Knowledge is Power, or Is It? An Essay on Self-Taught Tattoo Artists

By Justine Morrow - 
Knowledge is Power, or Is It? An Essay on Self-Taught Tattoo Artists

We continue an age old conversation about self-taught tattooists and why this is such a sensitive issue within the tattoo community.

Home tattooers, self-taught tattooists, scratchers: why is this such a sensitive issue? It’s partly due to the fact that some incredibly talented artists actually did teach themselves to tattoo out of their home...but to put this into perspective: for every one artist that succeeded, there are thousands more that bought a cheap machine on Amazon, abused it for a few months, tore up their skin, or their friends skin, and then let it collect dust in a dumpster or sold it to another person who thinks that becoming a world-class tattooer can happen overnight. On top of that, many of the artists who are self-taught, either had friends in the tattoo community, were consistently being tattooed themselves, or had prodigious talent. This exists, but not everyone has it...and that’s okay! Being a tattoo artist is as cool as it seems, but that’s not a reason to get into the industry and while there are many ways to get into the tattoo community, you have to be smart about choosing the best way for you.

For those artists who aren’t self taught, and for some who are, there is an enormous degree of dedication. While successful self-taught tattooist will tell you that hours upon hours of studying and practice came with their hope to make this art form their own, the same goes for those who went the traditional way and got an apprenticeship. It’s about the commitment to tattooing, a recognition of the history, and effort, that it took to bring tattooing to where it is now: almost globally perceived as a form of fine art. And this isn’t due to every dude tattooing out of his basement, scaring up his friends in an attempt to be an artist. This is due to tattooists who take it seriously, and learn everything they can. Who are they? Well, each image I used for this article is from a self-taught tattoo artist. If you’re interested in learning on your own, these are the people you should look to for an example in talent, skill, quality, and determination.

I can also use myself as an example: I picked up tattooing a few years ago while working a full time job and going to college full time. I’d been in art school from 9th grade and into my graduate program (the hours I’ve spent drawing are countless) but there wasn’t a medium that clicked until I picked up a tattoo machine. I spent an incredible amount of time reading about tattooing, watching videos, I paid greater attention when I was getting tattooed, and I practiced constantly. I knew several tattoo artists who gave me advice when I needed it, and I felt supported in my self-taught experience. After several months of tattooing no one but myself, I finally practiced on a friend with reasonable results. I didn’t charge anyone for over a year beyond supply costs. But this is not how everyone begins self teaching. Before going to a 'scratcher', ask yourself, how do you know how many hours a self-taught tattoo artist has put in to learn their craft? How do you know that you can trust them with your personal health and safety?

We’ve all seen botched tattoos, just check out Snake Pit for a bevy of terrible, cringe-worthy ink. Ignorant style tattoos have actually become a trend, which makes this issue almost far worse than it was to begin with. But hopefully there are those who, even if interested in the aesthetics of Ignorant style tattoos, can tell the difference between someone who is an amateur that could possibly mar your skin forever through bad design or skin disease and someone who is tattooing safely within the Ignorant style out of a shop that is so clean, one could eat off of the floor. The issue here isn’t exactly the style, I know some artists will disagree with that, but to me the issue is of a bigger picture: health. Tattooing deals with blood, skin, and incredibly close contact. Home tattooers who aren’t versed in cleanliness, and the majority aren’t or don't have the capacity/tools to clean properly, have a high potential for spreading diseases like HIV, Hep C and B, and more, whether through unsterilized equipment, or even surface skin infections. So, even if you don’t care about whether or not your tattoo is “good” by societal standards, you should respect your body enough to care about healthy choices. Is getting MRSA really worth a cheap a tattoo? And as an artist, can you be honest enough with yourself about your limitations, skills, and education?

This, in the end and in my opinion, is also a matter of ethics. When I started teaching myself how to tattoo, I researched a lot, had the support of tattoo artist friends, and gained a clientele that still supports me to this day. The problem was that my progress plateaued. There are many reasons to learn this craft within the traditional boundaries of an apprenticeship, which includes learning from someone who can push your work to the next level. I couldn’t afford to take the time to learn from someone and so, in respect to the artists I looked up to, I stopped tattooing from home. I had too much respect for my clients, for my tattoo artist heroes and friends, and for my own standards to continue tattooing inferior work. My tattoos weren’t good enough, and I knew that the only way it would improve was to directly learn from someone who is an expert in the craft. Many people either don’t make the effort, or don’t care, to see how their work may affect others, tattooers and clients alike, but it’s this self reflection that is incredibly important to the craft of tattooing: it’s why it continues to progress. Many artists will tell you that they are constantly evolving, continually trying to become better. If this is not your goal, if the art form isn’t something you deeply love and respect, but rather think will be easy money or quick fame, then think again. Tattooing isn't just a hobby or game for artists, it's their life. 

So, if the chance of giving your friend a serious staph infection doesn’t freak you out, what about giving them a tattoo that they won't be proud to show off? Or what about taking business from artists that actually know what they’re doing due to their devotion of time and strenuous effort? Or what about the respect you have for yourself...do you really want to be known as someone who does sub-par work, or do you want to learn this craft in accordance with the abilities you have? There will always be people who don’t care, who produce crap work on the bodies of others, but these aren’t the people you want to emulate. Take the time to really inspect your motivations, your dedication, and your skills before you take the jump. If you are a true artist, then the work you produce should be something you can be proud of, something that is indicative of the effort and dedication to whichever art form you find yourself in. And if you’re a true admirer of tattoos, support artists who deserve your admiration: those who respect themselves and your body enough to produce great work.

The cool thing about the tattoo community, is that it’s just that: it’s a community. Everyone involved should be supporting the art form in their individual way. Being a tattoo artist takes time, work, and talent...if you don’t have it, or aren’t willing to give that dedication, then support the community in a different way. Be a positive influence, rather than a ‘scratcher’. The overarching answer is, yes, knowledge is power...it's just extremely important how you use it and where you learn it. If you’re interested in becoming a tattoo artist, do the research, know what your limits are, find an apprenticeship, but no matter how you go about your artistic journey, make sure that it is positive, healthy, and respectful.

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