those jobs, I don’t want to be 40 and still have to depend on them.

It didn’t take long for the original apprentice to bail, leaving the shop with a workload it didn’t want to carry and no one to do it for them. With all the work I was doing for them at the time and the money they had to pay me (even at a greatly reduced rate, the amount was still big enough) it seemed like a better option for them to wipe the debt and apprentice me for free. So they offered me the apprenticeship. They knew me on a personal level, enjoyed working with me and saw quality in the work I produced. It was a logical step.

I was looking forward to this moment for years now. From having met Kim and Shawn as a hopeful teenager without any tattoos, urging me to get a couple. To going around dozens of shops showing my work and soliciting for an apprenticeship, it finally arrived. The one moment I had been waiting for, a legit chance at a tattoo apprentice ship. I declined.

Spending so much time in the tattoo shop and hanging out with the tattoo artists gave me a great insight into how a shop is run and what their daily lives are like. Many crazy stories get told and although amusing, they made becoming a tattoo apprentice seem less and less appealing to me. The only clients a tattoo artist has are your average joe’s, bikers, sailors, construction workers, etc…. Not that I look down on those people but most of them don’t have a clue about creative work, let alone tattooing and what makes or breaks a tattoo design. Handling them requires a great deal of patience, humor and social insight. All aspects of the human psyche that aren’t my strongest.

Ask yourself, “Is this what I really, really want? Or am I just following a glamorised dream?”

I explained that becoming a tattoo artist wasn’t what I wanted after all. My goal was (and still is) to work on bigger projects. I wouldn’t be able to be happy if I would tattoo people all day. It just isn’t cut out for me. The owner was disappointed but understood my choice. We maintained our relationship and I even got to help out in organising a international tattoo convention. Even if I didn’t choose to tattoo people, I did however get involved in the industry.

Matthew Dawn.

Why I read.

Matthew Dawn Books On A Skateboard

New knowledge, actively acquired, helps me point my life into the direction that I want. If luck is the clash that happens at the intersection of preparation and opportunity, then reading is a major way to help me prepare for those opportunities. Even more so, since I’m still young and lack a lot of experience. Certainly when it comes to business and living a good life.

Ever since it became clear to me that I, and only I, am responsible for my future well being, I have made reading an active part of my daily life. My life has taught me that I can not trust a third party system like school, society, government, employer,… to take care of my well being. They certainly can, have and still are doing so, for many people. But not in a manner that seems satisfying to me.

In my opinion, reading is underestimated and over looked by a lot of people. This is part of the reason why it is of such importance to me. By some, it is perceived as boring, tedious and time consuming. Rightfully so. People that look down on the effort that is needed to gain knowledge, do not deserve its full benefits. This is not to say that I think it is correct to look down on them in return.

Another part of my reason, it is by far the best way to learn from people that are dead or out of my reach. The lessons, stories, decisions that leaders from another era have learned or made are often comprised in this medium that allows me to learn from their entire lifelong careers, long after their demise. In a matter of weeks. (I read very slow. Because of dyslexia I silently talk to myself while I read.)

“Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away. Nothing is more important than an unread library.”
‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon.

Sharing knowledge? Sounds good.

For the last two years I have spent a large amount of my income on books. With a small private library as the result. Having books waiting on shelves to be read or re-read seemed like a waste. Certainly since I view their contents as highly helpful to other people as well. So I did the following.

After I had read a book, I would propose it to someone in my social circle. If they showed interest, I would lend them the book. Hoping reading it would have a similar effect on them as it had on me. After 10 months I stopped doing that.
I had handed out less than 10 books to people I knew and only one person had read theirs to the end. Most, never opened their books. It felt like a disappointment every time I found out. I knew the effect the book had on me and knew that those people would not experience it.

Now, I have learned that it is not possible to give people something and help them, if they do not reach out for it themselves. It is as if each person is a ship in the ocean with their own course. Blowing in their own sails as hard as they can, to go their own direction. Me handing them books is like blowing into their sails from a large distance, it has no effect and if noticed, merely irritating.

“How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one but the light bulb has to want to change.”
-A. Joke

The big picture

Another benefit of large amounts of reading are the meta-subjects that slowly become clear. All books are part of a larger whole. Each one contains a small part of that. (Creativity is closely linked to the following metaphor.)

