The Apprentice- What’s Missing in the Industry – Part 2

We left off our last article with our fictitious apprentice who is stuck with the task of attempting to grow inside the industry.

If you are reading this article and need to catch up, follow this link to the previous article.

Let’s try and ensure you, dear reader, know that the ambiguity of all phrasing included in this article is:

Not attempting to masculinize any statements. The words in here not intending to exclude any person(s). I utilized them because it was the easiest way to get the ideas out of my head.

The Apprentice Part 2

Here’s an excerpt from last week. I think it’s a good way to start us off.

Ha- You have made it past your first tattoo and have started learning how to draw simple designs. The shop has accepted you as one of its own and has mostly left you to figure out what to do next. Your career has begun, but you have little knowledge of what to do here.

You actively seek out others to help you better understand the why’s and hows of the industry, but something is missing.

You, the young apprentice, have so many questions and little knowledge of where to find an answer.

While you are getting confident on smaller designs, there have been requests for larger-scale work that you do not feel confident enough to take on. While this lack of confidence is not outwardly expressed, you attempt and fail at multiple complex designs, learning with each mistake.

Journeyman Status, so long apprentice

 In a Western or American trade talk, the stage after the apprenticeship is becoming a journeyman. A journeyman has this designation because the person in question has enough knowledge to go forth and work for another business or master. They journey away from the master crafts person and, sometimes for years at a time, work day-by-day. (The word Journee” is French for a day)

The craftsman is not competent enough to work by themselves yet but is well enough on their way to breaking down the formulaic process of the trade and working towards becoming a master. They are working at it a day at a time.

I keep popping back to the idea that the tattoo artist shouldn’t have many questions about the functional aspects of tattooing when they have moved past the apprentice stage. The foundation based on what they do and how they do it should be strong enough that new questions or problems can be figured out through intuition. There should be confidence in the ability of the post-apprentice student that they can understand how to move forward. There shouldn’t be questions that pop up in daily practice that can’t be answered with a little thought.

Dear apprentice, this is where tattoos go to die.

I have an issue with the structure of wandering and practicing your trade. In an altruistic society, there is no doubt that the master of a young apprentice will give the student a proper working knowledge of the industry, and they will be confident in their outward-facing career after training.

In the scenario we discussed last week, the apprentice was left out to dry, alone, and guessing. The apprentice isn’t being given the freedom to explore their craft or trade. They are unable to move quickly and develop advanced skills and take less time focusing on the fundamentals that are becoming an extension of themselves.

What they are left with is focusing on the simplest of skills as there are little practiced actions and confidence in their ability.

When that person goes into the world and expects something so rewarding and defining that they actively change their person through training, self-modification or re-identifying, the assumed result is so great that their hopes and dreams should come true.

The critique starts here.

This is the stage of learning I find most modern tattoo artists get stuck inside. There is a need to succeed and a drive that is powerful for those who have sacrificed (little physically in comparison to a common Japanese tattoo apprenticeship, but perhaps greater due to the promise of commitment, hope for a better future, and a lack of societal input that brings a grounded sense of self and aspirations) that forces the self-described journeyperson in tattooing to settle.

So, what would you do if you were that person? You were made a promise so great that you uprooted and rearranged your life. You worked hard and focused your entire being, only to find that the result was a total disruption of your previously wonderful conception (tattooing). Would you feel depressed? Perhaps you would feel slighted? If you didn’t give in and quit, you would definitely settle.

What do I mean by settling?

The apprentice chooses a style – Tattooing and its downfall

Most Western tattoo apprentices today face this crisis (most or some at least). When they reach the crossroads of quitting or pushing forward, they lack the ability and knowledge to adapt properly. They choose to limit themselves to what they mimic rather than attempt to fail any further. They choose a style.

What’s a Style?

In my limited understanding as a tattooing journeyman, a style is supposed to be an expression of the individual artist. It is the embodiment of the artist’s creativity that has been made their own. It is identifiable, unique, and fluid. Damned near every artist that has graced an art museum shows how work is fluid, evolves, and has a unique stamp that attaches it to their soul. That was written by an artistic person and was a bit ethereal, so here is another breakdown that doesn’t stray too far from the real world.

