At one time, children dreamed of being singers and footballers. Now they are more likely to say they want to become tattooists. At least it’s a more realistic goal but it hints of the kind of glamour afforded to tattooists by those that have grown up submersed in a subculture that saturates their lives, both online and off, with tattooing and other such modern phenomena.
Not that the desire to be a tattooist has motivated these scores of school leavers into learning how to draw, or discipline themselves with the right kind of attitude toward hard work, but then they never bothered learning to sing or take football seriously either. Tattooing has not escaped the decline in standards, and tattooists are forced to suffer droves of young hopefuls knocking on doors, imagining they can get a job with the barest minimum effort. Not surprisingly, like everybody else that wants a job doing well, tattooists hire from the continent. I’m afraid British youth have become so unemployable that not even tattooists can tolerate them. And out of such unemployability, has arisen an explosion of British teenage scratchers – those who simply buy a tattoo kit online and set about decorating themselves like toddlers crayoning a bedroom wall.
A mother once brought her teenage son to see me to ask for advice on being a tattooist. He told me proudly that he never missed an episode of Miami Ink and he was already teaching himself at home, and was just wondering if I could give him some advice on technique. Not only would wandering into a tattoo shop and announcing you tattoo illegally at home have once gotten your fingers broken, but he proceeded to roll up his sleeve and show the most horrific scribbled mess I’ve ever seen on somebody so young. His arm was almost completely black. The parts that were vaguely recognizable as shapes were so badly drawn they didn’t even merit being on paper let alone skin.
A few months later, I saw a girl again for more work on her tattoos. She could only book in several weeks apart because she had to save up from her zero hours contract. Previously she had told me about her dream to one day become a tattooist. She watched Miami Ink all the time. (Yes, that show is largely the reason the middle class are getting tattooed. For the working class the number one reason is David Beckham) Kat Von D , the shows feisty tattooed heroine was her role model, her gothic appearance is seen as attractive to emulate by today’s youth. I recommended she learn to draw first and she had promised to do so and bring in her art work, but each time I saw her, she was ‘going to get round to it’ and yet somehow she talked about becoming a tattooist as though the work would manifest itself. In truth, there is no longer any need to learn to draw to tattoo, a surprising amount of people are perfectly amazed by tattoos, no matter how badly they are done, they don’t appear to notice.
I don’t feel tattooing is an entirely bad influence in that sense, I’m always glad to see people from deprived backgrounds learning to draw, and taking a personal skill so seriously and for many it represents a decent living without the expense of university, so it’s not entirely stupidity that made them want to get in on the act. I have seen a man who took up tattooing go from bricklayer to homeowner with a jeep in less than five years, and a barmaid switch to tattooing and achieve international fame and a world tour within eighteen months. There is big money in it. With prices around £60-£100 an hour, it’s not unknown for tattooists to take home a thousand pounds a day. The teenagers who buy the tattoo machines therefore, provided they charge their friends, will begin to see an instant revenue from a small investment. ‘Instant cash for long term regret’ is an equation that many customers are short sighted enough to fall for.
It was several more months before the girl I’d advised to start drawing came back to see me. However, this day she looked a little hesitant as she rolled her sleeve up. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I bought my own tattoo kit and had a go on myself’ she said, revealing what looked like two testicles but were apparently cherries. ‘It’s gone horribly wrong’, she said sadly ‘Can you sort it out?’
It reminded me of another girl that came in needing cover ups all over her arms and legs after receiving a tattoo kit off her parents for Christmas. Excitedly she had set it all up, switched it on and immediately began tattooing the palm of her hand, presumably with her smiling parents watching as she altered her appearance and job prospects forever. Quite why an eighteen year old girl would want ‘Fuck You’ tattooed on her palm is beyond me. I had to ask why. ‘Oh it’s supposed to be a joke’ she said, ‘You know, like…if someone annoys me I can put my hand up and say ‘talk to the hand!’’ These stories are commonplace among the working class, and they eroded my initial love of the subject, first into doubt, and then horror of what I began to feel was unethical.
Luckily for that particular girl, palms do not tattoo easily, nor the soles of the feet, upon which some tattooists practice. The ink will usually disappear but this is not so for the rest of the body, or the youth that of many of our teenagers are now so carelessly erasing themselves.