Our contributor Sarah Kay learns about the relationship between mentor and apprentice…
I moved to France five years ago after becoming tired of high rents and noise, delayed trains, and long commutes. I also decided to live in a small village in Upper Normandy, France. There, my neighbors know each other, and the cheese is better than anything I’ve had elsewhere. Sure, it was a terrible decision as I travel a lot and was further away from airports, but I had an amazing bakery, a great apartment – then last year, something happened: a tattoo shop opened. Curious, my curiosity was piqued and I went in within the first day. It was only two doors away from my house. I had never seen a place that offered tattoos so close to big cities.
I was just returning from NYC when I asked MVDV, who I didn’t know at the time, if he would tattoo a slice blueberry pie on my arm. I felt instantly at ease with his enthusiasm and his funny disposition. Having them as neighbours, I had the opportunity to know them better – and to continue booking appointments even as borders remain closed due to COVID-19. It’s an incredible luxury. I took time out of the apprentice, Trixie Lunie’s busy day to ask her questions about the tattoo world and her decision to enter it, and asked her mentor, MVDV, how he sees it. What is the keyword? Humility.
What length of time have you been an apprentice? A little over nine months.
What number of tattoos have been done on real people? I have thought about thirty people and five of myself.
What have you wanted to do as a tattoo artist for the longest? About 10 years. It wasn’t always possible, since a tattoo apprenticeship is unpaid, but now I can do it because I have a partner supporting me and after having worked for many years before I’m entitled to unemployment benefits.
Did you draw before? No, I’m an autodidact. I’ve been drawing since I was capable of holding a pencil though, I had been watching my dad tattoo – he was a tattooer himself. He was more of an artist than a tattooer. He would do his work from home and mostly with friends. I got to see how he did it, and we attended conventions together. They are clients, not professionals. (laughs) Let it be clear that I’m not into his style, but he never was told or taught how, never had a strong foundation, and that’s what I wanted and needed. I was looking for a trusted studio that would teach me the basics of tattooing and show me how to make it better.
How long did it take to find an apprenticeship for you? It takes a long time! It’s really hard. There are many people who want to be a part of this project, but there are very few places. This one took me around a year to find. I found them through social media, I liked the work being performed, people seemed satisfied; I just didn’t want to go just by reputation. Although it takes time to build a good reputation, it is easy to lose it so fast. I wanted something stable. With a great mentor, I believe that I now have the foundation I need.
Who is your mentor? What about Casper, the owner, or MVDV, the tattooer? Casper is my Jedi Master, and I am MVDV’s padawan. We’ve only known each other since February! It’s going very well. I’m learning a lot, because my preference is manga and anime, and he works mostly in realism, so that was definitely a learning curve. He’s making me draw a lot, I’m starting to tattoo on fake skin, and he’s always behind me, telling me what I can improve. He gauges when I’m ready to do something, which may not always be when I feel ready. They’re making me draw some flash sheets right now so I can get used to creating designs.
I noticed that you had posted an Instagram post about your tattoo me too situation. What do you think about this? How do you view your role as a young female artist? I am confident that I will not be discriminated in this studio. However, womxn may be overlooked because they are believed to be only there to draw butterflies or cutesy hearts. I have been influenced by many female artists who do that, in very different styles, and who own it. And there’s nothing wrong with being girly. Womxn can excel at anything. There’s enough room for everybody now, and now there are conventions for female tattoo artists too, so I’m entering the business at the right time. The situation may have been very different five years ago.
Who are you most inspired by right now? Charline Puth, who has a private studio in Paris, I’m getting tattooed at Getcha Club by Charlotte E San in Lille. I am a huge fan of Japanese art. At the end of the day though, we’re all here to do the best job possible for the client and their idea of the design, so as Casper told me when I started, we need to be able to do everything. Of course I’d like to specialise in manga-inspired work and work on really colourful designs, and there is an audience for that, but I must be capable of performing in any style as well.
What values do you want to bring to the relationship between the tattoo artist and the client? To me, it is important to maintain a clean, inviting environment, adhere to strict surgical hygiene rules with equipment, and to look my best so that people can trust me. Then I want to establish a friendly atmosphere, regardless of the mood I’m in, just like in any other workplace, a lot of humour so people can feel comfortable, and be really respectful of their bodies and of their boundaries.
How do you deal with someone who is anxious – because it’s their first tattoo, a sensitive body part, because of the pain, how do you put them at ease? You speak to them a lot. You make sure to have a lot of time so the person can take as many breaks as they need to, I know MVDV is really cautious on the first lines to see how the person reacts and how he can talk them through what’s happening.
Do you think it’s a possibility that a womxn would enter the shop and would rather have you tattoo her than MVDV? That’s a total possibility. It depends on what body part it is. I would do it, if this is a person that would rather have a womxn do it, especially with everything that’s going on. With MVDV though, he’s been working with some sensitive body parts as well and everything went smoothly; that’s his job, he’s used to it, he knows how to work it, and he would never post insensitive photos on Instagram afterwards, you see.
Do you think it’s harder to be a female apprentice with a male mentor? Because there are always stupid people around, you need to be strong in business. You need to stand your ground and go for it once you found the place where you’re comfortable.
What is competition? Of course there’s a lot of competition, but as I said there is room for everyone and everyone can carve their own space.
What do you see for your future with this shop? I’ll be 80 and still tattooing on fake skin. (laughs)
The biggest fear you have right now is tattooing someone. I tattooed one my best friends recently. She was extremely stressed and it was contagious. However, I was able keep my hand steady and was prepared.
