From the moment you walk in, it’s the smell. It’s like a bitter antiseptic smell, clinical and clean. I think it’s the green soap, or maybe it’s the ink. I never know. But it’s the one thing I always remember.
Then there comes the music. Always some generic, nondescript rock or heavy metal.
Then it’s the gun. That high-pitched buzzing sound piercing your ears as the ink is entering under the skin. Like the drone of a metallic mosquito, right next to you as you’re falling asleep.
Occasionally someone around you lets out a low groan or a sharp intake of breath, shifting uncomfortably as their sweaty skin sticks to the clinical paper covering the bench they are laying on.
Welcome to the tattoo parlour.
Tattooing has exploded in popularity in the last ten years. According to the research and communications organisation McCrindle, one in five Australians now have a tattoo.
Tattoo artists are both feared and revered within their industry. However, as tattoos become increasingly mainstream, more and more aspiring tattooists are lining up to have their turn. With the notoriously tough industry overflowing with artists, it can be hard to find work as a tattooist and even harder to last. For young tattoo artists, what does it take, and who do you have to be to survive in this world?
Tom Philpott is a 22-year-old tattoo apprentice. After dropping out of a design degree at the University of Western Australia, he began pursuing a career in the tattoo industry.
He sits, massaging his palms together as he explains that tattooing is something he has known he wants to do for a long time.
“I think as soon as I got my first tattoo I wanted to be a tattoo artist. Just knowing what it’s like to do that as a job every day, it’s just heaps of fun,” he says.
“I love the art. I love watching the art. I can’t imagine doing anything else now. I can’t imagine doing a desk job or doing a labour job. It’s really the perfect job for me I think. You just get to draw funny pictures on people all day, it’s good fun, you know?”
In the tattooing world, traineeships are referred to as ‘apprenticeships’. However, these apprenticeships are not formally accredited and often involve months or even years of unpaid work.
Although there are no formally written rules, a tattoo apprenticeship will generally last four years. For the first six months to a year, apprentices are not allowed to tattoo but instead spend their days cleaning and maintaining the shop, as well as shadowing older artists in order to improve their skills. The cost of the apprenticeship can be paid back through unpaid labour around the studio but in some cases, apprentices can be left owing tens of thousands of dollars to the shop.
Sarah Panting has been working as an apprentice for the past two years. For the first 18 months of her apprenticeship she was not allowed to tattoo customers and so was making no money.
“Mostly the apprentice duties would be just mopping, sweeping, a lot of cleaning, setting up the artists and breaking them down. That was at least 12 hours a day, five days a week, with no pay as well. It was really hard,” she says, smiling at the look of shock on my face.
“I was lucky because my parents let me live at home still, so I had that support but without that I think it would have been really difficult not having money for food and things like that.”
Panting has always had a passion for art and was drawn to tattooing when she was sixteen.
“I always wanted to do a job in arts, obviously selling paintings and things like that wasn’t really a stable income,” she says.
“I think it is a really interesting medium. Like drawing or painting, when your work is up in a gallery the people that go to see it, they choose to go and see it. Whereas when it’s permanent on someone, and they’re walking around, you don’t get to choose the audience and there’s a lot of judgement on it.
“It’s quite a vulnerable medium, but I found that really cool and that people choose to come to you and get your artwork on them. It’s really satisfying being able to make people happy that way.”
Panting’s experience demonstrates how the growing popularity of tattoos and abundance of artists in the industry make it even harder for young apprentices to find employment. This issue is not limited to new artists, even those who have worked in the industry for decades are noticing how overcrowded the industry has become.
Ricky Luder is an Australian tattooing legend. He has been working in the industry for nearly half a century. Getting his start in the 1970s, in the days of circus sideshows, he was one of the original tattoo artists in Western Australia.
Sitting opposite me in his Fremantle tattooing studio, Luder gulps down a mouthful of coffee and explains how, right now, there are just too many tattoo artists – or “too many pig snouts in the tattoo trough, slurping away at the industry.”
“It is quiet at the moment because there are so many hundreds tattooing across Perth,” he says, nodding.
“The tattoo pie is only so big. Every day, most of the tattoo artists sit around doing nothing, struggling. It’s an oversupply at the moment, supply exceeds demand by heaps in Perth, there’s way too many.”
“A drastic spelling mistake, in Spanish, on a gangster.” Ricky Luder’s great tattooing stories:
Gary Welch agrees. He says the oversupply of artists is partly due to the downturn in the mining industry in Western Australia. Welch is the former president of the Professional Tattooing Association of Australia. He has been tattooing in WA for over 30 years and has seen the industry change drastically over that time.
