Film and TV

TLC's Tattoo School Angers Tattoo Artists & The Inked Alike

This week on TLC, Tattoo School makes its debut, touting artist Lisa Fasulo and her "two-week tattoo school," which claims to be able to create a functioning, working tattoo artist out of anyone in 14 days. This is not a realistic idea, and most seasoned tattoo artists and those that have tattoos, minimal and extensive coverage, are up in arms over what they see as an affront to the art.

Obviously, you cannot learn the intricacies of great tattooing in two full weeks, even if you were working 24 hours a day for those 14 days. Some artists work two decades before they feel completely and personally comfortable with inking someone's arm. There's a learning curve that you can't buy for $4,800 from a person whose students' work leaves something to be desired.

I talked to Ryan Scroggins, a local musician and long-time tattoo artist who has been tattooing for 16 years, starting out in Galveston and later working at various shops in Houston. He works at Secret Tattoo off West Alabama and does brisk work on fellow musicians and Houston's inked community alike.

"When I started, it was different. There were a little under 30 tattoo shops inside the Loop, and now there are over 100," Scroggins tells me while working on designs at his home. "The only way you could start was to get an apprenticeship to really learn how to tattoo. If you wanted to move shops, the new shop would call your old shop and look at the work of the artist you trained under to see if you, and them, were worth a shit,"

Most tattoo artists begin as apprentices, in shops that they may work in for free, or at an hourly wage, mopping floors, assisting artists and learning the ways of a tattoo machine during downtime, sometimes practicing on themselves to understand the finer points of the needles and pressure needed. It's not unlike the high-end food industry, where some aspiring chefs spend years and years under more experienced folks before they are even given command of a kitchen.

"A lot of occupations need to have apprenticeships," Scroggins says. "Not everyone gets to do this, and you have to earn it. Schools like this one are trying to erase that. It's all flashy now. These people are opening these shops, and good people, good artists, aren't going to work at shitty shops."

His worry is that this will, in turn, bring down quality of shops, leading to the industry as a whole suffering.

Artists like Scroggins build their own tattooing machines to fine tune them, like motorcycles or cars. They craft custom needles to get the perfect lining and shading. They mix inks to get the perfect tone to a color. They study under older artists and paint on the side to work out the kinks in their own designs and flash.

I would say something snarky about prison-style tattoos, but I have seen some great, intricate work from inside our country's correctional facilities, and those guys are using ghetto-rigged tools and ink.

Being a show on TLC, the same folks that brought us Toddlers & Tiaras and Kate Plus 8, Tattoo School is supposed to include all the high-drama you see on cooking shows that clog the airwaves.

Since other tattoo-oriented shows Miami Ink, New York Ink and the like premiered years ago, the world of tattooing (at least the world that traditional tattoo artists who don't showboat live in) has been up in arms because of what they see as a cheapening of their art, their livelihood. Designs don't take five minutes to crank out thanks to TV editing, and the lingo is usually out of whack. Plus, not all artists are pretty boys that look like Vin Diesel.

"The young tattooers who think they have all this technology behind them are wrong. Some people are just there to pump things out and make money. You're not an artist. You are just trying to make a buck," Scroggins says.

The more popular the reality shows got, I saw a marked rise in people who normally wouldn't be getting work done sporting fresh ink. It was like the chopper craze before it, where everyone wanted to be a biker but not everyone could hack it. Some promptly laid down their fancy motorcycles on pavement and never returned to them.

Scroggins finds it sad that shows like Tattoo School and the others don't show tattooing as an art, but as a vehicle for great television drama. Not every shop is a hotbed of professional and romantic intrigue. It's a decline he sees in other forms of art as well.

"Everything art-based is fucked right now. Music is totally fucked, and I know being a musician myself. Art is totally fucked because all these street art documentaries. People are going to go out and start doing what they think is street art because they saw it on the fucking TV or the Internet. Same with tattooing."

Luckily, Vice Magazine and New Era came together to make a show that delves into the workers and the leaders in the industry with their new Tattoo Age web series. This isn't some reality series, this a look at the artists and their stories, free of bullshit and theatrics.

As someone who has been getting tattooed for more than a decade now, something like Tattoo School trivializes an art that I support and hold dear. At the end of the day, I can find comfort in the fact that I wear artwork on my skin that I am proud of, that has been perfected by great artists who are eternally attached to their craft, not opportunists with a "gun" they bought online, scratching designs into people who are merely looking for the next fashion craze or way to fit in.

For everyone show about pawn dealers, chopper shops and wrecker drivers there are thousands of real people who are making an honest living without cameras and producers following them around. People who aren't hot-dogging it for a paycheck and just want to pay their bills and live their lives.

When I started getting tattooed, there were no shows on television about them, save for the random Discovery Channel special about "freaks" and "oddities" in sideshows. My first few were hidden because I was scared of what older family members would think, but they soon got over the shock of it all and loved me anyway.

The tattoo boom has done one other annoying thing: It's made people more apt to grab my arm and ask patronizing questions, which I try to deal with with as much calm and dignity as I can muster. The taboo is fading, and it's not so odd to see someone with full sleeves on the street. And fewer of us are drug-dealing Satan-worshipers than in 2001 too.

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Craig Hlavaty
Contact: Craig Hlavaty