This fear that you’re permanently altering someone’s body and you’re afraid to screw up, that never fully goes away, right? No, it doesn’t. You can gain perspective with experience. Every tattoo artist will have something to teach others. If someone goes ahead and tells you they have nothing left to learn and know everything, I don’t think they got the point. They are no longer evolving. Techniques change. Techniques can change. Equipment is constantly changing. Designs change.
Now that tattooing has become so prevalent in the last decade, you see “tattoo schools” pop up, and people entering the fold with art degrees. What do you think? How has it changed tattooing? While I believe in apprenticeships and would support them, it would be great if they were recognized as legal entities. It is something we deal with, and I do. But it would be wonderful if it could be recognized as an apprenticeship, just like other professions. As for art, you may be a brilliant artist, that still won’t make you a good tattoo artist. These are two completely different things. A solid apprenticeship is the best thing.
What length do you believe your apprenticeship will last? My whole life! After a year, I feel I have a solid foundation. That’s all. But I wouldn’t be a good artist then. Because it takes practice, I will soon be able to tattoo. The shop remains small and approachable, even though we’re starting to be booked quite solidly, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They are both very good and have a great relationship with me. They show me how to place orders, how to use equipment, and hygiene requirements. But this isn’t a shop where I will just be serving coffee and cleaning up for a year. They’re making me draw and work on fake skin every day.
Last word on womxn within the industry That female tattoo artists are just as qualified as a male one, that some can run circles around others, that we’re not here to be a punchline. These things are changing very quickly, hopefully for better. Also, it is not right to objectify heavily tattooed womxn.
How many years have you been tattooing? It’s been nine years. Very happy with my evolution – I’m learning more about the craft every day. I was just doing my thing for five years and now I’m officially set up in a shop for four.
And now that you’re an apprentice’s mentor, how do you feel about it? It feels really strange because I don’t feel like I am in a position to be a mentor. I don’t feel I have what it takes yet to be a mentor. I don’t feel any seniority.
How does dynamic work? Although I can offer her pointers and tips based on my capabilities, I feel mentorship must be earned. Mentorship comes with a lot of responsibility. Since we all learn something every day, there is no real mentor. To be a mentor, for me, is the end-all-be-all of the work, it’s being in such a strong position of authority in the history of tattooing.
What was the most difficult part for you thus far? I was so proud of the realistic lion, that I did it this week! It has shown me so much about myself and how I approach things.
Comment do you envision Trixie making her debut in this industry after her apprenticeship is complete? I’m not necessarily apprehensive, but just like I did have, it necessitates a lot of rigor and a lot of perseverance to make it. For those of us who had to learn everything on the go, it’s even harder, so it requires a lot of personal commitment.
What does it entail to you to teach a new female artist to perform? Many womxn are doing an incredible job and discrimination is absurd. Womxn are just as welcome in this industry as they are anywhere else.
What do YOU think of the current reckoning in tattoo industry about sexual misconduct? Those people are terrible and would do a horrible job in any other occupation, but they abuse their position. Because the human body is our canvas, our work place, we are in a profession that requires respect from men.
Do you feel a particular type of responsibility when you tattoo sensitive body parts? A place that she wouldn’t like, but she wants to look at and see something beautiful instead? It’s the case for everyone, I feel, that they come to tattooing to change the way their body is before, and turn it into art. And it’s entirely my responsibility to do the best possible job I can so they can look at it years onwards and still love it. It’s true that if they’re having a difficult time because of body image, we have the opportunity to work with the client to make something really significant. Art is meant to be enjoyed for a lifetime. As an artist, you have a responsibility to ensure it’s as perfect as possible. There’s no way to half-ass it. Whether it’s your specialty or not, if you accept to do it, the responsibility is there. I think about this all the time: it’s permanent body altering.
And that’s really something you want to transmit to your apprentice. Yes: the love of working with people, the love to create; and to me this is when you know someone is really into tattooing and has the potential to be a really good tattooer, it’s when they take pleasure in the challenge of creating something special. Working isn’t a chore. The relationship between tattooer and client is exceptional. You have to be a talented artist.
What is the piece that makes you most proud? I loved working on a UFO recently. I had added it to a flash sheet and I never thought someone would pick it; it’s something that is really dear to me, UFO and aliens, and that was really just something that came out of my head. This person absolutely loved it and crushed on it. I was so glad to be able do that piece. I thought it would be a little too “out there” for people, and no, it found its client! That was wonderful!
What’s the future like for you? I’m not worried about clients coming in, but I know I have to keep on learning, evolving, meeting new people, working on my craft, because you can become irrelevant real quick, there are new people coming out every day who just blow everything out the water. That’s something I learned immediately, so I’m just really looking forward to being in a job where I have to keep on learning every day. If I have the opportunity to travel with this knowledge, I would love to learn more techniques, histories, and legacies. I had no mentor personally – when I arrived at Casper’s, they showed me the technical aspect of this, how to pose a stencil, how to best see a placement, and for that I’ll forever be grateful. But I don’t consider myself “arrived” or anything like that. My team is my family, and I am a little orphan boy who finds them so important.
Sarah Kay She is an extremely tattooed international human rights lawyer, who lives in New York and Paris. Sarah, originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland, has maintained her taste for cold rain, and the rewards that can come from being still under pressure. You’ll probably find her in London drinking wine.