Question 16: More Money, More Problems
When you need it but you hate it
Lately I’m struggling to grapple with my place as a tattooer who is strongly anti-capitalist. I am very happy to keep a light work week and live within those means. The hustle culture of tattooing makes me feel like my peers see me as an oddity and ungrateful for the gift that is being a tattooer.
[Image: photo of an “inspirational” quote from Thomas Edison altered to read “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and doing tattoos.” I made a lot of these from the “live laugh work” corner of google image search but will spare you all.]
Creative industries in general are major offenders when it comes to exploiting our desire to serve something larger than ourselves. If the argument is that the work transcends the financial rewards, then it’s not really about the money, therefore we don’t need to make money, right? And if you’re anti-capitalist you don’t really want to make money anyway, so you extra don’t need it, right? Obviously wrong, since bills and living expenses don’t get paid on likes, creative fulfillment, or political ideologies, but to argue that work that brings us joy necessitates a price tag can feel reductive and gross. It’s a difficult bind to be in—if we argue that we need to survive, or even (god forbid) be comfortable, we’re suddenly being capitalists. If we neglect the idea of income altogether, we find ourselves quickly financially unstable. Between those two extremes, so much is lost. Many of us were drawn to tattooing as a career because it felt like a route that could circumvent some of Work’s (capital W) conventions. We didn’t want to have bosses, dedicated lunch hours, or dress codes. We wanted to be able to make money free from those constraints, but in the end, money itself is the constraint.
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I think this can show up in a particular way in tattooing in that craft is associated with the working class. The handmade resists mass production and therefore can resist a lot of the mechanisms of capitalist surplus and extraction. I can’t outsource my tattooing; what makes it my tattooing is that it comes from my hand. Even if I give someone my flash to reproduce, the result will be different when it comes from them, and it doesn’t bear the same value as a firsthand product of the originator. The challenge that arises is that for the majority of us our most valuable assets are our time and body, both of which are finite. I’m 35 and have both tendinitis and sciatica, conditions I didn’t anticipate slowing me down for another decade at least. This is a big reason that product sales (whether it be machines, workshops, prints, or t-shirts) are something most tattooers engage with— it can give us a necessary cushion when we simply can’t tattoo enough hours to meet our needs.
Tattoo popular media (and I include social media here) has proliferated an image of the tattoo artist as taking on only creatively fulfilling work, making bank, and getting hella brand partnerships. As a resistance to the projection of a rockstar persona, a lot of tattooers double down on the humbleness of their work, insisting that it’s a blue-collar profession like any other and that doing script for walk-ins is just another day at the tattoo salt mines. And sure, that’s true— it’s kind of all true, in a way. We live in a world where a dollar value has become so disconnected from any tangible measurement of worth, where something can cost anything just because we say it does and someone pays it. Within the tattoo economy that feels especially true. Someone can choose to pay $50 for a tattoo and someone can choose to pay $5000 for a tattoo.
I think often of the triangle graphics about rental properties or dating that are like “you can only pick two…” and the choices are “good area” “affordable” “spacious” or “emotionally available” “hot” “over their ex.” The tattoo version of this is probably “cool client” “pays full price” “fun concept.” Pick two. The “joke” is that the way our systems (housing crises, interior lives, work ecologies) are set up denies us the possibility of having everything we need and want. Funny, right? But there is something there about how we must negotiate compromise as a result, and where we are most and least willing to compromise. Some compromises are so coerced that they barely feel like one at all. Some are reached freely and out of a genuine desire to meet each other in some middle.
I remember when I was working at a walk-in shop and would schedule two clients in a day instead of three, my coworkers would say things like “oh, I guess you don’t like tattooing anymore” to give me a hard time. It sounds like that’s the kind of attitude you’re encountering in your space, whether it’s directly communicated or just… the vibe. Really what you’re describing is that you’re seeking returns other than money, and for some, it can be difficult to relate to that. Anyone who has had to work to support themselves knows the relief and satisfaction that can come when you just finished a long, exhausting day and have a wad of cash in hand to show for it. That cash isn’t just cash; it’s the security of knowing we have a place to live and food to eat. Oftentimes we’re in a position where that’s all we have space for: bills need to get paid; debt is owed, rent is due. It sounds like you’re in a place to make some conscious decisions to shape your life so that earning is less at the center of it, which isn’t easy to do. I say often that if all I cared about was making good money and being financially stable, I wouldn’t have gone back to school. I wouldn’t make art, write, or do anything other than tattoo. But the physical and emotional costs there outweigh the stability.
