Finding your tribe in the tattoo industry today

Kat Niall 1

Kat Winifred, Photo by Niall Patterson

Bristol-based tattoo artist Kat Winifred has been tattooing for 3 years. As 2015 draws to a close, she takes the opportunity to look back at her own experiences as an artist, and explore whether her own struggles are representative of the industry as a whole.

Words: Kat Winifred

An artist’s dream job is to be able to be able to make a living from their skills… but can this dream ever be made a reality? For a tattoo artist, it certainly can, but life as a tattoo artist isn’t without its struggles.

After reflecting back on my own experiences, I spoke to some other UK tattoo artists to see what struggles they encountered, and what we can learn from it.

For artists wanting to work as tattoo artists, it’s no secret that tattooing is a tough industry to break into. Those seeking an apprenticeship put in many hours to build up a strong and solid portfolio, often only to be knocked back countless times by tattoo studios for various reasons.

When a studio is willing to take an apprentice, it’s not always the opportunity it seems to be on the surface. Often, aspiring tattoo artists are found working for studio artists who fail to keep their promises of teaching them the skills they need to be a tattoo artist. I spoke to one artist who had experienced this…

“I was an ‘apprentice’ at a studio for 4 years. I was told I would be taught tattooing by both tattooists in the studio. However about a year into my ‘apprenticeship’ I had already spent 6 months sleeping on the studio floor, running countless personal errands for the tattooists, including selling drugs for them and even being instructed to threaten other local tattooists. Whenever I became bold enough to ask when I would take the first steps of my apprenticeship, they would either become aggressive or kept stalling, telling me that I would start learning in a few months. It took me a further 3 years to finally break away from this studio as I had not been taught anything relating to tattooing.”

Hannya Jayne 2

Tattoo by Hannya Jayne

Another artist I spoke to paid £3,000 to the owner of a tattoo studio in exchange for learning the craft, only to receive sexually explicit text messages over the following weeks. Needless to say she ended up saying goodbye to her apprenticeship as well as the money she had paid.

It isn’t normal to pay for an apprenticeship, but as there are no visibly set guidelines for tattoo apprenticeships, it makes it easy for people to take advantage of aspiring tattoo artists.

I have heard many stories of apprentices being mistreated, which creates a fine line between how much they want to stick it out to get to where they want to be, and how much are they willing to be taken advantage of in order to get there.

Obviously not all studios treat their apprentices in this way, and these stories and quotes represent just one strand of experiences. So where and why is this sort of thing happening?

“What’s a real shame is when you see a studio all about the money – taking on apprentices as free help rather than ever teaching them anything which is completely against morals more than anything.”
Will Gee – Tattoo Artist

Will Gee 1

Tattoo by Will Gee

It can be disappointing that this attitude is present in tattooing when the same behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated in other industries.

The struggle often doesn’t end when an apprenticeship is completed either. Typically a tattoo artist is self-employed, either working on commission or by paying a fixed fee to ‘rent a chair’ within a studio.

“I think perhaps in a time not too long ago, tattooing was different. Tattooing was rebellious and rebellion is easy come, easy go.”
Hannya Jayne – Tattoo Artist

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Tattoo by Hannya Jayne

Earlier this year I was working in a tattoo studio paying ‘rent’ every week. This rent excluded needles and materials I need to tattoo as well as providing my own clientele.

Being a tattooist isn’t as simple as going to work and getting paid, essentially you are self-employed and this is where the lines can blur in terms of employment rights.

One day, I received a text from the owner of the shop saying that as his apprentice was progressing well, there was no longer space for me to work in the shop. Regardless of his motives I thought it was strange that he didn’t even pick up the phone to talk about it.

I was due to leave for maternity in the following months so I was up for being flexible and dropping my hours (still paying the same rent) so I could continue clients’ work with the apprentice sharing the space with me.

I was upset that I couldn’t have a conversation with the owner to come to an agreement that suited us both, instead I was left hurt by the way it had been handled.

I found it very hard to let my customers down as I pride myself on being reliable and on time for my clients. I had to cancel bookings I had made because I suddenly had nowhere to work from. Finding somewhere to tattoo from when I was due to take maternity leave didn’t put me in a employable position to other tattoo studios.

I am lucky my clients were understanding but it has had a negative impact on my business.

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Tattoo by Kat Winifred

This is an industry ran by giving your word. I haven’t ever seen a contract and it appears I am not alone in that since speaking to other tattoo artists.

There should be contracts in place as common practice. If I rent an art studio, I would have a contract. Freelance illustrators, graphic designers, why should tattooing be any different?

Tattooing as an industry has boomed in the past decade, but employment practices haven’t moved with the times in the same way.

I spoke with Will Gee of Monsters Art Emporium who believes that there are three types of studios:

  1. Studios that are run by an artist that has a true passion for the art and always wants to push the envelope
  2. Studios that are run by someone who isn’t an artist and tend to have a focus on income and pushing out work as quickly as possible
  3. Studios run by a non-artist that have a focus on the art and passion… the owner has a genuine interest and looks after the artists who work in the studio like family

Will has worked in the second type of studio, and experienced many disheartening incidents there, including being accused of stealing equipment which led him to make the decision to finally leave.

“These days things always need signing just to cover your own back, even when I do my time-lapse videos I get people to sign a release form… but that’s just the modern day way of things, just like any other industry!”
Will Gee

I think its smart to be proactive like Will – creating your own contracts or paperwork that serve to protect both you and where you work. People who do this are contributing to create a more professional code of conduct within the industry.

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Tattoo by Kat Winifred

Tattoo artist Hannya Jayne spoke to me about working in a tattoo studio where the reception team, along with the other tattooists, were the on the receiving end of temper tantrums and aggressive outbursts.

Erratic behaviour had become a normal part of the working week which didn’t make it a positive environment to be in, let alone work in.

“Being unfairly fired was something we were all aware of and did become a concern. This lasted about 4 years, but it had a massive effect on the number of customers coming through the door. We had gone from having long queues down the road for walk-ins every day to having no-one turn up until 11.30am on a Saturday. Through no fault of the tattooists our earning potential had dwindled significantly, which only added to the frustrations.”

When you are self-employed your living becomes reliant on the environment you work in and Hannya isn’t the only artist I spoke to who had experienced turbulent times working within the industry.

“It’s similar to being a labourer or plasterer, whenever you’re self employed it seems to go with the territory.”

Will Gee 2

Tattoo by Will Gee

My other half is in the plumbing industry and when they employee sub-contractors, they aren’t supplied a contract and they are within their rights to fire a sub-contractor by text or phone call.

Hannya mentioned she isn’t sure if there are any similar rights to a lot of other industries in place. However the team she is now part of is very supportive of each other.

It’s important to find a positive environment to work in. When looking for an apprenticeship or tattoo artist position I would advise you to look deep under the surface. It’s not just about if they like you and your work, it’s about if you like the people you will be working with too.

Being in the tattoo industry isn’t just about having a job to make money, it’s about so much more. It’s about standing on your own two feet whilst working as a team. Managing your own business whilst being part of a collective that encourages growth. Find your people, like-minded souls that you can grow with. Being an artist is an evolving process no matter what level you are at.

Find your tribe.

Kat Niall 2

Kat Winifred, Photo by Niall Patterson

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