(Name changed for confidentiality purposes
Work that isn’t personally satisfying to the tattooists’ taste is not necessarily dissatisfying to undertake however, as such pieces may still present aspects of challenge and opportunities to practice improved craftspersonship. In addition, the collaborative nature of the practice means that the client satisfaction is of central importance, which creates an altruistic sense of satisfaction for the tattooist when this is achieved. In the early stages of a tattooist’s career, it is normative to tattoo pieces of such a nature more frequently than it is to tattoo pieces that satisfy personal creative desire. This was the case for the tattoo I completed for Ryan.
Ryan was introduced to me by a member of desk staff as I was tattooing another client, as he was seeking a tattooist who was able to extend a large tribal piece that had been tattooed previously on the outer side of his upper arm, to his forearm. He wanted to continue the piece in a similar style, to make the piece appear as a cohesive whole. Ryan had moved geographical location from a small post-industrial town outside of London for personal reasons, and was thus unable to have his tattoo completed by the tattooist who had started it. Ryan a gentleman aged around his mid-fifties, and stated that he considers Sunderland to be more his home than his place of birth.
The consultation process involved looking at Ryans’ existing tattoo and taking photographs using my mobile phone, from which I would later reference when creating a preliminary sketch in a shape that matches what he already has. It was explained to Ryan that I am a junior practitioner and my rates are £30 per hour less than my peers, and thus not as competent as some of the others in the studio due to my comparative lack of experience. Ryan was happy with my skill level being suitable to complete the piece, and advised to book for a full day if possible, or less time if his availability or budget would not allow for this. He then made a 3 hour appointment for a Saturday in April, and was advised that the tattoo would be started but not completed within the 3 hour period.
Prior to Ryans’ appointment, I had composed on an a4 sheet of paper the photographs of Ryans’ arm that had been taken from different angles during the consultation process. On a separate piece of paper and larger in size, a photograph of the area that would be tattooed was printed and used as the surface on which the preliminary designs would be created. In keeping with the existing shapes of the tribal design, rough shapes where drawn over the areas of non-tattooed skin on the photograph, using a yellow sharpie marker. Theses shapes where made to appear visually consistent and harmoniously with the anatomical structure of the forearm. The shapes where then refined further using an orange marker, and finalised using a blue marker, creating a more formal and considered reference. This drawing process is comparable to the method of ‘free-handing’ that many practitioners use in favour of using a stencil, where deemed more appropriate. It was unnecessary to research any significance culturally attributed to tribal shapes, as Ryans’ existing tattoo had already established a set aesthetic, and my role in this instance was merely as a designer utilising a visual medium, not a creator or facilitator of the communication of symbolic meaning.
On the day of Ryans’ appointment, the usual procedure of set-up was performed, and Ryans’ arm was shaved and cleaned using an alcohol wipe to remove any excess debris. The preliminary drawing was then placed in the left hand, which was used to inform the freehand procedure following the same format of using lighter coloured sharpie markers to darker coloured markers, echoing the process of drawing on paper. As the photographs are 2-dimensional they are unable to represent the form in the same way as it is in material reality, and thus some customising from the original design was undertaken in order to better fit the flow of the arm. This was particularly around the elbow area as their it was important to make the upper and the lower arm harmonious in design, rather than clearly disparate pieces.
After applying the final marks on the arm using a blue sharpie marker, the tattooing process began. The process involved using a relatively thin 0.5 liner (5 small needles soldered together) to go over the shapes drawn on the body and create a permanent stencil, which would later be saturated in black. This meant that the line thickness was not important at this stage, as rather than be reflective of the finished outcome, it was acting as an aid of completion to the process. For this same reason, the ‘cleanness’ of the line is not as important as it would be if ‘lining’ alone was the purpose and the piece was not to be internally coloured black.
On creating the first line, I had realised that due to the layered pigments of marker ink on top of each other, the stencil had become very dark. As a result, the thin black tattooed line became very difficult to distinguish amongst the thick, dark, instructional blue line that was being followed. This meant that keeping the line consistent was increasingly difficult, and as a result the blood that came to the surface of the tattooed line was used as an indicator of what had been tattooed, rather than the actual pigment on skin.
