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Tattoo artist at Distinkt Tattoos
Photograph: Graham Denholm

Quit your job, become a... tattooist

Written by
Meg Crawford

Manni Massa, aka Trubblesum and owner/operator of Distinkt Tattoo, talks us through a life in ink.

How did you become a tattooist?
I was always an artistic kid and I’ve spent most of my life drawing, but I pretty much fell into tattooing. I had friends who were tattooists who asked me if I wanted to get into it and when I finally had a chance to do one, I just loved the medium so much I was sold. 

How did you come to open your own tattoo parlour?
A lot of hard work and a tiny bit of stupidity. I opened my own shop in 2013. I’d always wanted to work in an environment that was super clean, casual, low-key, no rock stars, and where I’d get out what I put in. Ever since I was an apprentice, I walked past the shop that I now work out of and I always thought that it’d make a really cool tattoo studio and then it happened. I put in an application for it in mid-August 2013 and by October I was ready to go.

Is the job physically demanding?
Especially on a busy day it can be very physically demanding. You don’t get to stop and have lunch and your back will hurt by the end of it. When you’re in the middle of a tattoo and you’re loving what you’re doing, you just don’t feel any of that though – it’s only when you get to the end of the day and you stop and realise how buggered you are.

Have you had any awkward moments while tattooing?
I once had a client try to get romantic, so I let him know, “listen mate, you better fly right,” but then tried to give me a bit of a hug and a kiss, so I chucked him out of the studio. He apologised a week later, so I finished his tattoo.

Do you need a good beside manner?
Definitely, but it depends on the client. Some are used to the old school, rough and tumble way – they come in, sit down, shut up and leave, but younger clients prefer to sit and have a bit of a chat and they’d be disappointed if you didn’t.

How do you deal with wussy clients?
Luckily, I don’t get many of them. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and get the job done. You might have to remind them several times to sit still, because it’ll affect the tattoo. I also try to put as much of my weight onto them as I can while I’m tattooing to hold them still, if need be, but that also gets tiring.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of the job? 
When people are really happy with their tattoo and you’ve put a massive smile on someone’s face – that’s always awesome.

What’s the most challenging aspect?
Being on top of your “A” game constantly and never making a mistake.

What kind of time does it take to prepare a custom tattoo?
A client will give me subject matter, placement and size. I’ll take it from there and draw something up for them. When they’re happy with the design we book a session and start the tattoo. The amount of work required before commencing the tattoo depends on its size, degree of detail and whether you’re able to satisfy the client the first time around or not. A small tattoo might take you an hour and a big sleeve could take five to ten hours to draw up, but if you don’t get it right the first time it could take 20 hours.

What’s the kookiest tattoo you’ve been asked to do? 
That would be my partner’s Louis Vuitton ball bag – he has a Louis Vuitton pattern all over his scrotum. The tattooing itself wasn’t too bad, but it took me about two hours to get the stencil placement right, so no matter what state his balls are in it’s always a repeating, proper pattern. I had to sticky tape his dick to his stomach and do all sort of magic tricks to get it done.

What’s your advice for someone looking to get into the industry?
Build up your portfolio. Do a wide range of styles. Get tattooed and hang out in tattoo studios where you like the artists: ask questions and let them get to know you. Be prepared to work your butt off for not very much money for the first couple of years.

What hours do you work each week?
My shop is open from 11 to 6, but I knock off, go through emails, do my books, write back to clients, draw designs – it’s almost constant.

What’s the starting rate?
When you’re just starting out you normally charge by the piece, because you’re not so good with your timing – it might take you four hours to do something that may take someone else an hour to do. Generally, you start out at the $50 mark, so that you can cover all of the materials that you use for the shop and maybe make yourself a little bit of money as well.

What qualifications are required?
Currently, none. Although, I’d strongly suggest that you do a cross-contamination course. In Victoria you need the council to come in and do a walk through and check that everything is in order and you’re good to go.

Distinkt Tattoo, 31 Glen Eira Rd, Melbourne.

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