Everything You Wanted To Know About Tattooing But Were Afraid To Ask: A Q&A With Tattoo Candy’s Speck Osterhout (Part 2!)

Yesterday, we published the first part of my interview with tattoo artist Speck Osterhout at Chicago’s Tattoo Candy, a shop I cannot say too many good things about. Yesterday, Speck shared her experience getting started as a tattooer, some of the gritty details about the business, and her thoughts on why people get into tattooing. Today, we have Speck’s insights about apprenticeships, machismo in the industry, and the part of our conversation that completely blew my mind, wherein she talks about why tattooing is a hard job. Seriously, I’d never considered it before, and now I can say for sure: I would never, ever, ever be a tattooer. And I get why so many people who do the job are as sort of tough as they are.

But read on, because Speck has better things to say about it than I do. And make sure to follow her and the shop on Instagram!

The Frisky: I told you last time, the reason I came here was that I had a shitty experience with a racist tattooer, and I found out after I got on social media with him, and I was like, “Oh, you’re, like, blithely racist and I’m so not OK with this,” and that my friend Joe had had a similarly bad experience with a super-sexist tattooer.

Speck Osterhout: That shit is wild to me. When people get tattooed by me, I don’t hide anything. I think I’m a pretty cool person, a pretty nice person. I wouldn’t hide who I am, and if you’re my friend on Facebook after getting a tattoo from me, nothing’s gonna be different. And how are you gonna be racist in this industry, or at all?

I think with this shop, people find themselves feeling very comfortable here. We don’t act like that. A couple years ago, we were just a female shop, just girls, and that wasn’t planned or anything, it just kind of happened. It was cool when we found out that people were into it. But now we’ve got guys here and that’s cool too, and none of us have that macho bullshit attitude. And that’s something that I think is really unique not just about tattoo shops in Chicago, but tattoo shops in general. Everybody who I talk to, when they talk about going into a shop, the first thing they say is, “I’m always so nervous to talk to them.” You shouldn’t be nervous to talk to someone who you’re letting into your life to put a piece of art on your body forever. You should say what you wanna say, you should be what you wanna be, and fuck them if they’re not cool with you, or give you some sort of bad vibe. Like, who the hell are they? It should be a relationship. You’re starting a relationship with somebody. It’s not just a quick, in-and-out transaction, this is a lifetime decision. You need to feel comfortable with who’s putting this shit on your body.

I think a lot of tattooers think that you, as a client, owe them something. And it shouldn’t be like that, it should be the other way around. Because we need you guys. To me, it’s not about my art. If everyone came in here and was like, “Do whatever you want,” there’d be a million space cat tattoos walking around Chicago. But it’s not about me, it’s about you guys and what you want.

And as a tattooer, that makes you push yourself. Sometimes people come in and say, “Yeah, dude, I want a tank bustin’ out of a-” I don’t know, what isn’t very Speck? I don’t know, “A tank bustin’ out of another tank.” That’s not really my style, I don’t have a lot of tanks bustin’ out of tanks in my portfolio, but my clients push me to draw stuff like that, which is super-cool. I don’t get to do stuff like that all the time.

So where do you think the macho attitude comes from?

I think it comes from hazing with apprentices — I think that’s bullshit too. You need to get experience, but you don’t need to “pay your dues,” you don’t need to get your ass beat by your mentor or have to wash their car. I don’t know, I think that another part of it could be reality television. People have this mindset that tattooers are rock stars or some shit because of reality shows. We’re just people, we’re creative and we learned a trade. It’s like a mechanic who also paints. It’s a trade, it’s a craft, we’re not super-special people.

What’s the apprenticeship like, and what’s hazing like?

An apprenticeship is usually like two years, you usually pay between $5000 and sometimes close to $10,000 to learn how to tattoo. You don’t get paid to be an apprentice, you pay us. You pay your mentor to work, basically. You start from the bottom and work your way up. And even when you’re done being an apprentice, you’re not done learning — every day, you learn.

