I was inspired by a person commenting on my Using Pigskin to Practice Tattooing post to write a new post about the apprenticeship aspect of tattooing. His comment...
"I fully agree with the apprenticeship but most shops refuse to have apprentices and if they do they will pick the cute little girl with no art talent over a guy with art talent. Or they want 10, 20 thousand up front with no guarantee they will even teach you. Have had a couple friends burned on that one."
...comes from one side of the window, looking in, on the tattoo apprenticeship. He is also not incorrect.
Let me start right-off and say that getting an apprenticeship is a vastly superior way to learn to tattoo. As a shop owner I would ask about a potential tattooer's apprenticeship (Surprise! Most shops do not) but the lack of an apprenticeship would not be a deciding factor in hiring. I am a strong advocate of apprenticeships in tattooing, but there are some realities that need to be addressed.
I want to unpack the comment above into key, distinct points:
- Most shops refuse to take on apprentices.
- Women are "preferred" apprentices.
- Art talent and tattooing.
- The apprenticeship price-tag.
- NO guarantees.
Most shops refuse to take on apprentices.
There are a number of business factors which must be taken into account when taking on an apprentice. A tattooer teaching someone new is potentially training their future competition. Even if they work at the same shop, they are drawing from the same local pool of tattoo-clients as the tattoo-mentor. For the shop the apprentice is another mouth to feed; taking up space, using resources, and not generating for a year or more any income. The apprentice will also be a reflection of the tattoo-mentor and shop, good or bad. This is inherent to both the apprentice's skill as a tattooer and their personality. A bad tattooer talking about how they learned from your shop is just has negatively impactful as a tattooer with a bad attitude talking about his being one of your apprentices.
This means that the reason a shop or tattooer takes on an apprentice must outweigh or offset the business risks. Tattooing is a craft (more on this later), and a craftsmen may ultimately wish to see the craft continue beyond them and to pass on the techniques they have developed to improve that craft and keep it vibrant. Taking on an apprentice could be a way of ensuring that the knowledge acquired by a tattooer is not lost.
When selecting a person to pass their knowledge to, a tattooer will naturally want that person to share their ideals about tattooing and have similar perspectives as the tattooer about life in general. They want the apprentice to be a known-quantity, not an unknown variable. Will the apprentice promote the tattoo-mentor and the shop regardless of the outcome of their apprenticeship? Will they appreciate both the opportunity being given and the knowledge being passed? Apprentices tend to be drawn from a circle of family members and close friends, people who the tattoo-mentor or the shop have an established relationship with and can be counted upon.
Women are "preferred" apprentices.
Shops selecting an apprentice operate to a degree on a risk vs reward model. If offering an apprenticeship and considering an "unknown" for the role, what does that person bring to the business that outweighs their risk? You may have noted that the pronouns I have been using for most this post are male. Tattooing is a primarily male industry; the majority of tattooers and tattoo-clients are men. This is in no way an endorsement of men as tattooers over women, this is just the reality.
That said, for the first 6 months to a year of the apprenticeship, the new apprentice will mainly be "shop-help". They will clean, run errands, manage customers, and observe the tattooers and their practices. For the business, this shop-help is better than free, the apprentice may be paying for the privilege. Given, again, that the client base is primarily male, there is an (unfortunate, I know) appeal to having a woman at the counter, especially if she is attractive. An apprentice will receive tattoos over the course of their apprenticeship, and a female model offers something different in a tattooer's portfolio. A woman in the shop will also potentially increase the female clientele for the shop, drawing in additional income.
I cannot say that it is the right choice to select a woman as an apprentice for that reason alone, but I recognize the factors that go into the decision. A woman being taken on as an apprentice should be concerned about a shop or tattooer accepting them because they are a woman (the sleaze-factor goes way up under those circumstances), but I would also not fault a person, man or woman, for doing what they needed to get to where they wanted to be.
Art talent and tattooing.
Tattooing is a craft. You can bring a great deal of artistry and nuance to a craft, but at the end of the day it is still at its base a mechanical process. The primary goal of an apprenticeship is to impart to the apprentice how to execute the mechanical aspects of the tattoo proficiently and safely. As art relies on talent, it largely cannot be taught. There are technical aspects to drawing, and especially to tattoo design (tattoos are meant to be applied to the body and factors related to the "canvass" must be taken into consideration) that can be taught, but the ability to do something with those tools is inherent to the person using them.
In short, a good artist does not a good tattooer make. It can definitely help, and most tattooer/shops will seek out and train talent if they want an apprentice, but it is well down the list of priorities.
The apprenticeship price-tag.
