I Want To Be… A Tattoo Artist!

I recently received an email from a girl called Stina, saying that she would love to read more job guides on iCiNG! I’ve written about how to be a writer, how to be a blogger & how to get a job at Lush, but really, that’s about as much personal experience as I have. As Stina explained her idea, though, I realised that I know heaps of people with awesome jobs — people who love what they do, have talent & passion to burn, & are trail-blazing in their industry. So I started asking them for interviews. Here’s the first one, & it’s an interview with a friend of mine who has one of the coolest jobs I know of — Tim Kern, tattoo artist!

Let me know what you think of the series concept & if you have any requests (or if you have a fabulous career & want to volunteer yourself!), I’d love to hear from you!

Tim Kern

Tim Kern is a tattoo artist working out of Tribulation Tattoo in New York City. He’s been tattooing for 13 years, & is an avid world traveller — his work regularly takes him from the East Coast to Japan & Europe. Along the way he’s picked up a bunch of awards, as well as working as a tattoo designer on a Charlie Kaufman movie & CSI: NY. He also happens to be completely awesome!

If you have any questions for Tim, leave them here & I’ll see what I can do about getting him to answer them!

Tell us about what you do.
I do tattoos mostly… I try to find time to paint and do other artwork, but it’s hard. Tattooing takes up a lot of my time and thought processes.

How long ago did you start on this path?
Which path? The left hand one? 😉 I started tattooing when you were 12 years old… haha. Strange to think, but it’s true. (That’s 1995, by the way.)

How long were you doing it before you made it into your career or primary form of income?
I was apprenticing for about a year before I was allowed to tattoo anyone for money, so I kept my other job for a while. I was running a day center for homeless people, and doing graphic design occasionally. Once I was able to make money, it became my only job. I never looked back.

Did anything significant happen to get you to that point, or was it a series of small steps?
I think that you are constantly learning in life, so everything is a series of small steps. Occasionally broken up by great leaps of inspiration. I was tattooing for about 4 years before I stopped getting nervous at the beginning of every tattoo. At the beginning, you are just trying to do everything right. After a while, you can really start to express yourself with tattooing, but you have to be comfortable with the tools and techniques first.

Do you think official qualifications are important for someone entering your industry?
I think that an apprenticeship from a qualified tattoo artist is the best way to learn. I don’t still do everything the same way I was taught, but I think the experience was invaluable. There’s an awful lot of people who just buy a kit and start fucking people up, with no concept of cleanliness or preventing cross-contamination — that’s why health department regulation is important. Some cities/states go a bit overboard, but it’s definitely better to have regulations, than not. Keeps the scratchers at bay, to a degree at least.

What do you think is the best thing about working for yourself?
I love the fact that I don’t really have to answer to someone else. I know that seems obvious, but it really is a relief to not have to do something you think is stupid, just because the boss wants you to do it. I also can travel as much as I like, which is amazing. I love being able to see other countries. It really lets you know how diverse and amazing this world really is.

What’s the worst thing?
Probably the worst thing is that I have a hard time saying “no” to people. I need someone to tell people when I don’t have time for them. As a result, I end up working too much, and barely ever take days off. I need to be better about that.

Rate how happy you are with what you do out of 100 (100 being the best, 0 being devastatingly awful) on an average day.
I give myself an 86. I’m not always completely happy with what I do, but I’m doing my best to make it better all the time. I try to make what I’m doing the best tattoo I’ve done. If we don’t keep trying to improve ourselves and our work, what’s the point of doing it?

Would you call yourself a workaholic, & if so, are you alright with that? Do you think that’s normal for your industry?
I would probably describe myself as a workaholic. I think if you want to be good at anything, you run the risk of it being your whole life. Tattooing is definitely that way. I love tattooing, and most of my life revolves around it in some way. When I’m not actively tattooing, I’m often drawing for tattoos, or answering questions about tattoos. It’s an all-consuming thing…

What would your number one suggestion be for someone who wants to do what you do?
I would say to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons… not because you saw it on TV and thought it was cool, or because you think you can make tons of cash. Do it because you love tattoos, and you think you can actually contribute something. There are enough hack tattooers out there, fucking people up.

…How about number two?
I would say to work on your artwork. If you are serious about getting into the tattoo industry, you need to show a potential teacher that you are worth his time and trouble. He or she is much more likely to take you on as an apprentice, if you will be an asset to the community.

What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
I think it’s a constant learning process, so there’s a lot I still want to know. I would like to learn more about building and tuning machines. Technical stuff. I know a little now, but you can always know more… I am never satisfied…

Are there any major misconceptions about your job or industry?
I think there are lots of misconceptions, mostly due to the popularity of tattoo “reality” shows. You wouldn’t believe how many people think you can get an entire sleeve done in one day, because of how those shows are edited… I don’t really have anything against the shows, per se, since I have friends on one, but it does give people a rather unrealistic view of what can be accomplished in a sitting.

What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?
Pure stupidity, probably. Hahaha I don’t know… I love tattoos. I love having them, and I feel honored that people want to have my artwork on their body permanently. It’s kinda a scary idea, if I think about it too much… I am altering people for the rest of their lives. It’s quite a lot of responsibility. I’ve also made a lot of really great friends through tattooing, and I wouldn’t trade them for the highest paying job in the world.

Who do you look up to within your industry & why?
I admire a lot of the people who first influenced me when I was learning… and the ones that opened my eyes to new things since I started. Guy Aitchison, Marcus Pacheco, Paul Booth, Robert Hernandez… they first showed me that you can do something new and different with tattoos. That they could be art… I also really admire the work of Filip Leu, Shige, Xed LeHed, Nikko, Boris, Victor Portugal… just to name a few. There are so many astounding artists, it seems unfair that I have to leave anyone out… I’m sure there’s tons of amazing artists I haven’t even seen yet. I can’t wait till I do…