Caveat Emptor - Alan Moon

Published: 06 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 129, January, 2006


'Caveat Emptor' looks like a neat idea for a tattoo; along the lines of CARP DIEM etc. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate into anything as profound as “seize the moment”. It means: “Let the Buyer Beware”. Never before has a phrase held more importance to the customer than this particular one does in today’s growing market for all things Tattoo.

We have a booming clothing industry using recognised tattoo images to sell in the High Street; we have mobile phone covers with tribal markings, we have jewellery in various shapes and sizes all depicting tattoo imagery, and we have of course the tattoo itself, a statement about your own individuality and lifestyle.

The burgeoning growth of new tattoo studios begs the question; “where are all of these new tattooists coming from?”  Is there some secret location concealing a factory which turns out shiny new tattooists as the demand increases? Of course not! So, where DO these new masters of the needle come from?

Historically, but not exclusively, tattooists travelled down the apprenticeship route; cleaning, making tea, tracing flash, running errands, making up needle groupings until they could do it so that the grouping was perfect and they didn’t burn their fingers to the bone, watching, listening, developing their artistic skills, learning about skin, hygiene, cross-contamination, machine building, machine tuning, machine cleaning and refurbishment, making ink from powdered pigment, how to put in solid colour, how to fade, how to blend, how to work in black & grey, how to do a cover-up, how to do lettering, how to duck when an angry Mentor lets fly with a badly–tuned machine, answering the telephone, running interference at the front desk, how to pacify a drunken customer whose fist is bigger than your head, how to recognise when you are having the urine extracted, and how to make sure that you develop that all-important sense of telepathy so you know just what your mentor wants, where he wants it and when, and generally working for a pittance whilst all around you, friends are making big money and having fun while your long hours play havoc with your social life!

This is the apprentice route, definitely not glamorous, and often soul-destroying to the point of despair. I myself am “Old School”, starting out in the 60’s and working my way through the apprentice system with a mentor who appreciated the fact that I could produce artwork in any style faster, better and more accurately than he could. 

Others in the tattoo world started out differently. Bedrooms were turned into makeshift studios, garden sheds became inking parlours, and small shops tucked away in some alley or back street emerged as mysterious places where real men went to prove their manhood by having some trite sentiment etched forever on their skin by the mysterious stranger who had the gift of being able to turn a few lines into pieces of art on living canvas.

This sort of beginning was common in times which were simpler, less complicated, and without the threat of modern-day horrors such as Hepatitis, HIV, and full blown Aids. Today, the rules and regulations which govern the tattoo craft are as they should be; there to protect the public from the terrible consequences of contracting such infections. But who protects the public from the terrible consequences of having a dreadful tattoo inflicted on them with the risk of scarring and mutilation of their body by an untrained charlatan, or worse, by someone who has paid big money to attend one of the many so-called “tattoo training courses” which are appearing on the internet at an alarming rate?

These so-called training courses are advertised as a complete guide to becoming a tattooist, and generally last for five days.

Now, let me be clear on one thing here.

In five days, you CANNOT train ANYONE, however talented they may be, to become a tattooist! This type of offer is designed with only one thing in mind and that is, to relieve you of hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds in the belief that you will become a tattooist at the end of it. This is simply a SCAM!

There is no “magic” training method, there are no “secrets” to be passed on, there are no shortcuts, and there is certainly no possibility of you being able to “become a tattooist overnight” as one site claims.

If I peel away the glamour of the offer, and introduce you to the “professional” who is offering this miracle course, you will begin to understand the scam as it really is.

Firstly; he is NOT a professional. No self-respecting professional would take someone for five days and then turn them loose on the general public with the notion that they are a qualified tattooist. Why? Simply put, because their name and reputation would be branded and irretrievably connected to poor quality work, poor training, and possibly, the cause of infection.

Secondly; anyone offering this sort of course will probably be self-taught, with very little real experience, and in all probability, turning out poor quality work themselves. A good tattooist has no need to restrict his working time by taking on a novice simply to earn money. Why do you think it is that good quality tattooists have waiting lists running to months? It is because they are so good that they are constantly busy, and therefore they have no time to scam money from a novice!

