BeSababa

A 21 Year-Old Tattoo Artist Explains Pursuing Art Instead of College – Arbel Nagar

Trade school, apprenticeship, and tattooing. Not the most common buzz words on your average college campus. Maybe not even buzz words on the weirdest college campus. The idea behind tattooing as an alternative to college can have certain stigmas and stereotypes attached to it in the world of higher education.

I mean how the hell does anybody make it in this world without a piece of paper saying “you did it”? Okay… that’s a bit dramatic and totally understates the benefits higher education provides in terms of opportunity. But hear us out.

I go to college, and I love it; I feel like it’s providing me the tools, opportunities, and resources to make an impact in this world. But I come from a family of immigrants who didn’t get to go to college; yet, they did make it. They did survive. And, I daresay, they thrived. 

But, discussing the fact that college isn’t the path for everyone seems to be a conversation that is rarely had in the world of higher education. Luckily, we had the opportunity to discuss just that with a tattoo artist who understands the topic on a personal level. 

Arbel Nagar is a 21 year-old tattoo artist living in Los Angeles who has made a real name for herself in just a few years. 

With over 30k Instagram followers, her own studio, and a growing list of celebrities, influencers, and big names coming to her for tattoos, it’s hard to argue with her quick rise to success. Her intricate and detailed art is the fuel to the fire, but Arbel has done a tremendous job growing her influence, overall. 

We sat down with her to learn more about her work, personal life, and perspective on higher education to tell the story of someone who you may not have expected to see on BeSababa. Hope you enjoy!

How did you get started working as a tattoo artist?

 I started as an apprentice for almost 3 years, I started really early so I had to wait til I was 18 and legally allowed to tattoo.

 My apprenticeship was a little longer than usual because I was 16 when I started. When I finished, I got my license and then I started working. 

 What inspired you to get into that? Was there a particular moment?

 Honestly, I don’t really remember having a plan. It was kind of just that I was really into art in general and I wanted to do that. I was doing art pieces and drawing and selling them trying to build that, but then my mom said—as lame as this sounds—“oh you should do tattoos just to get bread and butter on the side”. 

 That was the original plan (for it to be a side hustle) but I ended up liking it way more than I expected.

 What does being a tattoo artist entail on a day-to-day basis?

 It depends, but the nice thing is that you can schedule yourself. A lot of artists will do one tattoo a day and be totally fine, live their life and do whatever they want. For me, I go to the studio at 10 every day and then I usually see 4-5 people back to back. They come in, we sit and talk about the design for 20 min, then I do it; that just kind of rotates through the day. I usually work until late at night then go home.

 What’s your favorite part of being a tattoo artist?

 Honestly, as far as the actual work, just getting to tattoo. 

 Being able to do your art?

 Yeah, basically.

 Is there anything you don’t like about it?

 I feel like I always complain so much, but I can’t think of anything right now.

Maybe sometimes when people are overly picky about something simple. When something takes way longer than it should. Because you know your work as an artist and can estimate how long it’ll take, so you charge accordingly. So sometimes, I’ll misunderstand something and end up working three times as long as expected. That can be annoying.

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     You have about 37k followers on your tattoo Instagram, how did you develop that? I feel like it blew up.

     Yeah, I was pretty stoked at 4k. I felt pretty set and I was chilling. I didn’t expect anything, really. With tattooing you can have 2k followers and be booked til next year or you can have 100k followers and not get appointments. The followers are not so much of a concern as far as my work goes. 

     I worked on this one social media guy and I offered him a discount for a shoutout cause he had 30k followers. I got excited because of that and he brought his friends who had even more followers. I started tattooing them for free in exchange for promotion since I had met him and they had heard about me. In two weeks I went from 4k to 15k followers. It really just takes knowing the right people.

    Obviously, it’s annoying to not get paid but it does benefit me in the long run. I think it’s important if you want to grow your following on social media.

     You’re 21 and you own your own shop. What is that like?

     It’s definitely a lot of learning. I feel like it’s cool and nice because I always wanted to work by myself because I like being comfortable in my own space and playing my own music, being able to have whoever I want in there and all that stuff.

