A tattoo street battle came to Upper State Street, where a new combination parlor-school is offering classes that rub traditional skin-ink artists the wrong way.
A dozen of those tattoo artists, from throughout the region, showed up with picket signs Sunday outside 920 State St., where a new outlet of a national company called the Academy of Responsible Tattooing (A.R.T.) began offering classes in the old Studio Zee Tattooing and Body Piercing space.
With colorful tattoos covering their bodies, from shoulders, arms to fingers, necks, chests and legs, the protesters held signs with messages that read: “Please respect our sacred craft,” “Apprenticeships are earned not bought. Tattooers against tattoo schools,” and “Don’t get screwed by corporate pigs. Say no to A.R.T.”
The protesters characterize A.R.T. as a dangerous quick-money scam. A.R.T. calls itself a responsible alternative way of getting new talent into the business at a time of high demand.
Rachel Barbieri, who works at the Beauty Mark in Waterbury, explained that traditional apprenticeships last one to three years, with no exchange of money. “You are paying for knowledge with your time and labor. You clean the shop. You book appointments. You do things the other artists ask you to do and in return they give you information and knowledge. You watch them and ask questions,” she said. “We all have put in years of our time and more than half of us have cried through our apprenticeships. It’s kind of annoying that people think they can just stroll right in, pay a bunch of money and be a tattoo artist.”
A.R.T. purchased the Studio Zee building to house its new school and tattoo parlor, Body Art & Soul. The business has tattoo schools and accompanying shops all sharing the same names in Brooklyn, Jersey City, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
On Sunday, A.R.T. hosted its paid all-day introductory seminar, after which students could choose whether or not to enroll in the school’s one-year full-time or two-year part-time apprenticeship program.
Several protesters expressed concerns over information from this Sept. 4, 2015, BE Culture Radio interview with A.R.T. founder Guy Prandstatter.
In the podcast, Prandstatter says the training workshops began to make more money than the tattoo business. He notes the first five graduates from his school were given jobs but they were assigned to create five more apprenticeships “and with the next five and so on, we constantly kept infusing with everyone who came through.” He adds, “I don’t care if you were here a day longer than that guy, you know a day more.”
John Valencia, who operates Greyscale Tattoo in Ansonia, organized the protest. He said Prandstatter’s interview pointed out the lack of qualifications of those teaching mass numbers of apprentices. Valencia said that he was concerned that instead of focusing on proper training, A.R.T. is a money-making operation “straight out of a pyramid scheme” which takes advantage of unsuspecting people desperate to get into the tattoo business.
Peter Doty, a tattoo artist and instructor at A.R.T., was one of the teachers of the four students attending Sunday’s seminar. Although he did not allow the New Haven Independent access or photography in the classroom, he welcomed entrance into the empty front room that will be converted into the Body Art & Soul tattoo studio.
“There are people outside against what we are doing and think we’re just churning people out. That’s not the case at all. We are very hard on these people in terms of making sure they meet standards,” Doty said. “It’s misinformation fabricated to discredit us. We are new to the state of Connecticut but we’ve already been in other states for 10 years. Look at the common sense aspect of the whole thing. We’ve been around for almost a decade. We have credibility. We have clientele. We get fantastic reviews on Yelp.”
Protesters said the introductory class costs $350 and the school charges $3,000 to $5,000 for the apprenticeship program. Doty claimed this was inaccurate but also said he was not clear on the pricing and did not get back to the New Haven Independent. “I can tell you, it’s less than most trade schools and far less than any universities or colleges,” he said.
The A.R.T. website indicated the introductory seminar cost was $350. It did not provide the cost of the apprenticeship program. For more information about the tattoo school pricing, website visitors are required to submit a form with contact information and answers to questions about their interest in the art, education and location. No additional pricing information was provided by A.R.T. at the time of the filing of this article.
One student, New Havener Susan Monahan, confirmed that she had paid $350 for the introductory class but did not know the cost of the apprenticeship program. She said the class gave her access to knowledge. “My goal for today was I’m just thinking about this as a profession and I just don’t know how it feels. I don’t know what it costs. I’ve been to beauty school. I’ve been to nursing school. I know that two years of any real education costs some money. Nothing is free.” She said she was glad that A.R.T. held a class that helped to dispel myths of her father’s generation, associating tattoos only with prostitutes and sailors. She credited open knowledge with making the industry cleaner and more respectable.
Kelly Green, a tattoo artist from Bolton, who carried her baby as she protested against A.R.T., said the craft should never be considered a job or a career. Instead she referred to it as a lifestyle, and said people should not even hold a tattoo machine until they know what they are doing. Several of the artists noted tattoos have a tremendous power to permanently alter people’s lives.
Doty countered that traditional apprenticeships lack a structured, formalized curriculum. Instead training is often predicated on what one artist independently and subjectively feels someone else should learn. He argued many apprenticeships are unsafe because they lack the structure, accountability and curriculum of an organized learning process. The A.R.T. curriculum is available to download online but only after you provide your name, contact details, location and other information.
Although completion of the A.R.T. apprenticeship program results in a certification, Valencia described the industry as basically self-regulated. He said if someone is engaging in questionable practices, industry people will say, “Hey man, you can’t do this. This can’t happen,” and eventually the problematic tattoo artists’ shops will get shut down.
As tattoos involve needles and bleeding and can present hazards with the transmission of the HIV virus, hepatitis and other blood-borne pathogens, a greater need for health and safety regulations exists compared to many other professions. The state of Connecticut regulates the industry, requiring tattooers to be licensed. But Valencia said individual cities do not prioritize tattoo regulation. “When the health department official comes in, we’re telling them what it is that we’re doing and why,” said Valencia. He said cities are strapped for cash and lack the manpower, time, energy and effort to create a special board for tattoo industry oversight.
Green acknowledged that reality TV shows like Ink Master generated a greater demand for this art on people’s skin. But she said classes such as those offered by the A.R.T. chain fail to respect that industry.
Doty did not talk directly with the protesters. However, his response was that with the growing demand, tattoo artists need to come up with a clear analysis of what they can offer the many people who want to learn the trade, while preventing home basement or garage tattoos. Valencia argued that mass training outside time-tested, individualized apprenticeships increases the risks and hazards of rogue tattooers.
The saying goes: “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” And it does not appear that this dispute will be erased anytime soon.