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Google search and The death of the general tattooer
I started my apprenticeship in 1999, by which point 150 million people worldwide were using the internet. Beyond porno, music sharing and star trek trivia I don’t recall the internet having any real utility at this point. Perhaps that’s the way I remember it because that’s all I was interested in, but websites by and large were far too complicated for most businesses to build and far too expensive to buy for such questionable returns. The primary way that people discovered a new tattoo shop was the yellow pages; a 2000 page tome, printed on cheap yellow newsprint, delivered annually to your door that had a listing of all the local businesses in your area code. I know it’s absurd, but it’s actually the way it was done.
By the time I became involved in tattooing there were 20 or so tattoo shops in Toronto, this was considered to be an insane amount of shops and tattooers at the time. Salty older tattooers would bemoan the flood of newcomers coming into the industry to pick their pockets. As a potential client you’d flip open the giant yellow book and pick one of the 20 or so listed shops, more than likely you’d only pick from the 11 or 12 of the shops that paid extra to have a 3×3″ ad, printed in just two colours, adorned with clip art and promising new needles with every client. To be a tattooer in one of these shops meant that you had to be prepared to take on all kinds of tattoos all day long. Tribal arm bands followed by chrome scorpions followed by “I AM” maple leafs. If clients had a limited ability to search out a tattooer by his individual abilities or stylistic preference it meant that artists had an equally limited ability to actually develop a style. Which isn’t to say that tattooers never developed a style of their own or a client never managed to find an artist who’s strength lined up with their interests but it wasn’t easy and you usually had to put a lot of years in to develop that specific clientele. Your style was something that you earned. When I began tattooing I was told in no uncertain terms that having a “style” was a crutch, and that all it meant was that there were tattoos out there that you just weren’t capable of doing. This is something I carried with me for years, actually this is an idea that I still can’t shake even though I know now that it’s a concept that became as irrelevant as the yellow pages.
The power that google has given the prospective tattoo customer has changed the profession about as much as any one thing that I can think of. Google is killing the tattooer who was bred to handle any and all designs. Search engines reward specific searches, the more specific the better. When a client searches for a potential tattoo artist they don’t start by looking at artists at all, they start by looking at tattoos that are just like the one that they want. There’s no point looking at pages and pages of full colour portraits when all you want is a dolphin, so you’re most likely searching for dolphin tattoos. Eventually the search results will return you to a photo of a dolphin tattoo done by an artist near by. The artist with the most dolphin heavy portfolio gets to do this job more often than not and one photo online will get you at least one more of the same. This kind of tattoo echo chamber rewards specialization, and that specialization is allowing tattooers to refine one or two styles at a time at a much accelerated result. The other result of this is that while artists are specializing, they are also narrowing the pool of designs they’re comfortable with. If you’ve never been forced to do a tribal eagle before, you’re not going to knock the first one out of the park. maybe not even your first dozen.
The point that I’m really trying to make here is that I don’t necessarily see this huge change as a bad thing. Most fields have specialists, for example you don’t get a Toyota mechanic to tune your Mercedes. Some styles of tattooing are very specific, and the skill sets employed don’t necessarily cross over. The guy who can give you a flawless portrait of your grandma is rarely the guy who can also give you a really great Japanese style sleeve. Those guys DO exist, but they’re as rare as hens teeth. The problem that I personally struggle with is that the idea that being a narrowly focused, style oriented tattooer is something that I always associated with wimps and complainers. That is an attitude I had instilled in me from a different era and honestly it served me well up to a point, but now I feel like the times have changed and maybe it’s time to change along with them.
I’m heading out to the west coast from Jan 14th to the 27th. I’ll still be setting up appointments over email while I’m gone so you can still get a hold of me on the internet. It also means that I’ll be leaving the weekly sunday walk-in party in Big Al Snelgrove’s capable (yet oddly raccon-ish) hands.
I have a handfull of cool paintings I’m working on, that I’ll post when I get back. Heres a tiger.