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Apprenticeships and Abuse

Let's talk about apprenticeships again today. Apprenticeships are arguably the only way to get into the tattoo or piercing industry. In order to do this craft correctly and comprehensively, you need an apprenticeship and a good mentor to guide you. For many years the narrative we told about apprenticeships was they they were hard to come by, hard work, and only for those fully dedicated to the craft. You would not be paid to apprentice, and in fact may need to pay your mentor for their time. You would be working 5-7 days a week, and would be the “shop bitch” running errands, cleaning up, and doing any task your betters decided they had for you. Because you worked such long hours and weren’t paid, affording to live while apprenticing was difficult. Many folks lived with their mentors of bosses rent free in exchange for their work around the studio. For years and years we have told this narrative as the only path to an apprenticeship. This narrative stops here.

Expecting people to work impossible schedules, for no pay, and live with their bosses is absurd. And not only that, it has created a breeding ground for abusers to prey on people, primarily young women and femme folks. There is no circumstance where living with your boss like this and working for free like this is ok. When we spread and share this narrative, we help enable abusers to abuse. In recent weeks and months the piercing and tattoo industries have seen an outpouring of people coming forward about their experiences of abuse, and many of them start in apprenticeships. We don’t bat an eye when an 18 or 19 year old moves in with a 30 or 40 year old, works for them for free 6-7 days a week, and spends all their time with them. This creates a scary opportunity for predatory and abusive adults to entrap young people in a dangerous situation. You may or may not know this, but that was my situation as well. I accepted everything surrounding my apprenticeship as being normal in this industry because that was what I had always been told was the norm. It landed me in a very scary, and abusive situation that I was financially and emotionally unable to leave for a long time. Unfortunately my story is not unique, and there are hundreds of others with stories like mine.

Apprentices should be paid

Tattoo, piercing, or otherwise an apprentice is doing work. They answer the phones, schedule clients, clean, organize, and inventory. The work they do helps keep their studio running and working. They absolutely deserve to be paid a living wage for their efforts in the studio. If you are seeking out an apprenticeship and it is unpaid, or they ask you to pay them for it, that is a huge red flag and I would not accept that apprenticeship. You should be paid according to the labor laws in your state or country, which means at least minimum wage. Anywhere that doesn’t want to pay you for your time, isn’t worth your time. The National Apprentice Act also know as try Fitzgerald Act requires apprentices to be paid a living wage by law. Which means studios are required to pay you as an apprentice. Anyone attempting not to pay you is violating labor laws, and this has held up in court against mentors and studio owners in the past.

It is never appropriate to live with your Boss or Mentor

Inherently, your boss or mentor has a position of power over you at your studio. They are the leader in the workplace, they tell you what to do and teach you your craft. This power imbalance makes living together an inherently unbalanced situation. No matter how good people think they can be about leaving work at work and home at home, mistakes will be made. You should not be living with someone who has direct authority over you. This leads to a lot of power imbalance situations both at home and at work. Many stories of abuse start with bringing the work situation home, or punishing people for actions at home at work. This will eventually end up happening, and it is a huge red flag if your boss wants you to live with them.

Apprentices should work reasonable hours

6-7 days a week is not reasonable. 40 hours a week, with overtime for time worked beyond that, is reasonable. Potentially an extra 6-8 hours of educational time or homework and such is usual, but apprentices shouldn’t be worked to the bone. I spent 2 years working 7 days a week, and missed a huge chunk of my life because of it. As an apprentice you can expect to work hard and earn the education you get, but you should not be worked to burnout or to an unreasonable amount. You are a person who deserves to have a life, time to clean and cook and relax. Tired people do poor piercings and tattoos. You deserve time in your schedule to rest.

A relationship between a Mentor and Apprentice is inappropriate

It is not ok to end up in a romantic or sexual relationship with your mentor. I understand working close quarters and being close with them, but it is entirely inappropriate because of the power imbalance to be in a relationship with your mentor. And virtually every story I see from people who have been, ends in flames. If you have that blind it can with fro the apprenticeship to be over, and for your training to be finished. You need to focus on your training and education and so does your mentor. The power imbalance will lead to difficult situations both at work and at home. This is never an appropriate situation.

Workplace Harassment is not OK

I touch on this in-depth in my article about apprenticeships here, but its worth being repeated. Your boss, mentor, or coworkers should not make comments about your looks or body, or sexual comments. They should not expose themselves to you. They should not use slurs or name calling to make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This “old boys club” of tattoo and piercing studios is a dying breed. It is not normal to be treated this way and my heart breaks for the countless stories I hear from young piercers and tattoo artists of daily harassment in their workplace.

It is high time we change the way we talk about apprenticeships and rather than normalize unreasonable situations that can lead to abuse, we normalize healthy, safe apprenticeships. No one should be treated unfairly in this industry, particularly not the newest and often most vulnerable of us all. If anyone is every wondering if an apprenticeship sounds good or safe, or wants my advice or input on their experience, my inbox is always open, and I am here for each and every one of you.

For Further Reading please check out the updated Association of Professional Piercers Apprenticeship Guidelines.

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not just apprentices get treated like this, I did plenty of guest spots in my 23 years tattooing. 90% of the times, the earning were not even half of the promised income. After buying plane tickets, booking accommodation and risking two weeks of your working time, you arrive at a place where not even the staff welcomes you. Last time I was promised 1500 ponds a week..I made 600 and had to pay 200 out of these 600 on petrol to get to the place. Another 100 went on food (yeah, we also eat form time to time). The thing is that tattoo industry is a very abusive industry in general. I've stop working in shops for this reason. I…

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Thank you for writing this. I was an apprentice for 6 months with no pay. I did all of the office work, cleaning, dealing with customers, getting the others food, etc. I barely had time to actually learn how to tattoo. It got to the point where I wouldn't feel comfortable asking for advice. Every time I asked about voltage settings for the power source, the answer would be flipped every time. It really messed with my head and my tattooing. I got progressively worse the longer I was there. Once while I was cleaning, the manager (also an apprentice) and I were having a conversation. I can't remember what it was about or what I said, but this grown…

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I'm living in UK. Nearly year ago I started my apprenticeship, that finished after 6 months. I belived that piercer, that it's ok, if they will not pay me and I will not pay them.

They expected from me to be there as much as I can, but they nearly never had time for me because they didn't had enough clients - they were tattooing most of the time.. I was siting on the reception and doing nothing. They advised me, to do some homework about bloodborne diseases, but I was asking lots of times, what I should write about - they said "anything". They advised me to buy "Piercing Bible" and read it. I saw lots of piercings, I've…

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