This is Bella, Founder of Hero Tattoo. You can reach me here.
After her graduation in 2010 from Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, one of the top art college in China, Bella worked as a designer in a game company till 2014. She started her tattooing career in 2015 and opened her private studio in Hangzhou 3 years later.
The journey, to be honest, has been tough. You should know that tattoo artists are a marginal group here in this country. What they’re doing is meaningless, or even ignorant, to the majority of traditional parents and grandparents.
Most of her college classmates settled down in the .com industry, while others chose to be a civil servant.
Bella, in the contrary, opted to take this challenging, arduous road, not for money nor fame, but only to deliver a promise made when she was a little girl.
The silver-lining here, however, is that the iceberg of this ‘tattoo equals mobster’ stereotype finally begins to melt with fast information flows as time moves on. Young generations have shown their growing interests in this trade like never before.
But she’d like to warn that a rushed passion is not enough to support you as a professional.
She was once asked, by a well-mannered reader who believes himself to be patient, talented, and serious with tattoo art, but knows nothing about painting or drawing, that:
Does drawing skill plays an important role in a tattooist’s career?
How to find a great tutor?
Do I have to go learning in a painting studio?
These are actually very good questions that she is glad to answer. But before anything, she wants you to know that she is not the best tattooist just yet and being one has never been her dream. There’s one thing for sure: She feels great to share.
So, Are Drawing Skills Important for a Tattooist?
Short answer: Yes.
You’ll never be a great tattooist without:
Skills to draw and design
An attitude to serve
When it comes to technique, it means you should control your needles to get smooth lines, even shades, and rich colors on your clients’ skin without hurting them, and present the patterns as expected and designed.
Look at the shading in the picture below. It is a reflection of the artist’s remarkable technique. The design is pretty nice on its own.
Sounds like something hollow and trivial, right? In fact, it’s the most essential among others.
Seriously, what can you expect from a ‘tattooist’ who is blessed with top-notch technique but has bad esthetic taste? You are likely to get ugly patterns done with that top-notch technique.
Skills to draw and design
These skills help you bring your amazing ideas into reality, and get your clients’ trust.
They are the best evidence of your esthetic quality, which only attracts people that really look up on you, and recognize you.
By honing your drawing skill, you’ll end up with better esthetic taste. It’s true that practicing your needle control will refine your technique, but it does no good to your esthetic quality.
More importantly, drawing trainings also sharpen your mind to better understand abstract concepts. This is fundamental for you to solve your clients’ problems.
An attitude to serve
Your attitude also matters a lot. But let’s talk about it later.
So, back to the question: can you learn tattooing if you don’t have drawing skills?
Absolutely, but only the technique part.
As mentioned above, a tattooist excellent at techniques but knowing nothing about drawing may reach his/her ceiling soon.
What does that mean? Instead of yelling “amazing” or “gorgeous”, you may find that the most of their work looks “okay”, or “just fine”, although it heals quite well.
So, wondering what does “just fine” look like? See the picture below. As it takes a lot factors to evaluate tattoos of different styles, this one is enough to make a point. Apologies for not providing more examples.
It’s likely that your tattooists don’t know how to draw if these describe them:
They’re not able to handle any pattern that requires basic drawing skills, such as a sketch portrait. It’s either a disaster or a weird looking result if they take it anyway.
A request for “original design” will crush them. Sure, they will ‘design’ for you by blending 2 or 3 similar copies. But, they probably look as puzzled as you do when you’re trying to describe an abstract idea in your mind.
They may have heard of some big names in the trade, but could not point out those shining spots in a master piece.
They have no problem copying from a large collection of scripts by others, but do have problems to match colors. They may take a sidestep and tell you that the original copy is great, when you ask for a minor change in detail.
The good news is that it’s actually rare to find a tattooist having zero drawing skills. They know, from day one in this trade, that drawing skills mean a lot.
So, most veteran tattooists will keep sharpening their drawing skills to improve themselves, regardless if they’ve started from level 0.
Some of well-known foregoing tattoo artists in China, like Guan Xiaopeng, barely knew how to draw well when they started. Bella was told, however, that Mr Guan worked really hard in drawing practice. He would draw a koi fish restlessly at every angle of its activity, while some others claim they “have got it” after doodling on several pieces of paper.
