What It's Really Like To Be A Tattoo Artist
It's not every day you see a woman hammering skulls and snakes and daggers into people's flesh, to a heavy metal soundtrack. "I was definitely a novelty," Jess Fitzgerald says, when at age 18, she began her career as a tattoo artist, working as an apprentice, inking Harley Davidson eagles at a biker parlor in Connecticut.
Now, six years later, Fitzgerald is even more of a novelty, as the 24-year-old owner of a tattoo shop in Valdez, N.M. All the artists at her Talisman Tattoo and Body Piercing shop are female.
One of those women is 30-year-old Kerry Burke, who sees misogyny as rife in the world of body art. Her own teacher said that one instructor admitted that he only kept her around to scrub the toilets and the floors. Women, he said, made crappy tattoos.
Fitzgerald isn't deterred. "Being a girl in a man's world just sort of runs in the family," she says, during a quiet Wednesday morning at the shop. Her mother, she points out, has owned her own electrical contracting firm for 12 years.
For both male and female practitioners, though, tattooing isn't the most stable profession; the average salary of a body artist in America is $32,000 a year, according to Simply Hired. But it varies wildly by geography; a tattoo artist in Boston, for example, makes an average of $55,000 a year, according to Indeed.
And that kind of money is pretty unusual in the world of professional art-making. Burke says that she lives around galleries full of hundreds of paintings that never sell, while she's a commissioned artist four or five times a day. "I feel undeserving as an artist," she says, "to be that busy."
Getting Their Start
Apprenticeships have disappeared in most industries in America, but they remain the only real way to get your start in the world of tattooing. There aren't many tattooing schools, and you can't practice permanently dying a person's skin without close supervision.
On Fitzgerald's first day as an apprentice, her instructor rolled up his pant leg, and had her color in something unfinished. "You have guinea pigs," Fitzgerald explains. "I've offered myself as a guinea pig multiple times. It's almost like tattoo karma."
But most apprenticeships aren't so instantly hands-on. Fitzgerald knows tattoo artists who had to clean the shop for a year or more before they could touch a needle. Burke gave 100 tattoos for free during her apprenticeship, in which the customers signed a waiver. "That was nice," she says, "because when it came out not so awesome, I didn't want to kill myself."
A good teacher will slowly let you do more complicated work, Fitzgerald explains. Starting with Chinese characters and roses and moving on to more elaborately shaded stuff. "There's a lot more going on than it appears," she says. "You're gauging skin depth. Compensating for movement, for breathing, for pain."
But even after six years, there are still parts of the body that Fitzgerald hesitates to tattoo, like the inside of the bicep, where the skin is "thin, rubbery," and the foot, which is so horribly painful, they usually only tattoo it in 30-minute chunks. Burke tries her best to avoid butt cheeks. "They're just really stretchy," she says.
The Ethics Of Tattooing
When it comes to content, however, Fitzgerald has few misgivings. She once tattooed a large swastika on a man, who had been refused at four other places. "Everyone was like, 'Why did you do that?' " she says. "First of all, it was a huge, so it was very expensive," she replied. "And I've basically branded this person with a huge warning to all other humans. That's something I get a kick out of."
Burke feels differently. "The tattoo comes out of me and goes to this person," she says. "It's sacred and spiritual in a weird way. I don't want anything like that coming out of me. I don't want to stencil it. I don't want to color it. I don't want to do it."
But Burke does tattoo some people whom she'd rather not -- specifically teens. Most states allow minors to get tattooed with the permission of their parents. "If we turned away minors here, we'd turn away half our clients," says Burke, who claims that kids as young as 14 will march through the shop's doors, their parents in tow, demanding the same tattoo as Pauly D from "Jersey Shore."
"Your kid's idol is a club-hopping drunk person. Sure, I guess I'll do that," says Burke. "I think it's creepy. And the parents who sign for it are just as creepy."
Pain, Physical and Emotional
Getting tattooed can be intimate, and sometimes puts people in an unexpectedly vulnerable place. Tattoo artists often function like therapists, or at least like bartenders at last call, when the lonely winos spill their heartbreak. Burke was so embarrassed by her confessions during her first tattoo session with her teacher that she apologized profusely afterward. Then when she ended up tattooing her teacher, "suddenly he was crying about his mom."
But you never know what to expect out of a person. "Sometimes the 18-year-old girl with the really ambitious thing going up her side ribs won't make a peep," says Fitzgerald, "while the motorcycle guy will blubber the whole time."
But in general, when it comes to pain, arms and ankles are easy, while wrists, lower backs, ribs, armpits, and ribs can be pretty nasty. "A lot of young women will come in and want something little, like a little butterfly or a little script, and they pick the worst spots," says Fitzgerald. Her teacher, who was drenched in ink head-to-toe, said he would do his adam's apple again before he did his kneecaps.
Burke has one piece of advice for tattooing hopefuls: "Just draw. Draw, draw, draw." Fitzgerald recommends getting some formal training. "When you draw by yourself, you don't push yourself, or at least I didn't, to draw things I didn't want to draw." At art school, she says, you learn perspective and how light works, "things that almost require instruction."
But you don't necessarily need to get a degree. "You'll never pay that off in your first few years of tattooing," she says. But the women at Talisman do have a "break the bank" day once in a while, especially in the summer, when they walk out with over $1,000.
But there are bad days too. Tattooing isn't the most consistent way to make a buck. Most tattoo artists are comfortable, however, with the swings of the seasons. They spend their days permanently marking bodies with the symbols of love, hope and comfort that their customers hope to carry with them through their lives. But they've also made mistakes. They know that "a good artist can cover anything with another tattoo," says Fitzgerald.
And unlike most artists, they know their work will never hang for generations on museum walls. All of their canvases will one day decay, just like them. Talisman Tattoo and Body Piercing has just ordered in new T-Shirts for the shop, with the one slogan that they could all agree on: "Nothing's Permanent."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin. Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at email@example.com. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.more...