Places I’ve Learned About Tattooing
…that weren’t in tattooing
[Image: Gaston looks confusedly at a book with “NOT TAT2” on the cover, while Belle looks skeptically at him with arms crossed.]
I came up in an era where pursuits outside of tattooing were considered distractions, a detractor from your seriousness as a tattoo artist. The peer-enforced standard was that you made the job your life; that real tattooers ate, slept, and breathed the work. Real tattooers didn’t sleep, in fact, they stayed up painting and drawing flash, and if they did have a day off, they spent it visiting other tattoo shops or getting tattooed. Your Instagram feed was devoid of any personal content—no photos of yourself, of your food, or what you were reading. The backbone of this expectation was that tattooing is a craft you can spend a lifetime honing and perfecting and that a serious craftsperson would commit their whole selves to this pursuit.
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There are all kinds of risks to siloing ourselves in one culture and social group. We can find ourselves in an echo chamber that normalizes things we’d benefit from having challenged. Our creative minds need to take in diverse sources of inspiration, too, to expand and grow the types of images tattooing produces. The culture has shifted, are there are now plenty of tattoo artists for whom tattooing is just one part of their fuller lives. It’s become clear that pastimes and interests outside of tattooing enrich your tattooing rather than take away from it and help shape us into more well-rounded people that are better able to show up in our work lives.
One of my favorite parts of writing my book was surveying tattooers from all different practices and demographics. I asked if they had learned skills from other areas of their lives that they found useful to tattooing, and the replies were so lovely. One person talked about volunteering at a foot care clinic for people experiencing houselessness, and how much it had taught them about attending to bodies in pain who were often experiencing stigma and shame on top of physical discomfort. One person was a makeup artist and had honed valuable skills in working with people toward their individual idea of beauty while being well inside someone’s personal space. Another artist detailed how volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary with a cohort of others equipped them with cooperative and co-working experience that they then brought into the tattoo shop.
This morning I recorded a great podcast conversation with a tattoo artist who, outside of their tattoo practice and role as a shop owner, does work to abolish state family separation and policing. It had me reflecting on how integral to who I am as a tattoo artist every other part of my life has been, and how that continuing education enriches what I offer in this particular role.
Some of those places and people have been:
1. Sex workers – I have many friends and loved ones who do sex work and we’ve talked at length about the overlap between our two fields, particularly observed by people who do or have done both. Sex workers know more than almost anyone else about the intersection of power, desire, the body, and capital, and have incredible skills around tact, charm, dealing with bodily fluids, and putting people at ease within a short span of time. BDSM professionals, in particular, are so adept at seeing people safely through a physically (and often emotionally) challenging experience of their choosing.
2. Psychics – Similarly to the overlap with sex workers, psychics and other spiritual workers provide so much beyond what’s ostensibly being performed, whether it’s an astrological chart reading or a tarot spread. People arrive to their sessions with their hopes, fears, anxieties, and deeper questions. Spiritual practitioners in my life have taught me so much about “energetic hygiene,” good boundaries both on the earthly and astral plane, and about diplomacy and communication when what you have to relay isn’t quite what the client was hoping to hear.
3. Crisis hotline training – My time training with an anti-violence hotline was likely the thing that most set me on a path of developing trauma-informed and justice-centered* philosophies for tattooing. It taught me some helpful responses when people are activated and helped build my capacity for difficult disclosures. The experience of training with the hotline also taught me how to safety plan with people, something I’ve had to do often during tattoo sessions, and also helped me gain a more profound understanding of what tattooing was accessing for people.
4. Oral history work – Through spending the past year getting an accelerated master’s degree in oral history, I’ve realized how deeply tattooing prepared me for oral history work, and how honing those practices makes me a better, more present tattooer in turn. Oral history is all about empowering and archiving narrative, and I believe tattooing is too. Oral history practice requires presence, deep listening, responsive questions, and setting the ego aside in service of another person’s story.
5. Harm reduction – Overdose prevention training taught me not only how to administer Naloxone to someone experiencing opioid overdose, but about strategizing for safer drug use and the importance of destigmatization. Apart from the obvious usefulness of these skills for people who use drugs, they’re equally applicable to tattooing and have shaped the ways I believe access to safer tattooing should be available for anyone who needs it.
6. PIC abolition and transformative justice – These lineages and their practices have deeply informed how I understand and approach conflict and interpersonal violence. I want to be clear that after all this time, I certainly don’t believe I know anything more about eradicating community violence and harm than I did before, and that there is plenty of misappropriation of these concepts going on at the moment even in so-called radical spaces. But the pursuit of PIC abolition is a critical one, and through being a student of it I’ve expanded my understanding of policing and how to integrate abolitionist principles into my life and work. The relationship between tattooing and PIC abolition can and likely will be a future post of its own.
And these are just my personal areas of experience because these are the lanes I’ve been most invested in developing outside of tattooing. I’d be curious to hear from readers: where have you learned valuable skills or information that you applied in other places? Tutoring high school math? Being an auto mechanic? Doing trust falls in circus school? Comments are open.
*Justice-centered is a term I learned from Vikki Reynolds, whose work I’ve gained a lot from.
A few examples of trainings I’ve done:
Restorative Justice with Stronghold
NYC’s Department of Health overdose prevention training
Project LETS Mental Health First Aid training
Trauma-Informed Consent For Tattoo Artists training with Kai Cian
Bystander Intervention Training
If you’re interested in volunteering for a crisis hotline, the NYC Anti-Violence Project and Trevor Project are both important resources that can always use more help.
More about transformative justice, community alternatives to policing:
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice
Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Practitioners
Steps to End Prisons and Policing: A Mixtape on Transformative Justice
Creative Interventions Toolkit
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MUTUAL AID: My dear friend Faith experienced an assault inside her tattoo shop, severely impacting her ability to work and pay rent. The shop is facing eviction if their back rent is not paid. Support here.