“If you looked at the industry like a cake, there’s only so much cake,” he explains, creating a cake shape with his hands, flashing a kaleidoscope of colour from the tattoos on his hand and arms.
“Because of the downfall in the mining industry in Western Australia the cake has actually shrunk. A big piece of the cake gets eaten in South East Asia, where young folk think it’s alright to get a cheap tattoo. That’s their decision.
“Then there’s the fact that because of the good times the tattooing industry had previously, there’s quite a lot of tattooists and so they’re taking a lot of the cake as well.”
The tattooing industry is in a quiet period at the moment due to the number of tattoo shops and artists, but there is still a high demand for tattoos. This often leads to apprentices being used as a source of free labour.
Tom Philpott says it is not uncommon for tattoo shops to take on young artists with no intention of hiring them once their apprenticeship is complete.
“People hire apprentices as slave labour, that is definitely a thing. They hire them, and it’s free labour and they don’t necessarily believe that you’re actually going to make it, but they’re not losing anything by having you there. And if you don’t have what it takes you’re just putting in work for free,” he says.
Although aspiring artists are aware of the oversupply of tattooists in the industry, in most cases this doesn’t stop them from pursuing their passion.
Ricky Luder Junior, or ‘Little Rick’ (who tattooed me), is 27 and has been working as a tattooist in his father’s Fremantle shop for nearly 10 years. Before entering the tattoo industry, he worked as a cabinet-maker. We are sitting across from each other, a tattooing bench between us. He is absentmindedly sketching designs on a sheet of tracing paper as he explains how tough it can be for young artists to make it into the industry.
“It doesn’t always work. It’s sad because you’ve got to tell young kids the truth, that want to be tattooists. That it’s probably not a realistic option because it’s so hard to become a tattooist,” he says, tapping his pen on the bench.
“Especially these days. When my dad started tattooing, Perth had two tattoo shops. Now there’s about 2,000 tattooists in WA, so the competition is huge. If you can’t do a good tattoo you’re not going to last, and it also takes a certain personality to survive in the tattoo industry.”
“I go to the grave wth you.” Little Rick talks about the spiritual bond of tattoos:
Little Rick says that to be a tattoo artist, you need to have a bit of an attitude about you. You deal with so many people and so need to be able to carry yourself in a way that shows you’re not a pushover.
“Well, tattoo artists are very egotistic people. In their own different ways. Sometimes that can be a bit too much for some people to handle you know, especially if you’re working in a place with twelve people who aren’t pushovers, it can be a little bit too much. I know 6’5 grown men fully covered in tattoos that couldn’t handle the tattoo industry and quit, now they’re bush rangers,” he says.
“It’s hard, it’s hard at the moment. Sort of just got to roll with the punches if you want to be in the industry and push hard to get in.”
The tattooing industry is certainly tough to break into, and even tougher to remain in. Those who work in this industry say you you need to have some very thick skin to last as a tattooist, and you need to have the drive.
Sarah Panting says to make it in the tattooing world, you need to really want to be there, and you need to push yourself to stay there.
“I think you definitely have to have the passion. Like I said working a year and a half with no pay and you’re working really hard, long hours you need to want to be there. A lot of the time even with that passion it’s still really debilitating, and you kind of consider your life a lot,” she says, laughing.
“You keep asking, like, do I actually want to be here? If you stick to it and if it’s what you want to do, you need to have that commitment and that dedication to do it.”
As we sit outside, the sun setting behind the rooftop, Tom Philpott laughs, saying if he had advice for someone wanting to enter into the tattooing industry he would tell them to get ready for some serious struggles.
“You’ve just got to be thick skinned, it’s not an industry for cry-babies,” he chuckles.
“You’ve just got to work really hard at what you do.” Tom Philpott discussing the work you need to put in to be a tattooist:
Ricky Luder emphasises this point, saying that most artists can’t handle it and won’t stay in the industry for more than 10 years.
“It is too much, it’s not everyone’s design to do this for years on end, at all. It is not all skittles and piss,” he says.
Tattooing has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. Nowadays more and more female artists are working their way into the industry, and according to Little Rick, it can be especially hard for them.
“It’s sort of tough for a girl to come into a man’s world. Because it is a man’s world, tattooing. She’s got to have some skin you know what I mean so it’s definitely one of those jobs where it still is a man’s world. The girls that do push in you know they have to be able to hold their own,” he says.
