Dispatches from the Tattoo Shop by James R. Tuck

James R. Tuck

I’m a tattoo artist, have been for 21 years now. That’s near half my life. Tattooing is one of those things that is more than what it is. It marks you, gets down in your DNA, becomes as much a part of you as the hours of ink you wind up sinking into your skin. You live one of the few artistic lives that can actually pay most of your bills, most of the time, but it is a continual war of commerce against creativity. You make art but you make it on demand for people who mostly act as if they don’t appreciate what they are getting. It is a lifestyle that rewards talent and hustle over hard work and skill, and so you become very good at working people and making flashes of inspiration into instant art that connects with people. You can be a bad artist with mediocre skill at tattooing and maintain a large, happy clientele simply by being entertaining.

It’s a hustle.

Make people happy, even for a moment, and they will give you their money.

But along the way, you do deal with some jokers, looky-loos I call them, who will never get tattooed, or at least won’t get tattooed by you.

Here are some exchanges I have had in this job.

Dispatches from The Tattoo Shop #3.

Me: How can I help you today?
Lookyloo: Hey I want this. (Describes a battle damaged Boba Fett helmet about eight inches high on his calf, approximately $300-$400 worth of work.)
Me: That’s a cool design. I’d love to do it.
Lookyloo: Oh, I don’t want that today, first I want this (ten minutes of solid fill in on an existing tattoo). How much?
Me: I can do that for $60.
Lookyloo: Ummmmm…I’ll be back.

Dispatches from The Tattoo Shop #831.

Just outside the shop at 12:03 (we open at noon) there is an older man pulling on the door handle and looking inside the dark shop. I get out of my car.
Man: You open?
Me: I will be in a moment.
Man: Sign says you’re supposed to be open.
Me: Sign beside that one says no loitering but here you are.

Dispatches from The Tattoo Shop #37.

Guy walks in, we do the “hey/how you doin’/how can I help you” dance. Guy pulls up his shirt to show me a rib tattoo of eight fancy Old English letters about two inches tall. (For perspective, about 2-2.5 hours of work.)

Guy: How much you do this for?
Me: I didn’t do that.
Guy: Something just like this then.
Me: Tattoo like that would cost about $200.
Guy: Really?!?
Me: I swear to god.
Guy: I paid $120 for this.
Me: I don’t care.
Guy: You don’t care?
Me: I care about that as much as you care about who does it. You didn’t look at my portfolio or even ask my name.
Guy: What’s your name?
Me: $200 is my name.
Guy: Ah, okay.

Kid comes into the shop with a gift certificate I donated to a charity, wants to spend it, only it, on a deathly hallows tattoo. It’s fifty bucks so sure, no worries. Take about ten minutes. I’m setting up to do the tattoo.

Kid: How much do you charge for an apprenticeship?
Me: I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve taught all the people I’m going to.
Kid: But if you were …
Me: I’m not.
Kid: But …
Me: Twenty-five thousand dollars.
Kid: Okay.
Time passes, we are getting ready to do his tattoo. He has already asked about the stencil maker: what it is, how much it costs, where you get one. I have not answered any of these. I sit down to do the tattoo.
Kid: So the shop by my house charges too much for an apprenticeship.
Me: How much do they charge?
Kid: Two thousand.
Me: That’s nothing to give you a career.
Kid: I have basically everything I need to tattoo.
Me: Stop talking.
Kid: What?
Me: You don’t have an autoclave.
Kid: A what?
Me: Exactly, the most crucial piece of equipment you need to tattoo safely and you don’t even know what it is.
Kid: Well … .
Me: Shut up. I’m not talking to you about tattooing. Don’t say anything else, sit there, get this tattoo and then get out.
Kid says nothing for the rest of the tattoo.

And finally:

Dispatches from The Tattoo Shop #6.3. (Subtitled: It’s Not Just Me.)

While in Atlanta I popped into Southern Star Tattoo’s Little Five Points location where I heard this exchange. To preface, the shop is lovely and big and has literally hundreds of designs on the walls in the form of flash, posters, paintings, etc. They have a counter full of portfolios for each artist, one of their tattoo work and one of artwork drawn or painted by them. Three girls are at this counter when I walk in. The artist is not with a customer and greets me, we exchange pleasantries, and he tells me to let him know if I need anything. Then he turns to the girls.

Artist: You look like you have a question.
Girl: Well …
Artist: What can I answer?
Girl: Do you have any art?
Artist (looking around the shop pointedly): Honey, you’re surrounded by art.
Girl: No, not that kind, like art done by an artist.
Artist: If someone makes art they are an artist. Are you wanting to see art by the people who work here?
Girl: Yah.
Artist: That entire counter in front of you has all the portfolios, both tattoos and art. All those books are things done by us.
Girl: (moving books around but doesn’t open any of them): Um, I don’t really want to look through all these, can you just show me art I might want to get done.
Artist (after long pause): I doubt it.

That’s life as a tattoo artist. I have a large, very cool clientele that I love and they are not these folks. These folks are something else entirely. But I love it; tattooing has given me a fine life, a fine wife, and has been a large part of who and what I am. These exchanges are funny, they get great response on Facebook, but don’t let them take away from the magic of getting tattooed. The decision to permanently change your appearance with art is a powerful thing. One last Dispatch I will close with to illustrate this.

Dispatches from The Tattoo Shop #92:

Devin comes in. I did a tattoo on Devin a few weeks earlier. It was a fairly basic, but cool, piece of flash, took a little under an hour. We talked during the tattoo, but just chit chat, basic get-to-know-you chit chat that happens upon first meeting. I recognize him when he comes in, we greet, and he chooses another tattoo for his other forearm. I prepare it and we sit down to tattoo.

Me: So, how’s shit been since last time?
Devin: Well, not that good.
Me: Oh no, sorry to hear that, man.
Devin: Yeah, I just left the doctor’s office where they told me I had lung cancer.
Me: Damn, I am sorry to hear that.
Devin: Yeah, last time we were here you told me about your dad and when I got the news this was the first place I wanted to come and you were the first person I wanted to tell.
Me: When did they tell you?
Devin (looking at his watch) About a half hour ago.
Me: So you literally came straight here.
Devin: Yes. I’m glad you were working.
Me: Me too man, me too.

Apparently in our first conversation I had mentioned my father passing of lung cancer, I don’t remember that part. It wouldn’t have been a heavy conversation, I don’t do that with new people, and there was no indication in that first conversation that Devin had lung cancer, so that wasn’t the trigger. But something in that experience made this man decide that I was the first person he wanted to talk to when he was given what was basically a death sentence by the doctor. I was honored and stunned at this moment. I tattooed Devin for a few more months until the chemo made it too hard for him to continue coming in.