On recognition of the marker being too dark to act sufficiently as a guide, I began to sweat and feel severe tension and anxiety. As the process was too far undertaken to make opting for an alternative possible, the approach of following the blood line was adopted until the entire piece was able to be wiped clean with a baby wipe. The line appeared not clean, but sufficient to serve the purpose it was intended to serve in this instance, and a sense of relief was gained. Once both of the large tribal shapes where lined in, the colour packing using a larger needle grouping (magnum needle) began, and I spoke with Ryan about his background, work, and interests.
The sitting was booked for 3 hours, and a large part of practitioner conduct involves ensuring client comfort. In part this means giving them an opportunity to speak about themselves, and express their beliefs and opinions in the knowledge they are being listened to. As we were discussing Ryans’ home town and his feelings towards it, he expressed unfavourable sentiments as it had what he termed an “big Asian problem’. He then went on the express views and opinions of Asian communities that, in conservative terms, could be understood as deductive and prejudice. As the tone of communication and nature of Ryans’ opinions are in vast contrast to my own in a way that could be deemed offensive, I found that I was subconsciously applying more pressure with my needle while packing the ink into the skin. I didn’t vocalise my contrast to his perspective, as I didn’t deem it pragmatic to fulfilling my role efficiently, but rather attempted to subtly but noticeably direct the conversation to an alternative topic.
One of the issues I have had as a tattooist is in my discomfort in the unavoidable necessity of inducing pain, that is a consequence of tattooing. This manifests itself materially in my insufficient application of pressure of needles and depth of insertion into the skin, and results in the tattooed area not being sufficiently saturated and thus requiring a second pass. In turn, this demands more time being spent on the area, which can be more painful for the client overall, and less economical in regards to both time and money (as they are required to pay for extra time, or are sometimes quoted a set cost based on projected time, which is honoured irrespective of actual time spent tattooing). When Ryan had expressed beliefs and attitudes that I had found ethically distasteful, my conduct subconsciously was altered in such a way that was more suited to performing my role successfully.
I continued tattooing with the increased pressure, recognising that I indeed was not causing any unnecessary trauma to the skin, but instead tattooing with superior efficiency, meaning the client received a higher-quality tattoo in less time than they would have had I applied less pressure.
One of the unique and positive attributes of tattooing is the opportunity to have long-form conversations with those who I may not have an opportunity or desire to otherwise. As I continued to tattoo and talk with Ryan, I found that although we had some severely contrasting opinions, on a human level I was able to be in his company without any severe discomfort. I considered how culturally and generationally we differed, and how this might affect how we deem validity of information sources such as newspapers and news articles. Ryans’ culturally induced reality tunnel was different to my own, but I recognised through the lengthy interaction that the medium of tattooing allows for that despite contrasting identity constructs, we were able to coexist harmoniously, and enjoy (or at least respectfully tolerate) aspects of each other’s company. His experiences of life had shaped how he exists in the World, in the same way that my experiences have shaped my reality and my conduct.
Tattooing Ryan taught me not only how to improve aspects of my own craftspersonship and ability as a designer materially, but also how to both interact with and holistically appreciate / understand, somebody who I may otherwise had tried to avoid communication with. His experiences of life had shaped how he exists in the World, in the same way that my experiences have shaped my reality and my conduct. That is not to say that holding oppressive beliefs is justified and ethically sound. It is rather an acknowledgement, through compassion that has been cultivated in the time taken for communication that tattooing necessitates, that multiple external factors shape an identity.
My role as a tattooist is not to adopt a position of moral arbiter and attempt to change Ryans’ views, however toxic they may appear. Attempting to do so may actually be detrimental to the likelihood of his return, and thus bad for business. My reflection and analysis of my personal experience is an attempt to generate understanding on both a tangible and intangible level of one aspect of the broader cultural experience of tattooing that exists in multiplicity. How each practitioner approaches and interprets each interaction is contingent upon how they engage with the world on an individual basis. Though this account may be unique to me, many other practitioners have comparable accounts of experiences that have similarly informed their conduct. My account thus contributes elucidation on a small fraction of the shape of the tattooists multifaceted occupational role.
Tattooist at Triplesix Studios
AHRC NPIF Funded PhD Research Student at The University of Sunderland