One in five Americans has a tattoo. Deciding what marking deserves a lifetime on your skin can require a lengthy discovery process. Should you go with a traditional style or modern? Black and white pencil drawing, or saturated colors? Which parlor? Which artist?
Thanks to a thriving and active community of talented tattoo artists and their hundreds of thousands of followers (or in Kat Von D's case, millions), Instagram makes answering those questions a whole lot easier. The Instagram ink community has carved out a place where followers and artists alike can explore the tattooing process from beginning to end — from stencil outline, to filling in color and final-touch shading.
For two of Instagram's most popular tattoo artists, Sara Fabel (450,000 Instagram followers) and Tim Hendricks (200,000 followers), it's also a place from which they draw inspiration and feel a sense of community. Instagram has changed the tattoo artist's game.
In an interview with Mic, Hendricks described entering the tattoo artist community in the pre-social media days. "When I started, I had to learn to use a film camera. When I liked something, I would take the film to get processed, copy the negatives, and write letters — with actual stamps and envelopes — to other tattooers and hope that they'd like the work enough to send theirs back." It was the only way Hendricks could see other artists' work.
"With photos I could see how they progressed and vice versa," but it was a lengthy process. "Now I do it in five seconds and see 100 amazing tattoos and artists who are tattooing better than I am. I'll never get over that."
The ease of sharing also facilitates constant learning and growth in the medium. When "a 19-year-old in Europe uses colors in an interesting way, I can use it now, too," Hendricks said, adding that the artists between the ages of 18 and 27 are pushing the envelope on body art; pulling from old styles and making use of limited palettes. When the work is exceptional, he'll like it, giving it a virtual thumbs up. But those kudos are hard to come by; he gives them out sparingly.
For Hendricks, who is a self-proclaimed "mid-schooler," meaning he's been tattooing for anywhere between 20-40 years (he's been in the business since the 1990s), the effects of Instagram on the tattooing community are very new and very exciting.
"There weren't too many people on here early on," Hendricks said, explaining that he joined Instagram because the visual focus of the social network showcased his work much better than word-centric Twitter. "Once it blew up, I just thought it was incredible. I follow so many people I wouldn't have found out about. I traded a tattoo machine for a follower's artwork once. That art now hangs in my office."
In contrast, Sara Fabel's social media success was almost by accident. While living in New Zealand, a friend gave her an iPhone to keep in touch with friends long-distance and post pictures for them to see via Instagram. "It was a rough period in my life having to leave behind my friends in Australia and move to Auckland, New Zealand. My days consisted of working in a book shop, drawing, and using free WiFi in the local fast food restaurants to connect with my friends whenever I had the opportunity," she said.
Soon, her small following of inner-circle friends blew up into 445,000 followers and counting. "I really don't have any idea how that ended up happening," she said. "I kept posting daily photos of my life as well as the drawings I was doing and within the first few weeks of having Instagram, my account blossomed into a five figure following."
Instagram not only offers a way for tattoo artists to connect, a strong following can also bolster business. "Social media provides a fantastic platform for small businesses as well as artists to promote themselves and connect with fellow artists," Fabel said. "I am extremely shy so having a safety net of online self-promotion is the most comfortable way for me to show my work."
When Hendricks posts a new product, he too can see the outcome of the post. He said that if his Instagram shut down, "it would hit [his] wallet."
The virtual exposure has allowed Hendricks the freedom to work anywhere at anytime. He recently left his home base, a friend's tattoo shop in Costa Mesa, California. When we spoke, he was awaiting the birth of his first child, and he was free to work on his own schedule: "I'm taking advantage now of what I've worked for. I tattoo when my back isn't messing with me and I have time."
Instagram notoriety offers Fabel artistic freedom as well. Potential clients give her the freeing shackles of "whatever you want" when they come to her. "To a tattoo artist, [that's] the highest form of flattery, as the client trusts me with my own vision. I have been absolutely blessed to have had great clients during the time that I've been tattooing." She can also pick and choose which clients and projects she takes on now. "Being successful means being known by a large number of people. Those that want the particular style I offer contact me (I do turn down work if I feel like another artist would produce better quality in the particular style the client wants.)"
While tattoos feel permanent, the medium is ultimately temporary, and the art travels — and decays — along with the skin its on. Instagram also serves to preserve that art. "It's not like art on paper," Hendricks said, "Cells break down and split. Ink falls apart too. I chose an artistic form where I'm destined to be forgotten. It won't last thousands of years. My canvas dies." But artists can take photos, and now share photos, to remember — and be remembered.
Fabel and Hendricks both occupy very different niches and therefore have cultivated very different followings. Fabel's style revolves around historical themes, anatomical illustrations and plant as well as animal-related imagery. She relies on black ink — no shading, no colors. "I try and reproduce a woodcut or etching style look using the modern methods of tattooing," she said.
Hendricks' style is a product of his environment. "I started tattooing punk rock kids and Hispanics in my neighborhood — women's faces, lettering, social distortion. It was good practice."
Now he refers to his style as "traditional" tattoo.
Unlike Fabel, Hendricks loves using color: "I like doing color because it's a math problem. I use color theory books. For some people it's hard, but it comes naturally to me. My colorblind friend numbers them by memory and by using his knowledge of color theory."
The tattoo artist community is, of course, much larger than what is reflected on Instagram. "There are A LOT of tattoo artists and there are big differences between a backyard scratcher, tattooist and tattoo artist," Fabel said. "I'm sure only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the world of tattooing is portrayed on Instagram or other social media networks. Thankfully many inspiring tattoo artists choose to portray their portfolios online."
Hendricks echoed this sentiment, also bringing in mention of tatto artists who have become celebrities thanks to shows like LA Ink and Ink Master. "The only real things on those reality shows are the tattoos. People say, 'Before I die, I want to be tattooed by X person,' but there are so many more amazing people who've never been on TV."
For Hendricks and Fabel the Instagram community has allowed them to turn their passion into success. Hendricks hasn't lost sight of the realities though, "Tattooing is glamorized so much now. Now everyone wants to be a tattooer. It's a really hard job, and it's a working class job. Your back is sore, you're not paid a lot, and you have a used car. You're not going to be Kat Von D but you get to do what you love."
And that's all Hendricks ever wanted. "Ever since I could hold a pencil, drawing is all I wanted to do. I always wanted to be an artist. Tattooing just found me. I can't imagine doing anything else."
Unexpected Instagram success has allowed both Hendricks and Fabel to do just that.