Things your tattoo artist doesn’t tell you (Part One)

Posted by resonanteye on 12/30/2013

empathy overloadThe tattoo we do for you is just a tattoo. For me, it’s a way to make something awesome that someone gets to keep forever no matter what. It’s not ‘therapy’, ‘psychology’, or some kind of healing…for you it may serve some of those purposes but that does NOT HAVE TO INVOLVE ME. It’s not my place to heal you, listen to your life story, or pick up your emotional weight for you.

If you use your tattoo for healing that is great. Tattoos can do that. But be careful of anyone who claims THEY can heal you, that they are the one doing it. They’re not. It’s YOU doing it.

If they say they can heal you? They’re just as sheisty as any snake-oil peddler.

I don’t need to know why you are getting a tattoo. In fact I usually would rather NOT hear the long tale of woe or history behind your decisions. I can’t see your tattoo from my house, I can’t fix you, my knowledge of your reasons isn’t going to make the tattoo better at all. It might in fact distract me from my actual job; making something beautiful that you will want to look at until you’re ancient.

Sometimes, a tattoo is funny, or offbeat enough that I ask why. This isn’t because I can help you, or anything like that. It’s because I, the person, not the tattooer, not some shaman- just geeky little me as a person, am curious about it. I like getting to know people! I like you guys, my clients. A lot. You’re awesome people. Which is why I don’t want to know you as “dead uncle lady”- you know?

If I am having a good day at work, and about to draw some beautiful floral piece on you, and you remind me that it is because your baby was killed by dingoes, I AM NOW SAD. I’m human. I have to go on with my day and be ok for the next person AFTER YOU. When you leave the shop, someone else is next. I understand that you’ve been led to believe that telling me a sad story is part of the process. It’s not.

Remember, we’re at work.

I know on TV you see people with these long amazing stories and shit, and they have to tell the artist all about their cousin who was hit by lightning while fishing in the carribbean after losing his arm to a monster lizard…but trust me when I say that IN REAL LIFE artists don’t really care about any of that. Your backstory is just that- YOUR story. When you talk to people about your work, tell it! These stories have meaning, they’re important. But you don’t need to inform your artist about every bit of related information that’s ever happened in your life.

They do that on TV to fill time. To make it more than just “watch a dude get tattooed”. Because people like watching shows that explain why other people do things.
Unlike the TV viewing public, tattoo artists know that there are a thousand and one reasons to get tattooed. We don’t need it explained to us. You don’t have to justify your choices to us. WE LOVE TATTOOS. We are glad you are getting one. You’re under no obligation to explain yourself.

I think the TV shows have also made you guys think you need to cram as much meaning as possible into a single tiny tattoo. NO! You don’t need to incorporate every last one of your relatives by name, or every significant date. Why not get an image of an object that represents “FAMILY”? It will work, it will have all that meaning. And it won’t be a mess of scribble.

Because the thing is, EVERYONE has a backstory. When we’re getting a tattoo, it’s the only tattoo we get that day, week, month. When you’re doing a tattoo, it’s the third of four that day, the fifteenth of twenty that week, the fortieth of sixty that month. SIXTY LONG DEPRESSING STORIES ABOUT DEAD PEOPLE; no, that isn’t a fair weight to put on the shoulders of someone who has to also draw something awesome on you AND keep you safe while doing it.

I mean, by all means, use the tattoo process for your own healing. bring your headphones with your music. bring your dead best friend’s old, smelly shirt to hold on to. bring your healing wishes and your shaman vibe. But that’s not our job, tattooers are tattooing you, not doling out (unlicensed) therapy.

I know I’ve posted about this before, but recent developments have prompted me to write it all over again, just now.

I love you guys- my clients. Some of you, I get close to, all of you, you can tell me anything. Just be aware that I’m not magical- at least not the way some might think.

(Also omg tons of you guys read this! part two will be up soon. in the meantime, go check out my horror coloring book!



PPS: part two is here!