    But, there’s a lot to learn about strategizing financially with all the money you’re investing, managing rent, and (sometimes in my case) I got really excited about getting a place and I got into getting luxurious space and everything. It’s really nice and it’s not a struggle to keep it, but I could’ve been just fine starting off simple and saving more money (especially cause I’m young). But as far as owning a shop, it’s chill.

     I do want to get more artists and workers in here. But that’s difficult to figure out right now. 

     In terms of managing the finances, how did you learn?

     I learned a lot of basics from my parents because they’re both business owners. They taught me a lot about how to budget myself and what’s too much vs. what’s realistic. Honestly, my dad is really good with math and financing to compensate for expenses to make sure you’re not losing any money.

    It definitely came from other people, if I didn’t have my parents I’d be struggling with it. 

     Did you learn anything about managing a shop from your apprenticeship?

     Not really. Honestly, the first shop I worked at was a horrible shop. All the artists were struggling 15 years into the industry. As far as the apprenticeship, I learned how to tattoo correctly and do the job, but as far as owning a shop they didn’t really teach me anything. 

     Yeah, the thing is my studio isn’t really a shop because it doesn’t even have a sign or anything like that trying to bring people in. It’s more of a private studio. But, that’s more to my liking. Everything is by appointment.

     That’s awesome, I saw you’re booked out for two months right now… you’re obviously really busy. How do you maintain balance and find time for yourself?

     Ummm, I’m working on it. Right now everyone tells me I’m really bad at managing my time. I’m just not on top of anything and I have to pay someone to handle my scheduling because I’m just so bad at it.

    I really was struggling with that for a long time until I hired someone to do it for me. As far as having time to myself, I’m lucky that my job is fun and I get to do it with cool people and friends so it’s not such a big sacrifice that I don’t have a lot of time to just chill and go out and stuff like that.

     I definitely do need to learn to give myself more of a life, but I feel like that all comes with time because right now is when you need to put in hours. But when I can charge 2k for a tattoo, I can do one and be fine.

     It’s cool that you’ve identified a weakness you have and outsourced it. That’s really great advice for people – finding what you need help with and recognizing them is important. 

     You didn’t go to college, how did that play out? 

     I always was set on going to college. When people would tell me they’re not going to college, I’d think they’re fucking blowing it not going to college.

    Then, I started getting into art mid-freshman year, while still being really involved with other parts of school. Later on, I started getting less interested in school and more interested in art. I started home school so I could invest all my time into art and I was fully planning on going to art school while I was apprenticing.

    Then when it came time to apply to these art schools, I had what I needed and was getting ready to apply. But I don’t know what happened,  as I was applying I made the difficult decision to risk it and take a year off to try and do this tattoo thing because I had invested so much time into it. And my sister was telling me that if I took a gap year I definitely wasn’t gonna go to school and I disagreed with her. I was fully planning on going to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) if I got in. 

     I just decided I’d try it out anyways and ended up taking the gap year. 

     Then, last year when I was working out of my garage I was going to apply to RISD again because I wanted to go, then I spoke to a couple students there and they were telling me how much time and dedication art school really is. And any college probably. That meant I wouldn’t have time to keep tattooing.

    It’s a really hard decision because I really wanna work on my art but eventually I’d like to go back to school, maybe later in life. It was a sacrifice for sure.

     Looking back on that decision not to go to college, what are some of the pros and cons?

    As far as instant gratification, tattooing is making me money which is cool.

     As far as not going to art school, I feel like I had potential to improve my skill in that field and could’ve made really nice art pieces to sell and make more money. 

    Not going to college, I saved a lot of money and started really early in tattooing which is rare. And on top of that, I’m kind of on my feet already.

     If I were to go to art school, I probably wouldn’t have tattooed after that because I’d be in debt and wouldn’t want to start fresh into that industry because when you first start, you’re not making a lot of money.

     Do you have any advice you’d give to people based on your experience? 

     I guess, just to not be afraid of trying different things.

    Experiment and if you’re comfortable doing one thing and you know it’s a safe thing to do, it’s really hard to try something new because of that comfort. But, you should experiment and take risks and just go for whatever ideas you have. 

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