YA EITHER GOT IT OR YA DON’T
Is she born with it? Or is it Maybelline? Do you remember those commercials? The obviously beautiful woman, a professional model, in makeup applied by a professional makeup artist, with the wind blowing perfectly through her flawless hair. Are they still doing those? There is another thing I remember clearly: the first time I ever saw Stevie Ray Vaughn play the guitar. I had often heard his songs but never really thought much of them. Half-listening, I had heard his guitar playing in the background in lots of coffee shops and on random radio stations as I was driving. But one late night, I was flipping through the channels and came across his appearance at Austin City Limits on a public TV station. In all honesty, my jaw dropped as I watched this man with a grin on his face, his head tilted back and eyes closed, move his hands and fingers effortlessly over the frets and strings with suchprecision, speed and accuracy. I honestly questioned if he were really playing. To actually experience the complexity and hear the number of notes he was generating absolutely baffled me; the subtleties like his strumming high up on the neck to get one kind of sound or right up against the bridge to produce another, how he’d hammer-on the strings as they were being plucked or how he’d slyly turn the tone knob, the volume knob or pull up on the tremolo bar all while playing. And never once did he look down at his hands. The only word I could use to describe it was “effortless.”
Now, I actually can play the guitar and, I can assure you, it never has and never will come close to being “effortless.” Never! I don’t care how much talent you’re born with. But what is talent anyway? The best definition I could find is: “A special creative or artistic aptitude, or ability.” Aptitude is a capacity for learning, inclination or tendency. Personally, I think most people mistake “skill” for “talent.” Like I said, talent is a special capacity for learning. “Skill,” on the other hand, is the learned capacity to carry out predetermined results, often with the minimum outlay of time, energy or both. So do you need talent to attain a skill? Do people think I was born knowing how to draw? Was Stevie Ray Vaughn born knowing how to play the guitar? Of course not. We—and that includes everyone on the planet—aren’t able to speak, walk or even keep from pooping our pants when we’re born. It’s not talent that impresses people, it’s the skill, the learned capacity or ability to do something and make it look easy.
Talent, at least in my life, has generated a seed of resentment for many of the people with whom I come in contact. “I wish I had your talent,” they say to me. What they mean is, “I wish I had your skill” or “I wish I were able to do what you do and make it look easy.” Well, I truly believe that just about anyone can “make it look easy,” if they really want to. Being “talented” or, in other words, inclined to learn quickly and easily, would obviously get people to their goals faster, but it’s not the speed at which you attain something that is the most important thing. In fact, that can actually take away from one’s credibility and respect. Compare someone who worked her entire life to attain a great skill to someone who came to the same skill level quickly and with very little effort. Which one are you going to respect more? You’ll respect the one who worked hard for it and you will, by nature, suspect the other. Unless I miss my guess, I assume that anyone would rather be “respected” than “suspected.”
Whether or not she was born with it or whether she uses Maybelline, that doesn’t really matter to me as much as whether or not she is intrinsically beautiful. You may be extremely talented and things come to you easily (and you can’t help that) or you may be one of the lucky ones who have to work hard for your accomplishments. I envy the latter. Nothing feels better than accomplishment. Especially accomplishing something that’s difficult. The trick is, once you’re there, make it look easy.
R.I.P. Stevie Ray Vaughn. I’m sure you worked harder than any of us will ever know.
Remember, work hard at it.
After teaching my seminar, “Gut Level Tattooing,” for the past three years at tattoo conventions all across this the U.S., I have come to begin by asking this question: “What do you want?” I do this because it is the “hinge” on which all of one’s actions turn. You see, I can’t relate to people with little or no ambition. If you don’t have any ambition, little intention, or just don’t care, with me, the conversation quickly comes to an end. You may have completely different goals than I do. You may want the exact opposite of what I want. I can totally relate to that, as long as you want something.
We can all relate to “wanting,” especially those of us who grew up poor as hell, always having to make due, or simply going without. These conditions, I feel, make the most ambitious people. So, if you grew up with little or nothing, be grateful. You have an advantage.
Take my childhood: It was early summer and a few months prior I was playing in the snow with my friend and got my shoes wet. I set them on what I thought was a safe part of the wood stove and waited for my mom to pick me up. But I lost track of time and they melted. My mom was mad, of course, but not at me. Bottom-line, it was the fact that she didn’t have the money to get me new shoes. I remember walking that night into Safeway in socks, in the snow, which she made me do, to learn to take care of my stuff. I got a pair of nine-dollar plastic shoes from the grocery store. I had to wear those weird, plastic, non-brand shoes the rest of the school year.
I was a “free lunch” kid, which always bugged me. The kids who couldn’t afford lunch got a different color meal ticket at my school, so it was no secret, but it was the shoes that really screamed “poor!” So, I took matters into my own hands, found a job pulling weeds and got a pair of three-striped, gray Adidas. It took a while. By then, I was out of school for the summer. I proudly wore them and, after a few days, went swimming with a different friend. When we came up to our bikes and clothes after swimming in the creek, all of our things were gone. Bikes, clothes… and, you guessed it, my new shoes. I later discovered that my other friend, the one with whom I got my shoes wet in the snow, was the culprit. He eventually admitted to stealing our stuff, throwing my bike in the creek and doing whatever with our clothes and shoes.
