Dan Henk: What’s Wrong With the Whole ‘Tattoo Artist’ vs. ‘Tattooer’ Crap

By Dan Henk
People love clichés. They love to pick apart their coworkers and neighbors. One of the many, many little schools of dissension in tattooing tends to be the “tattoo artist” versus the “tattooer” label.

Some circles, especially those who focus on old-school, have decided that “tattoo artist” is a pejorative. There is a whole list of complaints I’ve heard regarding anything that doesn’t look like a traditional tattoo. Everything from ”that won’t hold up over time,” to “that doesn’t look like a tattoo” to “anyone who wants to be called a tattoo artist is a pretentious hipster, this is a noble working class profession like pipe fitting or blacksmithing…” 

Everyone is entitled to their opinions. In some circumstances, realistic tattoos won’t hold up over time. I talked about that in my last blog. But that is not nearly all realistic tattoos. Often it is just derogatively and wrongly applied to anything that doesn’t have bold black outlines and big patches of solid color.

The “that doesn’t look like a tattoo” statement might be a little more accurate, but only in the perspective of the person who says it. A tattoo being an indelible mark on the skin, something that has been practiced for thousands of years, the look of a tattoo is more a matter of taste than anything. Very similar for talking badly about someone because you dislike their clothing.

Now, that last bit entails a bit more… Not everyone is an artist, and there is not anything wrong with that. You have people who do a good, solid flash tattoo. Many don’t have much artist skill, but they can trace and copy like an expert. The lines are smooth, the colors solid. There is a call for that.

Others do have more artistic abilities, but they choose to go with the quick, easy money. Now for the people who do draw, who have their own style independent of their influences, those people are artists. That’s not even judging their skill. Much of art is simply a matter of taste. Even universally decried bad art, is usually appreciated by someone.

That artistic label applies to everything. Movies, books, paintings, and yes, tattoos. Sailor Jerry was an artist. Brooklyn Blackie was an artist. And they were proud of it. Many of the people who do a different style are obviously artists as well. There are plenty of artists in the illustration world out there that I think are crap. There are even famous painters whose work I’m not a fan of. But I’m not going to say, “Oh, that Van Gogh wasn’t an artist.” I might say he’s overrated, and the prices for his work are out of hand, but saying, “Oh, he’s just painter. It’s a noble profession, like a cabinet-maker,” is retarded.

There are always haters, and I know plenty of traditional artists that think their art form is being taken over and corrupted by all these “wanna-be painters.” It’s funny though, all the guys complaining weren’t even around in the old days. It’s hipsters trying to cloth themselves in the old-school flag, being more elitist than any of the old-timers. People like Stan Moskowitz and Philly Eddie have shown great admiration for well done realistic tattoos.

So, do what you want, and call yourself what you want. I’d respond to all these people tracing old-school designs and putting everyone else down, but I’m too busy tattooing. [divider]

-Dan Dan Henk

Dan Henk is an award winning tattoo artist, illustrator, painter and author. In his spare time he’s also a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. He can be found at DanHenk.com and look for him on Facebook  and Instagram – Find and FOLLOW him.

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4 thoughts on “Dan Henk: What’s Wrong With the Whole ‘Tattoo Artist’ vs. ‘Tattooer’ Crap

  1. (sorry i sneezed and accidentally hit ‘post comment’ before i was done writing…)

    “So, do what you want, and call yourself what you want. I’d respond to all these people tracing old-school designs and putting everyone else down, but I’m to busy tattooing.”

    Dan, this entire blog is a response to an issue that you claim to be “too busy tattooing” to address. I understand that it’s an editorial/blog, but you present a rather lopsided argument. But I forgive you, as I think it’s a discussion that needs to be had and sometimes the first steps are the most awkward. The ‘traditional vs. nontraditional’ battle has offenders on both sides and you would be remiss to not at least present the negative, elitist and totally misguided views of the nontraditional side (I suppose this would encompass new school, portraits, realistic etc).

    Where I personally am not one who appreciates fakery or posturing I can appreciate your distaste for those who cling to only CERTAIN elements of a bygone era (and usually only the aesthetics, at that). There is much to be learned and appreciated in pre-1970’s tattooing, but man forget that Rogers and Jerry (and others) were innovators and always looking to progress and advance the state, the reputation, the QUALITY of tattooing. Yes, blandly rehashing old designs will only get you so far.

    On the flip side… those who put the cart before the horse and attempt to WOW the tattoo world with wacky images, unconventional styles and outlandish palettes before they even have a handle on basic tattoo application, all-the-while deriding traditional tattoos/tattooers as “simple, easy and dumbed down”, are in your words, “retarded”. (Not the most eloquent word choice, by the way, this is 2012.) Dan, I’m sure you see a TON of terrible monster-movie portraits, done by folks just in WAY over their head, that you’d like to remove with a Black & Decker angle grinder and make the world a better place. Not that I’m anyone of note, but I see plenty of god-awful traditional and biker tattoos all the time. Regardless of style, I think we can both agree that quality is paramount.

    When you say “they can trace and copy like an expert. The lines are smooth, the colors solid. There is a call for that.”, I cant help but wonder if you refer to so-called “flash tattooers”, or, as some might call them: solid, well rounded street-shop tattooers (or tattoo artists depending on THEIR preference of nomenclature). Perhaps your comment is aimed at those who specialize in realism. Same thing right? Tracing a picture, copying, smooth lines and solid color? If Mike Devries (to use the first name that comes up upon Google searching “realistic tattooers”) does a Grandpa Munster portrait that is essentially the same as the photo he was handed by his client, should that be held in a higher regard than the dude who did a perfect copy of the Cherry Creek wizard, dragon and crystal ball? Neither one really involved any sort of artistic ‘thinking outside the box’, conceptually speaking at least. Plus it’s hard to claim ‘style’ when you are just copying a photo. When I was in school we used to call those people “wrists”, because they just copied work accurately and there wasn’t much more to say about it than that.

    I think the issues we are each talking about are a symptom of a larger ‘class’ issue in tattooing. There seems to be a lot of bickering about what this guy or that girl did or should do. Personally, I think everybody would be better off if there was a bigger focus on ‘integrity’ (personal and general) and not ‘popularity’. Maybe that’s something we can have a discussion about in the future. Thanks for your time.

    I hope you can appreciate that I’m playing a little bit of Devils Advocate in this comment.

  2. Well, it’s taken me 13 years to write this blog, so yes, I am busy. Most of what you bring up I’ve already addressed in earlier blogs, or even this one. I said if you have your own style, you are an artist. Obviously, if all you do is copy something, you do not have your own style. I also stated, in several blogs, about the validity of all tattoo styles, from a well done traditional piece, to a well done realistic piece. I also, in several blogs, talked about how both sides of the tattooing spectrum throw unfair jabs at each other, new and old school alike. Do what you like, do it well, and stop worrying about everyone else.

  3. An Artist is a creator of “orginal art” on the medium of which they want to be known as an artist of. In other words. A tattoo artists creats on the skin the origninal art work. There is no other copy of that art. Anywhere.

    A Tattoo Craftsmen, reproduces a work of art that is found some where else, even when they are the orginal creator, but created the art work on another medium. When a tattooer recreates the design, they are being a craftsman.

    Only when an Artist creates the art work on the skin, are they a Tattoo Artists.

    Still Drawing, one breath at a time.
    Kelly Miller

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