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Question 20: Follow Through
When we thought we were ready, but we weren’t
Recently, a client decided not to continue finishing a piece after our first session. We did the outline and started some shading, but they later emailed and wanted to keep the tattoos as they were. I thought I provided plenty of context up front during our consult (we discussed pricing, placement, etc.) and offered options for flexibility to complete it. They still chose not to.
While wanting/acknowledging clients’ agency with their own bodies, I wonder if and how often other tattooers come across this? When we’re really excited to finish/work on a piece, what ways do they navigate that when space isn’t given for that?
[Cursing an unfinished tattoo. Image by the legendary Julie Bell]
I have several unfinished tattoos on my body, holding onto varying degrees of guilt around each one. Most I know I’ll never finish. Some because of the pain level, some because my relationship to the artist changed, some because time got away from me and I think “I should really book an appointment to finish this” whenever I catch a glimpse of them.
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I do a lot of large-scale work, which is evident in my portfolio: backpieces, sleeves, front compositions. As a result, I also have a number of pieces that are indefinitely in the wind. There’s a certain type of acceptance that I have to practice in these situations, one that’s part and parcel of entering into an agreement with other people. It helps to be on both sides of this experience: I’ve broken that commitment and I’ve had clients who didn’t hold up their end of the tattoo bargain, and I know that that can be for many, many different reasons.
Something that’s surprised me over the years is that more times than I can count, I’ve had clients with two-session tattoos express that they had come to love the tattoo as just the linework, before we added the shading in. You grow to like something as it is, without realizing what more can be developed. While people like the linework on its own, after we finish shading, everyone agrees that it brings the piece to life. It’s shifted my own experience of an “unfinished” tattoo towards viewing it as living alongside a piece in its varying stages, challenging a binary of “finished” and “unfinished,” if you will.
[Painting by Boris Vallejo]
I used to do a lot of overexplaining up front during backpiece consultations, reiterating several times that it was both a financial and time commitment, and asking people if they were sure they felt ready to commit to it. Regardless of how much reassurance I got up front, with nearly every single backpiece I’ve tattooed, around session four people will start to ask “how much longer do you think this is going to take?” It’s one thing to understand something in theory, and another thing entirely to go through it.
I’ve always tended to have a hands-off approach to these pieces, trusting that people would reach out when they were ready to do so. But lately, I’ve been more active in following up and checking in to see where people are at. This could be because most of the people I work with these days are longtime clients, and I feel generally invested in their well-being and want to make sure they’re doing okay. Maybe I feel like we know each other well enough that I can just see what’s up with them. I’m also happy to be proactive in finding solutions if people really want to finish a piece but have physical or financial barriers to doing so. But I can only do so much, and if someone doesn’t respond to one or two gentle check-ins, I leave the ball in their court.
People’s circumstances can change rapidly and unexpectedly, and I don’t blame anyone for setting a tattoo aside in favor of more pressing matters. It’s a challenging position to occupy as a craftsperson whose livelihood depends on follow-through, but I would rather practice radical acceptance than perpetually wonder when someone will come back in. We bring a lot to our tattoo drawings, but in particular to large-scale pieces that we anticipate working on into the foreseeable future. There’s a sense of unresolvedness that can be haunting and disappointing when an in-progress client, well, ghosts you.
[Enjoying the inner peace of acceptance. Image by Julie Bell]
I took an herbalism class from green witch Robin Rose Bennett several years ago and I’ve never forgotten what she laughingly characterized as the witch’s way of shading someone when the two of you reach an impasse:
“I bless you and I release you to your destiny.”
Ouch, but also, true. There’s a finality and a grace to that sentiment, but I also sense in it an open-endedness that also allows for someone to come back when the time is right. I just finished a piece on a good friend of mine who I’ve been tattooing since I first started. We outlined his back six years ago and did one session of black shading on it, planning for it to be full color. He got busy, a pandemic happened, we became next-door neighbors, we did other tattoos in the interim. We finally finished his back in black and grey, with just two sessions to fully resolve it. A lot changed in that time, and rushing the process wouldn’t have allowed for that. Life is long, we humans work in mysterious ways, and sometimes the easiest thing to do is just surrender to the unknown.
My book, Could This Be Magic? Tattooing as Liberation Work is available from Afterlife Press.
I have an interview in the inaugural issue of Disintegration tattoo magazine, also by Afterlife Press.
*I have a tattoo opening available on Friday, March 17th at 11am, for custom or flash! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your idea if you’d like to snag it.*
🌟 Mutual Aid 🌟
Support Faith, a Black trans tattoo artist, in recovering from a sexual assault she endured in her own tattoo studio. She deserves time to rest and heal from this trauma without having to work in the space where she experienced violence. Donate here or via Venmo to @americanflesh.