Ep. 35: Do you have to be a good artist to become a tattoo artist?

Do you have to be great at drawing to become a successful tattoo artist? 
Spoiler alert: No, you don't!

Let's unravel this commonly asked question, as I, Micah Riot, share my personal journey art journey from being a kid taking casual painting classes to becoming a professional tattoo artist with no formal art school education. 

1. Art skills can be learned. 
2. "Good" art is subjective
3. There is a lot more involved to creating a successful tattoo besides the drawing. 

Honestly, I've learned that success in the tattoo industry is more about your will to learn, your ability to connect with your clients and your desire to hone your intuition in the right ways. 

Have a listen! 

Transcript from the episode:

hello, hello, my darlings. This is Micah Riot with another episode of Ink Medicine Podcast. Today I wanted to chat with you about a question I get quite often Do you have to be a great artist in order to become a tattoo artist? And the short answer no, you don't. But we're here for the long answer, not the short one. First, about my own story. I did not go to art school. I thought about it. I drew since I was a kid. I took art classes since I was a kid, but my education in art was never very formal. I took very casual little kid classes at a zoo with this like old school old man teacher with a long white beard and he encouraged us to just draw. He didn't teach us perspective or light sources. He was like you have a thing in your mind, just draw it. And he would just watch us draw and help us. And that's when I was probably about seven or eight and I just drew at home, a lot Like I was an only child. So I played with art and I was really into games that required some drawing. I had this game that had these like plastic panels that you would arrange in a certain way to create outfits and then you would like put paper over them and rub like a solid color thing over them. It would create pictures. And then you would take other plates that had patterns and then put patterns into the clothing that you just created with these. I don't know if you have ever seen anything like this. This was a toy that I had when I was like six, seven years old in Russia. So this was the really, really early 90s, late 80s, and I don't know if this toy came from Europe or where, but I had it. So I was into drawing my whole life. I was also into writing I mean, I was into everything just like I am now. And when I came to the States at 12 years old, I was able to doodle more in classes and then I took some art classes through community college and some design classes and that was kind of the extent of my art education and I thought about going to art school for college. But the rational kind of part of me, and also my family, that everybody was like what are you going to do with an art education Like you're going to teach? You're going to what you think you're going to be a working artist. That's not a thing. So I went to school for women's studies instead. To be honest, getting an art degree from an art school would have been helpful, but who knows if it would have led me to becoming a tattoo artist. It's possible that I would be doing graphic design or teaching art classes to kids, or something like that at this point. So, even though I don't believe that everything happens for a reason or that you have one path only, I'm really glad that I'm tattooing. It really feels like the thing I'm really here to do, the thing that fits me the best in the world of people having to have jobs in order to survive in this system, this capitalistic system that we live in. So back to the question when I started tattooing, or when I was thinking about whether or not I could tattoo, one of the people that I was inspired by did not do tattoos that looked like things right, like she didn't render specific animals or people or things in everyday life, so her work wasn't realistic. It was quite abstract and following the contours of the body. And then, even when she created art that wasn't tattoo art, it was still on the abstract side, and I was 24 at the time and starting out and I was like, well, I have to be able to do kind of everything. People mostly want things that they can imagine and voice. Abstract work was not very popular and this person had been tattooing by that point for a couple decades and had to do the things that people wanted and then kind of came out with her own style and was doing only what she wanted to do. She had the privilege to do that. So I was like, even if that's what I want to do, it's going to be a while before I can. And still, having seen an episode of the tattoo artist that was not tattooing things that required what you think of when you think of drawing skills, I was inspired, began to believe that I could be a tattoo artist without having an art education or without being able to really draw, because even though I could draw a little bit, I really wasn't somebody who could sit down and somebody would say, draw bouquet of flowers, and I would just draw a beautiful bouquet of flowers without having a reference or really a photograph or something. I can look at things and put them down on paper. So when you say being a good artist or having good drawing skills, I never thought of myself as being a person who had that, although I recognize that perhaps other people would have looked at me and what I could do and say that was good art skills. But even as I started tattooing and this was Google was around and we still had reference books I definitely struggled when people would say this is what I want. I struggled rendering it on paper so that then I could tattoo it on their skin and it would take me a long time. In many references If somebody said I want a horse, I want a belly dancer, like I did this tattoo one time and spent a long time drawing the piece and it turned out adorable and I love it. Still love the drawing. I still have the drawing, but it always would take me so long and I saw other people at the shop who had better drawing skills do it real quick. You know they would