My new trick – flash (top), on the skin (middle), finished tattoo (bottom)
It’s true what they say: it’s hard work teaching an old dog a new trick – and for me, tattooing is still a very new trick.
And after twenty years as an illustrator, I’ve discovered I’m a very old dog indeed. It’s funny, but I hadn’t really considered how little I’ve had to actually learn in those past twenty years. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly have learned a great deal: I learned how to draw in pencil and ink, I learned how to draw finds, how to draw reconstructions, how to paint, how to work digitally, and finally how to paint digitally. But it’s always been learning of a particular – and similar – kind.
I hope this isn’t art-blasphemy, but all two-dimensional media are pretty much the same sort of thing. The end results on the paper or canvas will vary according to the medium, but ultimately it’s all dependent on the way your hand and eye work to create the mark. I’m pretty comfortable in most two-dimensional media – I’ve learned to use most of them in the course of two decades’ illustration: paint, pencil, ink, chalks, etc. Yes, you need a bit of time to get into each one, but you can: because the mark-making process is essentially the same
Not so with tattooing. Here, the mark-making process is not yours to control – it’s a complex, second-by-second physical relationship between you and another person. It’s not like art at all – it’s like dancing (and as some people know only too well, I’m not a very good dancer). Not only are you working on a ‘canvas’ that’s unlike pretty much any other surface used for two-dimensional work, you’re having to dance with the position, musculature, skin-depth, skin-quality, twinges and twitches of pain, sweating and a thousand other micro-shifts in your working environment.
Now, I’m perfectly happy to do this with pen or pencil. In this regard, that ever-changing working milieux is no different to that when you’re tracing painted wall plaster in the 100-degree heat, or stone-money discs in bat-infested caves: you know your mark-making process, you know your medium, you understand your subject – you get on with it.
But trying to learn under these conditions is another matter!
Yesterday I did my first proper tattoo. Up until now I’ve only ever been working on artificial skin (like tattooing a Replicant). Last week I did a couple of hours filling-in of tribal, and the week before I did another two hours on Neil doing grey-shading (which has come out nicely, by the way). But yesterday I did my first complete tattoo on Sarah – and did I ever feel like an old dog with a very new trick!
To be fair, it certainly wasn’t a complete disaster, and Sarah knew completely what she was letting herself in for. And the parts that went well, I was pleased with. The finished tattoo isn’t actually all that bad, but of course I can only see the bits that didn’t work. And even a generous person wouldn’t mistake it for anything other than the work of a complete beginner!
In my defence, too, it was a very difficult first piece: the design – a sweet commemorating a much-loved dog – was full of long curves, it had a name in the middle, and it was on the back of the neck – not an easy place to work on at the best of times. There was also, inevitably, something not quite right with my gun (even Rena said she couldn’t work with it, so lent me hers, which was much, much better), and I was using very small liner needles – 5 and 7 – which showed up every possible imperfection. But these excuses can only possibly cover about 30% of the problem – the rest of it was sheer old doggedness. Not wanting to sound to Yoda-ish, but it was very much a process of un-learning everything I already know. If I was drawing this sweet, it wouldn’t be a problem (in fact, it wasn’t a problem: I designed and drew the flash for it!). Heck, I could draw it with a charred stick on the side of a mountain in the middle of a howling gale and not even break sweat – you’d expect that with twenty years of experience. But of course, I wasn’t drawing it – I was tattooing it, and that’s a different kettle of fish all together.
Am I downhearted? Hardly. This is day one, week one – I’ve got years left to go! If anything, learning as much as I did yesterday has only made me even more determined. Every week, I’ll learn something new – every week I’m one tattoo closer to twenty years’ worth of tattooing experience. It’s an odd feeling, this starting from scratch again, but it’s actually extremely interesting – it reminds me of what it was like drawing my first piece of Samian, or my first Cypriote milk bowl, or my first neolithic figurine – and getting it wrong. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but because I’ve stayed in my two-dimensional illustration comfort zone for such a long time, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be so much a beginner and get things so very wrong.
Don’t get me wrong – I am consistently challenged by illustration, even after twenty years of doing it. I don’t know every technique, I’m not proficient in every medium, and I’m always learning something new with every project. But it’s new in the sense that it’s new ways to push existing skills and understanding; it’s learning how to do my old trick in new ways. Tattooing is my new trick – and will be for a long time yet. It’s this different newness that’s so rewarding.
In twenty years’ time, no doubt I’ll be able to tattoo a full Japanese sleeve with a rusty nail and a pots of poster paint in the middle of an Atlantic gale. Along the way I will have learned how to deal with the recalcitrant guns, the fading inks, the badly-lit studios, the blunt needles, the twinges and twitches, the sweat, the complaints, the changes-of-mind-halfway-through. I’ve got all that learning ahead, and I can’t wait – after all, that’s how I learned all my old tricks in the first place.
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