If a billionaire has a private collection, you can bet they have some legendary piece of art that comes from an artist who had a developed style. Monet, Mucha, Da Vinci, Michelangelo; these masters studied for most of their lives and, so damned slowly, a style emerged for each artist, sometimes it evolved as they aged and went nearly blind. Their style was an expression of that person and how they viewed the world. It was how they interacted with what was their life.

Brand Awareness?

Style nowadays is a brand. An advertising method. It is something that precedes you and gives you a pretense to work as a tattoo artist.

When you ask an artist about their style, you ask what they are limited to or what they feel most comfortable with. This style excludes everything else that is encompassed in tattooing. In my experience, and on average from what I have heard, Tattooers of a few years will laser focus on a single “style” and become damned good at it. They neglect any sort of education that comes from failure but attempt to step outside of that comfort zone they have built in their style.

Yes, I know that as an artist, you have a responsibility to do the best you can for every client.

I agree.

The apprentice – a journey to understanding

The issue I take with that sentiment is that you or I claim to have a vast working knowledge of how to tattoo when we speak with a client. That is an assumption that is drizzled into every consultation or email and placates the clients into believing we have the job covered when really, there is a huge gap in the knowledge base that is required to tattoo effectively.

How do you know that you are competent to be doing your work? Is it because your clients love their work, you have a large social media following, or you continually pay your bills? The designation of competent is to be applied by the master, not your environment. Because you know how to use a single liner grouping, a couple of shaders and only rotary machines don’t make you competent. If that is your style, you must branch out and experience more.

This idea is leaving me a bit flustered by all this, and I feel that it may be coming out in my writing.

Why put a heading here? Style.

I am a bit tired as I write this, and I am out of town working far away from my babies and wife. I really have no reason to roll off into a non sequitur about how crap styles are. They really aren’t. Really. The companies with the money to market push a branded lifestyle approach to the industry. We have seen historically with companies like Harley Davidson (click the link for a story about the history of the companies branding) where you create a lifestyle, sell it to the under-educated masses, jack up the price of everything, and slowly burn away.

Companies that have come and gone in the tattoo industry are numerous, but the companies that have staying power now don’t give you technical information; they sell you a branded image of what you could be if you buy their product. Pigments, Machines, Power Supplies… IT’S NUTS.

Back to the idea of styles…

Style Positives

The positives are that we have seen “styles” develop into something unique in themselves. When there is dedication to a specific style, where you understand the nuance of every single line and have tattooed it so often on so many types of skin, you can start to assume a working knowledge of the tattoo client(s) and the industry as a whole. Hell, it only takes 10,000 hours to work towards mastery! 10,000 hours is roughly equivalent to 20 hours a week for 10 years.

Wait… 10 years. Shuhari strikes again!

Where is the focus of that mastery being applied to those who are new to the industry?

Is it towards a single interpretation and the application of art, or is it towards the understanding of the craft?

Styles as a camouflage

Our tattoo art is now more like music with sub-classifications that disperse the art form into these small punk-rock niches that you need a doctorate to decode. It is rad to see how tattooing moved into this designation as art. It can be a bit confusing though

My style is a bit trad, nouveau watercolor realism with a hint of trash polka.”

What the heck?! I have no idea what that means…

If we choose to select a style as a way that a person identifies their art for others to understand, we have removed the idea that art is a form of self-expression. You are taking your art and making it mundane so that the audience in front of you understands you.

Tattooing has some concrete rules. Skin is not a canvas; it isn’t a sheet of paper. It is part of a being that lives and breathes. (hopefully, no cadaver tattooing is going on.) Treating your tattoo(s) as a piece of art steals ownership away from the collector (the person you are tattooing). What law permits us to patent and market another person outward facing being and claim it as our own?

You have no right to that which is another’s. You cannot copyright a tattoo.

