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Being an orphan in tattooing

© Stella Banduhn

Being an orphan in tattooing

How jumping in a pool of sharks turned out to be the start of a journey to self-knowledge.
When it comes to tattooing, I feel like I am somehow in between worlds, not belonging anywhere, like an unwanted changeling.

To most tattoo artists it is known and an everyday struggle, that the world of tattooing is changing rapidly. Becoming a tattoo artist used to be a long, hard way that shaped you to be humble and dedicated to the craft. These days there are schools and online courses with certificates. Now you can buy becoming a tattooist, when before you had to earn it.
And of course there is social media, endless options to market yourself. You can get all you need from amazon and just start. Since Instagram and TikTok is all about nice pictures and funny videos and zero about quality of work, you can boost yourself in no time, while actually learning the craft takes years of practice.

Visiting the Tattoo Convention in Aachen and meeting so many artists of long standing, legends in the scene, and watch them work, was incredibly inspiring and humbling. It also had me down thinking a lot about myself and where I belong- and want to move towards to.

I entered the tattoo world as an apprentice in a well established shop. I was fascinated by this ancient art for a long time and beyond grateful to be properly taught. But I came there as a complete blank page, I had no (and still haven’t, really) idea about the history of tattooing, how styles developed and through whom. I didn’t know the people whose hard work and decades of try and error I was benefiting from.
In this shop though, I did a classic tattoo apprenticeship- be there before anyone else, leave last. Clean, make stencils, prep stations. Watch and learn.
Due to my previous life as a goldsmith, handling tattoo machines came easy to me and I already had a steady hand for clean lines, so my teacher let me start actual tattooing after a few month already.
I was taught the technical side of tattooing solidly and I am beyond grateful for it.
We never talked about tattoo history though, about the flow of lines and how to compose a tattoo.
There was no connection to other artists, no access to a community.
I left early after 1,5 years and broke my vow, which was to learn for 2 and stay for 5 years.
I had to leave, because I was an introvert with ADHD carrying trauma, trapped in a (for me) toxic environment. I didn’t know this at the time, I just realized I had to leave because I couldn’t sleep anymore (like, not at all) and was so stressed while tattooing that I completely lost my connection to reality and couldn’t judge anymore if I did a good tattoo or just made a mess. Fucking awful feeling with your customer sitting in front of you, trusting you with their only skin!

After I left, I took on a part time job somewhere to survive and slowly began tattooing again in a little room I rented. Firstly only friends and then customers again as I started to get some confidence back.
It still took me some years and a few tattoo shops to find my place and what I need to be able to work to my fullest: My own little atelier, just me and my customer, drawing up all these little animal and plant spirits that come through the stories we share and experience.
After such a long time I came to realize that tattooing is a very spiritual practice, if you want it or not. And it is up to the artist, how they are approaching it and what they do with it.

So after learning the craft side of tattooing, I now became an apprentice to the spiritual side of it.
Being hidden in my own place, protected from the world and this „pool of sharks“ somebody once told me the tattooing world is like, I felt safe.
As we all know though, within these boundaries of comfort, we cannot really grow.

This is when I started feeling like an orphan.
I love tattooing, I am dedicated to this craft, but I dont really know anything about it.

As an introvert with ADHD I struggle with connecting to people. I don’t feel safe when in a room with more than two people, let alone being in a crowd. I can do it for some time (its called „masking“, some kind of a survival technique one develops as a child), but it drains a tremendous amount of energy from me.
I don’t like small talk- I dont even know how to.
I „feel“ people, if I want it or not, there are so many informations entering my system that I get overwhelmed very quickly.
This is all very helpful, some kind of a superpower when I am one-to-one with my customer, drawing up their design, but it makes getting to know people, lets say on a tattoo a convention, near to impossible.

Now this weekend, in Aachen, I was with a close friend whom I feel very safe with. She is well connected to the tattoo world and with her as my safe anchor I was ready to enter this „pool of sharks“- which turned out to be nothing like it! I met awesome people, kind, empathic, funny and oh so dedicated to the art. I realized how traumatized I had left this shop as an unfinished apprentice and how much this had shaped my view on the tattoo world- and myself as an artist.
I watched all these amazing artists, being part of and shaping the world of tattooing for decades. They were not posing for Instagram or taking selfies, but tattooing and meeting friends from allover the world. They mostly didn’t have stylish merch or products, but hand painted banners and flash, inspired by the ones that came before them and smoothed the paths we now walk on.

Being locked in my little woodland cave, I had felt the pressure of posting, posing, creating for Instagram every day, to keep my head over water. But this it not what tattooing is about, not at all. Ten thousands of followers dont make you a tattoo artist. Learning about the craft, from other artists, become an apprentice again and again, that is what makes you grow. Sitting and drawing, being with the craft, that helps you evolve. True connection between humans, customers and tattoo artists, that is tattooing. It is rebellion, it is being on the edge, exploring limits, going your own way.

Where do I belong? Certainly not in a the self- marketing, tattoo influencer place of this new generation of tattoo artists. I would have to rip out my soul and be left an empty shell to do this-and what for.
Where do I want to move forward to? Exploring my limits, become better and better, become an apprentice again and again. To serve this craft in the way it deserves.
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