Blood and Lightning
On Becoming a Tattooer
Dustin Kiskaddon



The Bumblebee Rides a Unicycle

Matt drank coffee as we stood on the back patio. His red hair landed across a blue handkerchief tied around his neck. He wore vintage denim and leather boots, as usual, and we stood there talking about the day’s projects. Both of us were doing two tattoos, scheduled at 12 noon and 3 p.m. They reflected the kind of work we’d grown to love doing. He—my tattoo mentor—had been at it for thirty years, I for just two.

Matt shielded his eyes from the sun, “Gonna be a solid day, my dude. That bumblebee on a unicycle is fun.” A young guy requested it, the bumblebee riding a unicycle. He asked me to put it over his heart. The image reflected a cute, folk-art style I’d developed over the preceding few years. Matt dug the style, and he seemed to enjoy watching me work, even when he was in a bad mood.

Matt and I oscillated between now-predictable topics of conversation: tattooing, politics, whatever his kids were up to, and food. We also rested comfortably in silence. We had spent thousands of hours together by this point, and it was clear we’d end up on that patio come evening, enjoying the warm fatigue from a day of work. He would drink beers and smoke joints. We’d eat, share photos of the day’s tattoos, and listen to music. I would head home earlier than he would, and we’d part with a hug.

Our morning routine ended as I opened the screen door and walked into the 750 square feet that is Premium Tattoo, a real-life tattoo shop near downtown Oakland, California. That aluminum screen door, as light and tattered as it was, offered a brief yet meaningful separation between the shop and the world. It kept some things out, and it held other things in.

I encountered the smell. It was mostly the green soap, a piney liquid used while tattooing. It was also the Dettol, a pungent orange fluid used to transfer stencils onto skin. It was the Opticide too, a medical-grade destroyer of life, as well as the bleach, glass cleaner, and hand sanitizer. It was the smell of bodies and breath. It included remnants of the weed and booze from the night before. This last bit was a reminder that things, and sometimes the best things, happened after hours.

There was the music, too, most of which included ’70s rock and roll, ’80s punk, and ’60s funk. You’d likely hear Grace Jones, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Black Flag, Madonna, or Thin Lizzy during a visit to the shop.

The bumblebee client arrived just before noon. He introduced me to his partner, and I showed both of them the design. They loved it. I let them talk for a bit, and they began discussing some details, such as whether putting it over the heart was indeed the best choice. I reinserted myself into the conversation when they came to an agreement.

I had learned it was best to let people do this kind of negotiating on their own. Like many of the tattooers I met, my initial approach had me jumping in to discuss all the specifics of size and placement with clients, but it was hard to be with folks all day at that level of detail.

These two were quick and easy: they dug on the design, and they knew where they wanted it to go. It was a best-case scenario because we hit it off straightaway, and I didn’t have to sit and change the design with them over and over. That design had, after all, been altered many times before they arrived.

Matt encouraged me to keep my cool when clients nitpicked the details. He knew that losing your patience in an obvious, public way had its consequences. The encouragement was welcomed and necessary, because the back-and-forth with clients could test my composure.

Matt also taught me there was some joy in doing even the most basic tattoo. That joy wasn’t always easy to find, either because the client was hard to work with, your shop mate was driving you up the wall, or because you just didn’t give a shit about the design.

I mean, if you had gotten good enough at the basics, how many times could you get excited about tattooing a predictable memento? Try doing the word faith over and over again, making sure the t resembles an erect Christian cross. Try doing it with excitement when the only faith you’ve got will never show up in the God-fearing promise of salvation. You could be too tired, hungover, or bored to feel that surge of energy that came with your early tattoos.

But there was always a chance to find joy in any project; you just needed to know where to look. It often wasn’t located in the design itself but rather in the more profound condition of your work: the client, the person, and the things you did with them. Even if that person was irritating, they were there asking you to change their body forever. You had to—got to—deliver on that ask.

So I often reworked designs with clients on the day of their appointment, even if it could be a drag. This was one aspect of the job that contributed to its intimate and sometimes messy character. It shaped me as a “tattooer,” what I call people who do tattoos for money, and it helped me understand that tattooing requires much more than coming up with cool designs.

Indeed, the work of tattooing demands the management of a complex intersection, one made up of people, bodies, and money. This is because tattooers work with clients, who are people, to accomplish an intimately carnal task in exchange for payment. Tattooers dwell within this intersection daily, and they are shaped by the many things that can occur there. Ultimately, they have to keep each element afloat to achieve ongoing success in their work.

There are a few ways to visualize the situation. Maybe the intersection involves a meeting of three roads, with green street signs indicating the character of each path. Or perhaps it takes the form of a Venn diagram, with overlapping bubbles and the tattooer sitting there in the middle. Possibly it’s composed of three streams that join to form a river that flows toward some destination off in the distance.

