What Does Your Tattoo Mean? The Life and Career of a Tattoo Artist
Behind the open sign and through the buzzing of tattoo machines, Ben Graham is turning someone’s idea into an image they will wear on their body for the rest of their life. He sketches out a design on his iPad. The shapes and colors resemble the drawings framed and hung above his work station.
“Bright colors are his specialty,” one artist says of Ben’s work. Every artist at The Ink Spot has their signature style.
Ben is one of the ten artists that work at The Ink Spot, which has two locations: St. Peters and Troy, Missouri. He tattoos alongside Nicole Peterman, who has worked at The Ink Spot for eight years, and Joe Stephens, one of the shop’s newest artists. When I asked how they got into the world of tattooing, the answers I received were similar. Their tattoo stories weren’t planned. None of them aspired to become professional tattoo artists prior to finding The Ink Spot. They all practiced art in some form, attracted to self-expression through various creative means, whether by painting or drawing, and then they were presented with opportunities to apply their artistic talents towards a career. That is how art works though, with a spark of creativity and the action of an artist.
Back in 2012 Ben was enrolled in art classes at St. Charles Community College when a friend of his who had just been released from prison asked if Ben would tattoo something on him. Corey loved Ben’s drawings and wanted him to replicate them as tattoos.
“We ended up making a tattoo machine out of an old Playstation 2 controller, a pen cap, a pen tip, a zip tie and a lighter spring,” Ben describes. “Everything that we were doing is how Corey said they did it in prison.” They zip tied the pen tip and cap to the motor they pulled from the controller. After constructing his first tattoo machine, Ben then found ink at Walmart, and they used deodorant to transfer his drawing from a piece of paper onto Corey’s skin. Many artists experiment with tattooing at home before seeking out careers in legitimate shops. Ben continued replicating his artwork onto his friends’ skin. He liked the outcome of his designs but eventually decided to quit.
He explains, “I realized I didn’t have a good enough understanding of how to use the tools properly.” He wouldn’t pick up tattooing again until a few years later.
Nicole found tattooing through an ex-boyfriend who had been a frequent client of The Ink Spot. She, like Ben, had always been creative. Nicole wanted to do something with her art, and her boyfriend suggested she get into tattooing. She liked the idea.
“Having my art out there forever on people’s skin, that’s pretty cool,” Nicole says. When she started her apprenticeship, which is how all new artists begin, she was the only female.
“I had a bunch of brothers,” Nicole points out. “They always picked on me.” Learning to tattoo can be difficult in the beginning. There are many techniques to master, and practicing drawing in the “tattoo style” can be challenging.
An apprenticeship requires artists to learn all of the standard hygiene and sterilization practices involved with running a tattoo shop. In an apprenticeship, a person learns by doing, and so apprentices are often required to set up and take down tattoo stations until they become familiar with the equipment and processes involved. This gives them practice and knowledge before touching skin.
When Joe began his apprenticeship at The Ink Spot, he already had connections with many of the artists, being the younger brother of one of the senior Ink Spot employees. I asked Joe what made him eventually decide to become a tattoo artist.
“The sales job I had at the time was just soul-sucking,” he explains. “So I decided to make the leap. I wanted to do something with my creativity.”
Working as a professional tattoo artist has its share of challenges as well as rewards. There are those who believe creating art for a living must be one of the easiest jobs, and in a way it is when you get to do what you love every day. But there are also challenges. What most don’t see when they walk into a shop and sit down to consult with an artist is that there is so much more that goes into tattooing other than the ability to draw. Artistic capabilities are just the starting point.
“You have to know math unfortunately,” Nicole explains. “Especially when sizing and placing tattoos, or determining how much you should charge someone.” A tattoo artist's salary is based on a number of factors. Some shops collect commissions or shop fees, unless the artists pay rent for their booths. This business model is also seen in many hair salons. Tattoo artists charge by the hour, and so it’s important to accurately gauge how long a tattoo will take or they run the risk of losing money. Income is also affected by the amount of tips earned.
There is a certain percentage of tattoos that occur through walk-ins; however, the majority of an artist's clientele is built through referral and return clients. Most people who have tattoos have more than one.
“One of the most important aspects of tattooing is the interaction with the customers,” Joe explains. “You have to entertain them and keep them calm and comfortable, even though you’re stabbing them and making them bleed. It’s strange.”
But having these intimate interactions with customers allows for the opportunity to get connected to people. In some professions communication only takes place over the phone or behind a screen, but for tattoo artists communication happens face to face. Artists build trust with their customers, as their work is performed on the body. They get to know many of their clients well and watch them progress through their lives, which can be extremely rewarding.
“You have to be just as good with people as you are at creating art,” Joe says. “Otherwise people won’t come back to see you, even if your work is incredible.”
Some experiences with clients can also be emotional. Nicole recalls one instance when she tattooed an entire family. They had just lost their eighteen-year-old daughter and sibling in a car accident, and they each wanted a small cross with ribbons wrapped around it and her name written in the middle.
“They were telling stories about her and we all were crying,” Nicole says. “They just kept thanking me. Moments like that make me feel valued as a tattoo artist and like I’m providing a good service to people."
The permanence of tattoos is one of the most stressful and yet most valuable aspects of working in the tattoo industry. Messing up on a tattoo is part of the process; it’s something no tattoo artist can avoid. As with most artwork, mistakes often lead to ideas the artist never intended and can oftentimes work out in their favor. Although tattoos are permanent, there are still many techniques the artists use to disguise small mistakes such as shading or thickening lines. Most of the time customers are never aware when mistakes are made.
“Whenever I mess up on a tattoo or lose a customer due to my own actions, it’s an opportunity for me to move forward and grow,” Ben explains.
On one occasion Ben recalls accidentally turning the letter C into an O. This was one of his first experiences with a mistake on a tattoo, but from this he learned that no mistake can't be fixed.
Ben has tattooed at The Ink Spot now for almost 5 years. He’s become confident in his work and has been presented with new opportunities, for instance participating in his first tattoo convention this summer. In the last year Ben has returned to school to further his skills in art and he continues to explore different avenues of his creativity.
Despite the obstacles of having a career in professional tattooing such as fluctuating income and lack of benefits and healthcare, there are other ways to look at it.
“I am in control of what my income is, and I am in control of when I come to work for the most part,” Ben says. There is an autonomy that comes with being a professional tattoo artist. There is always an owner and manager associated with each shop, but in a way, artists are their own companies and supervisors. They set their own schedules and pay, and they build their own clientele.
The freedom afforded by this profession, combined with a person’s artistic capabilities, establishes an environment that breeds creativity, and within the tattoo shop this spirit of creativity is exchanged between artists. One word continuously surfaced in our conversations. The artists compared working at The Ink Spot to being members of a family.
The support they get from their co-workers is something they have yet to experience anywhere else. Ben explains that the pressures he feels at work aren’t centered around reaching quotas or exceeding commissions, he feels pressure to better himself and step outside his comfort zone. He can say the same about the other artists as well.
“Everyone that I work with is pushing themselves to be the best that they can at what they do,” he says. “And it’s kind of hard not to be a part of that.”