Like many people in the tattoo world, Andre Malcolm would characterize himself as an artist with a capital "A." His workspace at FTW Tattoo Parlor in Oakland says as much. Ink drawings decorate the walls, and a cloth painting of a tiger dangles from the ceiling. There's also a magazine clipping with a slogan that could be Malcolm's stock credo: "Good work ain't cheap; cheap work ain't good."
He takes those words to heart. Born in Jamaica and raised by an ultra-religious mother, Malcolm didn't consider tattooing until his late teens. And even then, he was reluctant to pursue it as a career — after all, he'd grown up thinking that body ink was a sin. Nonetheless, he became more enamored of countercultural art forms after moving to the Bronx as a kid. Around age seventeen he started hanging out at gritty inner-city haunts like Tuff City Styles, a shop that always smelled like cleaning solution. At the time, Malcolm was a sketchbook artist and occasional painter — he still favors watercolor. "People told me to learn to tattoo," he said, recalling the friends who exhorted him to buy a tattoo machine about twelve years ago. "They said, 'You could make a lot of money doing this.'"
For Malcolm, and a lot of other artists, that's what clinched the deal. Tattooing is one of the few industries that appear to be growing at a time when it's become increasingly difficult for artists to make a living. It also has a certain sex appeal and pop-culture cachet that's lacking in other media. More importantly, it's in demand. A 2010 Pew Research Center report on millennials (people born after 1980) found that four in ten have tattoos, and of those, half have between two and five tattoos. The TLC network has aired a spate of body art-related reality shows, including Tattoo School, about a two-week seminar that supposedly turns hacks into bona fide artists. Naturally, it's invited criticism from a community that prizes long apprenticeships, and considers tattooing a fine art rather than a trade. If anything, though, it shows just how popular the tattoo business has become.
April Ballar can attest to that. She studied illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco before buying her first tattoo starter kit at a friend's behest. Ballar is mostly self-taught, which is unusual in the tattoo world, where most people go through an apprenticeship. "There's a term they like to give people, called 'scratchers,'" Ballar said, explaining that "scratcher" could apply either to a first-time dabbler or any dilettante who enters a Tattoo School-style crash course in the hope of becoming great. "Being an artist already, before I started tattooing, I didn't like the sound of that," she said. "Even though I was teaching myself, I studied really hard to make sure I was doing everything in the proper way."
Rocio Arteaga learned in the more traditional way. At eighteen, she left her small, working-class hometown in Ventura, California, and moved to San Francisco, with designs on going to art college. She had $800 to her name and almost no resources. Arteaga soon found herself sleeping on a friend's couch while trying her hand at painting and photography. She fell into tattooing by accident, when someone from Black and Blue Tattoo came to her art show at the now-defunct Red Dora's Bearded Lady Cafe. "I asked if they needed apprentices," Arteaga said, adding that Black and Blue is known specifically for recruiting women and people of color. She started working there at age 21 while holding a second job as a bike mechanic, and eventually helped open another shop in Oakland, called Diving Swallow Tattoo. Arteaga quit her bike shop job a few years ago and now tattoos full-time, both at Diving Swallow and Black and Blue, where she still works one day a week.
There are plenty of reasons to choose tattooing as a job, and not just because it's sexy or trendy. Perhaps the most important benefit is that, unlike the average painter or black-and-white photographer, a tattoo artist can actually earn enough to eke out a living. High-end shops in San Francisco charge up to $200 an hour, Arteaga said, and in most cases half of that revenue goes to the tattoo artist. Others do a flat rate, or ask for cash only; some allocate a larger portion to the artist, but ask in exchange that she provide her own ink and equipment. The most elaborate pieces — say, a giant trompe l'oeil that covers someone's entire back — can fetch up to $2,000.
There's no debating that this recent artist-influx has created a titanic shift in the tattoo world. Not only has tattooing gained respect as a discipline; it's also acquired new pretensions. If anything, it's moving away from blood-stained roses and ship anchors and toward a more classical style of art. The proprietors of Diving Swallow are known for botanical work; Arteaga specializes in birds and animals. It's also become common for tattoo artists to experiment in abstract or impressionistic forms. Ballar said she's seeing a lot more ink splatters, brushstrokes, and tattoos that have no distinguishable outline. There's even an artist at Diving Swallow who does "organic-looking dot work," meaning she punches dots into her clients' skin to make patterns.
Considering such innovations, it's not surprising that so many people say the tattoo industry is flourishing. The only problem is that supply may ultimately outstrip demand, especially if the trend starts to wane. Perhaps in the future we'll see a glut of tattoo artists, and not enough skin left for them to beautify.
Ballar certainly thinks it's a competitive market. In March, she was hired to work at a Laurel District shop called Dragon's Lair Tattoo, after one of the owners saw a tattoo she'd done of a koi fish. But Dragon's Lair burned down recently, and Ballar has been without a shop ever since. She said part of her frustration is being young and inexperienced, but she also has to contend with industry politics. "As a 24-year-old woman who has been tattooing for a year and a half, it's very difficult," Ballar assured. "I feel a lot of shops are very cliquey, and the industry is male-dominated. So I have three things holding me back."
But Arteaga demurs. Sure, there's elitism in tattooing and a tendency to frown on amateurs, as is the case in any artistic discipline, she says. But Arteaga insists there's still plenty of work for everyone. "If you're good," she said, "people will come to you."