I like this vision of streams.1 In it, the tattooer helms a thatched raft and navigates the water. They work to ensure the vessel stays its course. The best tattooing happens when the streams are easy to navigate, when each coalesces in a way that reduces the likelihood of unpredictable currents. A steady flow of each element—of people, bodies, and money—can make the navigation look easy. It can occasionally make the task even feel easy. But when one of the streams is out of whack—maybe it’s flooding into the river with too much force—the task of navigation proves a formidable challenge.

The intersection could turn into a great, writhing ball of snakes on you, with each element taking residence in a number of serpents. They occasionally seemed to encircle me in the heat of the tattoo moment, squirming through my palms and landing somewhere just out of reach. I’d scramble to scoop them up, only to have them slither through the cracks.

Whether it was a Venn diagram, a coalescence of streams, or a ball of snakes, the whole tattoo experience was infused by the fact that every tattoo is permanent. This fact forced me—and all the tattooers I ever met—to employ strategies that could keep some difficulties of the work beyond the immediate attention of often-anxious clients.

Imagine a few nervous passengers sitting upright on that river raft. Would the navigator reveal the dangers hidden below the water’s surface? In tattooing, the task of keeping those dangers at bay required the implementation of studied technique, both in doing the actual tattoo and in employing a kind of intentional performance. This necessity of performance animated my life—often in ways I didn’t like.

Back at Premium with that bumblebee on a unicycle, my client stood with his partner, anticipating the upcoming tattoo experience. His partner held an increasingly less-significant role in the situation. The tattoo quickly became a thing that he and I would do together, intimately. We dove headfirst, and as we did, the distance between us began to collapse.

I was like Matt and other tattooers who lived for moments when the client jumped right in. It signaled the trust and enthusiasm that made for good tattooing. It assured us that we knew what we were doing, and this was key, because tattooing can be nerve-wracking. It demands you change a person’s body through pain, and, again, each mark you make is going to be there forever. The whole thing freaked me out, especially at the beginning. But when it was good, and it often was good, it was one of the best things there was.

The bouts of nervous energy weren’t so prominent on that day of the bumblebee. I stood calmly in the face of my task because I had figured out how to navigate many of its nuances by that point. I knew I would make each mark well enough and that I’d give the client a good experience. My attention even seemed to drift away from the moment and toward other things. This was a luxury, as any comfort found within the tattoo process was new and very welcome.

I asked for the client’s ID and copied it across the bottom of a waiver he would fill out. I used a device to make a stencil from the printed design. This device is like a small copy machine. It transfers the design onto a thin sheet of “stencil paper” that feels like rice paper in your hands. Tattooers apply it to the dampened skin, being sure to avoid wrinkling or distorting the design in the process. Temporary purple lines imprint on the skin when the stencil is peeled away, and tattooers use those purple lines to guide their machine across the body.

With the waiver signed and the stencil done, I invited my client to move from the shop’s waiting area and back toward me, further into the depths of our building and our experience.

He and I encountered a kind of transition as we pursued the course—moving from a state of being total strangers to a different, more intimate condition. I would soon be shaving hair from his chest. He’d be telling me about his love life. I worked to ensure this transition went off without a hitch, attending to the tiny details that I knew could make a difference, including my posture and the speed of my language. I also put the physical features of the shop to work.

The first thing you’d encounter upon entering Premium Tattoo is a small waiting area. The area is demarcated from the rest of the shop, extending straight ahead, by a three-foot wall. That wall serves many purposes, one of which is to provide counter space for the shop’s main computer, printer, and a tablet used for payment processing and music selection. There’s a spot just right of that computer where the wall is broken up by a set of black saloon-style doors.

We at the shop used that wall and those doors to separate clients from ourselves, our equipment, and our work. Clients would be invited to pass through the doors and move back toward the “booths” in which we tattooed once we knew it was time—that is, when we felt ready to bring them into a more advanced phase of the tattoo process, as was the case with my unicycle-bumblebee client, whom I invited back after he’d signed the waiver.

Sociologist Erving Goffman famously meditated on the meaning of separate “regions” of space, with boundaries encouraging a particular set of expectations for thought, feeling, and action.2 At Premium, those saloon doors separating the waiting area from the rest of the shop helped establish two distinct regions and, therefore, steps in the tattoo process. There was another region, one just past the booths, that functioned as a space for us to draw, eat, and play Dungeons & Dragons. Clients could pass through the space on their way to the bathroom, but they couldn’t hang around. On their way through, however, they might have noticed an elaborate terrain for D&D campaigns along with carefully painted miniature figurines: wizards, dwarves, thieves, and dragons preparing for epic adventure.

The last region, and the ultimate “backstage” of our shop, was the patio. It was a small rectangle of concrete on which to stand, partly covered by a wooden staircase leading up toward a couple of apartments above the shop. There was an old, chest-high cabinet to hold your beer and a long wooden bench. It was on this patio that we let down our performance. People talked shit, drank, and smoked. Bottles could pile up back there, and we could let it all hang out. Being backstage meant we could do things we otherwise could not, or at least would not, do in the purview of public attention. We let our faces look sad, angry, or nervous. Most important, we talked.

