Jessica Vann tattoos my inner forearm one Saturday morning as we chat about her work. And one topic we keep circling back to is the future of body art. When Jess first open shop twelve years ago, tattoos were still considered by many to be taboo - a fact cheekily referenced in the very name of her business. Now, tattoo shops abound in Portland and body art can be glimpsed on the ankle of the odd kindergarten teacher. The art of tattooing (particularly in the state of Oregon) has never been safer and more accessible than now, and Jess seems laser focused on bringing it more into the mainstream: while still appealing to a form of expression that is often intensely personal. Her school, of the same name, is the largest in state and is producing an incredibly diverse new generation of tattoo artists. Jess is now looking to increase that diversity even further by gaining federal accreditation. If and when she succeeds, her school of body art will be the first of its kind.
FULL: Tell me a little bit about how the school works.
Jessica: We have six teachers and one educational director. The instructors are mostly on the floor with students while they tattoo.
Before tattooing begins, it’s about 300 hours of theory. Students don’t touch a machine until they get through that: book work, classes, assignments, stuff like that. Afterwards, they do 2-3 weeks on a synthetic skin, and then they start on people.
FULL: Do you find clients are generally willing to be tattooed by students, or do the students often find people they know to tattoo on?
J: Because we’ve been in business for so long, we have a really strong reputation, so we don’t have trouble bringing clients in for students. People that are first timers can be a little hesitant, but all of the students have art portfolios and some of them have previous tattoo experience. Once someone can see what they’ve done, they become more confident in the student. And the instructor is always right there next to the student while the tattoo is happening. At this point we know how to read the customer and make them feel comfortable.
FULL: How long have you been tattooing for? What’s your background in it?
J: I’ve been tattooing for twelve years. I owned a shop first with friends that knew how to tattoo. Over time I figured I should learn how to work in the medium, so I went and learned. You have to go to school for tattooing in Oregon, but particularly at that time there wasn’t a lot of structure or specific requirements in regards to the type of schooling you pursue. The school I went to wasn’t very good. I went, got my license and realized I could do better. I opened my own school two years later. We have the largest number of students in the state. Most schools only take four students at most, and we take twelve because we have so many instructors.
The goal over the next five years is federal accreditation. Because the most difficult part is finding the best artists, but funding, when you’re paying twelve thousand in tuition, is sometimes a barrier for people who would be qualified. So if we can get them federal funding, it makes the selection process a lot better.
FULL: What are you looking for when you’re selecting students?
J: We like it if they’ve worked with multiple mediums so we know that they have the capacity to learn a new one. There isn’t necessarily one particular medium that transfers best over to tattooing, so I will take painters, water-colour artists, as long as they’ve shown that they can learn a medium.
I would say probably just as important is work history, work ethic, communication skills. It’s not the easiest program to get through, and sometimes you have people who are great artists, but to be competitive in the tattoo industry you have to be a good worker who can communicate. I’ve had some amazing artists who were socially unable to adapt to tattoo. They’re used to sitting in a room painting on a canvas, and then suddenly they’re in someone’s face. It takes so much more than just being a great artist to become a great tattoo artist.
FULL: What kinds of people do you have applying now? Would you say that it’s a diverse group?
J: It’s a huge variety for us, because we’re a very diverse group. Diversity is huge in a tattoo shop. If you walk in and they’re playing heavy metal, and every artist is doing the same style, then there are only a certain number of people who are going to be comfortable in that atmosphere. We probably have the opposite of that, where each one of our instructors and artists is very much their own individual. We attract a huge array of students because we’re accepting of everyone really. We see everyone as having the ability to become the next famous tattoo artist. We have anywhere from 18-year-olds to 50-year-olds, men and women, military, all kinds of people.
FULL: One thing I always thought must be interesting about working as a tattoo artist is seeing how different people deal with pain.
J: And a lot of it varies, because the tattoo experience is really a whole package. Are you comfortable where you’re sitting, the music you’re listening to? Does the person who’s tattooing you make you feel comfortable? How do machines make you feel? There is so much more to it than the actual pain. If you can make someone feel comfortable, then they’ll come back to you whether the tattoo hurt or not. It’s interesting to hear people’s stories. People will say it hurt so much worse the last time they got it done, or they’ll have horror stories about the music or how crass the artist was.
And the machines and the hand of the artist make a big difference. You’re only as good as the tool that you’re using. A lot of people think that these machines are the same across the board, and that’s really not the case. The machines we use are a lot quieter than the ones you’re used to getting tattooed by. We use rotary.
