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Tattooing Is Not Art…

Tattooing is not art…at least it wasn’t always.

When I first started tattooing 21 years ago, I quickly met some pretty decent tattooers. They managed to put solid tattoos in the skin and could troubleshoot their equipment. Notice that I use the word “tattooers” and not “tattoo artists”. It’s habit at this point but I still use this term because I had always considered tattooing more of a trade or learned skill than an art, much like a welder or a carpenter. Hence the term “tattooer”.

I should also mention that I had been introduced to some really solid “artists” earlier in my youth, thanks to a high school art teacher who took me under her wing (Thanks Mrs. Necaise). However, there was a real disconnect for me when I began tattooing. I didn’t see any great “artists” trying their hand at tattooing and I didn’t see many tattooers paying attention to traditional “fine artists”. They just seemed to live in separate worlds. I had always attributed this to the limitations of skin and the medium of tattooing. To me, in order to translate art to tattoos, you really had to simplify the imagery. Achieving rich textures, creating the illusion of space and getting subtle transitions in value and hue required many layers of translucent paint, mediums and solvents. Not to mention different types of brushes and painting surfaces. Tattooing just didn’t lend itself to making great art…right?

Well, in the last 15 years or so, the tides have started to turn in the tattoo trade. Great artists have begun to take tattooing seriously. Students are graduating art school with $50,000 in student debt with the goal of becoming tattooers…excuse me…Tattoo Artists!
Why? We’ll get to that in a minute.

Suddenly, calling yourself a “Portrait artist” or claiming that you work in a “realistic” style has taken on a whole new meaning. Today, in order to back those claims up, we’ve got to have a great understanding of fundamental drawing principles. If not, we aren’t fooling anyone. Good artists are everywhere and the difference between great tattoos and mediocre tattoos has never been more clear. As it turns out, great art can be made with a tattoo machine! It wasn’t the skin’s fault or the ink I used or the machine I bought…it was my fault!

So, back to your question. How did this all happen?. Well, I believe that this recent evolution couldn’t have happened this quickly at any other point in time. We are truly living in the golden age of tattooing. Obviously the internet and, more specifically, social media have had an enormous impact on our craft. The secret society/good ol’ boys club mindset of the past is slowly being replaced with facebook live, snapchat, instagram, etc. Curious how your favorite artists are achieving those crazy effects? Just log into facebook and they might be tattooing right there in front of you. Hell, they might even answer your questions.

Reality shows have played a huge role as well, going back to Miami Ink. These shows took some of the intimidation out of walking into a tattoo shop. They’ve also served to educate our client base which might be the single most important element in this equation. Educated clients become “tattoo collectors”. Collectors are willing to spend big money to be tattooed by their favorite artists, sometimes traveling across the globe to get tattooed. More money draws a larger talent pool. More talent increases competition, raising the bar for us all.

Sounds great! Better artists, smarter customers, great tattoos. As a result, everyone wins, right?
Wait…is there a downside? Well, many tattooers who were able to make a living 20-30 years ago simply don’t have the tools they need to compete today. Likewise, an aspiring tattooer from a small town in middle america is struggling to get the help she needs to get out of her small town street shop and into an environment in which she can grow. A self taught artist is having a hard time putting together a solid enough portfolio to get his foot in the door for an apprenticeship. We hear these stories all of the time.

For this reason, over the last several years, our small family here at the Fireside Tattoo Network has worked to help tattooers and their apprentices hone their skills so that they may better contribute to the industry and continue to work in a field that they love. One way that we have done this is by offering to critique tattoo and drawing portfolios for our viewers using traditional drawing principles in our approach.

As a result of doing these critiques, we began to notice similar patterns in the issues that many tattooers face. It seems that many of these problems stem from poorly planned compositions and inconsistencies in value. Two of the most vitally important considerations for dynamic tattoos that hold up well over the years. For example, we might see a design that doesn’t relate to or fit the body, leaving awkward spaces on the client’s skin. Likewise, we often find tattooers sticking with mid tone greys instead of using a full value range. This is an understandable approach since using strong shapes and contrast tend to reveal drawing errors more easily. It sometimes feels “safer” to stay in middle tones.

So, in an effort to help a larger number of artists (we can only critique so many drawings in a day), we recently created Fireside “Foundations”. Foundations is a content packed drawing course geared towards the unique challenges that we face as tattooers. Over the course of four video modules and assignments, we break down the principles of shape and value into simple exercises and then work to incorporate these principles into tattoo related subjects. Our goal with Foundations was to cut all of the filler and try to present only concise, useful material that can easily and immediately be incorporated into your drawings and tattoos. Our guarantee with this course is that you will leave with a clearly defined structure from which you can build your tattoo portfolio.
If you are interested in learning more about Fireside Foundations, click here
That’s it. I’m done, The floor is yours. Please share, send us questions and comments, and, as always, thanks for supporting the Fireside Tattoo Network!

Jake-

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