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I was working at a friend’s shop in Birmingham one weekend last summer. My friend John has known me for almost 20 years. However, his partner did not know me. So as they sent back my first customer for me to lay some cherry blossoms down on, his partner very casually told me to make sure either he or one of the artists looked at the piece before the client left.
“Always let another artist look at your work before it walks out the door. It keeps you sharp.”
It was only after I got back on the road a few days later that I realized I liked this policy.
At several shops I’ve been in, it was pretty standard for the owner to vet a new artist. Some shops even have the permanent crew vote. I recall watching the owner of the shop that was home base for one of my San Diego adventures thumb through a stack of pictures that were not terribly professionally presented, but were solid work. The owner, an ex-navy guy, scratched his epic ZZ Top beard and told the younger guy which shift he could take at one of the three shops he owned.
Those of us who travel know what kind of pressure owners feel in making sure a perspective artist is up to snuff. Some are pretty casual, but you can tell there is a discerning eye scrutinizing the work. Some even take it a step further and actually stand over the artist for one or two tattoos to make sure they work clean and have all their paperwork in order, depending on the laws and regulations of the state they are in. If you watched the most recent episode 82 of the Fireside Podcast, then you might recall Dave talking about some of the other questions an owner or manager will most likely ask an artist. The most prevalent were, what other shops have you worked at and who apprenticed you?
I must admit, I have only worked at three shops before visiting John’s. However, it stuck with me that they have a constant code of accountability. Not every shop does this in such a conscious and formal manner, but we all look at each other’s work. It is how we grow and learn as artists. In art school they have critiques. Artists look at each other’s work and then give suggestions. In a tattoo shop, I think it just depends on the atmosphere. I think it is a sign of a healthy and reputable shop to have the highest level of accountability possible.
I really just wanted to expand on some stuff that Dave was already touching on. Although he was aiming most of his thoughts for how we should treat and nurture apprentices, some are actually applicable across the board because we are always growing as artists. Any shop that doesn’t constantly hold you to a specific standard and level of accountability will always be a shop that you are going to find a lot of stagnated artists. Two things that I always notice are a big factor are egos and rivalries.
Most people who have spent any time around a tattoo shop know that two of the biggest enemies of shop harmony are the artist that needs an extra station so he can have room for his ego and the artists who make the entire shop environment into a negative place by harboring unhealthy rivalries. A good owner or manager will usually spot this and avoid these situations, even if it means passing up on a truly talented artist.
I only mention the unhealthy so that I can close with a look at a healthy nurturing environment. In talking about how he treats an apprentice, Dave is inadvertently describing a healthy shop environment. Dave holds his apprentice accountable not just for what he does in his own presence, but for what he is seeing and asking when he is in one of the other rooms with the other artists. This is describing a shop that is very much like a family where everyone is supportive of each other from a growth perspective. No one throws their ego around. No one makes it a competition.
So I’ll close with just one addition to Dave’s message to the group of untrained tattooers trying to teach other untrained tattooers; seek out a true mentor. Seek out a shop where you can observe the healthy characteristics I just described. If you are on your own then it is literally the blind leading the blind, or in this case, the untrained leading the untrained. Go to a shop where you can grow. Go to a shop where you can learn. Allow yourself to be accountable. And there is always the unspoken accountability of being in a shop.
As always, feel free to discuss this further. We love your thoughts and comments.
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