46 Responses to “Things your tattoo artist doesn’t tell you (Part One)”

  1. Liz said

    This honestly just sounds like such a copout. I understand that being behind the table you have a different perspective. But as a guest, getting a tattoo is an experience. Especially if you love getting them. And I understand some people share too much, but also you signed up for a service industry job directly relating to building relationships with people who are carrying your work in their body for the rest of their lives. True artists who do it for the love of making people happy and giving them something they’re going to love forever not only rely on their skill to lock down an awesome peice but also the feeling and experience that the client receives. If I get a bomb ass tattoo from you about my brother who passed away and you just didn’t give two fucks I honestly probably wouldn’t ever come back to you again. It doesn’t affect your day that much. There’s ways to bounce conversation, I’m in the same type of field. Lol


    • what about the brother of the next client? and the one after that?

      giving them a tattoo that makes them happy is my job. I’m not trained in therapy.


      • Liz said

        Nobody talking to their tattoo artist is like looking for you to give them a therapy session. They’re talking and informing you on the art peice you’re doing. You go “wow I really hate to hear that. I am really excited to give you a peice that you’re gonna love.” And then change the subject. People aren’t expecting a therapy session they’re expecting to talk to a human being about a tattoo they’re getting and honestly half the time it’s an ice breaker because people don’t always know exactly what common ground they have with their tattoo artist. You’ve gotta step away from the chair and put yourself in your clients shoes.


        • as I said in the article, it’s natural and of course fine that I’ll talk with my clients while I’m working on them. the article is directed at those who are using the tattoo as therapy, explaining that their artist can’t participate in that beyond just being another human in the room.

          which part made you think I wouldn’t talk with clients, or didn’t care about them? I’m not being rude, your feedback on that would help me to be more clear and improve my future writing. knowing how to get my point across clearly without being misread is important to me and if you can point to the part that made you think this, I can find my mistakes.

          I care a great deal about my clients, I just am not trained to manage their grief or their therapeutic needs.

          edited to add this side note: I am covered in tattoos. I have been a client so many times, I’ve lost count.


  2. heathery feathery said

    I actually spent a lot of the last session of my tattoo talking about this article!
    I brought it up to Pete, and talked about it and how my tattoo has meanings but it’s mostly just pretty. He said that was great and pointed to one of his tattoos (he is covered with them, of course) and said guess what this represents? It was some kind of bird in grey and red. I said “um… you like birds?” and he said yep, also he wanted to practice shading colour into grey about 20 years ago.

    Hopefully he has read these, too, he said they sounded great, and I gave him links.


  3. Deb said

    I would rather not talk at all when I get tattoed and hope the artist isn’t very chatty either.


    • There’s tons of ways to handle being in the chair. I have a lot of people who bring headphones and zone out, which is fine because it lets me focus on the art…sometimes I put my headphone splitter on the ipod and we both listen to the same music, which is pretty nice if we have similar taste.


  4. Cass said

    The intense stories folks are sharing….so intense that they warrant body modification (which for the record I adore, condone, love, celebrate, etc)…those stories might be better suited for someone who actually chose a career in listening to those stories. Someone who decided to listen to folks challenges and successes and for whom everyone is “dead uncle lady” or “molested by his best friends dad guy” or “chronic self mutilator chick.” Those people who chose to dedicate their lives to the work of holding other people’s really overwhelming stuff are called therapists, counselors, psychologists, mental health professionals, and social workers. They aren’t actually called tattoo artists. Y’all do amazing things on skin. You make people’s bodies into walking talking art that lives until a body is no longer here. That shit is amazing. So feel free to send those of us with little or no artistic gift or capacity (ok lots of shrinks have art skills I know I know) and rather chose to listen to these sob stories the folks after that session…or before. And Tattoo recipients please self regulate enough to shush your mouth. And don’t you hesitate to come chat with us either tattoo artist extraordinaires! Cause listening to that stuff takes a tole on your heart after a while and we can be here to help you hold that too.


  5. Jonny said

    All tattoo artists do is bitch. It’s your job does every profession make a website blog about everything they hate about their job every single time. Stop bitching and get back to work. Get real you chose your career, act like a professional.


