back tattoo of flowers on a light skinned woman

The Apprentice- What’s Missing in the Industry – Part 1

Part 2 of the Apprentice can be found here.

Today’s article focuses on the history of apprenticeship training. It then moves into a critique of the current apprenticeship system inside the current body art industry. I may throw a little ethics inside the opinions below, so hold tight!

Apprenticeships, the backbone of dropout education in the USA! You got your GED and your family thinks you are lazy, go get an apprenticeship!

That is harsh, and I apologize if my first few words offended anyone. My view on this topic doesn’t really align with disgust towards the trades in this fine county.

My issue with apprenticeships is that we have moved away from the idea of mastery in a whole to the income-seeking on-the-job training that leaves huge gaps in the knowledge of those who undertake one.

So, let’s back it up a little and peek at what apprenticeships were like oh so long ago. Maybe this will give you, dear reader, an inside peek as to why my disgust lays not with the apprentice but with the system.

The Apprentice.

The idea of on the job training has been around for millennia. I am not going to go back as far as Mesopotamia to get to the point I am trying to express. I know that we have been working together since the cradle of civilization was a current place to be.

In our more modern time, I always look towards Japan with fondness when thinking of apprenticeships. The Japanese have a philosophical belief that the self must always grow and learn, to always improve. It’s rooted in the Zen ideology of kaizen, which explains that one must continually grow through one’s own efforts. This simple break-down in our lazy, native language, does not do the word kaizen justice. This word evokes such deep feelings when uttered in its native tongue that we would have to write a freaking book to get anywhere near its depth.

Deep eh!

The apprentice, a brief history.

In the Western world we think of apprenticeships as merely being able to produce work after enough technical knowledge obtained through work labor ensures you make few mistakes. In Japan, things are different. When you go into an apprenticeship, as an accepted apprentice, your master takes your burden on, full tilt. You were accepted at a young age and lived with the master as a lower stationed member of the family. You would do menial tasks around the house like cooking and cleaning, sweeping and tidying the master’s workspace and, for some, take a good beating daily. The matron of the house would educate you in your basic school studies (thing reading, writing and arithmetic). All along you would watch from a safe distance as the master worked.

Stealing Knowledge

From an early stage of your apprenticeship, you were offered a simple theory on how to grow your knowledge, Nusumi-chishiki. This theory gave the apprentice a chance to steal knowledge in order to learn. You used your eyes and learned through your own interpretation.

This process of Nusumi-chishiki would carry on for a long enough time as to when you could show your competency and then be released into society to carry on your own workings business.

To further explain that last bit:

You were not allowed to go forth until the master, who is attached to your success in the trade, was confident in your mastery of the trade. Your failure was the master’s failure. In the society that Japan still holds today, this was considered a disgrace. The master did not their job well enough that you, their ward, could make a living off their tutelage.

Now, the standard model of apprenticeships that mirrors some of the western schools of thought leaves out a major philosophy in Japan where stealing knowledge is only a single aspect of becoming a master. Hopeful masters must apply the concept of Shuhari to obtain what most would consider a true mastery of a craft.


Shu-Ha-Ri is a belief system which, loosely translated breaks down the process for obtaining mastery. In tattooing you can see specific milestones that are achieved by someone willing to undertake this journey.

Shu (Obey – Look)

10 years stealing knowledge and mirroring the master. A single master. This is where you gain the fundamentals and copy the master to obtain a working knowledge of your craft. In tattooing, the apprentice must earn the trust of their master before any attempt to mark another person in their name is attempted. Although, look at the thighs of those lucky enough to have made it through this stage. This stage is all about the how and why techniques are used.

Ha (Detach – Feel)-

10 years actively improving on your own. In this phase you step away from the master and seek your own understanding of the craft. You break apart and dissect the practices learned from the master to advance the teachings you were given. This is the stage where you innovate. With their master’s name and blessing, the newly released tattooer goes forth and define their own personal understanding.

This stage is about making the how and why of their process. The make their own and understanding their place inside the craft/trade.

Ri (Leave – Think)

10 years developing your own style and mastery. This is where everything has moved beyond practiced and becomes a pat of you. Your own style emerges and becomes a natural extension of yourself. The tattooer has come full circle and has become a tattoo master. Their work is unique and wholly their own, although it carries with it the images/themes given by the master. They are answering the questions that have been developed by the work of this generation and give knowledge to those actively seeking the future.

Connection to Martial Arts

This ideology is practiced in many ways but is very evident in martial arts.

Think of Bruce Lee and his water analogy,

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

What Bruce Lee describes is the final process of mastery. A formless reaction of one’s self. Read a book on Jeet Kun Do sometime and you can get a feel as to how the concept of Shuhari influenced his martial arts and philosophy.

Anyways, back to the topic at hand,

Apprenticeships and the less than modern tattoo industry.

The tattooing we know in the western world, in my opinion, lacks a complete understanding of the tattooing process. But it’s not our fault. We can trace the separation of knowledge back to the early 1900’s and the burst of tattooers that stemmed from these original badasses. While our efforts over the past few decades opened the industry and offered unfettered access to all those who wished to join, the western history is fraught with trial and error applications that built a separate knowledge base, completely absent of the knowledge our Japanese cousins utilize.

America – The apprentice’s journey: A history

Back when tattooing became a (somewhat) rational option of employment for carnies and societal outcasts, us in the USA relied on second hand knowledge to understand what it was that we are doing.

