By Omar Edmison
Ernie Gosnell paints signs that say all sorts of awesome things (do yourself a favor the next time you see him buy the man a cup of coffee, listen to his tales and pick up some of his signs) one of my favorites will usually have a chicks head, devil, skull or just some other such tattoo goodness. Emblazoned under it hand-lettered One Shot reads, "If you don't belong, don't be long." I am sure that those of us who live, breathe and eat tattooing and tattoo shops have from time to time felt that very sentiment. It seems like there are those who "belong" and those we just wish wouldn't "be long." For whatever reason some of us seem to fit right away, still others take longer and some... I am afraid just aren't ever gonna be what I affectionately refer to as, tattooy.
I think tattoo natural-selection takes care of that. Those people who don't belong won't be long. They are going to come in see the "animals at the zoo" take a walk on the wild side, or just walk back out. Regardless, tattooing chooses her own. For those of us who do "belong" we don't have the choice anymore we are going to come early and stay late we are going to be long. We are going to find ourselves in tattoo shops. How many of you have gone on vacation "to get away from it all" and found yourself pretty much hanging out in the same spot you do back home, a tattoo shop? Hmmm just me? Weird, ah well maybe it's me and my issues.
I can usually be found in whatever city I am in standing out in front of a tattoo shop smoking a cigar laughing too loud and talking too much trash trying to figure out what city I am in because that is my natural habitat, no matter where I am in the world, it's the same wonderful place. It's home for me. That is part of why I became a tattooer to hang out and get my therapy sessions. I have gotten to give a lot of therapy sessions over the years too. It's that trade-off that makes tattoo shop therapy so special.
Tattoo shop therapy comes from a lot of places. The easiest to think of is memorial tattoos, the passing of a loved one. Being there to help with the mourning process and celebrating the lives of the loved and lost. I have done enough R.I.P. tattoos to fill a cemetery. Portraits, names, dates, pictures of jeeps climbing the side of mountain, "Gramma's girl," whatever it is that reflects the life and loves of the dearly departed. This sort of personal connection to tattoos has been used for as long as people have been getting tattoos, it has been used by reality television to boost ratings and generate advertising dollars. It has been used by every culture past and present. Tattoos help heal wounds we can not see.
They help us to not have to let go, by allowing us to not have to hold on so tight. Tattoos help us carry a heavy load when we can't stand up alone anymore. In that moment in the shop without knowing it's happening you some how realize that you aren't alone anymore, and that everything may not be okay tomorrow, but it's going to get easier and you can carry on one more day.
Memorial tattoos aren't the only therapy we do. We also celebrate the lives and loves of the people. The birth of a child, the love of a good spouse, significant other... Before y'all start saying, "People who get names are dumb. It's bad luck, it curses your relationship." Just stop, don't blame that tattoo for your failed relationships. That tattoo didn't do anything but try to help you. If your relationship is gonna fail it's gonna fail because of the PEOPLE in it, not the tattoos on their collective skin. So the LOVE therapy session just coming in to celebrate, to project that happiness you are feeling, that is a crucial part of shops.
Mourning and celebrating those are easy, anyone can see that. I am not covering any new ground here, no great revelations are being shared, which by the way, if you are reading the random writings of a tattooer for life altering revelations and earth-shaking new ideas... I am sorry to tell you this but you won't find them here. You might try the writings of Jonathan Shaw or get yourself a copy of Stoney Knows How, the book not the DVD. Seek out a more eloquent and well-versed scab vendor than me gentle reader, I am just babbling on doing what I do; being opinionated. What else Omar, oh wise one? You're the one who sat down to write this thing about your precious tattoo shop therapy. I am getting there, trust me... If not in me, trust in the magic of tattoo shops.
Tattoo shops are magic. Not to beat a dead horse here but I believe that with my whole heart. I still believe in the magic of tattoo shops and I am still honored to be one of the guys on the working man's side of the counter. There are many aspects of the job that are appealing to me, not the least of which is the fact that I get to share a bit of that magic with the masses. I believe in tattoo shop therapy. The healing effects of tattooing and just hanging out in tattoo shops.
Every tattooer has had a client or clients that come to you in good times and bad. They are loyal to you. They become your friend. They share moments in their lives with you. You get invited to their weddings, you get the call when they were having a BBQ. They come in and you have become part their lives. You are their wizard, electrician, mechanic, psychiatrist, bouncer, scab vendor, graphic designer, shaman, priest, confessor, absolver, tour guide and many more things depending on the day.
You are their therapist my friend, no getting around it. If they get in a fight with their significant other where to do they go? Your shop, that's where. If they won $1,500 dollars playing cards where do they go? Your place. If they are lonely where do they show up? You guessed it.
I guess my shop isn't the only one huh? Happy or sad, good times or bad, people are going to come into your shop to share their experience with you. These are people who need our services, not for those pretty pictures so many like to concentrate on, but more for therapy. Like the island of misfit toys, people are accepted into tattoo shops. People whose families might view them as completely out of control or crazy find a new family in tattoo shops. People who have been told to be quiet and don't rock the boat, keep to the status quo... are invited to give the finger to the status quo, stand up in the boat and speak their mind. Part of the therapy is having their permission slips signed. Having someone say it's okay to feel certain ways, having someone outside their normal circle to sound things off, feeling acceptance of themselves and their ideas.
I was told something once by my dear friend Fat Cat. He looked at me and asked, "Do you know why people come to us, boy? They come to be touched. In this world where people have grown apart we are a last stand for human interaction. People come to us to be touched not for the tattoo that's an excuse..."
I began thinking about that awhile back trying to wrap my head around it. People have grown apart. We don't drop in on people anymore, we don't go anywhere without our cell phones, lap tops, or other such mobile communication devices. People used to write letters, send post cards from the road. People text and Facebook these days. Cat never saw these trappings of the modern world. It is 10 years after Fat Cat was having that conversation with a young me, I wish I could have told that kid to pay closer attention to the wisdom that was spilling out of his head. He was right.
We are the last holdout brothers and sisters. We are the keepers of human interaction. We touch people deeply. Far deeper than skin deep. We are the therapists that ease pain or cement ideas permanently into their collective psyche. That's a big part of our jobs, one that I am afraid gets lost in the pursuit of "art." If your only goal is to create your own unique brand of beautiful pictures that is wonderful, you have found your path. Might I suggest oils or sculpture or any other such art form where the canvas, clay or bearer of the images doesn't have feelings or breath.
These tattoos aren't for us. They are the possessions of the wearer. They have to be first and foremost in our minds when we are designing something. I do not now, nor have I ever called myself an artist. I am closer to a plumber than Picasso, a craftsman who people come to for a specific job. I do my job to the utmost of my ability using my experience and skills. I am not creating anything that hasn't been done before. It is all variations on a theme. The thing I concentrate on is the person. What is it that they NEED, why are they getting this tattoo? I sometimes compare myself to a midwife. I am simply helping the client give birth to their idea. A midwife can't say that the baby she helps bring into the world is her child, but she can take pride in having had a small part in its beginning.
So remember sometimes that lil' rose or dolphin or huge back piece has a deeper meaning or significance. Celebrate our jobs. Revel in it. Not only are we not digging ditches but we are making the world a better place one scab at a time...
(Omar Edmison is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Omar can be found at All American Tattoo in Salem, OR.)