This post has turned out to be much longer than I’d originally intended, so I’m splitting it into multiple parts. It meanders a bit, and maybe goes off topic a couple of times, but that’s just how my mind works. Hopefully it will give you an idea of what I’ve been thinking about these past few years.
Tattooist, not a tattooist
Tattooer, tattooist, tattoo artist, or an artist using the medium of tattooing?
Whatever, they’re just labels, ranging from concise to downright pretentious. But we all love labels.
After tattooing professionally for over twenty years I felt it was time for a break. I had been feeling burnt out for quite a while and wanted to explore other interests.
The job that isn’t a job
In all honesty, I’d never wanted to be a tattooist in the first place. My original plan was to make sculptures or design furniture. My interest in tattooing was so that I could tattoo myself, like a personal sketchbook.
It turned out that tattooing allowed me a lot of freedom and flexibility. I didn’t need to get a regular job, I could explore my creative interests on my own terms, and apparently I was pretty good at it. The ability to pick and choose which projects to accept, and my approach to interpreting ideas, gave me a relative amount of success.
I never really viewed tattooing as a job, a trade, or a service. No, I was selling my art by using my aesthetic and creative interests to interpret your ideas. There is a subtle difference.
Yeah, but it ain’t art
There was a problem though. Tattooing wasn’t considered art, not in the art world, nor much of the tattoo world, but I considered what I did as art. A decorative art, but art nonetheless.
Maybe we’re just illustrators or graphic designers working on skin. Of course, illustration and graphic design might be artistic, but not really art.
Oh no, only fine art is real art, or so I’ve been told. But that all goes down the rabbit hole of definitions, traditions, art critique, and all the elitist crap that comes along with it. That’s a different topic, so I’ll leave it there.
I’ve had numerous discussions about this over the years, and have been on both sides of the argument, but it still left a question in my mind. Was I just a failed artist, and more importantly, did it even matter?
More success, more stress
I had success upon success but I was beginning to feel trapped. As my reputation grew, so did the demand for my tattoo work and my particular approach to doing the work. That was great, but the amount of stress it created also began to grow.
For some reason, I was having trouble dealing with the perceived and self-imposed expectations, which led to my perfectionism, dissatisfaction, and irritability. I probably rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but from my perspective they just didn’t understand what I was trying to accomplish. Or I didn’t actually understand what they were asking of me.
For whatever reason, but partly due to having a short attention span and a need to feel like I’m always moving forward, I often felt like I was trapped or treading water.
One common difficulty with any form of success is that the audience wants what you’ve already done, and isn’t always comfortable going in completely different directions. This is understandable but can be a hard place to exist for people who need to keep exploring different ideas or approaches.
Don’t forget, when I started out, the internet wasn’t what it is today. There were no image based social networks. The only references people had were tattoo magazines, or tattoos they’d seen on the street. This meant that the range of ideas and possibilities were very limited. On top of that, tattoos weren’t as socially accepted as they are today.
Due to the permanent nature of tattoos, people were very reluctant to get something they’d not seen tattooed before, which meant it took a lot of persuasion and confidence to do anything out of the ordinary, and there were only a handful of people pushing the boundaries of what could be done with technique and subject matter.
The fact that I didn’t work from finished drawings, relying on imagination and mood to dictate how the tattoo progressed, definitely made things more difficult.
Of course, it is much easier nowadays what with the huge number of styles and approaches to tattooing that can easily found online. However, over exposure to ideas also comes with a price, but that’s topic for another day, maybe.
For a long time, I’d been able to navigate the path of keeping clients happy, while pushing designs in different directions. I was producing good work of which I am very proud. But for me, things weren’t always moving far enough or fast enough. This is the fine balance that everyone in every creative field has to master, or accept.
Sometimes we also have to accept that those coming after might take things further, into realms barely imagined, doing things we hoped to do but couldn’t for lack of will or opportunity. But that is the inevitable cycle of things and the way it should be, even if it is a bitter pill to swallow.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always pushed the tattooing in a way that interests me aesthetically, and I prioritised my own interpretation of any brief I’d been given. That is why people were coming to me in the first place. Apparently, I had a way of doing things that was slightly different. I don’t really know what that thing is, but it’s nice to have a signature in the work that people can relate to or appreciate.
Time to step aside
The stress eventually became too much and I began to prioritise my own personal and artistic interests. That is, doing work with the only expectations to fulfil being my own. The reality was, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that fully with tattooing.
I’ve always aimed to do the best work within my capabilities, keep the ideas fresh, and hopefully not be too repetitive, while creating individual tattoos for each client. That’s a really tough thing to maintain.
As I find it incredibly difficult to organise my thoughts, limit distractions, and find balance, the idea of doing multiple related but different things just doesn’t work for me. If I try to focus on my art the interest in tattooing suffers, and vice versa.
What I did not want to happen was to be creating substandard tattoos due to lack of motivation, interest, or energy. That would serve nothing, not my integrity or reputation, not the thing that is tattooing, and most importantly, not the client.
I would not be OK thinking I’d just slapped some sloppy work on someone because I couldn’t be bothered anymore. We can’t be 100% all the time, but we must always at least try our best.
I tried to maintain that quality by doing less work, managing my time better, and taking a more relaxed approach. The extra free time I had gave me opportunity to explore other interests more deeply.
As it happens, those other things began to call to me more strongly than tattooing.