What I find makes the genuine compromise I described earlier easier to access is establishing the baseline of what you need to earn and figuring out where you have flexibility beyond it. That can shed some light on where there are choices available to us and where there might not be right now. Some of the most rewarding work I’ve done is work I’ve offered for free, but that wouldn’t have been possible for me if I didn’t already know my living costs were covered for that month. As far as the attitudes you encounter, I don’t want to downplay how much those can affect us, but it sounds like you have a strong center about what you’re doing and why. Defining what makes you feel valued for yourself is an important foundation, and one you can return to when someone tries to make you feel bad for, I don’t know, having days off? Hustling is a great ability to possess, but what are we hustling towards? Do we have an answer for ourselves?
Exploring how capitalism shapes tattooing practices is such an extensive topic it could be its own dedicated newsletter. I certainly don’t have answers (maybe suggestions and guiding questions when I’m lucky) and am constantly negotiating my own anti-capitalist politics within a system that seeks to make them impossible to practice. I want to remind you that you’re so far from alone in this feeling, and that gives me a ton of heart— that there is a wide number of people in tattooing putting these concerns front and center and grappling with questions of equity, access, value, and more. Because that’s what it’s about, right? The greater collective good, not being the only person in the room with progressive politics. I’m inspired by the ongoing wave of labor rights organizing (New School faculty just won their contract!) and watching them, absorbing the lessons of collective power. I’ve learned so much over the years from financial advisor Hadassah Damien, who has many resources including a great article about how capitalism relates to consent. I also got a lot out of this article by Alice Sparkly Kat on capitalism:
…Capitalism has the unique ability to absorb anything revolutionary into itself so that revolution becomes another commodity. Even anti-capitalism sentiments become just another commodity on the market. This makes the question of “what comes after revolution?” hard to answer because all positive values under capitalism also become capitalist. The question of what economic systems should come after capitalism is a pointless one.
When we center people instead of economic theory, the question of “what comes after revolution?” comes alive and becomes easy. We want people to be able to live! Without being exploited! Without having to exploit others! We want to keep living and we want to love each other instead of being alienated to each other.
I also just ordered a copy of the new release from Estelle Ellison of Abolish Time, Discerning Power in a Cultural War. Estelle has an incredible ability to respond and reflect in real time on assimilation, cooptation, and counterrevolutionary tactics by dominant culture and fascism. I learn so much from her on how to evolve and adapt my own thinking. Cannot recommend Abolish Time enough!
I’d like to hear from others about how this shows up in your work. Comments are open below for your thoughts, musings, personal policies, and anxieties around work and earning. Keep submitting questions on this, please, I’m happy to be in conversation around it.
I’d also love to get more questions from the client’s point of view! Submit anonymously here.
My book, Could This Be Magic? Tattooing as Liberation Work is available via Afterlife Press.
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I grapple with this a lot too. Recently my framing to myself was this: "you are leveraging your *skills and strengths* for money [read: the means to support physical existence, and yes, even provide comfort.] Making art is certainly more than that to you, but you need to provide for yourself. If you create a good rate of exchange - or an efficient leverage - you can do more of the more fulfilling stuff with your time and energy." Differentiating between leveraging skills and making art is important to me here, since the former feels like a more practical clearcut thing, while 'making art' is more vague, theoretical, and personal. I can list my skills and strengths and understand the value they have in the world, while art's value is fluid, relative.
I also have to regularly remind myself that when I take care of the practical work of providing for myself, I am better able to hold my end of collective weight in the world. In my idealism, I have neglected my own needs in the name of taking action in support of my ideals. But if that action involves me not taking care of my own needs, I cant hold my weight, and usually I add to the weight of others. Basic self care theory here, but it bears repeating.
This will sound weird at first, so bear with me, but I really love how you said “I’m 35 and have both tendinitis and sciatica”
One of my worst peeves of capitalist tricks is that thing where all my friends in their 30s (and sometimes in their 20s) say things like “well I hurt my back sneezing today, wow I’m so old.” When I know for a fact that they, say, have been working in a restaurant for nearly a decade. Your time on this earth did not break your body. Being forced to sell your labor broke your body.
So I did appreciate how you tied injury to work. I’m also 35, I did my time in the restaurant enough to suffer shin splints, feet problems, and wrist problems. Im not old. I was just exploited.
Now that I’m tattooing, I’m already dealing with back issues. But since having the privilege of starting a little private studio, I’ve been able to space out my work days because my income has increased significantly, since I’m not paying to work in a shop. (We’re talking about capitalism, but paying a shop owner 50% of my income just to work in their space.. it felt more like feudalism.)
The dream is to be a part of a collective shop, though. I wish I could find more likeminded artists in my area.