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Off The Clock - The Art of Tattooing

Erin McKinstry

Three in 10 Americans now have a tattoo, according to a 2016 Harris Poll survey. But even with so much demand, getting a start as a tattoo artist can be difficult.

Gabe Garcia has owned and operated Iron Tiger Tattoo in Columbia for eight years and Tattoo You for three. He started apprenticing at the age of 18. He said getting your foot in the door takes artistic talent, extensive training, people skills and a little bit of luck.

On how he got into the industry

“I’ve been tattooing for about 15 years almost. My older brother—he’s about five years old than me—he started getting tattooed when he was 16. So, I started hanging around tattoo shops when I was like 12 or 13 years old. That’s kind of where that whole love affair started. And I’d been into art my whole life. I was all into punk rock and stuff. All the dudes in the bands that I liked, they all had tattoos, and I wanted to be a part of that world. It seemed like everybody that was involved in that aspect of it just kind of accepted whoever you were.”

On how the industry has changed

“I guess our general consumer anymore isn’t like a punk rocker or a biker. Those people still get tattooed, but also, we tattoo doctors and lawyers and moms and dads. I guess television and internet have a lot to do with that.”

On getting your foot in the door

“Generally getting your foot in the door is the hardest part. It really comes down to like, if you need somebody and if there’s someone who has a certain amount of talent to fill that void. A typical apprenticeship is going to be like, minimum, two years. And you’re looking at everything from re-learning everything you thought you knew about drawing to learning how to approach different styles of tattooing. And beyond that you’ve got to learn all the sterilization and universal precautions and that stuff is super important so you don’t spread disease.”

On art and tattoos

“You’re not going to be good at tattooing as a person that will make an impact on the industry if you’re not a good artist. But tattooing itself if just a technical process. The artistic process of tattooing comes before you actually apply the tattoo. Once you’re applying a tattoo, it’s very cut and dry. There’s right ways to do it and there’s wrong ways to do it and anyone who disagrees with that does not know how to tattoo.”

On his personal style

“I try to be pretty well-rounded. I put an illustrative spin on anything I do, but I just try to be really straightforward. I want tattoos to be nice and I want them to have a timeless quality.”

On the hardest parts of the job

“The most difficult part of tattooing is really just drawing a picture on a moving target. The other hard part about doing a tattoo is really just making people happy. There’s a certain type of customer that doesn’t know what they want but they definitely know what they don’t want. They can’t convey to you what it is that they want and, you know, you’re going back and forth, and it’s super frustrating and just maintaining your cool throughout that type of process.”

On his favorite parts of the job

“I’m usually most happy with tattoos when people leave and they seem stoked about it. My favorite thing about tattooing is dealing with different types of people. I kind of love that aspect of it. But one of the biggest things I love about tattooing is there’s not a lot of crafts and careers out there where you’re constantly learning. With tattooing being what it is and constantly evolving and changing, you’re never going to get to where you know it all. There’s no monotony in this job, you know.”

“I just love everything about tattoos. I love good tattoos, bad tattoos, mediocre tattoos. I just like tattoos. I just like the whole business.”

This interview was edited for continuity and clarity. Music for Off the Clock comes from Blue Dot Sessions (Tuck and Point).