|Meme by Zack Johnson|
Oh boy, where to start?
Well, first of all I wanted to wait for a few weeks for the emotions to calm and the dust to settle on what was one of the most interesting controversies in the world of tattooing to happen in well, for as long as I can remember. Although I had an initial visceral reaction, I needed a minute to calm my tits and figure out why things played out the way they did. Cooler heads prevail as they say.
For those of you who aren't intimately familiar with the goings on behind the scenes of the tattoo artist community, allow me to fill you in from the beginning. I think there's a lesson to be learned for everyone here, including those who are only tourists in the world of tattooing.
In early December pretty much every tattoo artist patronizing Instagram which, I'm totally confident in saying, means every tattoo artist on the surface of the planet started to notice cryptic messages on the feeds of 28 of the most influential and most followed tattooers. The symbol was a vortex of concentric green circles on a crisp, white background. The name was Everence. Their marketing came with a promise of a big reveal of a product that was to "Revolutionize the Face of Tattooing as We Know It" in only a few days time. The messengers were all tattooers with decades of experience making some of the most legendary tattoos imaginable. The people flying the Everence banner were not just fine tattooers but considered by many to be custodians of the craft and most certainly respected as such by people who's opinion mattered.
I should preface this story with an observation that tattooers get familiarly political like any other group of people, some are progressive about how tattooing should adapt to an ever changing landscape and some people are conservative about retaining tattooing's traditions and values. Although there is no tattoo artist union or tattooer's guild, there are unwritten rules of the trade that are time honored, largely based on common sense and are designed to preserve the integrity of our craft. One of the most important rules is that tattooing is for tattooers only. Tattooing is humanity's greatest folk art and we've kept this tradition alive since before the beginning of civilization. For many of us who make or get tattoos, the act of tattooing is tapping in to something sacred to the human experience. It's almost inescapable for those of us who tattoo to not have some sort of appreciation for this. And for whatever reason, the corporate world has never really been able to co-opt tattooing. Fads come and go but tattooing stays. It will always stay.
A common current among people who tattoo for a living is a desire to not live a normal, mainstream working life. As Jack Rudy once famously quipped to Ed Hardy when pressed on why Jack never replied to Ed's letters, "We're pirates, not pen pals!"
Back to Instagram, anticipation for the world being turned upside down in three days time was pretty fucking high. But precipitously, curiosity and skepticism for this strange, un-tattoo like green swirly logo and the name Everence (which sounds more appropriate for a new type of birth control technology) was already getting some people's panties tightly wadded.
Everence turned out to be a product that allows you to insert DNA from a donor (by way of mouth swab) and encapsulate that DNA in plastic microbeads, delivered to the customer as a powder which is to be mixed into tattoo ink and then applied as a tattoo. Or in short, Everence allows you to insert someone's DNA into your tattoo.
The immediate reaction from the tattoo community at large was essentially tantamount to the 7 Stages of Grief galloping in on the 7 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Shock and Denial, Pain and Guilt, Anger and Bargaining and then inevitably, begrudging Acceptance; the blow-back was pretty savage.
For me personally, after my state of mystified incredulity subsided, I found myself needing to know more about why exactly these highly respected stewards of our craft would gamble their personal reputations on a product destined for so much controversy. How could their instincts have been so dazzlingly wrong about a product that in the end, naturally begs us to ask more questions than it can answer.
The closest precedent for creating a product like Everence could be correlated to the ritual of inserting someone's bodily remains into a tattoo through mixing cremated ashes into tattoo ink. The concept of manufacturing the same experience but in commemoration of a living person has never been done before. Normally the act of simply devoting a tattoo to someone special in your life comes as a package deal, already included in the price. Everence was asking $600 for the privilege of abstractly making that experience more material.
