Adrian Aldaco is a tattoo artist at Black Mammoth Tattoo and Piercing, which opened in Manhattan on May 2. From a young age, Aldaco said he knew he wanted to pursue art as a career, but never expected for it to be a career he could support himself off of.
“I always wanted to keep art in my life,” Aldaco said. “I never thought that I could make money off of it, let alone make a stand-alone living off of this.”
Aldaco said after being fascinated in high school by a tattoo artist who was covered head to toe in tattoos, he knew this was a career that intrigued him.
“What got me interested in tattooing is that you have a lot of freedom, and you can make a living off of doing your style of artwork, facilitating other people’s ideas and being a hired pencil,” Aldaco said.
While Aldaco said he enjoys the creative outlet tattooing offers, it does not come without its challenges.
“It’s kind of like you taking someone’s physical well-being and not rolling the dice, but you’re walking a very tight line between ripping the skin or blowing something out, some kind of technical malpractice,” Aldaco said. “But because we do it every single day, day in and day out, you get very comfortable swimming in that deeper water.”
Aldaco specializes in American traditional tattoos and typically takes on two to four clients per day, while his other co-workers specialize more in photo, realistic, large-scale, black and gray pieces and often spend three or four hours on one client each day.
“We do different styles of artwork, but it’s definitely something I can appreciate,” Cody Bader, Black Mammoth owner, said.
Providing a client-friendly environment
Before joining the team at Black Mammoth, Aldaco said he worked for Syndicate Tattoo for about five years. He said the main reason he left was due to the client handling at Syndicate, which is a grossly important aspect of the job to Aldaco.
“I think the one thing we all focus on here (at Black Mammoth) above and beyond anything else is client handling or customer service,” Aldaco said.
There used to be an aggressive and dark stigma that used to go along with tattooing, but the team at Black Mammoth makes an effort to provide a friendly and warm environment to all of their clients, Aldaco said.
“You can teach a chimpanzee to put permanent marker to the skin, but that chimp can’t talk and make you feel welcome,” Aldaco said.
He also said that most people would rather get a great tattoo from a great person than get a masterpiece from someone with a not-so-great personality.
“I want a (tattoo artist) that makes me feel comfortable and distracts me from the pain that’s happening in my body but is also very artistic and can make original designs,” Taylor Brandenberger, sophomore in social work, said.
Unlike tattooing, which can be fairly similar from day to day, Aldaco said client handling is much more difficult since he never runs into the same client again and again.
“You have to be kind of agile in how you handle the client,” Aldaco said.
Comfort is a major component that tattoo artists need to pay attention to while working with a client, Aldaco said, as some people are skittish when it comes to the idea of getting something tattooed on their body.
“You need to facilitate that comfort zone,” Aldaco said. “Once they’re in here, they’re our responsibility. It’s like a little egg you don’t want to drop and break.”
Working toward customer satisfaction
Despite the challenges client handling might bring, Aldaco said he believes it is the most fulfilling part about his career.
“I like tattooing, and it feels good to get the immediate gratification of doing a clean line, doing some smooth shading, but the look on (the client’s) face whenever they see their tattoo and they’re happy with it is indescribable,” Aldaco said. “It’s kind of why I get up in the morning.”
Unfortunately, not all tattoo artists find the same satisfaction from customer contentment, Aldaco said. Some artists and shops simply see their clients as a paycheck.
“They want to get you in and out as quickly as possible, give you a tattoo and send you packing,” Aldaco said. “Most of their artists don’t even guarantee their work for life because they know that they’re either not going to see you again because they live in a transient community, like this one, or they literally just do not care as much about the client handling as they should.”
Aldaco said this is not the case with the artists at Black Mammoth because they value the way their clients feel at the end of the day.
“Of course we have bills to pay, families to support, but I think here everybody truly cares about their craft and how (the client) is feeling,” Aldaco said.
Brandenberger, having gotten tattoos in the past, said the way a tattoo artist facilitates the process can influence the client’s perception of tattooing overall.
“Now I want a million more tattoos on my body,” Brandenberger said. “It was painful while it was going on, but now I look at my arm and think ‘Wow there’s art on myself, and I want more.’”
Besides making the client feel comfortable, Aldaco said oftentimes artists will have to explain to him or her the issues that could arise when the client is asking for a tricky subject matter or for it to be placed in a tricky area.
“The client is not always right, but the client is always cared for, always listened to,” Aldaco said. “The only reason that we’re going to tell them no is if it’s something that’s not going to transfer well, age well or if it’s not going to be the best that we can give them.”
Co-worker relationships foster growth
A trait Aldaco said he also enjoys about Black Mammoth is the relationship between him and his co-workers, as it was often very different at previous shops he worked at.
“It was kind of every man for himself, figure it out and hold your secrets close,” Aldaco said. “Here, when one of us figures something out, the information is openly and eagerly shared with each other.”
At Black Mammoth all of the employees support one another in their pursuits, Aldaco said.
“Opposed to other shops where everyone just scatters like cockroaches once the lights turn on, this is an environment you can grow in,” Aldaco said.
Even with the continuous peer support within the shop, Aldaco said he strongly believes that to become a strong tattoo artist, one must continue working after hours.
“Some people look at it as a 9-to-5 job, they don’t even pick up a pencil outside of the dojo,” Aldaco said. “Those are the people that are going to reach a plateau and just simmer there for the rest of their career.”
Bader said Aldaco’s belief shines through in his own work.
“His work ethic puts everyone else to shame,” Bader said. “It makes me feel bad sometimes. He’s proven to be probably one of the greatest assets of this business.”
Regardless of the constant learning, growing and challenges Aldaco faces on a daily basis, he said he’s never woke up one morning and dreaded going to work.
“They say if you have fun, you never work a day in your life, and that’s exactly what this is for us,” Aldaco said.