Thirdly; these “professionals” target you through sites like E-Bay. If their course and training was as good and as easy as they claim, they would have national press adverts running, not some pathetic little posting on an auction site! Companies like E-Bay don’t care that these offers are nothing more than scams. Each transaction generates cash, and cash is good in their eyes. The countless offers of Tattoo start-up kits are proof positive that this is simply a money-making exercise. For your money, you’ll receive one or two poorly constructed machines which even an expert machine-builder couldn’t tune to work properly, a dozen or so needles, some carbon paper, some tracing paper, some Vaseline, some gloves, some sample ink sets, some sheets of flash, some elastic bands, some tubes, a cheap power pack, a clip cord, some razors and a “book” revealing all the secrets you’ll need to tattoo! I could put this start-up kit together for less than £50, but you’ll be asked to pay several hundred for the privilege, and where does the offer mention the Ultrasonic Bath, the Autoclave, the chemicals etc, all of which are required to maintain the standards of hygiene laid down by the Environmental Health Office? As Ricky Tomlinson might say … “Start-Up kit my arse”! 

If I were to equip a new studio today, I would be looking at a cost of around £20,000 to set up with the basics and comply with all health & safety and environmental health regulations.

Tattooing is the new rock ‘n’ roll… Tattoo enthusiasts all over the UK hold the dream of being up there with the gods of ink. Tattooing apprenticeships are hard to find. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that if there are more people wanting to be tattooists than there are places offering training; there must be money in providing training.

Web sites dedicated to people trying to learn how to tattoo are springing up on a daily basis. How on earth can you learn a tactile craft by READING about it? There are even books, videos, and CD-ROMs out there all laying claim to be the way to become a tattooist! Where are the books, videos and CD’s on Dentistry, Heart Surgery for beginners, Vasectomies made easy? Beginning to get the picture?

Ok …. So I exaggerate a little … but not much!

A tattoo is a minor surgical procedure. Like ALL procedures such as this, unless the person carrying out the work is properly trained, things can, and do, go wrong! When you watch your tattooist working on you, he or she makes it LOOK easy! This is the skill built up over a number of years at work. Trust me; putting in an outline on a jumpy tattoo virgin is neither for the faint-hearted … nor for the inexperienced!

So, if these so-called professionals are not really professionals, where do they buy their equipment from to sell on to their budding trainees?

Simply put; unscrupulous tattoo supply companies who couldn’t care less who they sell to, and who also sell the worst of equipment at prices only the novice would be willing to pay. Genuine supply companies only sell to bona fida members of the craft, and go to extreme lengths to ensure that they are registered, official, and above board.

I personally refuse to deal with any company who is willing to send me equipment without first checking me out. I do this so that only those companies with a conscience receive my hard-earned cash for my supplies. This done on a larger scale would mean that a willingness to close the door on amateurs would keep their business being used by the people who care; the real professionals.

Over the last few years I have seen an increase in poor-quality tattooing requiring cover-ups. The tales are all too familiar to any professional reading this piece. I have heard of people working in their kitchen, their garden shed, a bedroom, a loft conversion, and even in the back of a transit van! They all had one thing in common, and that was the poor quality work they left their customers with. I have seen scars which should have been stitched, lines that went from a hairline to almost as thick as a pound coin, a knight on horseback that looked like a dwarf on a dog, roses that looked like cabbages, swallows that looked like flying rats, fairies that look like bats, and even a thistle with the immortal words scrawled underneath it “Scottland the Breave”!

This is the future of tattooing for those who visit anyone who has “Graduated” from these so-called training courses!

Tattooing isn’t rocket science. It is a craft which can be taught, and which can be learnt by anyone willing to work long and hard at it. 

It cannot be “picked up” as you go along! This means you are practicing on some poor unfortunate who thinks that you are a tattooist, when in reality, all you are is another “scratcher” turning out poor work, with little or no talent, and with very little knowledge of the basic requirements to ensure that your guinea pig is safe.

If your heart is set on becoming a tattooist, then forget the training courses; they are ALL scams!

Draw out a portfolio of your work, start the long process of knocking on studio doors, take the rejections in your stride and knock on more doors. Above all, draw, draw and draw some more, but stop yourself from drawing money from the bank to fund a loser with no talent “training” YOU to become a loser with no talent!


Text: Alan Moon


Skin Deep 129 1 January 2006 129