It’s like the dots in a children’s color book or the stars across a clear night sky. Mankind has been connecting those dots and stars for ages. Creating new ideas on top of the old ones, continuously recycling in order to create something new. The fact that every dot known to man is already connected to something else, does not stop the process. The amount of connections is infinite, so are the dots.

The more I read, the more dots and connections appear. Several ideas, paradigms or concepts reoccur in several books. Although explained in different ways. By accumulating the material that I consume through reading, I expose and discover those dots and connections that become general truths in my life.

Starting out and getting good books.

Starting out is simple. I pick up books that I need to achieve my goals.
When I was thinking about starting a clothing line, I bought a e-book called ‘Thread’s not dead’. When I asked myself if I was leading a good life i.e. being a good person, I bought ‘Letters from a Stoic’.

I can give many examples like these. The real trick is not buying and reading a book. It’s choosing which book I invest in. Each book that is part of my collection has been recommended to me by others who’s opinions I trust. This network of recommendations is entirely made up of online personalities since I lack that specific expertise in my immediate circle. Including but not limited to Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, Owen from RSD and Brad Branson. This circle of people is part of my inspiration and gateway to media that I deem valuable. These are people to who’s careers or lifestyles I look up and aspire to. All of them are my mentors and have helped me progress tremendously but I have never met or talked to any one of them. This way of learning forms the core of learning from reference, that is:

– Someone showing you HOW have to do something.
– Doing that something OVER AND OVER again until it becomes natural or fully understood.

A simple case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’. The trick is picking the right monkey to spy off.

Thank you for reading!

If you enjoyed my article and would like some book recommendations, take a look at the picture at the top of the page.

-Matthew Dawn

My First Experience Leading A Team

Matthew Dawn Article News Gazet Van Antwerpen Kunst Op Kot Xior Kipdorpvest studentenkot

Above picture features the CFO of Xior (left), Matthew Dawn (right) and artwork by ‘A Squid Called Sebastian’ (the man at the very left).
This post was originally written on April 19th 2014, rewritten in 2015.

Recently I’ve finished my biggest project so far. It required 6 street artists, an assistant, a camera man, seven days and more money than I used to make in a year at my previous job. I was responsible for everything. (Images of final art works can be found HERE.)

Earlier in the year, I was approached by Xior, a Belgian project developer that specialises in student housing. They have bought an old hospital in the center of Antwerp and reshaped it to house 207 students. Besides applying the standard dorm upgrades, Xior also invested in improving the living conditions of the residing students by getting them biljart, mini soccer and ping pong tables. Even the old helipad had to make room for a roof terrace. But the white walls of the interior still made it feel like the hospital it once was, instead of a cool place for students to reside as it was supposed to. They wanted to spice it up and give it a youthful appearance. That’s where I came in.

To be honest and provide a clearer picture, I have to clarify that this project never was what the client initially asked me to do. I was invited by the Xior to check out a wall at the courtyard of their latest building. They were interested in having it decorated with a mural. When I arrived at the location and received a tour through the building I told them that it had much more potential. They were open to suggestions so I made a quick pitch there on the spot, explaining how I would invite several artists to come over for a week and paint the entire building top to bottom. My enthusiasm must have peeked their interest, I was invited to come back a week later with a detailed proposition. That was one of those moments where I felt I was getting into something I wasn’t ready for.

Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.
-Oprah Winfrey

Work with A players.

The first thing I wanted to do when preparing my pitch, was getting the best artists I could. I had spend some time at gallery openings of well known Belgian street artists and saw a lot of their work in the country or online.
I reached out to them, proposed my idea and asked them if they wanted to join me. Every one of those 5 artists that I admired (I had met only two of them once before) said yes.
Having these people on board was important for two things. One, it would guarantee a great end product for the client. Two, it would put tremendous stress on my performance. Both on my organisation of the project and on the art I would produce.
There was no way in hell that I would allow myself to slack or cut corners when I have people, that are in every way better than me, counting on me and would be judging my artwork. It was just not a possibility. Even if I did, I knew I would later see it as a failure and beat myself up for it for years to come. It was a way to force myself to deliver the best that I could in every single task.

At the same time when having those highly talented people, put weight on my shoulders, it also lifted some off. With this being my first big project, I couldn’t afford to run into unnecessary risks by taking on people that didn’t know what they were doing. The artists that I hired have done similar things before and could handle problems on their own if they were to arise. Independent and skilled was the key profile.