Plainly put, the root of the controversy is grown out of a sense of tremendous letdown felt by a lot of tattooers about what Everence actually is. When the social media marketing funneled through their accounts were literally promising a product that was going to revolutionize tattooing turned out to be a completely superfluous product that does neither to fill a necessary hole nor disrupt the industry, everyone felt collectively disappointed.
Whether Everence will turn out to be successful has yet to be seen. Everence could fail or flourish and tattooing will continue to evolve undisturbed regardless but what's really interesting to me is how we wound up having an unlikely product like Everence embraced by those we've entrusted to be skeptical on our behalf. How did things get this way?
In full damage control mode, three of the twenty eight involved artists which included Mike Rubendall, Tim Hendrix and Scott Sylvia appeared on the tattoo artist podcast No Lies Just Bullshit. You could tell that they were already exasperated from the experience of defending Everence and they spent the entire podcast fighting off the ropes. There was no doubt that they understood that the controversy was the real story and not the actual product that is Everence. I went in to the podcast looking for an 'AHA!' moment that would help me understand what the appeal of Everence was but instead I was left with a sympathetic understanding as to how such a group of eminent personalities found themselves in a truly fucked up marketing situation.
The pirate lifestyle of being a tattooer comes at a price. If you're going to live on the fringe, you're going have to be savvy about what that means to get old on the fringe because there's no retirement fund for pirates. Most of us became tattooers in our twenties, maybe even in our thirties but that's rare. Mike, Tim and Scott are all middle aged tattooers and much of the podcast focused on the financial hardships of being a middle aged tattooer. I'll tell you an industry secret. There are no wealthy tattooers. You can't get rich tattooing because there's only so many tattoos you can do in a day and you can only charge customers so much. Tattooing can only be blue collar work with blue collar career limitations.
Lots of tattooers are what I call "stripper rich". Cash money in your pocket daily but barely enough credit to buy a Honda. Most tattooers get to an age where stuffing your favorite stripper's g-string gets replaced with child support payments and a realization begins to gently wash over you that you cannot tattoo forever. You begin to really take notice of how the generation older than you is coping with getting old and mostly, it's tattooers still working daily into their 70's. Some tattooers end their careers by getting murdered by customers. No, really. That shit happens. There's the cautionary tale my mentor used to tell me of Owen Jensen, one of America's great grandfathers of tattooing. Owen Jensen was murdered by customers over $30 while he worked the midnight shift on the Pike in Long Beach back in 1977. Jensen would have been deep in to his 70's at the time of his death.
Then there's the pressure of a younger generation of tattooers coming up from under you with new ideas about what tattooing should look like which runs the risk of making the work that you do look outdated. Tattooers peak. That's a thing, too.
The only ideal exit strategy for some is to own a tattoo supply company and profit off the decades accrued of one's networking and reputation building within the community. Famous TV landscape painter from the 80's Bob Ross made his fortune selling art supplies. His TV show was just a side gig. But the equipment we all tattoo with has changed dramatically over the past decade. On the podcast, Tim and Mike touch on how our needles are made in China and sold in massive bulk with razor thin profit margins.Hand crafted tattoo machine building is being eclipsed by an assembly line of cookie-cutter rotary gizmos that more resemble plastic sex toys than the classic steel doorbell buzzers from a hundred years ago.
So there's less and less an obvious fallback for a tattooer that has mortgage payments, shop utilities and alimony eating away on the margin of every tattoo, to which you only have so many tattoos left in you that you can do. For all of our best intentions, the havoc wrought by globalization finally caught up with us. A company like Everence and it's intoxicating promise to find a new market segment and a new revenue stream was an inevitability when all of our usual exit strategies evaporate. We were too blind to see the signs and inevitably we became authors of our own undoing.
I am myself, a middle aged tattooer nervously eyeing the horizon from the crow's nest. I find myself weighing my options of how the last half of my tattoo career should unfold and what that might look like as the options as I've learned to recognize them become fewer.
What someone really needs to do is open a retirement home for pirates.