$10-20,000 sounds about right. The apprentice is getting the equivalent of a technical degree, skills and tools they will be able to use to generate income, even go into business for themselves, for the rest of their lives. The comment that inspired this blog stated that the payment was expected "up front", and while that is often far from reality it could be because once the apprentice is shown how to set-up a workstation and machine and the basic principles of using a tattoo machine they could (and frequently do) choose to end their apprenticeship and start tattooing.
Often badly, but they could be on their way.
In my experience, the "up front" requirement, and even the price-tag, is not set in stone. The potential apprentice is an unknown factor. Before a tattooer or shop invests their time and effort in training someone, they need to be able to gauge if that person will appreciate what is being offered. Will they be committed to the training? Do they have the needed respect for the industry to be worth the effort? How bad do they want to be a tattooer? How creative can this person be to overcome the obstacles to get to their goal? How tenacious are they?
$10-20,000 is by no means out of the question for a tattoo apprenticeship, and could easily be earned back in the first year as a tattooer. Payment plans are a more common arrangement, and may be offered to a potential apprentice who demonstrates the necessary drive and tenacity.
The comment also mentioned a couple of friends being "burned" by paying this fee and learning nothing. It is typical for an apprentice to be nothing but shop-help for many months to a year. While ideally they will be shown some things directly, it is expected that the apprentice is practicing drawing tattoos (distinct from other types of art), learn to manage the day-to-day tattoo-shop operations and customer service, and to observe the tattooer's techniques. How does a tattooer move about their station? Set-up and tear-down practices for the station? What do they do with their hands while tattooing? A person who spends even a day in a tattoo shop and learns nothing is not cut-out to be a tattooer.
The tattoo apprenticeship is an agreement between a tattoo-mentor/shop and the apprentice. The mentor/shop will teach in the manner the tattoo-mentor/shop sees fit the basic skills needed to tattoo in a safe and technically proficient manner. The apprentice will abide by the additional terms of the agreement and learn from the mentor/shop the techniques taught in the manner that mentor/shop trains the apprentice.
There are no guarantees. The first few months are a trial period in most apprenticeships. How bad does the apprentice want to be a tattooer? Are they willing to show-up, day-after-day, cleaning, greeting customers, and watching tattoos happen? What do they do with their relatively unstructured time? Are they practicing drawing, studying any available materials, observing and asking questions, or do they mostly just stand around and take-up space waiting for someone else to take initiative? If they are the latter, it is likely that the mentor/shop will wish to end the apprenticeship.
Even if the apprentice shows initiative and drive and makes it to the active phase of the apprenticeship, there is no guarantee that the apprentice will learn what is being taught. Does the apprentice try to take short-cuts in setting up a tattoo station? Does he have poor interpersonal skills that come to light? Is there some unknown impediment to their learning the practices behind tattooing? These issues are not the responsibility of the mentor/shop, and may be reason to end the apprenticeship.
Once the apprenticeship is completed, there is no guarantee that the newly minted tattooer will have a position with the shop they apprenticed under. They may even have a non-compete clause in their agreement with their mentor/shop to practice tattooing only outside a certain area some distance from the shop for a certain number of years (a clause that is less frequent now-a-days and has often been nigh impossible to enforce).
As the shop cannot guarantee that the apprentice will meet the expectations placed upon them, no guarantee can be made by the shop to the apprentice.
All that said...
Tattooing is a craft. It is important that I re-iterate that point. Tattooing is a craft. Learning a craft through the mentor-ship of a seasoned professional is vastly superior to learning said craft on one's own.
In the tattoo industry, for all its benefits, the apprenticeship model is not always ideal and not always adhered to. I have known many tattooers who are highly skilled and in demand who learned tattooing completely on their own. I know people who became tattooers by opening a tattoo-shop and learning from the tattooers they hired. The reality is that the apprenticeship tradition has been more of a means of control in our industry, a means of reducing potential competition. The availability of both tattoo equipment and information/training means that the genie is out of the bottle. Skill and drive are now the determining factors in a tattooer's success among competitors.
I will not endorse people learning to tattoo outside the apprenticeship model, but I recognize that not all mentors are equal. Not every apprenticeship is offered with the purest intentions. There are no shortage of stories of apprenticeships being offered for the wrong reason, primarily that $10-20,000 price-tag discussed above. There are tattooers who have little business teaching others; their own practices may be lacking, their skills may not be developed enough to offer any real insight to an apprentice. While an apprenticeship in my mind may be the ideal way to learn, it would be foolish to suggest it is the only way.
The bottom line is this. A tattoo shop is seeking to hire a tattooer. Candidates are interviewed. Their portfolios are reviewed. They are asked to perform an audition tattoo. Based on their performance, they may be hired. How they learned to tattoo is rarely a part of the conversation. A self-taught tattooer should probably not brag about that fact, but being self-taught has not prevented tattooers from being successful.