    • I think this may be the only post you’ve read here. I love my work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brian said

        I’m positive I told you my story, since it is spelled all over my back. How else would you have known what to draw? Silly mortal….tattoos are for brains with ideas in them. smh (insert rattling sound here)


    • ChrisW said

      Johnny, what the hell is your problem? I’m the shop manager/piercer at my shop and though piercings don’t warrant a sob story, as the person who runs the front counter people blurt their crazy stories about why theyre getting tattooed out to me before i even have a chance to say “let me go get an artist to talk to you”. and being that i’m not a rude person, i stand there and listen, then go get the artist who then stands there and slo has to listen to the story. The author of this article isn’t complaining, they’re giving some advice to clients to help make the whole process quicker, smoother, and more efficient. The less time the artist spends worrying about the clients personal woes, the more time they can spend doing bad ass art for ALL of their clients.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Patrick said

      You have a way of lumping every tattoo artist into one specific set of characteristics. This is so far from the truth. We don’t all bitch and complain. Nor do I feel the author was complaining. the vast majority of artists I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside are very professional. So before you go and label every tattoo artist as you have, perhaps take a second, a deep breath and pull your head out of your ass.

      People of all career paths bitch about work. It’s nothing new, get over yourself. I’m sure you also bitch to someone at some point in your work week about irritating crap you’d rather not deal with.


  6. Kelley said

    I see what you are saying but as the person getting a tattoo sometimes you juat feel like u ahould chat and what better to chat about than the deaign u are placing on me? My recent tattoo is a mix of twi symbols and a design from a poster…. I felt the need to explain it so he knew what my aim was for the tattoo…. Now i feel like i should just say mix this and this and hope what i am thinking comes out right. Sometimes people chat out of nervousness. I dont know u you dont know me so i think of it as icebreaking.
    Yes i understand but this article makes it sound like one should just say what they want and zip it.


    • no way! the more you explain the imagery, the better idea we have of what to aim for. I mean more during the tattoo time itself- a lot of the time people are so wrapped up in telling us a sad story that it can be hard for us to deal with. OR they’re trying to justify why they’re getting tattooed. WE LOVE TATTOOS and WE LOVE YOU GUYS, so it’s ok, you don’t have to do that part.

      A lot of people chat when they’re nervous, that’s totally ok. Most tattooers are kinda used to that, we don’t mind that one bit.


    • I agree, Kelley. I understand where the article is coming from but it makes me even more uncomfortable with the process of being just “one of many,” especially if this is my first tattoo or my most personal tattoo. I wouldn’t want to feel like I was burdening the artist by trying to explain how important it was to me. It may just be another motion you go through that day, but for me, its a life long commitment. I wouldn’t be as confident in the artists’ ability to convey my message if they don’t know what it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sometimes when clients tell me sad stories I cry. Either at work, or later on. It affects us.
        I’ve had to go home because of this kind of stuff, just unable to deal with the rest of the work day. And that’s not really good…we’re not trained to handle some of the things people lay on us. Therapists have that training- and we can help some but we’re not therapists.

        Knowing the imagery, maybe the symbolism or reasoning, makes perfect sense to me. I find that some people will take this way too far though, and that’s kind of a fuzzy line to explain I think.

        Thanks for commenting!


  7. […] Part one is here. […]


  8. Melanie said

    I actually have a hand painted sign hanging in my station that says “tattoos heal the soul”. I beleive they are healing as I have used them for closure for myself, BUT, I don’t think we as artists have anything really to do with the healing we’re just catalysts. I imagine it would get pretty heavy if every customer was unloading their emotional baggage but customers rarely if ever tell me the stories or meaning behind their tattoos and I never ask.


  9. very true. The line about the stinky shirt made me cry.


