I recently met Chao, a tattoo apprentice at a company in Shilin, Taipei. She was able to answer a lot of questions I had about how exactly one becomes a tattoo artist.
Despite graduating from the best college in Taiwan and landing a cozy sales job shortly after college, Chao was dissatisfied. Her job wasn’t that bad, but she could feel something pulling her away. But to keep her parents happy she continued working.
In her free time Chao enjoyed watching Miami Ink and LA Ink with her boyfriend. Her fascination with the show and Kat Von D in particular inspired her to pickup drawing again. She recalled a passion for it in high school, but never took it too seriously.
This time she pursued drawing vigorously, quickly picking up skills from YouTube and deciding to focus exclusively on new school style. Supercharged with inspiration, Chao knew a career change was in order, but the road would be rough.
The tattoo scene in Taipei can be quite shady. Many companies take shortcuts since it’s easy to avoid government regulations. Luckily Chao found a company that takes safety and apprenticeship seriously. But in order to get proper training she had to take a pretty raw deal: 2 years, no pay, 10-hour days with 4 off per month.
Her duties include:
Opening/Closing the shop
Handling booking/secretarial duties
Cleaning work spaces after the artists finish
Refilling ink and maintaining equipment
She took a loan from her sister in order to get started, and will be dependent on her boyfriend financially for the duration of the apprenticeship. She’s able to do a bit of tutoring on the side to pick up some spending cash though.
When she’s not maintaining the shop she’s allowed to learn how to tattoo. She gets most of her practice in before the shop opens and during downtime.
Perfecting The Needle
Before meeting Chao I always just assumed that tattoo apprentices just practiced on friends who didn’t really care about their skin. Maybe some actually do, but Chao’s process is different.
She spends most of her time perfecting her needle skills on fake skin. She practices shapes, letters, and lines in order to get command of the needle. She also draws full designs on paper regularly to keep fresh at that as well. I would best compare the process to a basketball player who can shoot 3-pointers, but needs to learn how to dribble perfectly. It doesn’t matter how well you can draw if you don’t have command of the needle once it goes into skin.
After she’s able to put her designs onto the fake skin with no issues then she will begin practicing on her own.
A Lasting Impact
Chao likes tattoos because they express individuality in a society that tries to make everyone uniform. She wants to give people freedom to express themselves and is excited about the idea of making a permanent impact on people. She cares particularly about empowering women through her art. She stated that women are often bombarded with expectations, and that she hopes to inspire other women to step out of the bounds of what’s normal and to let their pure colors flow.
What I Learned
I was able to take quite a few lessons and truths away from meeting Chao that I think are important to keep in mind.
Inspiration is key.
Without looking up to somebody like Kat Von D, Chao would have had no idea where to go or what route to pursue. As artists we need to constantly immerse ourselves in other art in order to be inspired and see new ways forward.
Nobody does it alone.
Chao would no be pursuing her dream right now if it weren’t for support from her loved ones. They are literally her lifeline while she is doing this. Supportive friends and family are often our biggest safety nets.
You have to sacrifice.
To have the life she wants she had to give up what she had. Chao has taken significant steps backwards in order to pursue what she wants.
Practice practice practice.
I was amazed at how dedicated Chao was to perfecting the fundamentals of drawing and needlework. As somebody who does photography and writes I quickly noticed that I do almost no drilling on my craft, and perhaps it’s suffering because of this.
I think that Chao will have a great deal of success once she starts tattooing. It really seems to be a natural for her and I am grateful that I got the chance to pick her brain.