The style pitfall

“Style” choices result from an under-educated representative group of people in the industry.

Regardless of what a master may choose to do, they are experienced.

They have found and can fully express their style.

The younger and less educated populace in the industry is pigeonholing themselves by choosing to limit their experience. They work within one type of imagery, not seeing or studying all others that are available. By choosing a single style of tattooing, they cannot complete the necessary journey to become a master.

A comparison for the new apprentice

We can assume that a person cannot be a master if they focus on a single aspect of it. Look at those inside any craft that focus on a single aspect of it:

The Potter

Pottery – A potter can just make bowls. They are great. They can make so many bowls that they intuit the ability to make vases, stemware, wall sconces, whatever. They have achieved mastery. That mastery gives an innate ability to intuit how to do other things inside the craft. That intuition is not the same as mastery.

I would argue the master of making bowls is at a journeyman’s level for all other aspects of the trade.

Think of it in another way, for the outside in:

The Plumber

If you had a plumber who could only install sinks but not toilets, pipes, or anything else plumbing related. Would you trust them to do the plumbing in your house?

What if they laid these amazing sets of sinks in your restrooms before any pipes were run? They may look good, but a Master Plumber comes in and surveys the damage. This master begins to point out simple flaws that make perfect sense when explained to you:

  • What’s been installed is in the wrong place.
  • Whatever they had used for the project was the wrong size
  • They don’t match the style of pipes you are putting in.
  • They clash with the rest of the house.

While the work done may look perfect to an uneducated fan or client, it takes a master to be able to see the bigger picture.

This idea shows why the masters are left to teach the new generation, not the journeymen. What we currently see is the journeymen are bundled into a group that utilizes a herd mind to expand the craft while others are left to fend for themselves.

The Journey (Journee’)

They go forth, work together and mix the master’s knowledge to break apart their understanding. What they are left with, they rebuild, and that becomes a defining aspect of their craft. Ha.

When an apprentice is forced to choose a style or quit, of course, they will bend and focus on something that will allow them to continue their journey. There is no tangible entity that tells them to quit or that they may not be made out to do any craft. There is no master.

The apprentice chooses a style as that is where they feel comfortable. Maybe it is more mirroring what they already do in their free time. It brings them joy. It is comfortable.

They were lured into the industry with wide eyes and rose-tinted glasses, and after a short time of being “trained,” they were left to fend for themselves. Even worse, they may not be left alone, but they are being told this is just the way it is. This is the aspect of tattooing that needs to change.

That took a bit; thank you for staying with me as I work these thoughts out in my head while typing them down.

How we should look at the idea of a journeyman

My critiques may be harsh. This is a total flip side to what has become the norm inside our industry in the west. I look at things this way, knowing that I am a journeyman in the industry. I am working on breaking down the techniques and aspects of the business and making them my own. This is all-encompassing for me. My focus is so spread out I often get migraines and feel like plateaus are my home, but I know that through continued efforts, my understanding will be complete and, if I am lucky enough, I can continue this process by taking on an apprentice of my own in the future.

A comparison

The idea of a journeyman is simple. Observe through your efforts, and learn through your mistakes. The mistakes you make should not be catastrophic; they should be simple. In tattooing, I would compare a mistake that you should see from a journeyman as:

Linework that could be thicker to increase contrast in a large-scale piece. You can fix that with the next sitting.

This is opposite to the idea:

You must rethink how the lines will work for a simple image after committing it to skin. You can get it right with the next client, hopefully.

Making uneducated decisions leaves a moral quandary for the uneducated artist. They are forced to become entangled with their ego, using their clientele as a “means to an end”. These errors detract from the total value there is to offer inside the industry. We should focus more on their initial training to ensure they are successful when they move into the journeyman stage. From there, the industry can secure its ability to grow in a controlled environment like a bonsai; versus unfettered growth with little direction, like a weed that chokes and kills the host.

A true apprentice – Looking at the Master

Right now, it’s Lord of the Flies out there. A renewed focus on examining the industry and actively engaging with it to improve the industry’s future needs to occur soon.