For both men and women however, tattooing is ultimately still a customer service-based job. Tattooists all agree it’s one thing to have the artistic ability but it’s another to have the people skills.
If you want to be a good tattoo artist, you need to be a ‘jack of all trades’ according to Ricky Luder.
“You need to be a good psychologist, psychiatrist – all of that. You have got to have a bit of everything in you,” he insists, motioning wildly with his hands.
“You need to be thick skinned and have to learn to love to be hated.”
Taking criticism and earning respect in the industry can be a hard road for an apprentice. Earning the respect of older artists is crucial to surviving in this industry. Sarah Panting recounts how tough it was when she initially began working at the tattoo shop.
“At first it was really hard because the older artists, even the younger artists that were there they can be quite harsh on you. Being an apprentice, they will be very strict and quite cold and brutal, but it’s for the better and when they see that you can take that on and that you can still work hard and do what’s expected of you they start to earn a lot of respect for you and they’ll be really good to you,” she says.
“There’s no strict rules about who you have to be or how you have to dress.” Sarah Panting talks about how freeing it feels to work in this industry:
As well as taking a lot of work and dedication, Tom Philpott says to be a tattooist you also need to bring something unique to the table.
“Nowadays you’ve got to have something different, because there’s a lot of tattoo artists out there – there’s a lot of apprentices and if you’re doing the same thing as everyone else; you’re never going to like shine and get regular repeat customers, you know?” he says.
In his role as the President of the Professional Tattooing Association of Australia, Gary Welch often instructed young artists on the current state of the industry. He says that in quiet times it can be hard for employers to take on apprentices, and that you need to expect to work extremely hard.
“It doesn’t get handed to you on a plate. If it does, you’re very very lucky. But normally you’ll go through a fairly long period of time not making much money but earning the respect. You don’t just get given respect for nothing you know,” he says
“Then you get the young people who get this demigod feeling about themselves because people say, ‘oh that’s great’, ‘I love that’, ‘you’re great’. Then they start to believe that, and they think they’re something special but they’re really not, we don’t save lives, we only scribble on people.”
More Photos from the Perth Tattoo Expo, 2018.
As well as earning the respect, young tattooists need to have respect: both for the art, and for those who came before them.
Little Rick talks passionately about legendary artists who influenced the tattooing industry in Australia and says it’s disappointing that so many young tattooists don’t recognise the work these people did.
“The attitude of a lot of young tattooists these days is that they created it. That they woke up yesterday and found tattooing, and a lot of these old boys don’t like that,” Rick says, tilting his head towards his father at the front of the shop.
“They spent a lot of time, especially people like my father, and legends of the industry like Bobby Thornton and you know Cindy Ray and stuff who have done a lot of things for the industry in Australia are not really recognised by a lot of the young generation of tattooists. There are a few out there that do but there are a lot who don’t.”
His father agrees, explaining that these days young people are into respect and history or they’re not.
“I can understand they are out for themselves, I can understand that, it is just a dog eat dog world and they are just me, me, me, me, me and everyone else doesn’t really matter,” Luder says.
Tattooing, like other art-based careers, is not always the most lucrative pathway. Tattooists work to create art every day and they must sell their artwork to make a living.
“It is a hard road, you’ve got to dedicate yourself, you’re an artist and you’ve got to earn your dollar every day. How many people do you know who sell their art once a day? Not many. They will sell it once a week at the markets, but to do art every day as a commercial form, we are on our own,” Luder says, tapping his coffee cup on the bench.
Making money in this industry is similar to farming, according to Gary Welch. When times are good, you can make good money. Not great money. But when times are bad you need to have that passion and dedication.
“It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had in the hardest industry. If I had advice for a young person I would say if you can possibly be happy doing another job, I would have a look at that first. This industry is tough, I’ve seen it destroy people,” he says, nodding slowly.
The advice from all sides is to go into this industry with your eyes wide open. But all things considered, these artists wouldn’t want to change a thing.
“No turning back now. I nearly finished my uni degree you know but I just love it so much. I think I’m definitely in it for the long run,” says Tom Philpott.
Ricky Luder takes another swig of coffee as he reflects on life in the industry.
“I didn’t have much at all and tattooing has given me everything – and taken a lot – you got to balance it, but yeah if I had my life over I’d go exactly the same. I wouldn’t do anything else,” he says smiling.