In keeping with the idea of a weekly, bi-weekly, hell, monthly blog, I’ve decided to forego other tasks, and sit down and write this. I have a tendency to get caught up in the immediate, and when it comes to things like this, or writing in my journal, I’ll inevitability say ” I’ll do it tomorrow” and then I get caught up in the pile of un-finished paintings I’ve started, re-organizing my comic books, exercising, or, most importantly trying to be a good Dad to my twin 4-and-a-half-year-old-daughters. So, here we are, I just decided to sit down and write, and, I’m going to cover one of my least favorite topics in regards to my “industry” : The apprentice….
I, myself, served a 2-year apprenticeship from late ’93’to mid’95 or there abouts, my memory of exactly when I started is hazy at best, I know for a fact I was apprenticing in June 1994, because I vividly remember watching game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals, between my ( at the time) beloved NY Knicks vs The Houston Rockets, at the shop, RT.66 Tattoo ( if you want to get technical the full-on name of the shop would be ” Brain Everett’s RT. 66 Fine Line Tattoo”, say that 10 times fast, and I personally never felt the need to include my name in the name of the actual studio ie: ” Marty Williams’ 71 Tattoo, Marty Williams and Jaime Trujillio’s Chrome Ohm Tattoo ect, ect but hey that’s just my opinion nothing against Mr. Everett who pretty much green-lighted my start) on my Grandmother’s tiny, old-school TV I inherited when she passed, so I obviously was there in summer ’94, and I’m guessing I’d been there between 9 months to a year at that point…so ….
I fell into the whole tattoo thing, my aspirations initially were to be a comic book artist, that was my first love, and it still is actually, I started trying to duplicate the intricate covers, and pages of my favorite comics as a kid, mostly Wolverine and The X-men, as drawn by the legendary John Byrne , I took art classes in high school , and upon graduation went to a now-defunct trade school in Phoenix Arizona, studying ” graphic design” when graphic design was done by hand, not Photoshop, I hated the school and living in Arizona, so I moved back to ABQ, and continued at UNM with an eye on an art studio degree. So, I had always been artistic, I was also part of the late 80’s/early 90’s Punk Rock/Skateboard/metal/whatever scene in ABQ, where more-so than other cities at the time, tattoos were mega prevalent, I wound up meeting a guy named JB Jones, and becoming sort of re-acquainted with a guy named Chris Partain, who was a guy I hated in middle school and high school, I’m sure the feeling was mutual, but we put that aside and became close friends. Long story short, JB was an excellent artist ( especially for the time) and , through his Father, who was a prominent local artist who specialized in portraits and SW-flavored art, JB secured a job/apprenticeship at RT.66, his father knew Mr. Everett, and by this time JB was tattooing out of his house, so, he decided to take it to the next level, and at the time, early 90’s, RT. 66 was not only the best shop in ABQ ( it was pretty much the ONLY shop back then if you can imagine that) but it was the best shop in the SW and top 10 Nationally, Brian and his partner/employee/right-hand-man , ” Cap” Szumski had developed, deservedly so , quite the reputation for being top-notch artists , particularly in the realistic , black and grey , portrait style , so needless to say, JB getting a job there was a HUGE deal to us and our circle of friends. I’m attempting to make a long story as short as possible, not long after JB was hired, Chris was hired as the ” lackey” or ” front guy”, I hung around the shop constantly, so when Brian and CO. decided to apprentice Chris, I was up as the lackey, but was told, no apprenticeships for me, which, whatever, I was just excited to be working there. Enter a man named ” Mr. Max” who was a friend of Brian’s from Chicago, who he got to know through the tattoo convention circuit, Max saw something in me, and soon after I was actually apprenticing to become a tattooer.
I had an old-school apprenticeship, done by old-school men, during a time when tattooing was still and outlaw, underground art, not even remotely considered an ” industry” as it is now. There was no lame-ass TV shows, no Ed Hardy jeans ( although he had a killer tattoo studio in SF, Tattoo City, and published some awesome books through his company Hardy marks publications) , no tattoo style art on clothes, stickers, lighters, there was no ” Sailor Jerry ” rum, who, I’m sure is rolling in his grave, no, it was an underground, low-brow, outlaw ” profession” . I did everything: from deal with clients, to cleaning and sterilizing EVERYONE’S ( there were 5-6 guys at 66 back then) tubes and equipment , keep the shop clean, get food, order supplies, order cards and t-shirts, get supplies, book Brian’s convention and guest spot appointments, I had a spiral notebook broken up into different regions of the world, so , for example, if someone called from bum-fuck Iowa, ( this was pre- cell phone and internet days)I’d have a Midwest section, and I’d add their name, number, what they wanted ect, so when/if Brian was in their region, he’d have appointments . I was responsible for literally everything, somehow working 11am-11pm 7 days a week ( I shit you not, the first year at 66 that was my schedule) eventually getting a generous one day off, so I worked Monday-Saturday 11am-11pm , it was long, hard ,hours, and my old school biker-style bosses had zero sympathy for me, not that I wanted any, but a little empathy would’ve been nice in retrospect! I also had to find time to learn how to DRAW TATTOO designs, I knew basic anatomy, and sorta how to draw super heroes, but I had little to no clue how to draw TATTOO DESIGNS, so I was constantly learning, Max would give me assignments and I’d have to deliver him a sheet of letters, panthers, roses, ect .This was also pre-pre-made-needles, so I had to make needles, a very tedious task, involving solder and flux, something today’s tattoo ” artist” dosent know shit about, it was very time consuming, so after being at the shop for 12 hours, I’d go home and make needles, and draw. Max also taught me how to mix tattoo pigment, another skill today’s tattoo ” artists” are clueless about. Today’s tattoo ” artist” has it all handed to him, little to no prep time, in my day there was all sorts of prep work, this wasn’t a job, it was a committed lifestyle.
