César De Cesaro
Tattooing. It’s not really comparable to anything else in the world, and can be such a complicated and emotionally charged event for all involved. It’s a collaboration between two people, client and artist, who have completely different motives yet both care deeply about the final result. Recently, I spoke to three different tattoo artists who, like me, had been contemplating the process and its challenges. The three artists I’ve been chatting to this month are all from different backgrounds, with varying artistic styles. I was keen to see if they encountered similar aspects in their working days, specifically surrounding the behaviour of their clients. As the UK tattoo generation of today, do we make things difficult for our artists, and how? What can we learn about tattooing today that can aid the collaborative journey in the future? AKA, are we a bit shit sometimes, and how can we be less so?
César De Cesaro
According to César De Cesaro, owner of Body Garden Tattoo in Birmingham, we’re currently in the “golden age of tattooing” and he’s spent the last 17 years attempting to develop an understanding of why people get tattooed. He says, “I love to explore the waves of thought that influence people to go and get a tattoo.” He’s tattooed all over the world and spent significant periods of his life in Holland, Italy and Brazil, meaning he’s seen how the client’s motives can change both over time, and overseas. César has specialised in many different styles over the years and aims to never turn a customer away. With a shop of many different artistic personalities, it’s easy for the team to decide which artist best fits what the customer is looking for.
But things aren’t so simple for Kat Winifred, who tattoos solo in Bristol. She hasn’t got other artists in the room to pass clients to if their desires don’t click with hers. Kat has worked as a henna artist for 8 years and a tattoo artist for 2. I was keen for her to give me an insight into the typical artist/customer relationship. “The most common situation you encounter as a tattoo artist is someone bringing a photo of someone else’s tattoo to you,” begins Kat. “Most of the time, the first question I get asked is – how much would it be for you to tattoo this?” I’ve observed this myself whilst spending time in studio receptions. Nine times out of ten, price is the first question on someone’s lips when they enter the door. Understandably, we’re all financially conscious, but it’s got to be hugely frustrating for any artist when we ask about price before we’ve even discussed size, colour, placement, style, or anything else.
There’s a generation of people wanting to buy a tattoo in the same way they’d buy a new pair of shoes. They want it now. They want it fast. They want it as cheap as possible. Some of them want it because they believe that they should want it. Paula Castle, from Nevermore Tattoo Parlour in Daventry, knows this all too well. A huge portion of tattoo customers ask for something that’s either in fashion, or because they’ve seen it on someone else. Paula says, “there are Buzzfeed and Pinterest boards with names such as 10 Tattoos You Must Get In 2015. Tattoos aren’t stickers, they can’t be discarded like last season’s boots.”
Once price has been discussed the next biggest challenge for the artist is creating something that both parties are happy with. César would say, “the biggest challenge is trying to create something for a customer that doesn’t know what they want.” As tattoo-purchasers, we know what we want to pay, but not necessarily what we actually want.Consumer behavior is now well and firmly engrained in our DNA. We can buy whatever we want, whenever we want. We can impulse buy, at a click of a button, and it seems some of us have the same ethos when putting something on our bodies forever. At César’s studio, they still get handfuls of customers whose first question is can I look through the flash sheets?
The big bad internet has its place in all of this too, as you’d expect. Kat says, “lots of clients want an exact replica of something they have found online. I explain that I can use the photos as a reference but that it will always be my spin on that idea, in my style.” César sets the record straight. “Something can’t go directly from an image reference, onto someone’s skin. An idea has to go through a process of distortion – from a customer’s mind, to the artist’s mind, and then to paper. Like a guitar sound goes through a distortion pedal and comes out as something similar, but different.” I’ve been privy to those awkward conversations between customer and artist before, when a client is dead set on an idea that the artist doesn’t agree will work. I’ve heard clients put their arguments across in lots of different ways, one of the most common, it’s on my body for life, so surely it’s my decision. Exactly, you’ve said it yourself. It’s there for life, and this is the driving factor behind every decision your artist makes.
Photo: Kat Winifred
It was interesting to hear about Kat’s different approaches to both henna and tattoo art. She has different conversations with these two different client groups – she can be more free and flexible with henna art “because it washes off”. “Don’t get me wrong. No less love goes into my henna work, but obviously I have a different approach to it. My tattoo art has a completely different level of planning, perfection and involvement. It’s there forever.” For Paula Castle, the internet hasn’t so much caused problems with referencing ideas, but opened her eyes to a world of copy-cats. “Social media means I can reach clients nationally and internationally, but sadly it opens you up as an artist to plagiarism on a global scale. It’s happened to me a lot of times and is devastating.” Paula’s upset, not for herself, but for the original client who has spent money and time to get a custom design from her. “Custom designs are such an important part of tattooing, and to see artists in the world that haven’t got the same respect for this, is just heart-wrenching.”
Most artists today are like Paula, and they will create one-off designs for their customers. But not all artists follow the same methods. Flash artists repeat the same designs on multiple clients and say that these old-school roots are the beauty of tattooing. Knowing that a design can have meaning on the body of more than one person, restores faith in the fact that humans experience the same emotions throughout their lives. Tattoo flash can bring us closer together. Tattoos ARE replication. But for César, artists that work in this way will get left behind. “If you tattoo the same flash over and over again, you’ll never get anywhere, unless you change your principles. Those artists are happy just making money, rather than creating new custom designs, and that’s all they want to achieve.”
César De Cesaro
If you’re new to tattoos you’ll be reading this thinking, so I shouldn’t pick a design from the internet and ask for that, and I shouldn’t ask to see the flash sheets – what on earth should I do then? It can be really difficult to know where to start if you’re a tattoo virgin. I think we’d all agree that if you have respect and appreciation, for art and artist, that’s all you need to know. Talking to Paula about her frequent experience of artwork theft, she pleas for “morals and artistic integrity” overall. Let’s extend this integrity to ourselves, as clients, as well as our artists. César’s admits, “it’s taken me over a decade to develop my own idea of what tattoo art is. For me, it’s something that elevates your conscience in relation to how you see the world.” In other words, your tattoo art should enhance your personal understanding of an idea. If your wearing a copied design, you’ll never achieve that. If you pick from a pre-existing design that you haven’t inputted into, you’ll never achieve that.
César De Cesaro
So who is the main culprit in the golden age of tattooing? The ignorant client, the imitating artist, the world wide web? Probably all of us, and that may never change. If there’s going to be any motivation for human beings to act differently and embrace respect, it’s César’s final words in our interview together.“Golden ages don’t last forever, and this one will end at some point. The best tattooists of the modern era are alive and putting out amazing pieces everyday, now. We should open our eyes and appreciate where we are now, and where we’ve come from.”