It was often benign talk, but when it wasn’t, it was the juiciest stuff we had. We stood on that patio and discussed everything about our work, especially the constellation of things we tried to keep beyond our clients’ hearing. We’d go out there after a tattoo that we weren’t especially proud of and discuss it plainly—pulling up the photo and digging into the details.

We would critique the linework, the sections of solid fill, the shading, the design itself, or its placement. We’d identify the ways it could have been better and, if the tattooer was up for it, we gave them shit. Something like “You fucking know better than to try that on that part of the body” would do the trick. We would even complain about our clients back there. Who wouldn’t?

The backstage of any social world has its allowances and restrictions. We, being the central members of our scene, were allowed to go back there and break from any performance we’d otherwise produce while in the more “front-stage” regions of the shop.

Those who were not central members of the scene were restricted from entrance. They were the ones that were being performed for, even as we also performed for each other and ourselves. There’s often a physical barrier between the front and backstage of any scene, like our large, back door. But when that door was open, as it often was, our tattered aluminum screen door stood in as a barrier. It was lite, porous, and still powerful.

There were some exceptions, because a few people transitioned from the state of being standard clients to something closer to us. Matt called these folks “baseball fans” because they, as he explained, “are always rooting for the team.”

I had a great baseball fan, someone who began as a client but who hung around long and deep enough to join us backstage on that small patio to hear it all. He wouldn’t go back there on his own, unlike the truest, deepest, baseball fans who would just show up and walk back there. These special folks, numbering two during my time, were such a part of the team that they occasionally contributed to our broader performance for clients, complimenting them on the tattoo they were getting and adding to the fun atmosphere.

Now, this isn’t to say that they, or we, would fake around, playacting. It’s to say that we all knew we had a role to fill and that our roles changed as we moved through space. We went about filling our roles most often from an authentic posture.

Most clients understood the regional character of the shop. They would wait by those saloon-style doors as if they were made of concrete. They knew intuitively that the doors amounted to an important, social boundary. The rare one who passed through without invitation seemed to barge in. They appeared to be barging in because their actions offered a contradiction in the “definition of the situation,” to return to Goffman, or the shared understanding of the social scene and its related expectations.3 While those doors could be opened by a toddler, their strength was great in the eyes of people who understood their context. Same went for that tattered screen door.

I invited my bumblebee client to join me near the tattoo booth. It was in the booth that we prepared our “setups,” the material we used while tattooing. This material was carefully arranged on top of a plastic film that covered a black, waist-high toolbox on casters. The setup included a tattoo machine, small plastic “caps” for ink, needles of various sizes, and plastic-wrapped squeeze bottles of green soap, alcohol, and Dettol. It also included a small blob of Vaseline-like jelly, a blue disposable razor, and a stack of white paper towels.

My client stood near me, and I asked him to take off his shirt. He paused with a nervous smile, “I’ve got a weird belly button.” He elaborated, “It’s an outie.” It was an outie, indeed, but his belly button didn’t concern me. We wouldn’t be tattooing in that area. I was rather busy assessing the thousand things I needed to consider to give this guy a decent tattoo. That belly button wasn’t among those thousand things. His comment about it, though, prompted me to offer him reassurance. I knew he wanted it.

Such moments of intimate, carnal interaction could reveal the deeper challenges of tattooing. It was my paid job to ensure the client and I would properly navigate a series of complex moments involving the human body. My best work would render these moments invisible—transform a set of carefully managed events into a straightforward, seamless experience. Tattooers who do this well are good at their jobs, even if their tattoos aren’t the best. I and many of my clients would prefer to get tattoos from someone who’s good to work with before booking an appointment with some asshole who does great tattoos.

But, of course, the nicest tattooer in town still needs to be good at doing tattoos. Importantly, they need to be continually perceived as good. They have to pull off an authentic performance of proficiency, no matter how good they are, and they have to do this under the watchful gaze of nervous clients and their curious, often-critical peers.

During my time at Premium, I saw how much tattooers think about and work on producing such a performance. They do so as individuals, and they often work in “teams.” They employ shop mates and various attributes of the setting to convey a perception of cool mastery. These attributes include music, furniture, and even the architectural features of the building. Producing the perception of cool competence is an important feature of the quick trust-building that needs to occur between tattooers and their clients.4

We at the shop worked together to accomplish this performance for clients and for ourselves. It helped my bumblebee guy, for instance, bathe in eager enthusiasm for the piece rather than wonder why he ever signed up for it in the first place. His enthusiasm spilled outward so that it entered my own experience. His excitement heightened my attention, brought us together, and made me focus on the interaction we were having. It was intoxicating, making me remember just how special tattooing could be and just how lucky I was to be doing it.


1. While the metaphor of “streams” is useful in the analysis of policy making, I do not mean to reference or attend to that area of scholarship, even as the metaphor is used in a similarly productive way. See Howlett, McConnell, and Pearl (2014).

2. Goffman (1959, 106–40).

3. Goffman (1959, 3–9).

4. Goffman (1959).