So You Want My Job: Tattoo Artist

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 27, 2012 · 24 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Our interview subject today is one interesting cat. Roni Zulu is a LA-based cellist, antique car restorer, Freemason, and renowned tattoo artist. Zulu has had so much success in his profession that people now must wait months for an appointment with him. And yet his path into this unique career was not a straight one.

Zulu earned a masters in fine arts and found work as a graphic artist, and yet did not feel satisfied with his life. As a young man he had seen his friend’s family slaughter a goat as part of the boy’s rite of passage into manhood. Zulu was fascinated at the time, and this curiosity led him to study the tribal rituals of different cultures, and to conclude that tattoos were a spiritual tradition that united peoples all around the world. He came to believe that tattooing was a sacred and ancient art, a symbol of rites of passage, significant life events, and healing, and that bringing a sense of spirituality to Western tattooing and moving the art beyond etching butterfly tramp stamps on the backs of drunken women was his true life’s calling.

Zulu traveled frequently to the Tahitian islands and Samoa to gather inspiration and studied the symbols of tribes around the world. He spent years learning from other artists and finding and developing a technique and style all his own. But when he was first starting out this sensibility, along with his interest in doing tribal tattoos (which were not popular at the time) and the fact that he was a rare black man in a predominately white profession, made the going tough. But eventually his new approach to tattooing won enthusiastic converts.

Zulu’s approach to tattooing remains different than many other American tattoo artists. He requires a potential client to meet with him several times over a period of months. During this period Zulu talks to the client about the tattoo they want, what it means to them, and whether it’s really right for them. He consults the mystics of different faiths to get a sense of how to shape what the client desires. He believes intimacy is an important component of the tattooing process and strives to make a connection with the client–he doesn’t tattoo “strangers”–and if the connection cannot be made, he does not do the tattoo. If he does move forward, he gives the client the artwork when the tattoo is finished; each piece is unique and will be used on no one else.

Zulu’s life story is an interesting one, and I could go on, but his answers to our SWYMJ questions are interesting too. So let’s turn to that.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

From my childhood to my early teens I was raised in Terre Haute, Indiana. My later high school years were spent in Sarasota, Florida where I also attended the Ringling School of Art and Design. In my early twenties I moved to Hollywood, CA, and I have been here ever since. My current age is a youthful, vibrant 48! I am a tattoo designer/artist specializing in custom work.

2. Why did you want to become a tattoo artist? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I had a successful career as a graphic designer/commercial illustrator, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. I’d go to work every day and my talents were exploited for the sole purpose of selling a product. No one cared if my art evoked some profound human emotion or touched people in a positive way; nor was there concern if I was knowledgeable of the great masters and the impact of art on society as a whole throughout time…my job was to make a product package that caused people to BUY, BUY, BUY!!!! I kinda felt like a pimped out hooker!

At that time a lot of my tattooed friends expressed that they liked my personal drawings and paintings and wanted me to design tattoos for them.  I did this for quite some time until one friend in particular insisted that I not only design his tattoo but also tattoo him myself.  I then decided to learn the art of tattooing as a hobby for close friends, tattooing out of a spare room in my home.  The requests from friends became more frequent, and my home could not accommodate them all, so I decided to rent a small studio space to carry out my hobby.  I started to charge for my services to at least cover studio rent. Tattooing friends grew to tattooing and charging others I did not even know and I suppose, some 20 years of tattooing later, that is what I’m still doing today…a hobby/passion that I love and just so happen to get paid for!

3. If a man wants to become a tattoo artist, how should he prepare? How do you learn the skills and artistry necessary to succeed at the job?

One must seek out an apprenticeship to become a tattoo artist.  First and foremost one must already be an artist well-skilled at drawing and hopefully painting as well; I can teach anyone the technical skill of tattooing but your tattoos will only be as good as you can draw.  Be careful in seeking out an apprenticeship; it is quite common to get ripped off. Many would-be tattoo gurus are nothing more than charlatans seeking someone to pay their rent, degrade, fetch donuts and sweep their floors without delivering a sound education. Find a tattoo artist who respects the craft and is genuinely concerned about your learning.

Be prepared to pay handsomely; you are investing in an education no different than what some pay for university.

4. I assume most tattoo artists want to one day own their own shop. But how do they get there? How do you get hired for your first job and then go about attracting clients and making a name for yourself? How did you get to where you are and what tips do you have for others?

After completing an apprenticeship you must build a body of work in a portfolio and shop around to various studios for employment. Most of this leg work can be done via email or web links to your work. Your portfolio will speak for itself and could gain you an interview and subsequent employment. After some time spent tattooing in an established studio you will gain a clientele that requests you personally, which in turn sets you up for the possibility of eventually opening your own shop.

Opening your own studio is quite an undertaking; most artists are poor businessmen, and therefore you must hone your business skills as sharply as you have your artistic talents; not doing so is the #1 cause of failure of tattoo shops (or any artistic endeavor for that matter). Check your state and city laws concerning the legalities of opening a shop; there are many restrictions that vary state to state, and you must comply or be shut down. The absolute and #1 compliance you must meet is that of health code and blood born pathogen training; I don’t care if you can tattoo like Michelangelo if you are infecting your clients with a new strain of the plague!!!

