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Episode 66 of Fireside Tattoos discusses the apprenticeship dilemma. The biggest part of which is how to teach the basic principles of tattooing while helping the artist both maintain and develop their own style. The main idea I wanted to add and expand on is that this comes down to knowing and understanding the difference between guidance and mentorship.

An apprenticeship in tattooing is traditionally meant to be a mentorship experience. This is an experience where the teacher and the student both have clearly defined roles, so that knowledge and skill can be passed from one to the other. It is an experience where the role of teacher requires a bit of a plan and forethought regarding how they will approach the task of teaching.

As the more contemporary structure of an apprenticeship often involves more of a guidance role than a mentor, the roles are less defined. The forethought and planning of the mentor is less prevalent and is replaced with more of a guide role. I think the best way to look at this paradigm is in the realm of respect. In a mentorship role, the issue of equality is not an issue because the mentor/teacher possesses all the knowledge and the student must approach the situation from a more respectful mindset. Whereas, the guide role means that the teacher actually respects the knowledge and experience that a more mature apprentice brings to the table. In short, the result is less standing over the apprentice’s shoulder and more just friendly suggestions and direction giving.

As most people are aware, tattooing is not something you can just break into anymore. In my conversation with Jake over some coffee recently, he brought up the fact that as both a career field and art form, tattooing has become ever more difficult to break into. We both started at a time when there was a lot of focus on personal relationships and as long as you were a competent artist, you could adapt your skills to tattooing. This became a question of mostly guidance, but guidance is quite often inseparable from mentorship.

I have bounced in and out of tattooing for almost a decade and a half now. I was lucky to get into it when I did. I had several friends when I was in art school who had gotten into the business and were always very vocal that it was something they could see me doing and enjoying more than my chosen major of graphic design. They were right, but unfortunately not in a position to help me beyond that. I was also stubborn and wanted to finish what I had started with school. It would not be until later, when I was living in Japan for the first time, that I would truly see how amazing tattooing as an art form could really be.

At that time, tattooing was still evolving and formally trained artists were a bit of a stigma. Most of the people I encountered were in tattoo shops because they learned early as teenagers and had that mentality of “paying dues”. There was a lot of hazing and other negative aspects of the apprenticeship situation that were pretty much designed to weed out people who weren’t going to put in time and effort for the person that was training them.

However, the late 90s and early 2000s began to show a shift in that whole “catch ‘em young” attitude, moving toward a more mature and already developed selection of apprentices. In short, you started to see more formally trained and already working artists begin tattooing. This has continued to grow to the point where now, an impressive and well-rounded portfolio is often not enough. Jake mentioned that they turn away people at his shop now with really impressive portfolios that they would have been happy to take 10 or 15 years ago.

Getting back to the dilemma, if you are choosing an already working artist that you see talent in and know has impressive work, there is probably one element that is there that wasn’t always the case under the old paradigm, relationship. The element of having a friendship or relationship with your apprentice previous to taking them on is pretty common now. One of the more classic examples is that of Leo Zulueta. He was already a pretty mature artist when he began getting tattooed by Ed Hardy. It was their friendship which led Ed to guide Leo into tattooing.

What does that look like when you are taking on more of a guidance role than a mentorship? How do you bounce back and forth between the two constructively? How do you know when you need to separate yourself from your friendship in order to make sure you are training your artist well? These are all valid questions and thoughts I think are important to keep in mind in this situation.

I think that at every place I worked as I was learning, we all became conscious of this issue. I started apprenticing at a shop with a guy I went to art school with. I call this my mentorship experience. The artist at my first apprenticeship did something smart that allowed him to be more of a friend/guide while still providing a mentorship aspect to give me the foundations- he farmed out the mentorship job. For my technical shop experience, he let his girlfriend (also a talented artist in the shop) watch over the foundational aspects like cleaning tubes and needle making, the grunt work. You have to do it. I found this was a constructive way to go about it. Later on, they took on a more seasoned artist that I didn’t exactly get along with and handed a lot to him regarding me. That didn’t go as well.

As fate would have it, my first marriage ended about that time and I ended up needing to leave Memphis for a while. I ended up in San Diego with another tattoo artist friend from high school. She was more guide and less mentor. This also became the case when I left there and went to work in a flash shop back in GA. Once they were confident that I could work cleanly, they just sort of let me go and didn’t stand over my shoulder.

I could go on about the merits and disadvantages of how things worked in my situation, but the last fact you have to consider is that every artist and every situation is different. So I’ll leave this as more of call for discussion, especially in the area of development on the artistic end. What are your thoughts on mentorship vs guidance? Let us know in the comments. We would love to hear personal stories as well as constructive views that you might want to add.



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