By Jason Lambert
Why do people get bad tattoos? Why does your cousin or friend from work come up to you and show you a tattoo that is clearly sub-par and say, "Just got this, pretty cool, eh!?" Why was my left arm covered with crappy tattoos and why didn't I notice it until years later? Why do people who we know have a good taste in art or movies, or any visual media seem so blind to the obvious fact that the tattoo they just got is total shit?
If your answer is "because they are dumb" then I'm afraid that I must disagree. I know quite a few smart people, and I consider myself one of them, who have gotten poor work. If it came down to intelligence alone then I think there would be far fewer crappy tattoos out there and there would certainly be far fewer crappy tattoos on people we know to be "smarter than that." I'm afraid that the answer has to be more complicated and more universal, and obviously I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't think that I had an idea as to the answer.
Before we get to the customers lets look at the tattooers. If we look at all tattooers then by definition at least half of them are "below average," and depending on how severe the standard you hold your tattooers to perhaps more than half would be sub-standard. I know a lot of tattooers personally, some good, some bad but not a single one of them doesn't want to be a great tattooer. Almost all of us start off much less accomplished than we will be, and all of us grow at individual rates, but some folks just don't ever seem to realize how bad their work actually is!
I certainly count myself in this category, and would have likely remained ignorant of this until I began getting critiques. Almost at once what had been obvious to other tattooers became clear for me and my work began to get better as I knew where I needed improvement and could focus on those specifics. I have often compared the ego of the average tattooer to a giant blimp, but made of tissue paper, huge and exceedingly delicate. Many tattooers need to protect that sense of self overrides their desire to improve and they never seek out, in fact they actively avoid, hearing the "hard" truth of where their work stands.
So if those of us who live and breathe tattooing can be so blind to the reality of our work, how much harder must it be for the customer, the novice, to know good work from bad? No one is born knowing what a good tattoo looks like and even those with discerning taste may not understand the specifics which make a tattoo better or worse. One of the good sides to the media and internet exposure of tattooing has been to educate more of the general public to what a good or poor tattoo looks like, but sadly for many folks the idea of doing research on a tattooer is still a foreign concept.
In the end it is this lack of research which results in so many bad tattoos. I remain convinced that looking at good tattoos, in person or not, has the cumulative effect of educating the viewer. If the client is exposed to mediocre work then that is the standard in their mind, once they are exposed to truly quality work however the mental bar is raised and the "obvious" deficiencies show up.
We have all had the experience of a customer coming in with a tattoo that was below our ability level and being surprised to hear that the client was perfectly happy with it, then after getting one of our tattoos looking down at their old work and saying, "Do you think we could do anything to make this old tattoo better?" In one tattoo their expectation is raised!
If we want customers to expect more and if we want the truly untalented tattooers to either stop or begin improving then we need to spread the word that a tattoo is something that must be researched and studied before any decision is made. We must have the courage to show our clients stellar work, (even if it isn't our own) in the waiting room of my shop are books featuring quality tattooers, people whose work far exceeds my own ability and yet I trust that my clients being educated will still send them to me, at the very least they wont go to the rum-dumb hacker down the block!
I can understand why many of the truly greats make their work hard to find online or in magazines, these folks must tire of seeing half-assed attempts to copy their work but I would encourage them to put it out there anyway, maybe if the person who got the half-assed copy had seen it before then they wouldn't have gone to the copycat tattooer in the first place!
(Jason Lambert is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Jason can be found at Black Cat Tattoos in Pittsburgh, PA.)