Dear Work Space
I’m a new tattoo artist (about a year and a half in) who relatively recently left a workplace in a bigger city to live in a small town. I have a close relative who’s ill, and I wanted to be closer to them. This was a difficult decision for me personally, but it also had a major impact on my professional career. My once flourishing career was halted when I moved to the nearby tattoo shop. It’s been shocking and upsetting.
I think the problem is twofold: Because of the studio’s existing hierarchy, other tattoo artists get priority, leaving me with relative scraps, and I worry the small town may not support multiple tattoo artists.
To make matters worse, I get very basic tattoos (copy-paste designs). However, I loved my job and was constantly creating larger, more intricate designs.
Honestly, for the first time in my life, I’m deeply scared of failure. I’m worried I may need to give up a career I love for financial reasons. Even if it is possible to make it financially work, I worry that I may become stuck in a creative deadzone and be defined by unimaginative, small work. I’m so new to my career, and I feel like this is a time when I should be carving out my path. But I have no job.
What should I do? Which steps should I take? I’m getting more anxious and depressed by the day, and I would love advice.
We are so grateful.
You’re stuck and scared of the small things
Dear Scared and Stuck Small
While you’re the first tattoo artist who has written to Fortune’s advice column, I talked to many people who can relate to the core of your question: “Will moving to a small town tank my career?” It’s an issue that people across industries deal with, but it can feel particularly relevant to people in creative fields.
In your new town, you haven’t yet found who people get your vision and want to push you to the next level, so you’ll need to find ways to motivate yourself and create work you like—even if you have to do that on your own time, instead of in the shop where you’re working now.
When you’re feeling stuck, or working within constraints, there are still opportunities for you to develop other parts of your creative practice and professional narrative. Your question focused so much on the things that are outside of your control, and there is a lot: your family member’s illness, the hierarchy at the shop, the preferences of the customers. But by focusing on what is in your control—developing your own style, connecting with people and things that inspire you, and putting in the work to make work—you will not only get unstuck, but you will carve a path that you enjoy.
To get two perspectives on your situation, I talked to two artists: Amy Sherald she is perhaps best-known as a painter for her portrait with former First Lady Michelle Obama. Rachel Howe aAn artist, healer and tattooist. These women have a unique style and a creative professional practice that attracts people. Although they have had different paths, their methods and ways of working are very similar. However, each woman spoke about the evolution of their work.
Amy is a renowned fine artist with a long career. Amy painted the Official Portrait of the Former First Lady. She also has work in the collections of museums throughout the U.S.A. And she was asked to design a cover. Vanity Fair.
She also relocated home earlier in her career to care for a family member who was sick. During those four years in Columbus, Ga. she stopped painting. Although she admitted at first feeling like she was just wasting her time, she soon realized the importance of moving back home to her professional career.
“I realized that I would never have made the work that I’m making now had I not had to move home for four years. If I had not had that downtime…maybe these certain opportunities wouldn’t have been available, like maybe I would have never made it into the National Portrait Gallery,” Amy said.
After her time with family, Amy moved back to Baltimore, where she’d gotten her MFA, and established her career there—and she said that decision was instrumental to her success.
“I think being in a small city is actually a good thing,” she said. “Had I moved to New York, I’m not sure I would have a career, because I would have had to put like 70% of my energy into paying my rent, and then the other 30% into the work.”
Because there was so little people who did the same type of work as she, it made it easier for her to get to know the people in the upper reaches of her industry quickly. Her art was more accessible to her and it was easy to make connections with people interested.
“I used to get on the bus and go to New York and go to openings and ‘network,’ but I realized what I really needed to be focused on was making my work,” she said.
Repeatedly, Amy emphasized to me how the best thing that you can be doing right now is focusing on your own process, whether that’s making creative work or working on research and finding inspiration during this time when you’re struggling to make the kind of art you want.
