THREE: The $50 Baby's Momma Tattoo
The dude from This American Life says creative people start out with taste but not skills. You have the taste to recognize beauty but not yet the skills to realize it. So you start out making shit that your know sucks but you don't have the skills to do anything about it. And It takes either discipline or ignorance to get over the hump.
In addition to blacksmithing, I'm also a coach. I see a similar process with kids. They pick up a new sport and of course they suck. But they didn't know it yet and they somehow enjoy sucking. After a while — enjoying it the whole time — they don't suck anymore. They get over the hump. I call this blessed ignorance.
The problem with taking up a trade as an adult is you don't have that. You suck and you know you suck. That's all there is to it.
With a background in carpentry, I thought I knew my way around a hammer. But hammer work with metal is a unique skill. There is a dance that goes on between your left hand holding the metal and your right hand working the hammer. You work metal four faces at a time. Ding, ding, ding, then turn it 90 degrees. You do a light tap against the anvil with your hammer in between to keep momentum - a slightly different sounding ding, call it ping — then ding, ding, ding again, and another turn. The slightest mishit (which sort of looks like mis-shit - with similar outcomes), the wrong angle of the blow, the wrong slant of the metal, and you've fucked up the piece you've been working for the last half hour.
And there's just no way to get around the time needed to develop this aspect the trade.
And so you learn to suck. I would have to mentally psych myself up for the upcoming debauchery that would be my work at the shop every day. I once spend a whole week making 12 shutter latches that my boss told me should take 4 hours. To get those 12 fucking latches I had a waste pile of over 40. There's obviously a humbleness that comes from working hours on something and then being able to throw it away. But there is also a confidence that develops - to believe in yourself enough to let something go. To know you can do it again, or do it better, that it wasn't a fluke.
But let's get back to taste. I think it's rare for an artist to not dream of doing awesome work that inspires and awes the world. Put another way, no one moves to Hollywood looking to be an awesome waiter and doing commercial bits on the side.
But when you start out, A) you suck (as we've already covered), And B) no one knows who you are (and if they do they probably think you suck — see, A).
So where do you go? You start. Wherever you can because your love of making shit overcomes your sadness at being shitty at it. Use what you have available to you right now and do it cheaply with no excuses. Kevin Smith made the movie Clerks. I made bottle openers.
I started my business in my grandparents' garage while living at home with my parents. Besides not having much of a social life, I didn't have people knocking down my doors begging to pay me tons of money for commissioned work (I know, I was surprised too).
So I started small. Bottle openers are relatively easy to make. The metal you use is the same as on larger pieces but thinner so it's easier to work and shape. The variations are endless and any shape you can make on a million dollar piece you can replicate on a bottle opener. Scrolls and pig tails and leaves, and twists and points and anything else.
And so I made — and continue to make — A LOT of bottle openers. I've easily make several thousand of these fuckers. I was the karate kid of fucking bottle openers. Wax on, wax off. Bottle cap on, bottle cap off. Big ones, small ones, fancy ones, ugly ones, REALLY ugly ones. The whole gamut. You name it, I've turned it into a bottle opener.
And you know what. As I made these fucking things over and over and over, I started to not suck so badly. I was the guy from Karate Kid who was also in My Cousin Vinny but with a mustache (two yoots...), and these god forsaken bottle openers were my Mr. Miyagi. I got a feel for the hammer, a feel for how the metal wants to move, and how to move it ways it doesn't want to. I stopped sucking. These god forsaken bottle openers showed me how to be a blacksmith.
Okay, so problem A) not sucking so badly. Check that baby off the list. Problem two — people aren't throwing wads of cash at you to do your art and express yourself.
But you know what - that's something that might never go away. I had a conversation with a tattoo artist once and he called this the "$50 baby's momma tattoo dilemma." You got the skills, you open your shop, and instead of doing custom full back canvases for thousands of dollars, someone walks in and wants a "Dave Mathews Dancer" tramp stamp. Maybe you want to tell them that is a terrible idea, that some things shouldn't be immortalized above your ass. But you don't. You nut up and give this person what they want because they're the ones who pay your bills and let you work on the projects you really want to work on. And it makes them happy. And doing a million tramp stamps gives the you the skills to do the full body canvas.
What I've been talking about is my version of artistic integrity. I don't even drink that much. But here I am working for breweries and celebrating cool craft drinking accessories.
So when your starting out, for me anyways, they're had to be some compromise. I didn't have the skills and I didn't have the clients. So I learned to love my version of the "$50 baby's momma tat." And you know what — my first art commission came from a woman who found me because of my stupid bottle openers. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, you purist.
It's rare for an artist not to struggle with these ideas. Why are you making things and who are you sharing them with? How will you get paid? What if someone loves your work but doesn't have the right budget? Are you only a jester for the super rich? Do you pour your soul into grant proposal after grant proposal in order to be granted artistic freedom? Do you do your art in your basement on the weekends and keep it to yourself? Do you do it part time? Full time? How to you translate your passions into a career? What does it mean to be a professional?
All I know is that I love making things because of the effect it can have when shared with others. And so I've focused on that, regardless of the job and regardless of the price. If you buy a $7 opener from me, you get the same gratitude, the same hand-written note, as when you buy a custom piece of one of a kind artwork.
That interaction is my chance to change the world by changing that person. By giving them something made with love and shared with love, I get to make them happy, to make them feel loved. I hope they get how much I care, and I hope that every time they crack a beer with the boys, they take a second and think about beauty and change and other sparkly ideas. A lot of times people don't get it. But when they do, it's pretty legit.
So I'll keep making these fucking bottle openers as long as you keep buying them.
Nick Moreau is an artist blacksmith and big fan of hand-pulled noodles. For recreation, he enjoys putzing around and watching 'Star Trek.' His business is Wicks Forge.