sketch out a thing, they would draw it, it would look beautiful and it felt more useful and less torturous what they would be doing. But honestly, I quickly realized that people are happy to collaborate. Even though a lot of people have ideas about what they want and visions about how that would look, most people come to you because they think you're the expert and they want you to suggest things, they want you to change things, they want you to make things more beautiful, more interesting, more than what they could have imagined. Very few people have come to me with a drawing that really resembled a good tattoo, but, regardless, the reference is always nice. I want to see what it is that you see in your head. It really helps me create your piece for you. But, yeah, most clients want collaboration and that was really helpful in understanding that. It was helpful to have their trust in me. It was helpful to know that they thought I was good enough for them and even if it took me a long time and now it takes me a little bit less time, but even if it took me a long time I would still be able to come up with something they thought was beautiful. I became a better artist through tattooing. I learned. In the last 15 years. I've had to look at so many references and photographs and other tattoos and create images that were beautiful, and so I collected along the way a set of tips and tricks for myself to recognize what drawing has to be in order to be beautiful and to sit well on the skin, and it has a lot to do with S-curves and contrast, and that is something I really learned as I worked. And so perhaps you don't have to be good at drawing necessarily when you're starting out. You do have to learn, and I'm still not as good at drawing as many other tattoo artists. Most people around me who are tattoo artists are probably better drawing artists than I am, but I am an artist and I do know how. I have an innate feeling for how things should be placed, how things should be spaced, how things look on a curvature of someone's body. And so that brings me to my next point. I think that in tattooing, drawing skills are one thing, but design skills are another, and I would say that design skills are just as important, if not more, for a successful tattoo. And what I mean by design is having a feeling and a knowing and an intuition about how big a piece should be, how it should sit on the skin, which exact spot to put it onto, how a line should wrap around the body part, what is going to be, what is going to look like it belongs on the body instead of something that just looks like slapped on, like a sticker onto a water bottle. So that feeling and that sense, I would say, accounts for like half, like 50% of a success, of the success away tattoo. And the last thing is that art is subjective. There is no piece that you could show to many, many people that everybody would say is absolutely perfect and beautiful. The most famous paintings, somebody will be enamored by, somebody will be enthralled by, and somebody else will be completely bored by and would say so what? This doesn't touch me. So there's other qualities in art besides being beautiful. I've seen some really lovely drawings that were like okay, that is a horse, it's a really nice looking horse, but there was no energy in them, no life, no sparkle. And then I would see drawings that are very experimental, maybe very scratchy, maybe very purposefully messy looking, very simple shapes, and they have so much energy and they have so much, such an impact that they really they do something to you when you look at them. They give you a feeling, and to me that's what good art is. It changes you as you look at it, it gives you an experience. So do you have to be a good artist to become a tattoo artist? No, you don't have to be a good artist, because good is subjective. You do have to be an artist. I believe a good tattoo artist is, first of all, an artist, and what I mean by that is somebody who can express what's inside of them in a way that touches another person. You have to have a drive to create. That, I believe, is a mark of an artist as well. And you have to have intuition about things, that you see things, that you feel how things should be, how they should work on the body, what feels right and what doesn't feel right. And then you have to be not lazy about making that happen. It could take you like three or four tries of putting on a stencil or of thinking through your shading of a piece before you hit that right one. So you have to put the effort forth. That's it. That's your answer. You're welcome. I also wanted to say somewhere in here and the end of the episode seems to be a good place to put it is that I am such a vibes person, or energy person as I would say before, and vibes, as the kids say now, like energy is everything to me and it's everywhere, and I feel it and I'm so tor like I am such an energy forward person. I read it, I feel it, I give it. So I love abstract tattoos and I love it when somebody just goes here's a body part, do something cool on it. It doesn't have to be a specific thing. I love tattooing that way, I love working that way, I love taking a vibe and creating it, putting it onto the skin. I love summarizing a poem on the skin in just like colors and shapes and directionality and movement and sparkle and a little designy kind of experimental type of thing. I will post a couple of pictures, along with the show notes, on my website for this episode, of exactly what I mean the types of tattoos that I think really accomplish that. But yeah, I'm grateful that we live in a time where tattoo art, my art, can really feel like my own art. It doesn't have to feel like I'm trying to draw something that I do not naturally feel drawn to draw on paper or body, and I'm grateful to be living and tattooing at this time. Thank you so much for listening. I appreciate you being here. Please rate and review. I say it every time. I don't have any new reviews, so please do that. I would really appreciate it. Have a good rest of your day.

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