The irony of it all, and the resulting metaphor, is quite profound to me. First, that no matter how hard you work and no matter what you accomplish, you are vulnerable to people and situations outside of your control and, second, what you want is absolutely dictated by what you need. So, be honest with what you need. For example, we all need to matter. We all need validation that our existence has a purpose. If you don’t acknowledge that, you’re lying, and if you don’t believe it, you’re in denial. We find it in the things we do, whether it’s earning degrees, helping people or raising kids, or dogs or a goldfish, for that matter.
Accomplishment is the best place to find fulfillment. That’s why tattooers and artists have such a great job. You want be a great tattooer? You want your art to move people? You want to travel the world? You want make good money? You want win awards? You want to teach? Write books? You want to be famous? It’s all valid, if that’s what you need to feel like you are contributing to society, that is. Hey, if it makes you feel good about yourself, then don’t let anyone hold you back. I wanted to be heard and here I am writing for my favorite magazine. What do you want?
Remember, work hard at it.
Here’s a response to Jeff Gogué’s column, “As I See It with Jeff Gogué,” that was posted a day or two ago.
Hey guys: Although Gogué does make a couple of good points, he should be thankful that he doesn’t shake so bad that he can’t hold a machine (after spending years learning), that he has some talent to get the following he has and to make $$$ at something he obviously loves. But he is NOT alone in his affection for the game. The term “remora” [any of several marine fishes of the family Echeneidae, having on the head a sucking disk with which they attach themselves to sharks, whales, sea turtles or the hulls of ships] is a little rugged and may apply to some, but not all. We have been collecting tattoo art probably longer than some could draw a flower. We started this labor of love long ago, knowing that we would be soon out of enough skin to honor and support the artists whom we loved, to see art that we wanted get done and share it. We’ve never made a profit and given plenty to food banks, vets and foster kids. We support and defend the art as much as, if not a little more than, most and have smacked more than our fair share of F-ing punk scratchers. I shouldn’t have to say it, but not all fit your mold. We are collectors of fine art, maybe even patrons (been called that).
P.S. Keep up the nice work. We’ll hope the arthritis never hits you!
Where are we? I guess the answer depends on our age. I don’t mean how old we are; I mean how long we’ve been into tattoos. I think we all start off considering what we can get out of it. Then, we look to the future and where we can take it. Eventually, we look back and reminisce about what we did with it. So where are you? Are you attached like a remora taking the scraps from the current feeding frenzy? Are you an entrepreneur, capitalizing on the gold rush of tattoos, selling your lotions, your sunscreen, your pigments, your T-shirts? You know that, in 1851, during the California Gold Rush, people were selling common, everyday items for astronomical prices. Consider the cost of one, single chicken egg: $3.00. That would translate to $83.94 in today’s money. Eighty-four bucks for a single egg. A pound of cheese would cost you nearly seven hundred bucks at today’s currency rate―$699.53 to be exact. A shovel would set you back $36.00, which equates to $1,007.33 in today’s money. It doesn’t seem possible, but people wanted to be a part of it so badly that they’d pay almost any price to stay in the game. Did you also know that today, in 2010, you can get your very own Horiyoshi III, long-sleeved T-shirt from Yellowman for a mere $888.00? Some things never change. Guess that would be human nature.
You might be like me, excited about where things are and wanting to steer toward higher ground. I figure if we don’t, some TV producer or cheesy promoters will. If you don’t think some corporation is gonna take our culture and exploit it, you are kidding yourself. I had a friend request me for―if you can believe it―“America’s Next Top Tattoo Artist.” Un-fucking believable. Three choices, folks: (1) Sit back and watch, (2) join in and start blowing holes in the bottom of a sinking ship or (3) build bunkers out of whatever we can get a hold of and fight. Why not rebel? I’d rather be a part of the uprising than a victim of circumstance. Where do you draw the line? Good question. Sure, I sell stuff: tattoos, paintings, prints and DVDs of my work. In the past, I’ve even had some T-shirts, but I draw the line when my integrity demands it, when I can still feel good about things, when I am consciously contributing to our culture. Pushing things forward. Raising the standard. Inspiring you to do the same.
Am I saying I have it all together and always live in a perfect Eden of pure intentions, raking my Zen garden on the highest plane of consciousness? Of course not. Yes, a man’s got a living to make, but I never forget that I play a small part of a bigger picture. Don’t get me wrong, I’ not trying to make tattooing into some noble calling that changes lives but, to be honest, it sure has changed mine. Ten all-consuming years. And I love it.
I’m not there yet, but I’m working at it. I just hope to look back with my friends and have some good things to say, and not a bunch of grumpy complaints about how the “man” ruined my precious little oasis. I want to talk about how we quietly led the rebellion through the years, under the radar, and every once in a while, like this column, out in plain sight for everyone to see.
Remember, work hard at it.