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I spent pretty much all week at the hospital with my son. I had to watch a constant flow of scared child tantrums for everything from labs and I.V.s to outright refusal of nasty antibiotics. As I was leaving this morning, I was in an elevator with another child and his mother. The boy was maybe a year or two older than mine. He had big brown eyes and a huge bandage on his neck. As I winked at him he smiled. When he showed me his neck bandage and said it hurt, I told him he must be a pretty tough guy to have that. He smiled and puffed his chest up and said yes. He and his mom waved as I got off the elevator and I realized I could have never been a doctor. I have this thing about seeing children truly in pain. It broke my heart to see my own child in pain. It would be even worse to see other children constantly fighting in that way.
What does this have to do with tattooing? Actually, a lot. When I got to my car and started reflecting on the earlier days when I first began not only getting tattooed, but realizing that being a tattooer would mean I would not only have to be ok with blood, but would have to be alright with willingly hurting another human being. This is what I generally refer to as the line of demarcation between artists and tattooers. Most tattooers are artists, but not all artists have the ability to be tattooers, no matter how talented they are.
So let’s talk about pain for a little bit. If you are an artist who wants to tattoo or are just starting out, think long and hard. If you are a seasoned tattooer, then read on and let me know your thoughts as well. I think it was the owner of Jake’s former shop home, Underground Art, who once told me something to the effect of “skin is the most unique canvass you can work on. It stretches. It sweats. It moves. It bleeds.”
Most of the things Jake and Dave focus on are very technical elements of the art form. However, when dealing with a person who does not handle pain well, you can be the best technical artist in the world, but if you can’t deal with someone squirming, crying and yelling, then talent won’t make a lick of difference. As far back as episode 3 (Tips for Knees and Elbows), Jake always gives good discussion on the consciousness of how something looks as you are doing it versus how something looks healed. He also is good about giving you angles in his live tattoo videos of how he positions a client not just for the best tattoo application angle, but also for the best position to control and stabilize the client. He doesn’t point that out, so I just wanted to make sure you know that.
Keeping those things in mind, I want to add a third element to the equation, bedside manner. All though some people seem to just have a gift for dealing with clients and making them comfortable, bedside manner is the hardest thing to teach because it is discussed so little. I have been tattooed by people who just have a sort of calming energy, pure and simple. I’m not one to get all new age on you, but I know when I was tattooed by Horiyoshi, he had these tiny little gentle hands that made you feel like you were being handled by your grandfather. It was just how his energy made you relax pure and simple.
Realizing there is no real way to teach energy, I will focus on talking about what I consider your biggest ally in making someone comfortable, conversation. It is in my book the best and most consistent way you can engage and keep your client’s mind off of the needles and the pain. It requires no supernatural energy elements or mumbo jumbo. It is simply a dependable way of connecting and keeping track of where they are at. The methods I’m fond of are: use of general knowledge, explanation of process and storytelling.
General knowledge is what you use to connect on a personal level. I always start the conversation as I’m putting on a stencil. I ask what made them choose the image they are getting. If they give an answer that exposes a subject I’m familiar with, I show interest and get a conversation going before I even lay needle to skin. It relaxes the client and gets them focused on you rather than what you are doing.
Along with general conversation, I almost always give explanation. I verbally walk them through what I am doing. I often tell them why we do something. This allows for a question and response connection that can keep them engaged on some level even if you realize you don’t have enough common ground to have a decent general conversation. It also gives them the security that you are being transparent in your work.
Lastly, never underestimate the value of a good story. If you make a good personal connection, then find a good story from your own life to weave in. It will never be a negative for you if your clients see you as more than just their tattoo artist. However, use some common sense. You may want to leave the story about the time you got drunk and woke up naked on your front lawn spray painted orange for another occasion.
Of course if you are not good at that, then always give them some insight into the history of the style and image of the tattoo they are getting. Traditional, military, Japanese, tribal and even new school, it doesn’t matter. All these styles and the common images they use have stories that underlie their history and symbolism. Take it on yourself as an artist to learn the history behind your art form and not just the technical bits.
Also, never forget to listen. Conversations go both ways. If they are easy to get talking, keep it going.
So I’ll stop there and just give a call out to the salty dog tattooers. What are your favorite bedside techniques? As always, we love to hear from you. Also, tell Jake how awesome his blogger is so maybe he will bring me back a t-shirt from the convention this weekend.