FULL: How is rotary different from other kind of machines?
J: Coil machines are louder and they use electromagnetic power. I would compare it to a Hot Rod versus a Honda. With a coil machine, all the parts are exposed, it has to be oiled and tuned. Sound it very important. You want to listen to how it’s running to tell if something’s going wrong, and then you want to fix it immediately, or else the tattoo may not turn out as well. Rotary machines are all enclosed, so if something’s wrong you switch to a different machine and send it back to the manufacturer.
When students are starting out, the traditional way is that they have to learn coil machine, and that understanding can be really beneficial. But Oregon regulations focus more on safety and sanitation than technique, so it’s more important to us that people are focusing on cleanliness and customer service, rather than just on listening for and tuning the machine.
And that helps students, because it takes the mechanics out of it. It can be really daunting to come into something brand new, there’s blood, you’re right in someone’s face, and you also have to be listening to that machine and try to figure out what’s wrong with it. That can be a very stressful situation. So these machines are one of the keys to our success at this school. They produce good work at a low stress level. And they’re constantly being improved, so rotary is just as good as coil. At the same time, you always want to be aware of the traditional ways as well as the newer ways, so we still teach how coil machines are built and how they run, but we don’t have the students use them when they’re just starting out.
FULL: So how does it work after students from your school graduate? Do a lot of them wind up working here?
J: Part of the reason our shop is so successful is because I pretty much hire only from my school. That means I’ve been around the students, and I know if they have issues with punctuality or drugs or depression.
When students graduate, we offer them temporary employment while they look for a shop. They have the ability to come back if they need to or be picky about the shop they’ll work at for six months to a year. They pay the shop fifty percent off of every tattoo, which isn’t a comfortable wage and that encourages them to look for another job. The exception is if they’re going into our instructor-in-training program. If they really excelled and showed that they have the ability to get along with all different kinds of people then I will sometimes invite them into that two-year program. That means they get paid a salary to teach on top of what they make tattooing. So those are the ones that stick around.
FULL: How would you describe your personal style of tattooing?
J: Mandalas, geometry, I like really precise work. I’m more of a left-brain artist in the sense that I would prefer everything to be laid out for me, and then I work with what’s there as opposed to a blank canvas. A right-brain artist would want freedom, and not be bound by lines and geometry. I like the more precise stuff - dot work, geometry.
FULL: One of the reasons I chose to get my tattoo done by you is because I like the structure in your work. And I feel like I’m seeing a lot more of this style of line work as opposed to shading. Is there a specific name you know of for that style of tattooing?
J: Illustrative would probably be the best way to describe it. It’s really popular now. A lot of that goes back to social media. These styles have always been around, it’s just that unless you were a tattoo artist, you didn’t know about them. A lot of this has originated from Europe and people in the industry would see it when they read tattoo magazines, but customers didn’t see it, so now it’s funny, because my customers feel like I’m creating this style, but in reality it’s been around for a long time, just not in the mainstream.
Social media has has a huge impact on these styles taking off. Before social media, when you wanted a tattoo, you had very limited resources to think about what is possible, and now you go on Instagram and Pinterest you start to see that the possibilities are endless.
FULL: It is cool how Instagram is changing things. I learned about your shop through Pony Reinhardt, when someone on my feed reposted a tattoo she’d done.
J: She’s only four months out of our school and her style and work have just blown up. Another big factor there is that her work ethic is amazing and she has the ability to market herself and draw customers through social media in a way that goes beyond what a lot of other artists do.
FULL: How would you say your style has evolved since you’ve started tattooing?
J: Since I’ve always owned my own shop I’ve been technically solid and adaptable. I wouldn’t say that I was above average in any one style, but I was good at saying yes and doing all different styles of work. Over the past two years I’m more able to stick to illustrative and geometry work, which is the work that I’m interested in.
FULL: One of the things I’m always curious about with tattoo artists are the areas they find most sensitive for tattooing. A lot of people talk about the ribs.
J: Ribs are definitely the most popular area to get tattooed that’s really painful. Behind the knee is a really painful area, but it’s not very popular. The feet and ribs are both incredibly painful and popular, but there are some other less common spots that would top that. Surprisingly the armpit is not that badl. There is this transition area going into the armpit from the arm where there’s a ring that’s really painful, but when you’re in the centre of it, it’s surprisingly not. It also heals really well which is a sort of conundrum because typically you need a lot of oxygen for a tattoo to heal well.
