Use what you have, Do what you can. Start today is a quote by Arthur Ashe about taking on challenges.
But the first time I heard it, it was used in a different context and it was paraphrased ‘Use what you have, Do what you can. Start today.’
Hi again. Paul here with another That Tattoo Show – Show note. This month I want to talk to you about why it’s more important to just start doing it than wait for the perfect moment. Because the perfect moment may never come and if you start now, you’ll have a far better chance of ending up exactly where you need to be. Here’s goes.
Once upon a time, I was in the process of opening my first studio. I’d been a semi-successful Record Producer/Graphic Designer/Art Director for over a decade and I wanted a suitable building that reflected my (mostly imagined) status/track record. Essentially, I was looking for a building that I could fit my ego in!
If my memory serves me correctly, I think I wanted a New York style loft apartment full of industrial fittings and period correct lighting etc etc etc. You know, all the toys, neon signs, hipster decor. The whole enchilada. I thought to myself – ‘Now that’s the kind of building that a designer with my portfolio should have’.
There was just one problem. I was broke…
Broke is probably an overstatement but financially, my bank balance didn’t match my vision. So I decided to wait and save. ‘If I save enough money to finally get the building and fit it out exactly how I want it, it’ll be the greatest tattoo studio anyone has ever seen’ was my ‘genius’ idea.
During the ‘planning phase’ (which is a bullshit term for doing fuck all) I enrolled on a short business management course. Mostly because you got a £500 grant if you successfully created a business plan. It was there I met a chap that would change my perspective on my business and my life forever. He was an older Gent that had been in management and business development his entire life. He’d learnt a thing or two and was gracious enough to share his extensive knowledge and business acumen with me over a number of (pretty poor) coffees. It was a fateful meeting of minds that really did change my life. And I am eternally grateful to him for that.
I’d explained my vision to him. Outlined the grand plan for what could only be described as ‘The Church of Paul’ and fully expected him to reply with superlatives like ‘awesome’ or ‘mind blowing’. But he didn’t.
- Why can’t you start now?
- I haven’t got the money.
- So why don’t you start smaller and build up to your vision?
- Because no-one will be impressed or wowed by the kind of building I can afford. So I wont have any customers.
- But I thought you where a great artist? Isn’t THAT what they’ll come for?
He convinced me to look for a building that I could afford NOW. Explaining that if I felt the time was right to make my kind of tattoo art, I should start immediately. And that by waiting I would run the risk of missing my window of opportunity.
At the time Graphic Tattoo Art was in its infancy. It didn’t even have a proper name yet. A few year later some would unsuccessfully attempt to rebrand and trademark it. Which felt to those of us that had been there from the beginning like the gentrification of the scene. But that’s another story for another day.
It was during these conversations that he introduced me to a phrase/concept that would change my life. Use what you have, do what you can, start today.
Use What You Have
I managed to find a room for rent at the back of a small barber shop in the village I live in. It was cheap and just about as far from my vision as I could have got. But I could afford it. So I got started.
I decorated it using stuff that I already owned. I put the art and guitars from my office at home on the walls. Walls that were painted using left over paint and wallpaper from my house. Any extra furniture was literally the cheapest available. Me and my best mate Brian did all the work ourselves. Carefully checking the regulations sent to us by our local health authority as we went. Brian even PAT tested all the gear for me.
The result was extremely modest and simple. It wasn’t what I’d dreamt of but it was mine AND it was open a month after I got it. Even with all my money saving I still only had £31 left in the world the day I opened. Like I said. I was broke.
But I was open and I had tattoos to do.
From that little room I started my tattoo career. I got my first magazine features, got invited to conventions, won awards and my work was shared all over the internet and social media. At a time when you could get real, organic reach from social media. Not like the clusterfuck that is social media today.
Everything that has happened in my life since then; all the travelling , the shows, the guestspots, the clients. It all happened because I started in that crappy little room. Yeah, It was a shithole but I loved it. And I’m very thankful to it for its place in my story. It was never an NY loft. It was way better.
