What You Thought You Knew About Tattoo

“When you do a bad tattoo, people hate you for the rest of your life,” said Mel Black, a musician and tattoo artist working out of Flying Squid Ink in Houston.

“But you know what? Bread and butter: fixing bad tattoos. All day.

I could have an entire portfolio of just reworks and cover-ups. People don’t like spending money and so they get cheap shit they think is good and then one day they’re like ‘Oh shit, I have this garbage on my arm that’s representing me? I’m not a garbage person, I’m a badass person; I don’t want poo-poo on my arms, I want something that is awesome and beautiful, you know what I mean?”

(Photo below courtesy of Mel Mo BlacK)

Tattoo the World

The world of tattooing has changed drastically in the past decade as the practice has exploded in popularity. According to a 2015 poll, 47% of millennials in the US have at least one tattoo, a trend that signals a societal shift in the way that body ink is perceived. With even professional jobs becoming more accepting of tattoos, tattoo artists are busier than ever. But with new shops opening all over the nation, Black notes the competition in cities can get intense.

“It totally happens with shops in close proximity to one another. On Westheimer [for example], there is a shop, and there could be another shop across the street, and on the corner… and they’ll price bid each other. Clients are bouncing from shop to shop to get pricing and these tattooers are getting pissy at other shops,” said Black.

“This guy I know used to own a shop on Westheimer and these guys opened up a shop right next door. Which is fuckin’ rude, right? So not only did they do that, they didn’t come over and introduce themselves. They didn’t say hey, my name is so and so… Which is like, try your best not to have fucking bad blood, especially if the shop next to you has been there for however long, right? Seniority. Seniority matters in tattooing so much. So it’s like, this guy who owns the shop, he’s pissed. He goes next door [to the new shop] and there’s the display case, right? And he just whips his balls out, sticks ‘em right on the display case and said some shit like, ‘Send “so and so” my fuckin’ regards.’”

That’s to say nothing of even the work a tattoo artist has to put into promoting themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Ricky Cogburn, co-owner of Main Street tattoo in League City, described how in the social media era, it’s even more important to keep on your toes.

“I’m always constantly trying to interact with my followers. You have to engage,” said Cogburn. “Taking care of your story, constantly putting out paintings or producing tattoos to show people what you’re doing. If you look bored or look slow all the time, you’re gonna look lazy or nobody wants to get tattooed by you. You have to put forth the image that you’re busy all the time and that you want to work. Even now, I’m telling people, ‘Hey, I’ll do paintings for you.’ You’ve got to hustle.”

(Photo below courtesy of Ricky Cogburn)

It’s a challenge even in the best of times, and with the pandemic shutting down non-essential businesses like tattoo shops, it’s even more difficult for tattoo artists to support themselves.

“We’re shut down. Everybody’s shut down. We’re not considered an essential business, which is accurate. Tattooing is a luxury,” said Cogburn. “And it sucks. There’s no back-up plan. My employees, they’re not required to pay rent to us. It’s commission based, right? So there’s nothing we can do for them. They’re responsible for their own taxes as independent contractors. There’s no retirement, there’s no 401k. I’m not even eligible for the stimulus. We’re looking into that small business loan thing, but that’s still money you have to pay back.”

An anonymous tattoo artist described how some tattooers have resorted to doing work in their own homes, even though it’s currently illegal, in order to maintain even a minimal revenue stream among the huge spike in unemployment caused by the nation-wide quarantine. The source states that it’s something they’ve only done once in their career, back when they were still learning. It stands yet to be seen how the current situation will develop for tattoo artists as a whole and how people in all walks of life will manage if the stay-home orders continue in the coming months.

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