Moving forward

When seeking to improve the industry we work in, we need to lay down some ground rules. Those rules should be a unifying aspect, and all inside the industry should agree with their ideology, application, and how these rules will influence our present and future. To start, how do we engage and train those new to the industry? I know I have no place inside these discussions, as I am a journeyman and still actively trying to understand my process, but we should designate certain people whose understanding is greater than ours.

It’s time to rebuild

This is where input from masters comes into play. They should examine the aspects of what it takes to become a successful tattooist, not a successful artist. The people in question, the masters of the trade, should be at the stage where they have moved past learning through application and are thinking about the theory of what is being done. The why’s. Think of masters acting like the PhDs of the industry. They are, or maybe, focused on a specific skill or imagery but have all the foundations fully mastered. They are the minds that expand the understanding of the art, and they must choose where the trade moves in the future.

Some questions I think we should ask are:

What should you look for in an apprentice? Is it outward or inward?

Is there something that makes a good apprentice? The masters should look at themselves and see how best they can train recruits. What inside them makes them great, and how can they share it with a willing new protege? Are they focused on how the apprentice will make them look due to their natural skill, or are they confronting something in themselves by taking on an apprentice? Is there something in a person that makes them a perfect fit for this industry?

What should the master be responsible for when taking on an apprentice?

This can either be personal, physical, or something all-encompassing. What responsibilities do the masters have when they take the future of an apprentice into their hands? Do they have a responsibility as in Japan, where they educate, feed, and train the individual, or is the schooling enough of a sacrifice? If the apprentice falls behind or suffers from life’s happenings, is the master responsible for assisting the apprentice during these times?

What are the apprentice’s requirements during the training?

What is it, past the training they are willing to receive, are they required to take care of during their training? How are they going to live, work or have a family? Is there an age limit for taking on an apprentice? Do they have to feed themselves?

Should the education be adaptable to each apprentice, or should it be a static program for all to undertake?

Should we as an industry have a one-size-fits-all approach to the fundamentals of tattooing, or should there be a uniqueness to each apprentices training? Would a uniform foundation create a lack of individuality, or would it decrease the time an apprentice has to spend training, getting them into the real world seeking their place? If there is a uniform training routine, can apprentices study together if they have different masters? Should this be a foundation, school, or guild, or should it be a one-on-one experience?

How long should the training be? Is it fluid, based on the apprentice, or should there be mandatory lengths of training?

I am unsure if apprenticeships are based on the same structure as college or trade school. Should there be credits, badges, or test results if we have some formal structure?

About training… A lot of questions…

  • How should we train the apprentice?
  • Can it be based on the individual and their strengths/weaknesses, or should everyone be forced to adapt to the same stress?
  • Should it cost anything upfront?
  • What should an apprentice give up when getting in?
  • What are the fundamentals that are needed to reach a journeyman status?
  • Should there be an entrance exam and licensing that is universal throughout the country for anyone who makes it past the apprenticeship?

Once we have those figured out, what next?

  • Is there a basic understanding that can be expressed and tested? If so, how can we ensure quality from all who choose to enter the trade?
  • Should there be accountability to the masters for any issues that come about with an undertrained apprentice entering the trade/craft?
  • What happens if someone claims journeyman status and isn’t up to code? Would it be plausible or the master to lose their ability to teach or practice?
  • What do we do with apprentices that fail?

More questions

  • If someone doesn’t make the cut, what should we do? They may have enough knowledge to go forth and work in the darkness of basements and kitchens.
  • Is there a way to ensure those who don’t make the cut are placed into something better fitting their personalities/skills?
  • How many apprentices should a single master be allowed to have? During their lifetimes? Concurrently?
  • Is there any benefit to having a single student versus 200? What about during their lives as they grow and evolve? Is it unethical to train someone earlier in their career and let those students miss out on things they can teach later in their lives? Should all apprentices stay attached to the masters for their lifetime to ensure new knowledge is passed along as it is discovered?