Do What You Can
Early on, I decided to stand out for my work and nothing else. Not price, not opening times and definitely not gimmicks. My thinking was that I couldn’t compete on anything other than what I could do better than my competitors. I’m not the best tattooist in the world, not even close. And, over a decade ago, I was certainly greener and way less experienced than the other tattooists around. But I’d got a shot at being the best Paul Talbot in the world. So I focused on what I could do. And that was graphic tattoos. I ignored the rest and I leant into it. Hard.
In marketing we call this a USP or Unique Selling Point. By focusing on only my style I was reinforcing my USP. And by the time Graphic Tattooing went overground I was a very well known English Graphic Tattooer. Thanks to – in part – my decision to do what I could. And Partly because that was all I had been doing for years. I’d had a lot of opportunities to refine and define my style.
Years later I realise that, that Initial decision to do what I could rather than trying to compete with ‘£10 shaky Pete’ down the road set me up with a business that is only about my artwork. My work doesn’t appeal to everyone. I don’t expect it to and never have. The various cheap shots and criticism I’ve received from other ‘professionals’ over the years have taught me that some closed minded people will just never ‘get it’. But, the people who do get it? They really like it. They’ll travel to get it and wait a little while for it.
Doing what you can – for me – meant not trying to be a ‘proper tattooist’. Quite honestly I give zero fucks about whether or not I’m a proper one or not. I’m too busy being an actual tattooist to worry about what ‘one-eyed, blunt needle Tom’ thinks of my work.
If I hadn’t met that lovely old guy who gave me an immensely important piece of advice years ago. I’d still be waiting and saving and talking about the day I open the perfect studio, in the perfect location, with the perfect setup blah, blah, blah.
And by now, that’s all it would be. Talk.
I’m no business genius. But, I’m smart and humble enough to admit that I had more than a little luck. Some of it was just that. Pure dumb luck. And some of it was luck because I was there, doing it. Circumstance, timing, chance. For the first time in my life I was in the right place at almost the right time. I still had to work my arse off but at least I was in with a shot if I did. And work my arse off I did. For the following decade I travelled the world with my tattoo machines and and made a bit of a name for myself making those ‘weird tattoos’. Eventually, they even stopped being weird and became part of the modern canon of tattoo art.
To summarise. Everything that I’m thankful for in my life today is because I started. And even though it wasn’t perfect it was – in the end – the perfect start. I decided to stop talking about it and just start doing it. The common theme throughout Arthur Ashe’s quote is that it all comes back to a focus on doing things, of starting rather than procrastinating or hoping for better.
It’s this way of thinking that created That Tattoo Show. Chris and I could still be planning our perfect YouTube channel. But instead, you know what we did? We just hit record and went for it. We’ve improved the show every week since then and after a while it started to look and sound pretty professional. We just figured it out as we went along. In fact, we still are.
Our latest episodes are far better than the early ones, not because we have better gear but because we’ve had a lot of practice up to this point. We used what we had to get us started, we did what we could and tried to make our channel something different to all the rest and we started as soon as we had the idea. Even though we were stuck, locked down in our houses rather than the nice filming areas we have today.
Focusing our attention on taking action and accepting our starting point as the launch pad for the process of creation was essential. Sure, we may wish for more favourable conditions. Our starting point may be non-ideal. Progress to now may well have been rocky, or even non-existent. Regardless of all these factors, we have the choice to accept them and to act regardless, or to use them as further sources of despondency and justifications for inaction.
It’s always better to choose the path of action and get on with the process of doing.
See you next time, take care.
p.s. If you’d like to watch/hear me explain this idea, we record a podcast based on my column every month on That Tattoo Show. You can listen to it wherever you normally listen to podcasts (just search ‘that tattoo show’) or you can watch it on our Youtube Channel. youtube.com/thattattooshow.
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