Any one tattooing training school will tell you: drawing skills are not a must whatsoever.
What they are not going to tell you is that you’ll be a mediocre or bad tattooist at the best shot if you can’t draw well.
They’ll tell you the story of a master who don’t draw, but skip over the part that he actually spends ten times more efforts to practice drawing, and that he is a pretty talented and enthusiastic drawer who would choose drawing over meals and bed times.
The only reason that the master stands out is because he’s invested a huge amount of time and energy to make up his weakness in drawing, and kept climbing higher with incomparable grit even when he’s “good enough”.
Anyway, if you just want to know some ABCs of this art, it won’t hurt to try without sound drawing skills. What? You want to be one of the top tattooists? Well, get ready for drawing practice for the rest of your life.
Remember, you stand out faster as you work harder. Period.
How to Find a Great Tutor?
The art of teaching makes a great tutor
A great tutor:
is glad to share;
makes sensible presentation; and
identifies specific flaws of each student.
Go talk with your tutor-to-be, and you can easily make a decision as to the first two traits: is s/he a generous ‘sharer’ or a cautious guy who always keep an eye on potential competitors; can s/he get the key points of a topic and make things clear. As for the last one, good luck.
Every notable tattooist has unique strong points
If you are pretty sure about your favorite style, just go to a tattooist known for that style to begin with. Don’t you think it makes sense to start with what you are fond of? Once you’ve learned something, it’s okay to spread out your spectrum.
For newbies who have no idea about styles or genres, since you’ve vowed to take this path, go find something to learn about them and warm yourself up!
Real masters are selective about apprentices
Let’s face it. A tutor nodding his/her approval upon your tuition without asking for virtues or basic skills, is more interested to make their fortune out of your apprenticeship rather than educate you. If your tutor-to-be says that s/he needs to test you before making a decision, then s/he is in large part to be more responsible than those who is tempted to admit a huge class.
A brief summary
Learn about yourself first and go to the tattooist good at the genre of your preference. After a face-to-face talk in person with him, you can tell that if he knows how to teach and take apprenticeship seriously.
Bella hopes every one of you could find a responsible tutor. But, as the old saying goes: a teacher only open the door, and it’s for you to walk in and learn. So, while with a great tutor, it really depends on you as to how much to learn and how far to go.
Do I Have to Go Learning in a Painting Studio?
In an art studio providing professional drawing classes, looking at plaster casts, fruits and other stuff that seemingly has nothing to do with tattooing, and knowing the fact that it takes years to practice, it’s not strange for one to grumble “these are not going to help”, or “I’ll never make it”.
Some “tattoo art” training schools even claim explicitly that “traditional drawing classes do not improve your tattoo technique directly, while we can teach you, hand in hand, how to draw koi, dragons and lotus blossoms.”
It depends on what level you want to achieve
If you just want to draw koi, dragons and lotus well enough to earn a living, then okay, go to a tattoo training school. Painting studio is not the place for you.
However, in case that you’re determined to become a highly skilled tattoo artist who is able to appraise any given design and make it better, and keep pushing up your limit, please go to a professional studio, learn about the facets and shades from drawing plaster geometric shapes, and then human muscles and skeletons, and then color matching.
You know how water drops cut through a rock? Yeah, that’s the way you improve your tattoo skills, and esthetic quality.
Shortcuts, or excuses, whatever their form, sound “laziness” to Bella. Examples?
“Drawing scripts takes too much time”,
“This style is so beyond me, I’ll just let it go”
“I don’t want to look for practice images today. Let me play some game”
“Maybe I should post more selfies to get more visitors”
By the way, it’s true that many popular or famed tattooists here in China are actually rather pedestrian drawers and they don’t practice drawing skills either.
Don’t look at them. As the days go by, the market standards will be moving high enough to roll out the average.
Wow, what a long-form… but Bella still has so much in her bowl to share with you. Maybe next time 😊. For those who haven’t stepped onto this road, Bella wants you to understand that it looks far more brilliant than it really is. She hopes that you’re fully prepared for what to come.