Needless to say, I burnt out, on those crazy hours, working for Brian, having Max on my case about literally everything, and Albuquerque in general, one can only burn the candle at both ends for so long, before the wax melts them, I had paid my dues, and then some, then I had an opportunity to leave, go to Seattle, with my former partner Jaime Trujillio, who also had a huge hand in apprenticing me, and pended Chrome Ohm Tattoo with Jaime, in Seattle, WA, in October 1996, which, Chrome Ohm is still going strong today. But, my experience in Seattle is a different story for another time. I’m forever grateful to Max, Brian and the guys at 66 during that era, for teaching me everything they did, and the principles and work ethic I still have today. While I don’t make needles anymore, I still mix pigments, and follow Max’s teachings to the T, 22 years later . I wouldn’t trade my apprenticeship for anything.
Which brings me to my point: today’s apprentices are sorely lacking in my opinion. Tattoo equipment is readily available to anyone, the ” industry” is now like a hair salon, “apprentices” don’t value the hard work, and commitment it takes to do this, and to do this right. What’s happened with the social acceptance of tattooing is you have a shit load of of crappy, un-qualified ” artists” who take on apprentices, who have no business tattooing, they quit, open a shop, get an apprentice, who quits, opens a shop, gets an apprentice, ect ect, and here we are. When I left ABQ, there were 5 shops in this city, now there’s over 70 (!!) and of those 70 shops, all but about 6 of them suck, and even some of the alleged better shops, the ” award winning” shops, employ 15-20 people, so by default, not everyone is going to be high quality, and some of these place that employ 20 artists, also employ apprentices, like every tattooer has an apprentice. Its obscene. It makes me literally homicidal. This is a craft and an art that takes a long time to cultivate, and to do properly, so when Joe-dickhead gets inspired by ” Ink Masters” and opens a shop, and has 5 apprentices, hes just pumping that many un-qualified, under skilled idiots into our ” Industry” ( god damn I hate that word) who ,multiply , and thus we have over 70 shops, not counting the scratchers scribbling on people in their kitchens. It’s horrifying to me, we’ve always had scratchers and shitty tattooers, but the number of apprentices flooding the craft is insane. They don’t know what it takes, work an 11 hour shift then call me. Spend all night making needles then call me. Pay your dues. And to the shop owners who pump out these apprentices so they can cash in on some shitty kid making you a 50-50 % your equally at blame. This isn’t solely about commerce to me, this is what I do, this is all I’ve ever done, admittedly , I’ve become kind of fried lately, thinking about incorporating my desire to draw comics with my tattoo artist/shop owner responsibilities, but my dues have been paid, period. I dont pump out apprentices. I ve had exactly TWO in 22 years, one every decade, and after the last one, I’ll NEVER do it again. Why? So I can pump more people into this ” industry” over-saturating it even more? It’s insanity, it can’t be sustained.
I’m not suggesting everyone have the hard -ass apprenticeship I did, I’m not suggesting shop owners don’t have apprentices, I really don’t care what the other guys do, I worry about my studio and my art, I am simply giving an educated opinion an something that’s been my life for over 2 decades. I worked hard to get where I’m at, and I’m proud of that, I’m proud of my integrity and sticking to my guns, but this is a topic that burns me, every time I see a kid come in 71, or call looking for an apprenticeship, I tell him to go to school, or to go work at the gas station. There’s already enough, and most of ’em haven’t paid their dues, and are horrible at what they do, I still hold my once-outlaw profession dear, and I dont want to see it exploited any longer by greedy shop owners looking to make a 50-50 cut off some kid who can barely draw a rose, or said kid being star-struck by “Ink Masters” and thinking this is the career for him. If you’re thinking about this, get a REAL apprenticeship, from a REAL tattoo studio, pay your dues, learn everything you can, take it seriously, try to get better, every single day, in all aspects of tattooing, and to the shop owners: think before you bring some kid on to be your personal slave, and a way to fatten your wallets at 50-50, your perpetuating this, your letting these people loose on the public long before they’re ready, I’m not the expert, but I do have a ton of experience, and this is still my life, second only to my family
RIP JB Jones
Thanx as always to Max, Brain and Jaime
Thanx to Chris for bringing me into it all, I’m forever grateful to all of you