5. What separates those who become successful tattoo artists from those who never get anywhere with it? What qualities must the successful tattoo artist possess?

It’s been said “we are all created equal”…sorry, that doesn’t fly in the world of art; otherwise, all of us would have decorated a corner of the Sistine Chapel. You must be prolific with an exceptional talent in drawing and hopefully painting as well in order to excel above the masses of tattooists in an ever growing and now socially accepted medium. As I’ve already mentioned–I can teach anyone the technicalities required to tattoo, but your work will only be as good as you could previously draw and/or paint. You must be a “people person” in order to do well in this career too. A good portion of your day will consist of dealing with client’s first time tattoo jitters, constantly answering the same questions over and over to each new client, and deciphering a myriad of individual life stories that will require you to be a bit of a counselor/psychiatrist/shaman in order to translate your client’s wishes and life experiences into a piece of art. Nobody likes that “I’m a bad ass too cool for school tattoo guy” crap anymore; if you’re not nice, approachable, and genuinely concerned for your clients’ needs then they will not want you to be involved with something as intimate as tattooing their body.

6. What is the best part of your job?

I make people happy; I make their dreams come true. I transform them from frogs to princes, from ugly ducklings to beautiful swans, from Clark Kents to Supermen. I’m the genie in the lamp. I’m Santa for adults. It has been said “the body is the temple,” well then I’m the guy who installs the stained glass windows!!! I empower people and show them who they are and who they can be. I am the facilitator of many rites of passage.

7. What is the worst part of your job?

Hearing someone say: “I’d really love to get a tattoo but I can’t because…etc., etc, etc…”

I tattoo a lot of terminally ill people who tell me, “I’m getting the tattoo I always wanted before I die.”  I often wonder…why does someone have to tell us we are dying for us to start living?

8. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

This is a job that can easily follow you home and that has to be kept in check. Dealing with people’s emotions all day will affect you and that has to be left at the job site. When you are out socially people will always want to talk about and ask you tattoo questions. In my experience, it’s best to have a business card handy and ask the inquisitor to contact you via email or to phone the studio with any questions; you will learn to hate this job if it becomes all consuming…it happened to me, and I had to take a one year sabbatical before returning. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to be “the tattoo guy” and allowing your life to be all about tattooing…big mistake! This job is so demanding of your time, mental, and physical faculties that you must balance yourself with something that has nothing at all to do with tattooing. I spend a lot of time growing bonsai trees and playing sitar; these things are very zen and relaxing as opposed to the demands of my studio and allow me to return to work fresh every day. And as much as you may pride yourself in being the famous king of tattooing, remember that if you are married and/or have children, being a good husband or father is more important to them than the fame of an artist.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

Like most artists’ jobs; people think it’s easy or that we somehow have it made in the shade compared to a guy with a “real job.” Tattooing demands more out of you than you could ever imagine. The stress of not being able to make any mistakes at any time far exceeds the expectations of most jobs! I’ve seen countless guys and gals crack under the intense daily pressures of this profession. If you do not truly have a passion for this you will not succeed…if you’re in it just for the money I suggest you try bank robbery; it would be less stressful.

10. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?

My motto…”I do not put tattoos on people; I bring tattoos out of people.”

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tyler S. April 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm

First one to respond, wow…
Great article and the gentle interviewed is one of the best, appearing in documentaries on tv. Just keep in mind for those people looking to get a tatoo: consider your profession. As a teacher, business man, or someone who is scene in the public eye, you have to hide the artwork while on the job. Unfortunately this is the case in many situations and it could cost you employment if not respected.

2 Jade @ Tasting Grace April 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Such a cool interview! There was so much stuff I was really fascinated to learn – especially about all the demands on a person (artistically, professionally, etc.) Thanks for sharing!

3 Life with Kaishon April 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm

I loved this interview. Fascinating. I especially loved what he said about why do we wait until we are dying to do something we always wanted to do? Powerful! Thanks for sharing.

4 jay April 27, 2012 at 11:53 pm

“I tattoo a lot of terminally ill people who tell me, “I’m getting the tattoo I always wanted before I die.” I often wonder…why does someone have to tell us we are dying for us
to start living?”

How about what looks good on a twenty year old body may not look so good on a 80 year old body?

No disrespect intended but old people with tats dont look that attractive or pretty!!


5 Eric April 28, 2012 at 12:40 am

@jay: anyone getting tattooed to look attractive or pretty is doing it for the wrong reasons anyways. Great interview by the way, AOM!

6 Z April 28, 2012 at 12:58 am

I have zero interest in ever getting a tattoo ever. But I still really enjoyed this interview a ton.

7 Patrick April 28, 2012 at 7:51 am

Like Z, I have never had an interest in getting tattooed, but after hearing about this guy…I realize that I might if I could find some equally intentional in his work. Great inspiring interview! Thanks!

