How to Quit Your Job for a New Career as a Tattoo Artist

All photos courtesy Sema Graham

If the world is going on fire in a few short years, it’s worth investing your time into something you love. The Quit Your Shit Job column features people who quit their mundane jobs to pursue the things they love. We hear directly from this week’s speakers Sema Graham Sema, 23, quit her stressful job as a barista to become a Chicago tattoo artist. Sema, who uses the pronouns they/them, co-owns a tattoo studio The city.

VICE: Hello Sema! What were your previous activities?
SemaGraham: I worked as a barista at high-volume coffee shops.

Was that the point?
I started working at coffee shops in my twenties. They were great for meeting people, hosting shows, and making some money. I could get as many tattoos I wanted. I realized that my job took too much energy and time as I grew older. I had little time for my creative and personal projects. I’d always been passionate about art and music, and I was struggling to stay awake for the things – and the people – that were important to me.

What would you rather do?
I’m a tattoo artist and co-own a studio space called Time Being Chicago, two of my dearest friends.

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Was there ever a lightbulb moment?!
I was tired. I was struggling to make ends meets and living paycheck to paycheck. I felt that I didn’t have a creative outlet, so I began volunteering at galleries and print shops. I was even more tired from this.

Since I’d started working in coffee shops, all of my spare money had been going towards tattoos, and I’d gradually become obsessed. I’d draw tattoo flash [ideas boards for customers] I enjoy making friends with tattoo artists in my spare time. One day a guy I knew asked if I’d like to work answering the phones at their studio. He caveated the offer by saying they didn’t want someone who aspired to be a tattoo artist, and all of a sudden everything aligned in my head and I thought “that’s exactly what I want to be!” Funnily enough, I’d talked about wanting this job when I was younger, but as with every industry, tattooing is a predominantly white cis male space, so I didn’t think it would be easy or even possible for a person like me.

But he was able to give me sound advice. He advised me to keep my head elevated and to apply for a shop apprenticeship. After many doors had closed, this was what I did.

It was hard to get into this industry.
It was hard. The apprenticeship was unpaid, so I’d be working 6 AM to midday at the coffee shop, and then run across town to the shop, where I’d work until 9 PM. Then at home, I’d spend the rest of the evening painting tattoo flash. Continue to sleep.

It was impossible to keep it up. I gained weight and was very unhealthy. I needed some downtime. I was able save some money and quit the cafe.

What was your moment of breakthrough success?
My first tattoos were done to me. But then I took a risk and tattooed my friend – it was of a skull with wings, a Sailor Jerry design. It was uploaded to Instagram. There were many others I could tattoo. Every day I tattooed.

It is surreal to think that my friend and I opened our shop last January. It’s our business and we share the management. It’s a queer-friendly space, with a focus on helping up-and-coming artists, and is basically my dream studio.

What’s the best thing about your job?”
I love the people I meet. I am a believer that I tattoo lawyers, activists and people who work in coffee shops. Since tattooing is an ancient art form I consider it an honor to have been a part. Through my work, I have many great friends. It is also a great bonus to have the chance to travel.

What are the down sides to this?
It was an amazing experience to work in coffee. My alarm could be set to go off whenever I left the coffee shop. When you feel passionate about what you do, it’s hard to switch off, and very easy to become obsessive.

What would you have done differently if you knew more about your job?
I wish I’d known to swallow my ego in a couple of situations along the way when people were trying to help me. I was always so busy trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t always listening, and that’s a shame.

Which was your worst experience at work?
Men who visited the coffee shop treated me badly. One guy flat-out said to me that I’d look “so much sexier without tattoos”. Another time, I had my head shaved. A man said to me that he would give me $20 per day if it was trimmed. This is exhausting. It was also difficult to get up at 4 am each morning.

It has been a distraction.
Haha, no! But these days, I only drink plain coffee. I also try to sleep as late as possible.

Your life is worth 10 things before and after.
Probably a 6… It wasn’t the worst life. Now, though, it’s consistently a 9 out of 10 – because there’s always room for improvement!

What do you think about coworkers working in low-wage jobs?
It’s complicated; you could be working at a desk or in a coffee shop, and still love your life and what you do. It’s possible to be unhappy. If someone expressed a desire to change, I would try my best to help, but obviously, I don’t have all the answers. We were able to hire a friend who quit a job they didn’t enjoy to run our studio. This was quite amazing.

What advice would your give to those who are unhappy about their jobs?
Don’t be afraid to take risks because they can pay off, but just be aware that a lot of the time you do really have to put the hours in. Sometimes dreams can have negative consequences. This can be difficult to accept. Sometimes, the upsides are a sweetener.

One last thing: what’s the funniest tattoo you’ve ever done?
Someone once asked me to cover their “no regrets” tattoo without a hint of irony.


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