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.