Behind the Ink: Becoming the artist


Matt Hodel has worked as a tattoo artist for over 20 years. He said he does not know why anyone would want his job.

“There’s no money in it, not for a young person,” Hodel said. “There’s no benefits. There’s no job security. At this point in time, it’s almost like a job at Hot Topic, unless you get in the right door.”

Owner of Ragtime Tattoo, Hodel said a typical day means waking up at 5 a.m. to draw for four hours. He then has several appointments, sometimes lasting until 8 p.m. He leaves the studio, goes home and finishes his work for the day. Hodel then gets up at 5 a.m. the next day to do it over again.

To become a licenced tattoo artist in Missouri, an artist must complete three hundred hours of practice tattooing through an apprenticeship, a process where an aspiring tattooist learns under another artist, or schooling. The artist must then go through a bloodborne pathogen training program and become first aid and CPR certified.

TRX Tattoos & Piercings artist Jamie Toon said he was already heavily tattooed by the time he considered becoming a tattoo artist. Having also taken as many art classes as Saint Louis Community College-Forest Park offered before dropping out, Toon said working in the industry just made sense.

Art on the wall at Steel & Ink Studio in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Christine Tannous

“I had always been a visual artist, drawing and painting and all that,” Toon said. “Being an artist, it’s one thing that works. It’s a way to make money.”

Becoming the Artist  

Toon said he got his apprenticeship after building a relationship with an employee at TRX Tattoos during his ex girlfriend’s piercing appointments. When he expressed interest in starting his career, the employee got him in contact with tattoo artist Randy Murray, and he was offered an apprenticeship.

“It was when we were expanding into this back room, and he was like, ‘Yeah, actually the timing is really good,’” Toon said. “Then I got an apprenticeship with [Murray] and started working here.”

Susie Balloni, artist at Steel and Ink Studio, said it is important for aspiring artists to get tattooed and have a portfolio of art before approaching an artist for an apprenticeship. She said tattoo artists are only as good as the person they learn from, so apprentices should seek out artists whose style they want to master.

Balloni said apprenticeships are typically unpaid positions, making them difficult to manage. She said having an apprenticeship is like having a full time unpaid job, usually on top of another paid job. Balloni said she typically worked 40 to 60 hours as an apprentice.  

“It is a lot of work, but I think that it’s worth it,” Balloni said. “By having these requirements where you work really hard, it kind of weeds out who’s really serious about it and who isn’t really ready to step up and do what it takes.”

Hodel said he has only taken on one apprentice in his time as a tattoo artist. He said he mentored her because she already had a background in business and art. During the apprenticeship, Hodel said he made a syllabus with goals on it and pushed his apprentice out of her comfort zone every three months.

Hodel’s apprentice backed out after eighteen months, he said, after her artistic side took over her ability to learn the technical side of tattooing. Hodel said the apprenticeship was a learning experience for both himself and his apprentice.

“If you keep it all to yourself, how do you test yourself?” Hodel said. “How do you know that you’re pushing yourself to the limit? You don’t really know what you’re doing until you can articulate it.”

Toon said he feels the requirements for acquiring a tattoo licence in Missouri are appropriate. He said tattooing requires constant learning.

“With tattooing it’s like you’re almost putting together a puzzle rather than building layers of a piece of artwork,” Toon said. “You can do as many tattoos as I’ve done in my 12 years and still be learning.”

Getting the Tattoo

Webster student Andre Lewis said getting his first tattoo was stressful because the commitment of having a tattoo in such a visible area was scary. However, the pain he experienced was less than he expected, making the appointment easier.

“It’s a very immediate identifier because my first tattoos were on my forearms,” Lewis said “They’re practically always visible.”

Balloni said the best place for a first time client to get a tattoo is on their arms or legs. More painful areas include the rib cage or on the top of their feet.

Toon said after agreeing on a price for the tattoo, he typically draws out the design while the client fills out paperwork. He then takes the client up to his work station and has them watch as he sterilizes the equipment and gets set up. Toon said he answers any questions the client has before starting on the tattoo.

“Most of the time people are just like, ‘Cool, I trust you,’” Toon said. “We have a good reputation as a shop.”

Lewis currently has five tattoos on his arms, back and chest. Lewis said he is looking to add more in the near future, as well as touch up one of his past tattoos. Tattoos are addictive, he said, because they are a way for people to express themselves.

“It’s taking something from the inside and putting it on the outside,” Lewis said. “It kind of forces you to be vulnerable about these things that you hold very close to yourself.”


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