Also, the head and face are not as painful as you would think, except for those areas around the nose and lips. The dot-work tattoo on my forehead was equivalent to getting my eyebrows plucked.
FULL: Do you remember your first tattoo?
J: Yes, I got it on my back when I was sixteen. It was a sun, and I had it done at a seedier shop in Vancouver, Washington. My mom took me in and signed for me. It wasn’t very well done, and now that I teach and have been around artists, they were so typical of the bad stereotype: lots of smoke breaks, overcharged me, it was a very typical mentality.
FULL: Of the tattoos you’ve gotten is there one that’s stood out to you?
J: My neck was one that I waited a long time for the artist to be available. I trusted the artist a lot, and I did it in celebration of my school’s five-year anniversary. It was done all at once and it was an out-of-body experience. You know it’s going to be a trip and that you have to sit still, so you just put yourself somewhere else. I don’t remember it being particularly painful, I just remember it being extremely worth it. One of those things where as it’s going on you’re going, “Wow, this is going to change my life.” And it does.
Neck tattoos, face tattoos, any really visible tattoos that are not generally socially accepted yet, I really enjoy doing those kinds of pieces for people, because they’re literally life changing. I say that because I have really long discussions before I’ll tattoo anyone in that capacity. And I’ll tell people that as soon as they walk out the door, things will change for them, and they kind of laugh it off, but it’s really true. It changes the way you’re perceived, the kind of confidence that you have once you have this massive piece.
FULL: I would imagine that if you do that, you have to own it. People are going to look at you and you can’t shy away from that.
J: Absolutely, it’s going to open some doors and it’s going to close a lot of doors. Mostly good things can come from it depending on how you take things in. It does decrease the amount of people that will approach you. Which in my opinion is great, because it weeds out those close-minded people right away. But depending on what you’re trying to do, it can inhibit you.
One thing that’s been interesting is when I purchased this building, I had to jump through a ton of hoops, and meet with the white-haired, conservative businessmen, and they dissected my business more than I expected. I ended up getting this building, but I could see that they were nerve-racked interacting with me. They would spend the first hour of the meeting trying to figure me out, and then toward the end would let go a bit. It helped that I had things on the intelligence level to rely on, so I could show them that I wasn’t what their perception was.
FULL: Like the smoke-break artist you described when you got your first tattoo?
J: Exactly. It was that process of slowly trying to sell myself, whereas if I was some un-tattooed person opening an accounting firm, that process would have been entirely different. But the good thing is that I’ve had people tell me at the end of an interaction that this was not what they’d expected, and I’d changed their perception of tattoo artists.
Qualifying for the federal accreditation is going to be even more difficult. Your school has to be recognized by an accrediting body, so ours would be an art accrediting body which has accepted all of these art schools. Oregon is the first state to even require tattoo schools and we’re the first school to be thinking about accreditation. I’m working with a firm in New York that’s getting us ready. It’s just really structured and it’s a totally different kind of schooling, so our accreditation will be the one to set the rules. It’s just such a new sector for them, so we’re figuring it out as we go along. There’s a process of adjusting our procedures and our school so that they’ll accept us and then coming up with the funding to actually make this big jump. I know it will happen, it’s just a really long process.
There are a lot of unlicensed artists in other States, and although there are apprenticeship requirements in some states, there aren’t many specific requirements around it. While is sounds awesome to have a two year minimum apprenticeship with someone that has 5+ years of experience, nobody's setting requirements around what you learn. So even though the industry is very pro-apprenticeship, if you’re simply learning the techniques of people who have been tattooing for years but haven’t been to school, there’s a lot you’ll miss out on. They might not know about the new diseases or machinery, they could be stuck in their own ways teaching two people exactly how to be like them.
So if we can get federal accreditation we can move from state to state, and since we’d be federally recognized the state legislation doesn’t always apply to us, or we would have pull to make changes. That also allows us to bring our curriculum to states that are already similar to Oregon and help them to be more regulated.
A lot of states just don’t know what to do with tattoo artists. In Florida, they send their artists to nursing school before they can be licensed, because they have no other regulated coursework to put those artists through. So the idea is to improve on that model and streamline it.
One of the tough things though, is that there are a lot of people in this industry who are anti-education, anti-conforming, anti-government, and I’m stepping over those boundaries. Even I’ve had reservations over how much I want the government to be in control of my business, because once you accept federal funding, they need to know everything about what you do.
My goal right now is to get our school to where it could be federally accredited, and then finding out from important people in the industry whether they think the accreditation is worth doing and could be something positive for the tattoo industry. I’m still on the fence a little.