So when someone comes in as an apprentice, the first thing they’re doing is cleaning. You have to learn how to keep the shop clean, because that’s one of the most important things about this job. So you’re just mopping the floor and scrubbing little things here and there because on the surface, it doesn’t seem like things behind your table — it doesn’t seem like that matters, but it matters if the health inspectors come in. And also, what if a client comes in and they’re sitting in your chair for 4-6 hours and they’re looking at everything – they can see things that are dirty here and there. So you have to learn how to clean, then you have to learn how to deal with customers, which is always a learning experience for the rest of your fuckin’ life. Each person that walks in the door is different. But you have to learn how to be able to read people, you have to learn how to adjust your – not your personality, but maybe your temperament to make someone feel comfortable, and get on their level, basically. You have to learn about pricing tattoos. For the first year and a half, you don’t even touch anybody. You learn about your machines, you learn about your equipment, and eventually you start tattooing people and continue your education from there.

But old school people will haze their apprentices. Sometimes it’s pretty light, stupid shit, like “Huh huh, yeah, wear this hat all day, dude, ‘cause you’re an apprentice.” Sometimes it’s harder shit, like — I knew an apprentice whose mentor locked him in a really small room. He had a pack of Saturn Missiles that had 300 rockets in it, so he locked him in a small room, lit the thing off, and 300 rockets are going off in a room with this apprentice inside, and he’s just getting shot with all of them. The mentor used to put fireworks in his pocket and set them on fire. All his pants pockets were burnt out.

But that’s not even the worst — threatening to break your hands is a huge part of the tattoo industry. That’s happened to me once. That sucked. There was another apprentice I knew – there used to be a toilet down in her shop, and she didn’t know that there was actual shit inside the toilet, and they made her clean the toilet with her toothbrush. And for girls it’s harder because people call you “cunt” and “bitch” and “slut,” and it’s like, I don’t think that’s necessary. Old school people always talk about “paying their dues.” Like, “I went through this  and I learned this so now you have to, too.” It’s good to be tough on people because this job isn’t for, like, frail, quiet people. You have to be kind of boisterous and in people’s faces. I get that, as a mentor, you need to be like, “This is how it’s gonna be, and you need to fuckin’ know,” but I don’t think it’s necessary to belittle someone and make them feel like they’re worthless.

In this industry, yeah, no one’s good. There’s always gonna be someone who’s better than you, you should always keep pushing yourself, you should always have that mentality, but that’s no reason to make someone not want to do this. If you can’t handle how hard it’s gonna be, then you can’t handle it! Then you can’t do this job, and you’ll find that out eventually. I’ve tried to teach some people who couldn’t handle it. It’s a hard job. But I don’t agree that people should be broken down. I’d rather have people know about it and want to do it than be torn apart by a mentor just because it’s fun for them.

What makes it as hard as it is?

So, when you tattoo someone, it’s kind of a heavy situation. Like, yes, you get to do real cool art and meet someone awesome and you create a connection. But I don’t think that, naturally, someone is supposed to be that close to another person. You meet a perfect stranger and all of a sudden you’re shaving their nipple. Then you’re with them when they’re very vulnerable, and it takes a toll on your mind because you have to be sympathetic. And I don’t think that it’s natural for someone to do that every day, all day, all the time.

Also, the stress of thinking if you’re good enough. And the stress of thinking, like, “Wow, I just did this piece on someone, and it’s going to be on them forever.” And you think about it all fuckin’ week. And throughout the week, you do tons of pieces and you think about those all fuckin’ week, and you think about, “Wow, I hope they love it forever, and I hope I did my best,” and you always think that maybe there’s something I could’ve done differently. Also, you have to learn about your equipment, and that shit is really hard too. You’re coming in with criticism from everyone who thinks they’re a fuckin’ tattoo artist out there. You have to deal with your boss and making sure your boss is happy, you gotta make sure your coworkers are happy. It hurts your back, it hurts your hands…

I hadn’t even thought about what that vibrating is like in your hands.