Yes, I know there were greats and some people who everyone looks up to, but I am looking through some frosted glasses with this critique. I am talking about an apprentice so don’t toss out Paul Rogers, Sam O’Reilly or Bob Shaw to me and think you can shoot me down, ok!

The problem was that, since the early 1900’s, there was no one actually offering up any knowledge. There were no real masters. To get into tattooing you had to know someone to get in or beg and compensate someone to get a meager education. Worse yet, you could just manufacture your own machine and start stabbing. You learned through error and, if you were lucky enough, had a career that spanned enough time to get a good hook on how to get pigment into skin.

Japan adds influence

The idea of ceremony that the Japanese brought to their teachings, which was part of their culture, was replaced with the motivations of the industrial revolution and progressive national politics (ya, that is a reach, I know). People were out to make money, gain some fame and focus on what trends were popular (especially in the 50’s-60’s). These efforts focused on exploiting the eager public’s want of what was in fashion. While they did enhance the quality and expand the repertoire inside the industry, there was a further separation from educating the next wave of professionals that were carrying the torch into the future.

We found a cool article from a personal perspective from Kotaku.

You can read it here

The Tattooing Families – Apprentice validity through naming

Legitimacy among tattooers was gained by working with someone or doing some sort of training underneath them. Tattoo Families were born of this practice and it ensured professionals a preceding sense of respect, if they were lucky enough to carry the name of someone who was respected. We can assume that this practice also lent itself to people abusing the respect associated with the labels attached to a family. I can imagine a young kid, gear in tow, moving across the country stating his association with Bert Grimm or other famous big-names in the industry, failing and having to run away or deal with the repercussions.

Some non essential stories

I remember hearing stories from a few old time tattooers about their apprenticeships. While I cannot claim that any of this is factual, let alone not a figment of their imagination, their telling’s did show me what may have been commonplace during the years preceding what we now call the age of enlightenment.

  • There was a story about a guy being given a machine when walking into a tattoo parlor, inquiring about a job, and just starting to hammer clients for nickels. No training for the apprentice.
  • I believe I had read a story about people joining the circus to hone their skills and have an easy escape when they messed up.
  • I read about a guy who tattooed drunk people he dragged in off the streets. He practiced on their sometimes-unconscious bodies.

It’s crazy to us now but some people may have gotten their start by sheer dumb luck.

Families and growth

Once these families started to grow, they expanded out and connections were established from the coasts inward, in the USA. Yes, the Navy sure helped tattooing get a foothold inside this country but the people who guess-worked their way to an understanding of the industry used capitalistic ideas and means to spread that stuff like fire! A mass-produced product that was easily transported to the masses countrywide.

Suddenly you had some guy in Kansas moving to Where-Eversville, USA to open a shop with a name like Maud Wagner attached to his pedigree.

The expansion created a consistent environment where American tattooing became more normalized, even if it wasn’t accepted societally.

A More Modern, American Tattoo Apprenticeship

I am going to depart from any additional history and move forward as I think I have introduced bias into the argument I am intending to make. I also laid in unconfirmed stories that lay waste to any legitimacy this article may carry. The stories and ideas about the US and tattooing are amazing and should be some TV series carried by Netflix into some super docudrama.

I really feel the story of tattooing inside the US has all the earmarks of what it is to be an American. As an industry we took the efforts of those who came before us and created our own style of apprenticeship that we see today, albeit today’s standards and practices are losing the things that made them truly American.

Let us look at what the common practice is today when you are an apprentice.

In the beginning

You, an aspiring tattoo god, walk into a shop and start asking about training. You get turned away from multiple shops but find one that is local, willing and seems to be able to offer you a break into the wonderful world you love from the outside. After a few meetings and discussions, they offer you an apprenticeship. They say it isn’t going to be easy.


For the first bit you awkwardly haunt around the shop, learning people’s names and some of the terminology. There is little to no interaction on a professional level coming from the artists there. You mop and clean and maybe get a few questions but your attempts to fit in are failure.

After a while the artists start letting you watch them tattoo, if you have finished your chores and do not interfere with their work. If you are lucky (I can’t tell if I am writing sarcasm or not at the moment) you can get into skin shortly after you start your apprenticeship.

This is where I feel the system starts to break down. Let me explain before we move on.

Japan versus USA – Apprentices


Compare the ideas applied to understanding tattooing from a Japanese master and this poor sap we are talking about above. How the apprenticeship started may have same style of initiation but that is where both worlds separate. The “master” isn’t a single person in the US version. The shop as a whole is attempting to move this person through their education. I can see the argument here as there are more hands, it should take less time. The issue is that the person taking the apprenticeship is still an individual. There isn’t a way to tailor an education that is to be crammed down a person’s throat if you have their best wishes in mind. What you are doing, in this case, is rushing the results.

USA (The West)

Contrasting the ideas above, it may take years for the hopeful apprentice in Japan to prove themselves. The must impress upon the master a level of competence before they can start marking people permanently.

Back to our scenario, our new apprentice above has little understanding as to the why or how any of the techniques are used. However they got here, they are now left to fend for themselves. The “masters” of the shop have given little in time and effort that will ensure the apprentice will succeed. That success should be the focus of those claiming to have the ability to train and further the willing apprentice.

The Next Step

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 their own. Yet here you are left to figure out what’s 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 they why’s and how’s of the industry. You’re doing your best but something is missing.

You 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.

Time for another break in our story. We will carry on in part 2.