  10. ta2goddess said

    I agree 100%. I think you nailed it. Everyone has a story. I can shake most of it off and not let it get to me. I do hate having to get through the “what this means to me” to get to the IMAGE that I’m supposed to do. Everyone’s symbolism is different. A frog may mean something entirely different to me than it does to you. I’m more concerned that I get the right frog in the right pose than I am that your grandma’s sister held a frog over the body of your uncle when he stopped breathing and he started breathing again, although that would be interesting I don’t need to know that the frog represents resurrection to you. Extra unnecessary knowledge-baggage clogging up my already clogged mind.
    I feel like it can be directly attributed to the tattoo TV shows. I’ve been in this game for over 30 years and it has been in the last 10 that the clients have started to make everything on their body have some deep meaning. As if it is not OK to be tattooed for any other reason. What about, “because I like it” or “because I think it’s funny” or “because I think I’ll look better with it”.
    At the psychological root of it (IMO) getting tattooed is an exercise in narcissism. If we are all honest with ourselves, we get them because they make us feel better – for whatever reason. I just hate that it has become the norm to have to attach a long melodramatic meaning to every tattoo. It gets tiresome to hear, process and get past EVERY TIME.
    I love my customers. I love me. I think Anji is just asking the customers to see things from our viewpoint. One story is touching and meaningful to you; 50 are just too much.


  11. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t tend to get sad stories. I tend to get stories of friendships, milestones in life and then it’s on to food, cooking, travel and pets. I’ve gotten a couple I recall because they were disturbing, but thankfully most of my clients tend to be happy healthy people.

    That said, there are some difficult stories that come up when I do shamanic tattoo work, and I need to know those in order to prep for anything that might come up energetically.

    I COMPLETELY agree with your assertion that we, as artists, even as a shamanic artist, are NOT doing the healing. The client is the one doing the healing, ALWAYS. As a shamanic practitioner I can be a catalyst, but not a cause. I can control the state of the working and the space in which we are doing the working, but the real Work is being done, and always will be done, by the client.


    • You’re a bit of an outlier here too Char, because you have a background in the magics. I don’t know too many tattoo artists who can do both at once!

      That is absolutely what I mean, too- they’re the ones doing the work of healing. Tattoos themselves are often a catalyst for that. Just by tattooing someone, we’ve done our part of it.


  12. The important thing being said here is that you LOVE your customers and appreciate them. You want to do the best possible tattoo you can and you care about their well being. And you’re not saying “I don’t want to hear it.”, What I read is “I can’t fix it.” I can tattoo you, we can talk and laugh, and though laughter and art are therapy, we’re not licensed therapists. And not every tattoo requires a horror story as the seed from which it was born.


    • Exactly! I’m just a person who makes art stuff, on your skin. I’m not trained as a therapist, healer, doctor or shaman. I’m just another person at work.

      I love my clients, and I can’t fix them. We’re just people hanging out while I make a tattoo.

      You’re always so good at distilling the meaning of posts like this, Cyn.

      And no, not every tattoo needs a horror story. Seriously! haha


  13. stacqui said

    I’m not YET tattooed, but when I do finally decide what I want, it’s just going to be a beautiful, badass piece of artwork. I don’t much like the idea of putting my emotional baggage on my skin, but that’s just me.


  14. Aaron Damn Campbell said

    I don’t mind the back stories if they’re not being poured into my lap as soon as the consult starts.


    • yep- I think during the tattoo time is a lot more normal. I mean we’re gonna sit there together for an hour or three, of course we’re gonna talk! and yeah sometimes it’s about the tattoo backstory, although I’ve had SO many conversations about the most bizarre stuff with clients. That’s actually one of my favorite parts of the job.

      during a five-minute tattoo, during a consult? that is a lot less ok.


  15. Kylee said

    Personally I like the back stories. I love talking to my clients and providing an outlet for them while they get their tattoo. I like that my clients feel comfortable enough with me to speak to me about their experiences in life, and share their thoughts.
    I understand where your coming from. Tattoo artists are not healers. We are providing a service to our clients. But I encourage clients to speak their thoughts. Not all the stories are happy, and it can be a bit of a downer, but part if the coping process is to vent.


    • I know what you mean- and as a regular person, I like the stories too.

      But when someone is getting a tiny party dot tattoo, and will be in my chair for ten minutes, there’s no need for an hour of explanation.


  16. Ian mckown said

    I disagree with most of this.


  17. Jim said

    When people ask me about what my tattoos “mean”, I pretty much instantly want to kill them. I’m more or less pretty honest about it when people ask, and I tell them “because I look cooler with them than w/o them”.


  18. lennygrey said

    I really didn’t think about it from the perspective of someone who has to deal with so many sad stories, thank you for giving me a different angle on it.


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