Tattoo apprentices ink their own paths to creating permanent body art

Tattoo apprentices ink their own paths to creating permanent body art

Tattoo apprentices ink their own paths to creating permanent body art
March 06
18:47 2019

Basslines from the music of Notorious B.I.G., Playboi Carti and Aminé accompany the buzz of the tattoo gun in Nina Kauffman’s hand as she inks a flame band around a client’s ankle.

Kauffman is an apprentice at Denton’s Lizards Ink Tattoo, learning the skills required to be a tattoo artist. Tattoo apprenticeships can be akin to medical residencies as people who have fostered their talents seek out a mentor who will teach them how to apply that talent to needle, ink and skin. Kauffman began her apprenticeship in 2017 after dropping out of UNT’s chemistry program to follow her passion for art.

“I was always really good at academics in school, so [becoming an apprentice] kind of just went on the backburner of my mind,” Kauffman said. “[Chemistry] was interesting, but not interesting enough for me. That is when I stopped and really thought, ‘What could I do that would make me happy to get out of bed every morning?’ That one thing was art.”

After researching how to become a tattoo artist and asking around at local shops, Kauffman landed at Lizards Ink. It was the first shop she got a response from. Her journey with Lizards Ink has been non-traditional because she had started tattooing before the start of her apprenticeship there. Usually, an apprentice begins by spending one to two years learning from and assisting the other artists in the shop.

Apprentice Nina Kauffman carefully tattoos flames on a customer’s ankle at Lizards Ink Tattoo. Image by: Will Baldwin.

“When you get an apprenticeship, it is kind of like tattoo college,” Kauffman said. “In college, you pay a lot of money. For apprenticeships, sometimes they require you to pay them to give you that knowledge. Then there are apprenticeships where they want your loyalty. With my apprenticeship, I paid by helping out the shop and working for free, basically.”

When she first started her apprenticeship, Kauffman did not have any tattoos. Over time though, she has practiced tattooing on herself and let coworkers tattoo her as well.

“Most of the time, [apprentices] get tattoos first to get comfortable in a tattoo shop and to network,” Kauffman said. “I don’t have any [tattoos] on my arms though. A lot of the time, people come in and they’re like, ‘Do you work here? Who is this kid running around?’”

It was an adjustment for Kauffman to transition from drawing to actually tattooing people, she said, and she is still learning every day.

“The biggest thing is learning as I go,” Kauffman said. “At first I was really terrified to tattoo people because of that fear of messing up because it’s on them for life and I realize that. It’s crazy that people just want some doodles I drew in my bedroom on their body for life. That fear was really hard the first couple of months.”

However, Kauffman said she overcame those feelings of uneasiness with the help of her coworkers and her mentor Joe Hightshoe, the owner of Lizards Ink.

“My first tattoo on someone else was actually in my house, which is bad,” Kauffman said. “I do not recommend. It was on a roommate who was moving to Chicago and she knew I was just starting to learn. She told me even if it wasn’t great, she still wanted it because it was from me.”

Kauffman prioritizes making the people she tattoos comfortable. She brings stress balls and stuffed animals to work with her and gives clients a sticker for “being good” after she finishes tattooing them.

“When I was growing up, I always wanted to do something that would help people and I feel like this is a good spot where I can do something I love, make art and also help people,” Kauffman said. “Anytime I give someone a tattoo, I want to make it a good memory for them. I want to make them feel better about themselves anytime they look at it.”

Kauffman is unsure when her apprenticeship will officially end, but she thinks there are still some things she has to learn before she can be “truly independent.”

“There is not really a line between me being an apprentice right now and me being a full-time artist other than [gaining respect],” Kauffman said. “As an apprentice, you are bottom-tier. The longer you do it, the more respect you get.”

In other states like California, New York, Oklahoma and Louisiana, the gap between being an apprentice and an official tattoo artist is closed when an individual obtains a license to tattoo. In Texas, the responsibility for licensing falls on the studio instead, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Individuals can get licensed if they start their own business, but for those who do not, they must work in a shop that has been licensed with the state.

Bottles of ink line the shelves at Lizards Ink Tattoo. Image by: Will Baldwin.

Alberto Noriega, the owner of Inkaholics Tattoo Company, has been a professional tattoo artist for about six years, although he started unofficially at age 14 under the tutelage of his uncle.

“When I was about 10, I started doing some [really] good art,” Noriega said. “What started me was my uncle, really. He was doing tattoos in prison and when he came out, he taught me what I needed to know.”

Noriega got his first job at Sugar Skull in Dallas when he turned 18. Now, as the owner of a shop, he is the person a new artist would go to if they wanted to become an apprentice.

“It is really a big responsibility,” Noriega said. “It’s like taking on a little kid. We would teach them everything, [including] not just the tattoo process but how to handle a client. Let’s say I want to be an apprentice. I’m going to search my favorite artist and reach out to him if I like that style.”

Daniel Thornton got involved in the world of tattooing at age 36 in September 2018 and is completing his apprenticeship at Dark Age Tattoo, located in the Denton Square. Thornton is a student at the Texas Academy of Figurative Art in Fort Worth, where he primarily studies European-style painting.

“I didn’t know anything about tattooing until I got [to Dark Age Tattoo],” Thornton said. “I have always done more traditional art and painting. I wanted to apply the skills I was learning at the school here.”

Thornton has found that a lot of his painting skills transfer to tattooing and has enjoyed learning about the industry. Unlike Kauffman, he has not tattooed many people. He currently practices on pig and synthetic skin for the most part. His apprenticeship has been more conventional and will likely last about two years.

“The apprenticeship is not a quick thing,” Thornton said. “You’re making permanent marks on people. They don’t let you do that until they know you have the skills to do it.”

Thornton is also a freelance graphic designer, though he said he cannot wait to tattoo on a regular basis.

“With tattooing, it’s a really good way for an artist to make a living,” Thornton said. “Some of the stuff [my coworkers] are doing at the shop is just crazy how complex it is. It is a really good way to make really high-level art.”

Featured Image: Tattoo apprentice Nina Kauffman works on an ankle piece in the back office of Lizards Ink Tattoo. Image by: Will Baldwin.

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Nikki Johnson-Bolden

Nikki Johnson-Bolden

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