A Gift in Harness
My son has always shown an uncanny artistic ability. Not just doing pretty good because of a lot of art classes, but he’s always had a puzzling ability to just sit down solo and do something quietly amazing. Never did much with it, and I couldn’t figure out a way for him to actually make a living and provide for a family from his artistic skill. Most people don’t place any value on artistic skill or the creative arts in general. They value the ability to perform well in athletic games. Hence: “starving artist”.
Well, he recently found his outlet, one which has the potential to provide a living, oddly enough. Who’s willing to pay for artwork? People who want tattoos. They don’t pay much for what they’re getting (when the artist is good), but it sure beats a lifetime of $8.25 an hour asking people if they want fries with that.
I’ve always had the assumption that to get a tattoo, all you had to do was pick a design from a book and have at it. Anchor, busty girl, skull, snake encircling sword. Some places are like that now, and the skill level to deliver varies wildly, from wince and grimace to glow. But much of the market wants original work, either fresh or, most often, a combination of elements that must somehow be combined into a coherent work worth paying for. Thing is, it’s not unusual for him to have to cough up a credible design, ready to go, in an hour. That’s not an outline, but a shaded and colored rendering, complete. Once approved, then you have to successfully transition it from paper to skin, adapting it as needed because of the radical change in media. And, you only have one shot to make it work. Your reputation will hinge on consistent success. Talk about pressure. Not an easy way to make a buck.
Then, there’s yourself to satisfy. That can be harder. The best tattooers always seems to demand more of themselves than their customers do. The application is difficult and, for the customer, painful. Skin is not paper, and when problems crop up, they must be resolved adequately and promptly. While you’re learning the tricks of the trade, making it pleasing to the customer is still a whole lot easier than satisfying yourself. You know that any skilled pro can look and instantly spot whatever imperfections remain to the accomplished eye, and that each work that you create, good or bad, will stand – as is – for decades.
That’s probably the difference between a hack and a pro. The hack does a scrawling and warpy job that winds up as humor on the internet, but he has the customer’s money and that’s all he cares about. The pro demands perfection and rarely if ever gets it, but fights for it anyway. The learning never stops. He sees work that he was proud of three years ago, and quietly kicks himself for something that he should have seen and addressed. “It’s pretty good. Could’a been better here.” That’s the odd tie I see to being really good at it: you have to be a perfectionist, but at the same time you also have to accept and genuinely let the imperfections go, or you’ll lose heart and give up on your quest. Pursue perfection, but be willing to embrace imperfection. Still, it takes more than technical excellence to make such artwork sing. It takes you in it. Without that, there’s no reason for people wanting tattoos to ask for you.
I sure couldn’t do it! But he can, and does. He’s still learning the ropes, hopefully a process that will never actually stop. Is he any good at it, and does he show further promise? You be the judge. The portrait above is of Hélio Gracie, a Brazilian martial artist (1913-2009). Start to finish, he says it took him 8 hours to hash out.