8 Thomas Spencer April 28, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Great article on my good friend. I need to get out to the left coast and visit sometime….

9 stiglich April 29, 2012 at 8:48 am

Wow, ur soul is wonserful, I can see why Reed had u do his ink. I would love to speak or get in contact with you. Maybe we can wander some paths together and tell a cpl stories.

10 CJ April 29, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I love these articles. And this guy in particular made for a great interview! I feel like Roni would be a great guy to hang out and have a drink with.

11 whatsupmonkey April 30, 2012 at 7:45 am

What’s he doing with a moko?

12 alanc230 May 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm

My teenage kids want to get tattoos. I’m not crazy about the idea, and will not give consent while they’re underage. If they do get tattoos, however, I wish they could find an artist like this gentleman.

13 Kevin Reno May 2, 2012 at 9:48 am

This guy is awesome, I’m already quoting some of the things he said. Just out of curiosity, and this is NOT racism, but it said he was a freemason and I thought freemasons didn’t allow anyone who was a woman or a black man? Anyone know?

14 The Dude May 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm

There is a sub division for blacks and women. @Kevin Reno

15 minuteman May 2, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Kevin Reno – There are a few black lodges of free masons, but anyone can become a mason (except women – which is one of the good things) If you are interested in masonry – find one and ask him about it. There are lots of them around.

16 Will May 3, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Should be noted, when talking about how he got in to tattooing Roni talks about tattooing from home. This is a terrible idea and a good way to spread disease and infection.

Roni even says it himself: “The absolute and #1 compliance you must meet is that of health code and blood born pathogen training; I don’t care if you can tattoo like Michelangelo if you are infecting your clients with a new strain of the plague!!!”

Also, as someone who loves the art of tattooing and has several tattoos, going to this guy sounds horrible. Consultations are standard practice, but to design the tattoo, not to play psychiatrist or priest.

For a different take on tattooing and tattoo artists, try watching the web series “The Gypsy Gentleman” or the documentary “Hori Smoku”.

17 Nathan May 5, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Excellent article! Roni has some superb and hard-earned advice on what it takes to be a successful, practicing artist writing your own ticket. His business and time management advise is spot-on and is applicable to all artisans, not just tattoo artists. Any aspiring artist will do well to read these interviews. And thank you, Roni, for mentioning that a good apprenticeship is like a good college education: YOU PAY FOR IT!

18 ish May 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Just saw Roni in Storage Wars the other day!

19 Donita May 8, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Learn from this man! Roni has been my dearest friend for almost 40 years. He is the most creative, artistic, talented, hard working, intelligent person you could ever meet. He also has a wicked sense of humor, a love & appreciation for life, and a beautiful soul. Love you Zulu!

20 -k- May 13, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I got a beautiful Roni tattoo in the early 90′s when he was in Reseda (?).

And it is now just about as vibrant as it was then. No blurring.

Remarkable workmanship.

21 Zulu May 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm

I’d like to thank Brett and Kate for allowing me to speak on the art of tattooing.
I’d also like to thank everyone who took time to read and comment on this article; whether you agree or disagree with my philosophies is not paramount; only that you draw your own personal conclusions for what is best for you individually.
I look forward to the possibility of tattooing any of you; and if not me, I trust you will find an artist who will treat you with the kindness and respect you deserve.
Be well.

22 John May 20, 2012 at 2:02 am

Great, article, and I don’t think you could have picked a better artist to have interviewed.

My tattoo was done in Zulu’s studio, by Misha, and it was a pleasure to have met them both. The time and effort put into the consultation, and just the overall experience was amazing.

Misha really did an amazing job doing a personalized variation of my Grandfathers tattoo.

And to the people saying tattoo’s don’t look good on 80 year olds, I have to disagree. My grandfathers tattoos, no matter how faded, abused, or poorly done were such a part of him, and looked great up until he passed away last year. I don’t think I could imagine my grandfather without them, and I’m glad that I had it done when I did… little do we know what life has in store for us.

Thanks again Misha, and thanks Zulu for having a studio with people like her.

23 Wings June 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm

This was a wonderful interview and as a budding artist and someone who has always been fascinated by/with tattoos it was a great read! I loved to hear Mr. Zulu’s perspective about what it takes to tattoo. Not just being able to draw and paint, but how hard and stressful it can be at times (so much so that he had to take a year’s sabbatical once, wow). It was also nice to hear from a another person of color who has made it in the industry (and is quite renown). It was all very inspirational for someone who would like to get into the industry herself one day.

24 Phil Knowles September 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm

This is a well known artist in the industry. alot of people have no idea how stressful the job is. and to “ed” or “jay” I know if I make it to 80 I wont care what my tattoos look like. I’ll be happy to be alive. But it makes me happy that you check out old ladies. Seriously though, if you dont have heart or are 300 percent sure you want to be a tattoo artist don’t do it. It’s a very very competitive industry. You can do 1000 awesome tattoos, but all it takes is one bad one to ruin you.

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