Apprenticeships are some of the most formative years of a young artist’s life, and as with any beginning they’re not without their awkward spots. But for those young tattoo hopefuls that stick with it long enough, practice their craft, and hone their skill set, there is hope of emerging the other side bright, budding tattoo artists. Seldom given a timeline, apprenticeships can sometimes last years depending on the apprentice’s progress. Skylar Phung is the resident apprentice at New York’s No Idols Tattoo. She’s come quite a way since her first pass at a “Death Before Dishonor” dagger, but if you consider the folks that are raising this fledgling — artists like Jon Mesa and Jonathan Penchoff — she’s bound to make a name for herself in no time.
While she’s only been actively tattooing for the past eight months, Phung says that art has always played a crucial role in her life. “I actually remember having a lot of interest in tattooing early on, maybe when I was around nine, 10. I always thought that it would be fun to have the opportunity to surround myself in art while working,” she explains. “My parents were always super pushy when it came to what I wanted to do with my career; becoming a tattoo artist was more of a distant ‘what if’ for a long time. Of course, I decided to do what my heart was telling me to in the end.”
Tattooing in the traditional style, Phung’s work is comprised of the usual cast of characters, although she’s been known to take on an illustrative piece or two. “How could you not love [traditional],” she exclaims in firm admiration of her preferred style. “You have bold, colorful designs that will stand the test of time. The history behind the style is so rich. It's a beautiful, classic style that will never die. I love that.” Taking on something as time honored as traditional work does present a few challenges, like finding your own voice within the genre. “I don't like to actively look for ways to make my art look like ‘my’ style since I'm not even sure what it is yet. Once my art matures a little more, and I start really understanding the things I like the most, I can make the conscious effort to implement those things.”
Of course, as with any learned skill or new job there are the inevitable challenges. Larger scale tattoos tend to be much more time intensive, often requiring multiple sessions and a steadier hand, while smaller scale tattoos are generally done in one pass. “I actually prefer smaller scale tattoos. A large part of it is because I feel like my skill has not reached a level where I would be comfortable tattooing large pieces on my clients,” she explains. “It's nerve wracking to have to pull a long, clean line. On the other hand mistakes and flaws are much more noticeable on smaller tattoos. You also need to put a lot of thought into your designs, as the smaller they are the simpler they need to be. I often forget that less is more, and end up changing the design sometimes to ensure it's not crowded.”
Growing pains are a part of life, regardless of what field of work you’re in. Every doctor goes through a point in their career where they question themselves, just as every writer can admit to hating something they’ve written in the past. But ask any artist and they’ll tell you that the key to progressing your art is practice, including Phung. “I always ask myself, ‘how can I make my designs smarter? How can I work on making my things cleaner,’” she says. “I always try to draw whenever I can, even if all I have time for in my day is a mediocre scribble sketch of a rose. I always make sure to constantly look for ways to make my things better, to move forward and not stay stagnant.” Of course it helps to have a little support, but with a bit of guidance from the artists at No Idols, Phung is looking less like a tattoo hopeful, and more and more like a tattoo artist.
Be sure to check back for more on how apprentices are growing with their art in our new series detailing the ins and outs of one of the toughest industries.