Yeah, I mean, you’re holding a — I forget how heavy [tattoo guns] are. You can feel it. This is my liner, this one’s pretty light, actually. [She hands me the body of her liner, the gun she uses to do line work; it’s maybe a pound and it’s fine to hold in your palm, but gripping it while it’s vibrating for four or five hours — I started feeling bad about how long it took to do the outlining and shading on my last tattoo.]

Yeah, after four hours it’s not light, though.

Yeah, and it’s vibrating and it’s hot and you’re constantly moving your hand. Sometimes I go home at night and I can’t close my fingers.

But yeah, it’s physically tough, and it takes its toll on you mentally. I think being with people when they’re vulnerable, every day, all the time, and being so much for someone – you’re, their cheerleader, their nurse, their friend, and their tattoo artist all at the same time. It’s kind of heavy. I feel like it’d be the same in some way if you were like a live-in nurse.

Yeah, like a live-in hospice nurse taking care of somebody who’s dying. [I didn’t mean that rhetorically: I imagine that voluntarily experiencing a great deal of pain will tell you a lot about how you’ll handle death, ultimately. It’s emotionally taxing to get tattooed, too, because you’re giving up control of your body, a sentiment Speck seemed to really understand, here.]

Yeah, you have to be kind of generous and sympathetic to be in this job. I think that’s what sets us apart from other tattoo shops. We don’t make you feel uncomfortable. And that’s really important to me, that people come here and they tell me, “I just love it here, it feels like you’re at home, you don’t feel like a shitter when you come in here, you don’t feel like you

don’t know what you’re talking about,” and that’s a big thing. A lot of people say, “Yeah, I went into this shop and they made me feel really dumb,” and maybe you are! But that’s OK, we understand because we’ve been there. Before we were tattooers we were getting tattoos, so we know what it’s like to walk into a shop and have someone treat you like you’re a piece of garbage, you know? I take pride in knowing that people feel that way about us.

What would you tell people to look for in a tattoo shop and what can they do to make your job easier?

When you go into a tattoo shop, if you feel uncomfortable and no one’s trying to make you feel more comfortable, get the fuck out of there. Don’t settle. If you feel weird about it, don’t do it. It’s not worth it, because it’s on your body forever. Whether you like the design or not, if the person makes you feel like crap, don’t do it. It’s a forever relationship. It’s not like you can just forget about it.

And to make my life easier, don’t bring a bunch of friends. You can bring one or two friends, and that’s awesome. It makes you feel comfortable, gives you someone to talk to. You bring a fuckin’ entourage, it’s so stupid. Especially if you’re getting a larger piece, no one wants to sit and watch their friend get tattooed for that long. It’s not fun. It may sound cool, like, “Yeah, we’re gonna go out, Stacy’s gonna get a tat and then we’re gonna go out for Thai.” It’s not that fun. You’re gonna be here longer than you think. Just don’t do it.

Also, I think that, if you really want a tattoo, you should research as much as you can about tattooing. It doesn’t mean that you need to come in to a tattoo shop and be an expert, you just need to be somewhat aware of what the styles and what the options are out there, because we could draw anything for you, but if you don’t know, we’re not gonna like, draw something, ask if you like it, you say no, we draw another, ask if you like it, you say no, over and over. You should have some sort of knowledge about what you want to get. We will work with you until it’s completely awesome, but what if you settle in your mind on something like, “Yeah, I want a bird.” And then you get this bird, and then a year later you find out, liek, “Dude, I could’ve gotten this bird in this other style with this other thing around it” – you can’t go back once you do it. If you really are into tattoos you should immerse yourself in it.

Other than that, I don’t know. People really need to stop watching the reality shows. On the one hand, it makes tattoos more mainstream, which is cool, but on the other hand, people who have never gotten a tattoo, they think it takes, like, twenty minutes, and they think it costs like thirty dollars, and it’s given people the wrong impression. If you do watch tattoo shows, just know that’s not how it really is, and that Dave Navarro knows nothing about tattoos.

Send me a line at [email protected]. Thanks so, so much to Tattoo Candy and Speck Osterhout.