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Question 14: Between Worlds
Who am I? Does God have a flan for me?
I feel like I’m straddling old school and contemporary tattooing, but don’t fit in anywhere. My background taking walk-ins gave me the ability to offer a range of styles, and I also have a distinct personal style. How do I reconcile my ability to offer both despite the pressure to present just one?
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If I had to hazard a guess, maybe we’ve been tattooing around the same amount of time? I’ve been tattooing almost fourteen years now all told, and looking back I feel like I was lucky to land in it when I did. I was a DIY punk and learned to set up a machine from a freight hopper in a living room, but had the understanding that a shop and all its rules and politics was the *only right way* to be a tattooer. The idea at the time was that maybe you could start in your house, but you had to work your way into a professional shop to really become a tattooer. If I did the same thing today, I would have so many alternate routes to take, and my tattooing might look totally different as a result.
I’m grateful for the “old school” tattooing experience I have—and by that I mean having done walk-ins, drawn and tattooed all styles, worked with all kinds of people, and abided by the technical expectations of a properly applied tattoo (solid lines, packed black and color, no overworking or scarring, applied to the right layer of the dermis so as to stand up to aging). I’ve been able to bring that knowledge into how I prefer to work now; I learned to use tight 3s and single needle by doing tiny computer font walk-ins, which made me able to then use them to tattoo the style I specialize in. But I also deeply appreciate how experimental people are being with tattooing styles and application today, and believe that innovation doesn’t happen without breaking with rules and tradition.
Possessing both doesn’t mean you have to always offer or perform both on demand. I suggest you give yourself the grace of flexibility, which is what these skillsets offer you. I have the same experience and these days, I value my walk-in versatility for allowing me to do tattoos that aren’t exactly my current “style” if it’s on a person I otherwise want to work with. I also think of those skills as an insurance policy; they enable you to take on varied work when demand for your style dips within the ebb and flow of visual trends.
It’s true that at this moment, having a distinct and recognizable style serves tattooers well amid a sea of artists, though I will always believe that word of mouth is the best, most reliable career building tool. My studio mate Nassim has been predicting a return to street shop and walk-in culture, and I think they’re right. I sometimes see clients being confused and discouraged by arcane booking requirements and long wait times, overcommitting to appointments they may not be quite ready for just because BOOKS ARE OPEN one day of the month only. I take solace in the fact that no matter how tattooing might change, I’ll always have relevant experience to call upon, and that I have the foundation to support any of my own desires to change how I practice tattooing.
But what I hear beyond the stylistic divide in your question is something about the cultural gulf that separates the two. It’s what I struggle with most, too, because style can often imply more than just how you tattoo. I’m imagining a “tattoo artists archetype” matrix, maybe with “rule-abiding/rule-breaking” on one axis and “insider/outsider” on the other. Despite having worked in shops for most of my career, it feels important lately to specify that I started in a DIY way, maybe to feel more relevance and kinship with the newer wave of tattooers. It can also be an unconscious disidentification with the unsavory aspects of shop traditions, and a way to acknowledge the ways my queer younger self felt at odds with “old-school” culture but had to assimilate.
Though it’s easier said than done to not let the pressure to commit to just one style sway you, I think you can commit (or not commit) to what feels right to you at the moment, with the knowledge that you can always change. Tattooing is chaotic as hell and as we prepare ourselves for 2023, there’s no knowing how the culture and tastes will shift. Your versatile skills aren’t going anywhere and will be there if and when you need them, whether it’s this week or two years from now. If your personal style is what’s fulfilling you right now, take the opportunity to explore that with clients who are just as excited about getting it done. It’s easy to get sucked into the existential angst that comes with the job, but what you’re describing can be a strength if you approach it that way.
Listening to Millennials are Killing Capitalism podcast
Reading K Adetoyin Agbebiyi’s new substack
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My book, Could This Be Magic? Tattooing as Liberation Work is available via Afterlife Press.