“Part of creativity is there has to be some room for intake. You have to be eating your environment and digesting it all the time,” Amy said. “So when there’s nothing coming out, that means that stuff needs to go in. Don’t get depressed and think that you’re a failure. Just go out and live life and be inspired.”
Rachel is a great example of how to approach tattoo work. Rachel keeps her work in a basement. Small Spells, which she describes as a “multidimensional business.” In addition to tattoos, she also creates ceramics and drawings, and offers tarot and personalized astrology readings, as well as an astrology club for members. It was a huge success. sharing astrology readings online Independent shops carry her deck of tarot cards, loved by many. The company also sells note cards and books.
Rachel has done tattoo residencies at different shops where she’s built relationships and sometimes travels to offer limited bookings to clients. If you live in a small area, visiting appointments or doing residency might allow you to achieve more ambitious work. Rachel understood your situation, but she also pointed out that just because you haven’t found people who you feel appreciate your work yet, doesn’t mean they’re not out there.
“Work on finding as much community as you can in the place where you are now,” Rachel said. “Find as many like-minded people as you can, whether or not they’re your tattoo clients.”
Find as many people as possible in your current location.
If you’re feeling isolated in your new town, having an artistic community might be transformative, even if you find yourself connecting with different types of people than you’d expect based on your last job.
As you think about how you might build community where you are, it’s another chance to reframe how you see and what you expect from this time. You’re not working at the same pace that you were before, and you’re not dealing with the same people you were. But that doesn’t mean that the people in your new community aren’t worth your time.
“Even if we feel like we’re in a place where we kind of don’t fit in, we can still practice approaching each person that we come in contact with with a lot of generosity,” Rachel said.
How can you find ways to make small connections with people in your new town so that you don’t feel so separate and different from them?
One tactic Rachel suggested was that you make a book of drawings of the types of tattoos you’d prefer to be doing. She made an art book out of her flash tattoo drawings and found that people really loved it, even if they aren’t looking to get a tattoo.
Finding different outlets can help you keep your creative flow going and tackle the creative block and anxiety you’re feeling. Even if it’s not being expressed in exactly the way that you want to right now, it can help you build some forward momentum.
“Your growth and progression is not a singular path,” Rachel said. “There’s so many ways that we develop and progress. It’s so much wider. Look elsewhere, to be like, ‘How do I keep my vision going? How do I keep my evolution going?’”
Although you might feel pressure to reach a certain position in the industry now, it is not the end of your career. Your work will evolve over time and change with your experiences. What’s important now is that you dedicate time to your own personal practice, find ways to share your work, and build your community. If you do, more opportunities will arise in line with the type of work you’d like to be doing.
It’s also okay if this isn’t your most productive period. As you place family first and money second, it might feel slower to work on your portfolio right now. You may only get a couple of pieces a year that feel like they’re what you want to feature in your portfolio.
Amy shares her personal experience to offer a unique perspective.
“I had to double down on who I was and just realized that my path is my path and not look at anybody else’s path,” she said. “Just because you’re not rising now, doesn’t mean you’re never going to rise.”
You moved for personal reasons, and while it’s absolutely the time to be where you are for family, it has been a bit of a shock to your career. You’re grieving what you lost after leaving your old job and city. I know there can be very real trade-offs to moving, especially under these circumstances, and it’s important that you’re doing this. While you’re showing up for your family member, you’re also putting yourself second, which is hard. It’s clearly affecting you and impacting your ability to create a strong body of work right now.
Prioritize finding ways to work toward what you’d like to be creating, while giving yourself grace during this time when family is your first focus. You can let go of your fears about failure and give yourself permission to try new things. Separate your creativity output and your thoughts about your career. They might go hand in hand at times, but they might not work together. You decide how fast you want to work or develop. The sooner that you accept this, the more happy you’ll be.
We send you many positive vibes.
Working Space is a monthly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. All columns are available for reading here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to [email protected].
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