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How to Quit Your Shit Job and Become… a Tattoo Artist!

Sema Graham swapped tiring barista shifts for their passion: tattoos, with the added bonus of working with friends.

by Rose Stokes
04 September 2019, 8:15am

All photos courtesy of Sema Graham

If the world is going to be on literal fire in a few decades' time, you may as well spend the rest of your life doing something you actually enjoy. That's where our Quit Your Shit Job column comes in, speaking to people who turned their back on their average and uninspiring jobs to pursue something they truly wanted. This week, we hear from Sema Graham, 23, who left their burnout-inducing job as a barista to train as a tattoo artist in Chicago. Sema (who uses they/them pronouns) now co-owns a tattoo studio in the city.

VICE: Hi Sema! What did you do previously?
Sema Graham: I worked as a barista, primarily in high-volume coffee shops.

Why did it suck?
I started working in coffee shops when I was 15, and back then they were a great place to meet people, host punk shows and make money. I could get as many tattoos as I wanted. As the years passed though, I realised my job was consuming way too much of my time and energy, leaving me very little space for 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 did you switch to instead?
I’m a tattoo artist and co-own a studio space called Time Being in Chicago, with two of my best friends.

Sema Graham tattoo design
A tattoo by Sema.

Was there a lightbulb moment?
I was burnt out; I was living from paycheque to paycheque, and still struggling to cover my bills. I was missing a creative outlet, so eventually started volunteering in galleries and print shops in my spare time. But this just made me more tired.

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] in my spare time, make friends with tattoo artists and hang around their studios. 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.

He gave me some good advice though and told me to do things the right way, and try to get an apprenticeship at a shop, which I eventually managed after a lot of slammed doors.

Was it tough to break into the industry?
So tough. The apprenticeship was unpaid, so I’d be working 6AM to midday at the coffee shop, and then run across town to the shop, where I’d work until 9PM. Then at home I’d spend the rest of the evening painting tattoo flash. Sleep and repeat.

It was unsustainable. I lost weight, was super unhealthy and was in vital need of downtime. I got some money together and was able to quit the coffee shop.

What was your breakthrough moment?
My first couple of tattoos were on myself. But then I took a risk and tattooed my friend – it was of a skull with wings, a Sailor Jerry design. I posted it on Instagram, and from then on I had plenty of people to tattoo. I tattooed all day, every day!

It feels surreal to say that last year me and two friends opened our own shop, which we own and run together! It’s a queer-friendly space, with a focus on helping up-and-coming artists, and is basically my dream studio.

What do you love most about your job?
I love the people that I meet. I feel like I tattoo the best and most interesting people in the world: lawyers, activists and people who work in coffee shops! Tattooing has such a rich history as an art form, so I feel privileged to be part of that, and have met so many friends through my work. I also get to travel, which is a huge bonus for me.

Are there any downsides?
One thing that was cool about working in coffee is I got to clock out when I walked out of the door. When you feel passionate about what you do, it’s hard to switch off, and very easy to become obsessive.

What do you wish you'd known about your job before you started?
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 myself that I wasn’t always listening, and that’s a shame.

What was the single worst moment of your dull job?
Being degraded by the men that would come into the coffee shop. One guy flat out said to me that I’d look “so much sexier without tattoos”. Another time when I had a shaved head, this other guy told me if I grew my hair out he would give me a $20 tip every day. That sort of objectification gets tired pretty quickly. Getting up at 4AM every day was also a drag.

Did it put you off coffee for life?
Haha, no! But I only drink simple, plain coffee these days. And sleep in as late as I can!

Rate your life out of 10 before, and now:
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!

How smug do you feel when you talk to your mates in shit 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. Then again, you could be miserable. If someone expressed a desire to change, I would try my best to help, but obviously I don’t have all the answers. Saying that, a friend recently quit a job they hated, and we were able to hire them as manager of our studio, which was pretty cool.

What advice would you give other people who hate 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 your dream comes with a lot of downsides, and that can be a tough pill to swallow. But then again, the upsides act as a pretty good 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.

@rosestokes