Jason Lambert: It Takes Two to Tattoo

By Jason Lambert
I read a lot of interviews with tattooers, like most people I enjoy seeing the interior world of artists who I admire and it is fascinating to see the strangely differing ways that we all ended up in this profession. Often these interviews will focus on the things each tattooer sees as important to his or her work, things like choice of inks, machines, style of tattooing, etc. Yet, over and over again I notice there is one conspicuous absence, one giant factor in any tattooers world that seldom gets mentioned, even in passing. This something is so fundamental to the act of tattooing that it literally can not occur if it is missing and yet in page after page of story it doesn’t get even a passing mention…

I’m talking about the customers.

Our customers are almost never brought into the discussion despite the fact that they are, in fact, the greatest variable in our work. We couldn’t do a tattoo without them and yet each one presents a unique challenge and is the factor which makes one tattoo different from all the other ones we have done. It is our clients who can make an average tattoo look great (and they can make an otherwise great tattoo look mediocre). The clients opinions fundamentally alter our ideas about each piece and force a compromise to each tattoo.

It seems to me that most tattooers like to pretend that the tattoos we create are the work of ourselves alone, we want the credit for the artwork and we want it all. If the client is mentioned at all it is because of the difficulties they created, seldom do they get credit for a good idea or for a change which resulted in a better tattoo. A painting in a gallery is the result of one artist projecting their vision, but a tattoo is always, forever, the result of two people working toward a common piece.

We hate that!

This has led to many tattooers believing (and treating) their clients as obstacles to be overcome instead of partners. I understand the urge, you have a killer idea and in your mind, we believe that it is bulletproof and will look like a million bucks in the ol’ portfolio and then this yahoo, this rube wants to put his kids names in it, or make it purple because his aunt likes purple, or to make it 30 percent smaller because he would rather spend the money on a new iPhone than this permanent fucking masterpiece! I have been there myself time and again, the tattoo that you know will be sick as hell gets compromised, edited, cheapened into a form that you barely recognize and want no part of anymore. We are trying our best and through this persons lack of knowledge our best intentions are sometimes derailed and ruined. I know I have resented more than a couple of customers for their interference.

Despite the occasional, accidental sabotage by our clients, it goes without saying that we need them to do our jobs and therefore it is in our own best interests to give them the respect they deserve. No matter how trying they can be, it is the client who walks around with “our” art for the rest of their lives. The problem is that I’ve met far too many tattooers who treat their customers like a walking canvas with a wallet attached. There are more than a few tattoo shops where the customer gets treated like a problem instead of a co-conspirator and this has led to what I like to call the “record-store” syndrome.

You know what I’m talking about here, you wander into your local indie record store only to have the employees ignore you, talk over your head, make snide remarks about your musical taste, and when you do ask a question basically behave like you are wearing a turd-necklace! When someone has the esoteric knowledge that tattooers do about a subject we must be constantly vigilant to keep our expertise from turning into arrogance. I’ve been to tattoo shops where the artist working on me didn’t bother to ask my name, what any of my color preferences were, and who acted like spoiled children if I asked for a drawing to be tweaked. The fact is that we all knew (or should have known) the deal when we signed up to put tattoos on other people, those “other people” are part of the deal.

These days when a customer gets up after being tattooed and looks in the mirror and says “it’s awesome!” I try to always remember to say “I couldn’t have done it without you!”

(Jason Lambert  is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Jason can be found at Black Cat Tattoos in Pittsburgh, PA.)

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4 thoughts on “Jason Lambert: It Takes Two to Tattoo

  1. Wow, So true. I can relate to both aspects of this article from an artist and a customers perspective. I bite my tong when a customer wants to bastardize my artwork, but do my best to give them what they want, but if they get to be too big of a pain in the ass they can get the hell out of the shop (with a referral to one of those shops that tattoo and cut hair). From a customers perspective my body owns some masterpieces and some masterpieces of shit all because my input had NEVER been taken into consideration. With that being said, nicely written article.

  2. Really appreciate this article – while I love the art and technique of tattooing, I got into the biz because of the joy of collaborating with the customers. Yes, it can be frustrating, but overall, that’s what really charges me: taking THEIR vision, which isn’t even always a visual image yet, and making the tattoo design work for them. It’s a collaborative effort, and it’s become more and more difficult for me over the years to run with the request “hey, just do what you want with the design, you’re the artist.” I’d rather work WITH them, than around them, if you know what I mean, because in the long run the tattoo will be more of what they want, and after all, they are the one who’s going to be wearing it for the next few decades.

    On the flip side, I have turned down some tattoos because I really couldn’t bring myself to do whatever weird thing they were asking me to design. And I also have done some designs for customers which weren’t quite how I would have swung it if they’d given me the freedom to do what I wanted, and then took the basic idea and created flash more along the lines of what I thought looked best.

    I came to tattooing from the world of graphics art inside printshops – you really don’t get to do whatever you want in that world either. You can advise, but you can’t force someone to buy your idea. It’s about them (or their business), not about us. So naturally I brought that attitude to tattooing, and find I have an easier time rolling with customer requests than some of the more “pure” artists I’ve met. And the big reward come when we hear from our customers that they picked us because we worked with them on THEIR idea, instead of being snide and dismissive while trying to talk them into the tattooists idea. People tell us everyday that they come to us because we value their input and then give them guidance from an artists perspective, rather than treating them like they don’t know what they want.

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