An Eye Is Upon You - 211: Define Yourself

Published: 30 April, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 211, May, 2012

Scratcher: A person, animal, or thing that scratches.
Scratcher, a word that comes up frequently in tattoo circles – an ugly word, one that’s used in an accusatory manner, designed to insult. A slang term to describe a person who tattoos outside of official local authority jurisdiction, perhaps from home, without guidance, in potentially unsanitary conditions. But why that word? What’s its definition and why is it relevant?

Scratch: a thin, shallow cut made with a sharp instrument. Relieving an itch or clawing/ scraping at the skin.

A slight wound.
Clawing, cutting, scraping at the skin – a painful, even violent, assault. Actions you’d not wish to be associated with tattoo art or modern tattoo practise.

To write or draw hurriedly. A hasty scribble. Something done haphazardly or by chance. Something assembled hastily or at random.

Would you want to be used as a random sketchbook? A haphazard scratchpad? Should tattoos be executed hurriedly or with haste?

One of the inescapable elements of tattooing is time. Tattoos take time to make, we must ‘sit’ for the necessary duration in order to posses them. We even measure and quantify the volume of our tattoos by counting the hours it took to obtain them. Good tattoos cannot be describe as ‘hasty scribbles’, instead, tattoos should be precise, laboured, exact. It takes years to develop the skills required to tattoo and they cannot be approximated with luck. The tattoo process should never be haphazard.

A contestant who has been removed or has withdrawn from the competition.

To not seek a proper apprenticeship or at the very least, guidance from an experienced tattooer is to withdraw from tattoo society. To tattoo from home is to separate yourself from the wider tattoo community. Yes, It’s hard to get an apprenticeship, not many are offered and there are many talented artists out there competing for these few opportunities. Still, withdrawing from the contest isn’t the answer. If you remove yourself from the competition to tattoo at home, you are not just letting down your potential tattooees, but also yourself. The only way to succeed in a competitive environment is to be the very best you can be, that is, work at your art.

Start from scratch – to begin at the very beginning, with nothing. But if you apprentice under a skilled tattooer, you don’t start at the very bottom, from ‘scratch’, but instead, an apprenticeship provides a foundation, with your baby steps supported and your falls and failures cushioned by your mentor’s experience. By accepting your need for supervision, you can ensure that your inevitable mistakes are never disasters.

Scratch the surface – to treat with superficiality. If you love tattoos and tattooing enough to make it your life, your love and your job, don’t disrespect it with a superficial involvement. Invest in it, dedicate to it, don’t buy a cheap ‘kit’ from the Internet and declare yourself a tattooist. The wounds made by the tattoo process may only be skin deep, but your devotion must be far greater.

To strike out or to cancel, to negate.

If you profess to love tattooing, don’t negate it as an artistic practice by making substandard tattoos in your kitchen.

If your response to these points is ‘but many great tattooists started tattooing from home’, you’d be right, they have. Unfortunately though, the vast majority of those that attempt to start tattooing in this unorthodox fashion will not become great tattooers. They won’t become tattooers at all, instead they’ll labelled with that ugly word, scratcher.

So what’s the difference between a scratcher and someone that started tattooing from home and went on to be a respected tattooer? Artistic talent is an obvious requirement, as is determination, but perhaps the most important element of all is attitude. Do you think you have a right to tattoo, just because you fancy it? Because other people do? Because “it can’t be that hard”? Or are you up all night reading about pathogens and drawing all day? Do you save all spare cash to get tattooed, in the off-chance you might be given a few tips while in the chair? Or even better, are you getting tattooed hoping your favourite artist might notice you and consider taking you on as an apprentice? Are you desperate to get into the right environment and be part of tattoo society proper?

As a tattooist, it’s your responsibility to ensure you are ‘up to scratch’ as both an artist and a crafts-person, to keep a clean and sterile environment and to learn, grow and improve continuously. And as a tattooed person, it is your responsibility to research and to consider, to respect yourself and your body, ensuring you don’t receive a substandard tattoo in an unsanitary environment.

Don’t be chicken feed.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos