My Interesting Job: Tattoo Artist

My Interesting Job: Tattoo Artist

From talking to people about the death of a loved one to watching a woman’s relationship with their body change, there’s so much more to being a tattoo artist than simply drawing designs on skin. We speak to Rebecca Vincent of Parliament LDN about the highs and lows of the job, and why you don’t need an A Level in art to be successful…

Have you always wanted to be a tattoo artist?
To be honest, no. Now I am one, I can see it’s the best job in the world, but it wasn’t even on my radar when I was younger – even though I was getting tattooed from about the age of 20. I was actually a pub landlady and it was only after having my daughter at the age of 26 that I thought I needed a career change. One of my friends suggested it but, as I failed my A Level art, I didn’t think I could do it. I sat with the idea though, and decided to make the jump.  

What sort of training do you need? 
You should ideally get an apprenticeship in a tattoo studio. It’s usually an unpaid apprenticeship so you have to be fully committed and prepared for that. I did my apprenticeship while working part-time in a pub and looking after my daughter. When I look back now, it was mental but I never once resented it. I just made it work.

Do you need to be good at art to be a tattoo artist?
Art is subjective. What one person doesn’t like, another person might. It’s the same with tattoos. I think you do need to be good at art to be a tattooist – if you want to be a custom artist, having that skill is a must. But, because art is subjective, you might not need to be conventionally good to succeed. You must have a passion though.

Is there a financial investment when you’re starting out?
Different studios work in different ways. Where I work, they provide the needles and the ink, but I have to buy my own machine. Sometimes you have to buy everything yourself or sometimes the studio provides everything. 

And do they employ you? Or do you hire the space?
Tattooing is quite like hairdressing. At the moment, I’m self-employed but I hire a space out of a studio and pay a daily rate. However, I’ve worked at studios where you pay them a percentage of what you make on each tattoo. 

What sort of clients do you work with?
Because I’ve got quite a delicate style, I attract a wide range of people. Most of my customers are female and I tattoo a lot of teachers, lawyers and doctors – all sorts of people that you don’t necessarily think would have tattoos. 

How many tattoos can you do in an average day? 
Our working hours here are 11am to 8pm so I probably do three or four a day, but I’m quite fast. Because a lot of my customers are first timers, I don’t usually do huge tattoos, so that would be three or four smaller-sized ones. Sometimes I do just one massive tattoo or two bigger ones in a day.  

Do you always do custom designs?
Yes – but it depends. I have done loved ones’ handwriting before, which people sometimes want if a friend or relative has just passed away. If there’s a picture that means a lot to someone, I’ll do that too. But 99% of the time it’s my own work. I love that creative freedom. It’s such an honour too: someone is coming to me and asking me to put my work on their body for the rest of their lives. That’s a huge compliment.

What’s your process for a custom design? 
It’s evolved. If it’s something I am completely comfortable with, I often just draw my idea straight onto the client’s skin in pen. They won’t have seen the design before, but people who come to me have seen what I do. They have faith they’re going to like what I suggest – and they can always change it if they don’t like it. I never want my customers to feel pressured to get something they don’t want. 

Where do you get your inspiration from? 
I’m a botanical tattoo artist, so most of my designs are floral and inspired by natural history. I get my ideas mostly from museums and dog walks. My phone is full of pictures of my child, my dog and flowers that I’ve seen on walks. 

What’s it like working on skin? 
At first, it’s like learning to draw again. It’s a completely different medium to what you’re used to. When I was starting out, I remember someone saying they found tattooing easier than drawing on paper. I didn’t believe them, but I do now! Give me an arm or give me a thigh and I’ll go at it. That said, everybody is different and everyone’s skin is different. Age, health and placement can all have an impact on what it’s like to work on. If a woman is due on her period, that can have an effect too. Understanding skin comes with practice. Now, as soon as that first line is in, I know what I’m working with.

Most of my customers are female and I tattoo a lot of teachers, lawyers and doctors – all sorts of people that you don’t necessarily think would have tattoos.

Do you work with a lot of repeat clients?
Yes, which is nice because I get to see people grow and change. I like seeing how tattoos help their confidence too. It happened with me: I never liked my legs but my relationship with them changed after I got them tattooed.

Do you worry about making mistakes?
To be honest, I haven’t thought about that for ages. When you start out, it’s absolutely terrifying, but it does change. My style has a lot to do with that. Because my work is all about nature, and is quite sprawling and chaotic, I don’t worry in the same way I would if I was designing mandalas that need to be perfect. It’s quite freeing to work like this.  

What’s the most memorable tattoo you’ve ever given someone?
Two brothers once asked for their dog – but as an astronaut! They wanted it to look like one of those traditional photographs of an astronaut with his helmet off, sitting in front of a flag, so that’s what I did. A year later I did their other dog as a knight. It’s completely different to the stuff I usually do, but it was good fun. 

Do you have to draw tattoos in unusual areas of the body? 
I mean, what’s an unusual body part? I haven’t done genitalia. If a girl came to me and asked for her vagina to be done, then I’d absolutely consider it. I don’t know how I’d feel if a guy asked me to tattoo his penis. I probably wouldn’t, but that’s my personal choice. People get all parts of their body tattooed, but it’s not seedy. It’s quite difficult to explain if you’ve not had a tattoo before, but you can be in a room full of strangers, completely topless, and feel very comfortable. No one is looking at you – everyone is there for their own reasons. 

What’s it like inflicting pain on people with your needle?
It’s so strange. I still don’t think I’ve got over it as I really don’t like hurting people. I’m constantly apologising to my clients, especially if it’s in an area that I know hurts a lot.

Do you need to be good at talking to people to be a tattoo artist?
Yes, definitely. In fact, it’s a bit like being a therapist sometimes. Some people really open up – I guess it’s the vulnerability of what they’re doing and because a tattoo can be really cathartic. I have cried so many times with customers because you really feel what they’re telling you. It’s an honour to do something that means so much to them. 

Tattooing is traditionally a male-dominated industry. Is this changing?
It’s changed so much – it’s incredible. We’ve just welcomed two more female artists to the studio I’m in, which I think means there are more females working here than males now. The same is true for the clients: probably 90% of my clients are female and only want to be tattooed by a female. I also tattoo guys who only want to be tattooed by a female too, because they feel more comfortable that way. Saying that, what I love about tattooing is it’s usually all about the artwork. If someone likes your style, they’ll come to you, regardless of whether you’re male or female. 

What’s the best thing about your job?
The creative freedom. I can’t believe it’s my job sometimes. Being allowed to tattoo the things that I think of is brilliant.

And the worst?
Probably the inevitable back problems that will come from the job. I’ve had to start doing yoga because my back is screwed – I’m hunched over people constantly. When you’re in the zone and focusing, you don’t think of yourself. You’re just thinking how you can get the best angle to get the needle in. You really should remember to stretch between tattoos, but no one ever does.

Do you have any advice for would-be tattoo artists?
Draw, draw, draw – and don’t stop. Prepare to be rejected a lot when you approach studios about working for them. It’s disheartening, but it gives you a bit of back bone and thickens your skin up. Don’t give up – keep trying because it’s the best job in the world.

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