You can’t tackle it on your own.

Everyone that starts out with their own business or starts freelancing, will have experienced this. Thinking that you can or should do everything on your own.
Starting out with this project, I had the same thoughts. My problem was that I wasn’t giving enough attention to all the small side jobs that I was signing up for. Things like, getting breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyone. Calling up journalists and doing interviews, pushing the PR. Checking up with each individual artist to see if they had everything they needed and if necessary go into the city and buy extra supplies.
I underestimated all these things by themselves and certainly as a group.

When the start date of the project came closer and closer, it started to dawn on me that this might be too big a project for just one person to run. On top of that, I was also supposed to create the same amount of art as the other artists.
So I asked a friend, an art student, if he was interested in helping me out with those things. The benefits for him were that he got to meet the artists, learn from them, ask questions and gain some experience. Since I didn’t want to be one of those people that promises experience in exchange for free work, (lame-ass trick by the way) I also decided to pay him. At the time I was doing it more as a favor for him and not so much as a way to lighten my workload but during the project he turned out to be extremely helpful.
He was my extra set of eyes and ears on the project. Often reporting to me in the evening with all of the problems he had solved, problems that I had never even been aware off. I had given him my trust and freedom to make his own decisions and solve issues in anyway that he saw fit. I’m extremely grateful for him doing so and actively looking for ways to improve the project.

(Since this was my first time in a leading position, the only reference that I had for knowing that allowing others to make their own decisions instead of coming to me (being the leader) for solutions, is because I read about it in books. I advice you to check out my other post: Why I Read.)

A sense of achievement beats everything.

The project was pitched with a five day duration. (The time that the artists would actually be painting.) I showed up two days beforehand and left two days after it was done. Although I was the leader on this project, reeled the pitch in, hired everyone else and was responsible for everything,… I didn’t want to create a feeling as if I was better than anyone else. My purpose was to serve my client and make sure the artist had everything they needed to do their jobs properly.

In order to avoid a ‘prima donna’ vibe or running the risk of an inflated ego, I took care of the small dirty work when I could. That meant setting up the gear alongside my right-hand-man two days before the others arrived, also breaking it all down when everything was done. (Luckily everyone stuck around for the clean up and did their part!)

The five days when we were working, were exhausting! I got up at eight or nine, at that time my right-hand-man would have already taken care of breakfast. I prepared for the day, discussed with the crew what was gonna happen, whether or not press would come over for pictures and interviews that day, … Then we worked ’till eight in the evening, went out to have dinner and partied ‘till two or three in the morning.

Once friends and family saw the pictures in the papers they’d tell me how tired I looked. I can tell you that I certainly didn’t feel that way. I was energised and focussed throughout the whole day, every day except for perhaps the last one.
The entire time I couldn’t believe I was working with these amazing people. A year ago, I only knew their artworks. Now we had become friends and we had shared this amazing experience of doing what we love and having complete creative freedom. It gave me a sense of achievement. It’s what kept me motivated, focused and awake throughout the entire project. A feeling I often miss when I’m having an off day.

To close this post I want to share with you the final video we made for the project. I hope you enjoyed this post!

-Matthew Dawn

 

BLIND

Blind Matthew Dawn Merksem Antwerpen Antwerp Street Art Graffiti

“A crown on my head, I have achieved what I have hunted for. I am a king among pretenders! Look at what I have done! Behold my status, you will fear my apparatus!”

BLIND — A new piece in Merksem, Belgium. Inspired by the pitfalls of new found succes and ego.

The crown represents success. It being made out of paper signifies how trivial such pursuits are. In the center of the subjects head, the letter I, the only thing he thinks about, I, I, I. The subject, blinded by his own obsessions is just like the viewer unable to see the outside world that spells B-L-I-N-D, with the B L N D painted in white on a light blue sky. On location the subject is with his back to all the other pieces as a symbol to how self-obsession gives us a false sense of superiority.

Leonard Cohen

Matthew Dawn Leonard Cohen Graffiti Indoor mural decoration muurschildering street art interieur decor hallelujah

Private commission in Mortsel, Belgium.

“Dear Matthew, It was an honour for me to give you the order to paint Leonard Cohen on my wall in the loft. You are a very talented artist. Even my mother ( Gill ) who is 82 years old, started to like graffiti… can you imagine?? Well done and we meet again for sure !” – the client