Modern Tattooing: Initiatory-Craft or Industry?
In the age of mechanical reproduction and digital representation, postmodern society may have lost sight of the sacredness that tattooing offers. The act of marking the body originated with the ancients, the indigenous, and the island people. Eventually, it made its’ way to the criminals, carny-freaks, and sailors of a newly-formed industrialized society. Today it has expanded to the outcasts, rock stars and dorks that inhabit a more modern timeline. Have the crafters of tattoos become mere purveyors of commodities through this process? Have we, as tattooers, become merchants of wearable trinkets for trinket-collectors to add to their collection? Or, can we still be the Shamans of our communities? Can we offer an initiatory experience, rooted in a deep-seated oral tradition and craft? Perhaps the act of receiving a tattoo can offer an opportunity, an insight into Self: Who are We... really?
Tattooers as Shamans? This concept seems to be more prevalent in the East and tribal communities. In the West, with our fancy technology and Netflix, some might say I’ve gone too far; that I am making more out of it than necessary! Am I trying to add meaning to something in a time that has lost the desire for authenticity? It Is what It Is... right? We’ve got high fructose corn-syrup, video games, and social media… booyah! Smash that LIKE-button! Seriously though, its not tattoos that make us cool, it’s cool experiences that make us well rounded human beings. Wait, do humans still want to be well rounded these days?!
“Tattoos are just cool man, give me my tattoo so I can post it on Instagram already!” Fair enough, I digress. #fuckme
Let’s go back to a time when esoteric Mystery Schools were still in existence. Individuals would enter the Mystery School by petitioning the High Priests of the Temple. The High Priests would spit on the petitioner’s feet and cast the individual away. If the petitioner was truly determined to enter the Temple, the High Priests would tell them to fast for forty days and commit to a vegetarian diet (this would detoxify the body; only pure individuals were allowed to enter the Temple). If finally accepted, the newly-formed Initiate would enter the three Atrium Degrees. The Atrium was a space for introduction, a way to see if the Initiate had what it takes. After being thoroughly tested in the Atrium Degrees the individual would enter the nine Initiatory Degrees where The Craft was passed down by the Masters. After many years of hard work and discipline the individual would move of up the ladder and transcend their ego. Finally, the initiate would enter the Illuminati Degrees. The Initiate had become one with The Craft, reborn into an infinite landscape of opportunity, with all the tools they would ever need to succeed.
You may be asking; “What the fuck does this have to do with Tattooing?” Hang on, I’m about to show you. And watch your fucking mouth, you’re not allowed to swear in the Temple.
In the world of Tattooing, much like the Ancient Mystery Schools, one would have to petition a Tattoo Master to become their apprentice. The Master would tell them to “fuck-off!” The individual would have to crawl back on hands and knees to convince the Master that they were worthy of The Craft. If the Master saw fit, they would eventually take the petitioner in and prepare them for The Craft. First stages: clean the tubes, make the needles, clean the stations, talk to customers, trace, draw, shut that fucking mouth, go get the burgers and the beers, clean the tubes, make the needles, talk to customers, trace, draw, clean the stations, then clean the whole shop and scrub those toilets till they’re shiny bitch… eat… sleep… repeat. This usually lasted about a year depending on the aptitude and attitude of the apprentice. The Master might even smack the apprentice in the mouth from time to time, just to straighten that bitch-out.
After many sleepless nights of questioning and self-doubt, the apprentice would be allowed to tattoo something small on a pig’s foot or a friend. Properly learning how to tattoo could take years and even then, it’s not for everyone. The apprentice would learn the mechanics of the tattoo machines, the pigments, how to work with different skin types (they’re all different) and how to prevent clients from wiggling like a goddamn wiggle-worms. Finally, if the apprentice proved worthy, the Master would pass down a machine and ordain the young Padawan with the gift of being a fellow Craftsman. (*Insert Angelic Music here) But the Master would still be the Master, and the fellow Craftsman could only become the Master when the they killed their Master. ‘Traditionally the Initiate would have to choke-out the Master and then stab ‘em in the junk. (I might have made that last part up?) It seems apprenticeships are a long-lost dynamic, we are worlds away from the Senpai-Kohai structure. Today, anyone can order tattoo “guns”, pigments and needles online. Simply sign-up for Instagram, draw the same exact thing a thousand different ways, trace other people’s work directly and Voila! You’ve got yourself a ready-made, Insta-famous, kitchen-wizard Grand Master. Bow before thee! “Tattoo books are closed”... “I’m Traveling the World”.
The arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the West brought many new and exciting changes. Among the discoveries and inventions were electricity, the cotton-gin, and the transatlantic slave trade. Fast forward past the Civil War, the Jim Crow Laws, and the near complete annihilation of the native indigenous population. Today we have legal booze, legal weed, computers, iPhones, iPads, and girls becoming InstaFamous for their bubbly booties! #dontbeahater #onlypositivevibes #jesusfirst Times are definitely changing with the advent of instant global communication and a virtual landscape where everyone is cool-as-shit because their social media persona says so. One can’t help but notice that Tattooing has become less of a craft rooted in tradition, and more of a commodity-driven market. It’s not quality it’s quantity. It’s not authenticity, it’s familiarity. Water down the message, the masses love it because it’s consumable; they don’t have to think. Just point, grunt and thumbs-up that shit, boom! Welcome to the New World Order.
Is it just me or have we lost ourselves in the mix? I don’t know if we’re still human or if we’re just simulacras of our-self? It’s probably just me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely “hating” on where things are going. Due to this growth tattoo machines, inks and needles are better. Almost all tattoo-related products have a higher quality and are more affordable. Computers have made it insanely easy to prepare designs and stencils. Websites are more streamline and highly accessible. Any style of tattoo is a hop, skip and click away. Tattooers are tattooing better tattoos and there are more artists throw’n it down in The Industry than ever before. Previous to the boom, women in The Industry were a rare sight but now the females are more prevalent, shit, they’re taking over… I can hear them roaring as I write this. Tattooers smell better and tattoo studios are nicer. Tattoo clients tend to be more educated and generally sit better (because the drugs are more sophisticated, and everyone’s on them). Tattoo collectors are flying all over the world to get the new hot-shit by the next hot-shit artist. From the forest to the high rise, the situation is progressing and It’s All Gravy Baby!
Ultimately, Kat Von D and her merry gang of Reality TV Stars killed the Magazine-Stars… and Instagram killed Everyone. I’m left wondering if I’m a part of an Ancient Mystical Order of Tattooers initiating people into Self-Hood... or if I’m just a rusty ol’ cog in a thriving Industry that’s: #winning #humble
Is Modern Tattooing an Initiatory-Craft or an Industry, it seems to be a bit of both. The Craft keeps us rooted in Tradition, the Industry pushes innovation forward and each Tattooer determines their own fate. We all get to choose our path. At any rate, I’m going to count my blessings, light some incense, burn some sage, mumble mantras under my breath and create a sacred space to tattoo with my Partner-In-Crime/Special-Lady. I trust that our clients see the value in what we offer. May the Ancestors of Tattooing look down on us favorably, grinning from ear to ear! Aho!
Om Eim Saraswatyei Swaha!
by the hand of H.H. Little Sky