Tattoo Semantics – Artists and Parlors and Guns, Oh My! | Fireside Blog

Tattoo Semantics – Artists and Parlors and Guns, Oh My! | Fireside Blog


warning: nerd entry

It was a grey day in February, but surprisingly not terribly cold. I had been hanging out at Three Tides Tattoos in Osaka in my spare time for a few weeks. As I had mostly been watching Chris Trevino work and already had my own appointment with him, we somehow ended up grabbing lunch at a dark hole in the wall home style Japanese restaurant down the street from the shop. Aside of the fact he had just introduced me to one of my favorite Japanese dishes, for some reason I remember the conversation we had pretty well. It was just one of many endless interactions that reflected my longtime love affair with linguistics, a love affair that would lead me to eventually walk away from tattooing and pursue my PhD in applied linguistics. Or as I like to call it, “one shinning jewel in a long line of poor life choices.”

The conversation centered around the most accurate name for a person who performs the act of giving a tattoo. As I had only heard of people in this trade as “tattoo artists,” I was completely unprepared when Chris corrected me, informing me that the correct nomenclature was “tattooer”. The word was cemented in my brain as I saw it in bold letters under the name on his business card as he slid it across the table.

As I look back over most of my previous entries here, I notice that I still use the term “tattooer” more frequently than “tattoo artist” and that got me thinking about the general semantics of the trade that I have been exposed to over the years. The two greatest divergences that I have noticed seem to be focused on how we as practitioners refer to ourselves and to our tools.

The predominant attitude in our business now is to lean towards “tattoo artist.” At one time, all the art side of the business was in the creation of flash. Although it was usually done by tattooers, there were artists who specialized and sold their work to tattooers without ever actually touching a tattoo machine. The actual act of tattooing was a learned technical skill. With that mindset, “artist” and “tattooer” were two different hats. So you can respect the older reference more.

However, today tattooers actually ARE “tattoo artists.” This is easy to argue from the myriad of decisions throughout a process that is beyond traditional application of a stencil to guide the application of the tattoo. With techniques varying from drawing directly on skin to on the spot freehanding, tattooing has evolved into a start to finish artistic process.

I generally use both words interchangeably as a writer to create rhythm in the writing. If you notice, I left out that rare but existent word, “tattooist.” This is mainly because I find it pretentious in the same vein of a gunfighter trying to call himself a “shootist.” In my opinion, there are enough egos in tattooing. It does not need any added pretentiousness.

Speaking of guns, probably one of the most industry specific pet peeves of most artists is the use of the word “gun.” I have not met a tattooer yet who uses the words “tattoo gun” without immediate hazing. I was always told, “a gun is for shooting people. Tattoo artists use a machine.” This is true. A machine is a precision instrument used for technical rendering. There is nothing in the construction or use of this tool that implies similarities to a firearm. You don’t tune guns. They are not powered by electricity. Feel free to disagree. You are still wrong.

The last reference in tattoo terminology that we see variations on is in reference to the physical establishment where tattoos are done. This is actually the most fascinating to me because it is the most cut and dry example of a linguistic evolution due to the evolving of where and how these establishments were run.

Originally, tattoos were done in “parlors” due to the fact that most tattooers worked out of the back of traditional barber shops. As time went on and tattooers began working in their own separate physical establishments, they were known as the first street shops. During the 1990’s you began to see the beginning of a shift from “shops” to “studios.” Over 20 years later, you still see this as a matter of personal preference. Most of the people I know use “shop.” I think it probably has something to do with avoiding the pretentiousness that I mentioned earlier, even in a changing scene with a growing number of people from fine art backgrounds.


So now I leave the floor open to you guys. What are your experiences with industry specific vocabulary? What are your thoughts on how these terms have changed? As always, we love a good discussion. Please remember to be respectful of others’ thoughts and opinions and we are continually grateful for your support of the Tattoo Improvement Network.

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