The Drill Sergeant Speech

The Drill Sergeant Speech

As of last semester, I took on an extra teaching gig at a local community college here in Memphis. For me, this is a bit of a return to my roots because it is teaching Graphic Design instead of English. However, as the first day of classes seems to be approaching at hyper speed, I’m beginning to get a bit nervous because of the different teaching dynamic that it holds. Basically, I’ve been laying awake recrafting my drill sergeant speech in my head for the past two nights.

You see, I’ll be teaching an Intro to Graphic Design class. This is meant to be similar to what the first two college English classes are to a first-semester freshman, a reality check. As I was sipping my coffee this morning and enjoying the cherished calm that comes upon my house after my 7-year-old is off to school for the day, I couldn’t help thinking how much this type of speech applies to tattooing as well.

The way it works is that you identify the kids like my first roommate in art school and try to scare them off as quickly as possible. My roommate had failed out of a semester at a school up north and his parents told him they would pay for him to go to any school he wanted here in Memphis. He thought he was being smart when he chose to come to the local art school to do photography. Then he realized he still had to learn to draw and much to his chagrin, it was a lot of fucking work. Needless to say, he was gone after that semester.

The lecture I give students is something to effect of, if you came into this field thinking it would be all fun and playing on the computer and not really having to work, you are wrong. It doesn’t matter if you do just enough to scrape by with passing grades and graduate. Unlike other professions, you are building a body of work with every class you take. When you leave here that work will become the portfolio you use to get your first job. Every bit of work and effort you put into these will be gleaming like a diamond or stinking like a turd to the person you are hoping will hire you. If you think it is a “cool” job or an “easy” job, you are wrong. Then I discuss the following things, all of which apply to tattooing:

You Must Work Hard

If you are in a proper apprenticeship, this will be driven home very quickly. You will do all the grunt work. Ok, so it is a little bit more of a hazing than you will get with a job in graphic design, but you have to show the people who are giving you their time and knowledge freely that you can show up on time and work your ass off. Trust me, they work their ass off whether you see it or not. The point of this time is to know you are going to stick with it, even though you know it is not all the “cool job” that most people believe it is, especially now that there are about 18 years of reality television making it look that way.

This is the time to make you see first hand what that work looks like, so you know exactly what you are getting into. It doesn’t matter if you are a custom tattooer on a busy day where you are either booked solid with about 5 large pieces to work on or you are a street artist on a Friday night with a waiting room full of flash pieces. Work is work. Nothing should be beneath you. No piece too small or insignificant.

You Must Meet Deadlines

Just like graphic design, you must meet deadlines. This means you have to do your homework. If you are doing custom work, you especially have to deal with deadlines because you have people who have most likely paid you a deposit up front in good faith that you will have their design ready to their specifications and be ready to work. It is a sacred trust between artist and client. Know that if you can’t keep your end of that trust, word will travel fast and no one will want to get anything from you.

Also, if you can’t keep deadlines, it doesn’t matter how badass an artist you are or how talented you are, you will not get work. Most likely, you will not even be allowed to stay in a shop because the owner/manager will fire you. I have seen artists with so much talent that I wished I had just 5% of what they had, but they couldn’t show up on time or budget their time and be ready for their clients, either due to drugs, laziness or both. Either way, fired is fired.

You Must Know How to Draw

If you think you can do any kind of a visual art or design work without at least a rudimentary understanding of drawing, you are dead wrong. Tattooing especially requires more than just the basics. Having a solid foundation in drawing means you understand how to draw a balanced composition and how it will sit and look in a given space whether it be paper or a section of the body. You have to understand the role line plays as an element of design and what that can do to your tattoo style. There is shading and color theory. This is art. If you are not here to create and work, you don’t need to be here. There are plenty of other “cool jobs” out there that you may be much better suited for.

As one of my art school instructors would say, “have you thought about a job in the foodservice industry?” Of course, that is still work as well. So if you are lazy, then you are pretty much screwed.


So that is a tattoo version of the main parts of my first day of class speech. I know we have done a lot of discussion on apprenticeships here at Fireside and I highly recommend you check them out. If you are not afraid to work, can draw, can handle criticism, and can be relatively professional in how you handle yourself, then this can be one of the most rewarding jobs you’ll ever do.

Also, If you want me to come yell at you in my drill sergeant voice, just shoot me an email.

Till next time,




To those that noticed. Yes, I shamelessly recycled one of my old images for this entry.