Relationship Building

Bringing the Art of Tattoos into Your Classroom (Ep. 174)

Have you ever talked about tattooing with your students? Would you ever make tattoos part of your curriculum? Today’s episode tells you why you may want to consider the idea. Tattoo artist and educator Joseph Swanson joins Tim to discuss why tattoos fit into so much of what we do in the art room, including art history, interpersonal relationships, and social and emotional learning.  Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Hello, hello. I am excited for today’s episode because we are covering a topic that I don’t think we have ever covered before on this show, the art of tattooing. My guest today is going to be Joseph Swanson. He is a tattoo artist and a former law enforcement officer, but also a podcaster and an educator. He has a lot of experience in a lot of different areas and he is able to bring all of that the classroom.

I think that plethora of experience is incredibly valuable for us as art teachers, specifically when we’re talking about something like tattooing because we are always looking for something new, something that aligns with kids’ interests, something that’s going to engage our kids and open some doors to learning, so why not tattoos? Honestly, kids are fascinated by tattoos and tattoo artists. Anytime I had a tattoo artist in to talk to students about what they do, about their careers, my kids were on the edge of their seats, just instant engagement.

Even if you are a little bit apprehensive about the topic or you don’t know all that much about tattoos, I would encourage you to give it a chance. Listen to what Joseph has to say here and see if it’s something you think your kids might be interested in. Before we bring him on, I want to talk just a second about AOE courses because it is time to sign up for your July courses. If you’re going to get in, you need to do it this week. If you’re looking for a graduate credit this summer, some PD hours, or maybe you’re even thinking about working on a Master’s degree, make sure you check out the courses from The Art of Education University. We have over 20 online courses that includes eight hands-on art-making studio courses, and all of them are designed to help art teachers at every stage of their professional career.

Whether you’re looking for something on curriculum or classroom management or technology or, like I said, just doing your own art making, we have the course for you. You can see what’s available, what interests you, and what you may want to sign up for at New sections are starting July 1st, but if you want to enroll, like I said, you need to do that soon, like pause the podcast and go sign up right now, that type of soon. Go check it out and we’ll be waiting for you when we get back. Now, let’s go ahead and start the interview.

Joseph Swanson is joining me today. Joseph, how are you?

Joseph: Tim, I’m doing really, really good. I got to make some art today. I’ve gotten to work today. I got to enjoy some time with family today, so I’m packing it in today, doing really well.

Tim: Oh, no. That sounds like a good day. I like that, and you know what? I’m really excited about our conversation here. We haven’t really ever taken a dive into the world of tattooing on this podcast, so I think you’re going to have a lot to offer people. I’m excited for the conversation. Before we get into everything, can you just kind of tell us a little bit about yourself? I know you have a really long history as a tattoo artist and a lot of other really cool careers, too. If you can talk about that, that would be great, and if you can just kind of give people a general idea of where a tattoo artist goes in their career, like what you’ve been through, where you are now. Like I said, not a lot of teachers know about that I think, so just any insight into that world I think would be appreciated.

Joseph: Absolutely, and I think that there’s so much information out there on tattooing nowadays to really get a grasp of what the culture is all about. It is a little bit difficult. I started tattooing in August of 1996 down in Monterey, California. Traditionally, tattooing has been an apprenticeship trade, so you learn under the tutelage of a mentor who walks you through the steps, and not only the technical side but as I’ve understood over my 23 years of tattooing, the artistic, the social, and the emotional side of tattooing as well. With a good mentor as a backing, I went through an apprenticeship and then began to tattoo after coming out of college. I got a business degree with an emphasis in entrepreneurship and went to San Francisco and was making my way there as a tattooer.

Things were a little tight. I had a growing family and was interested in some more security than I was feeling at that time tattooing, so I began a career in law enforcement. I ended up getting a job with the Highway Patrol here in California and I did that over the course of the next say seven and a half years and got a lot of wonderful experience. Met an incredible amount of wonderful people who I still consider friends and I think again it informs how I educate today. I got a lot of experience training as a Field Training Officer and as an Enhanced Officer Safety Training Instructor and Physical Methods of Arrest Instructor. It informed how I teach and the intention with which I try to teach, even now.

I did that and then moved into… in 2008, I left law enforcement and moved back to Minnesota and was going to buy a tattoo shop and that led me on a path back here to California, where ultimately I did have a shop for a little while in Vacaville. Also around that time, I was hearing… Well, around 2009, I produced two instructional art DVDs, one in 2009, one in 2010, which one of those is how to paint tattoo flash, and if you don’t know about tattoo flash, it’s the sheets of designs that hang on the wall of a tattoo shop. Traditionally, they were used as sales aids. What you saw on the wall was what you could get, so you picked off the wall. Nowadays, it’s turned into way more of an art form and I believe still in a tattooing capacity should be used as a sales aid, but some really, really beautiful sheets of flash being produced by artists all over the world these days.

I put out a couple of DVDs, and then in 2012… The first DVD was the painting tattoo flash. I took people through the process of how to do that and that’s one of the workshops I actually teach now. Another one was a drawing formula DVD. All very tattoo culture based and based out of my history with that. In 2012, I had my shop in Vacaville and I was looking for ways to promote and just get engaged in some other creative endeavors. I was listening to a podcast on my commute every day and I thought, “Well, this is a great way to tell people about tattooing and maybe some of the stories and propagate a little bit of positivity into the culture.”

I began to release episodes of my first podcast, The Joe Swanson Propaganda Podcast, and then that moved into doing some work with a company called Sullen, Sullen Clothing, and I would encourage everybody to go check them out. They’re a tattoo-based clothing company out of Huntington Beach, California, and just really showcases a lot of the different art that is involved in tattooing. That continued and currently I’m still producing works in tattoo form from time to time.

I’m much more limited on what I take on as a project and I have other things going on, this business for one of them, Art Right Now, which is an education business that uses the remarkable culture of tattooing as a platform for learning. I think there’s so many, as we’ve talked about a little bit, Tim, the email… there’s so many cool access points I believe because of the artistic, social, and emotional parts of tattooing to education and to draw somebody in, a kid or otherwise, into that culture and into the art of it. I think it can turn them on to a lot of different skills that they’re going to need.

It is a business and an art, which is interesting in and of itself. It speaks to a lot of salesmanship and a lot of personal interacting, which I think is some of the biggest things in tattooing that I like to draw from that. Almost the belly-to-belly sales that you get lost in a lot of what is happening today in our culture. With some of those things and how tattooing crosses all socio-economic boundaries, how it is part of the visual vocabulary of what we are seeing today and it’s being remarked on not only in our news, in our homes, in our businesses, in our schools.

It’s there and I think it’s a part of our culture that is somewhat misunderstood, and so I’m hoping with this business and with… I’m an art advocate. I’ve been an artist and tattooing for a lot of years and I still paint and draw and do as much as I can to create. I advocate for any art, so any arts integration I think is absolutely wonderful and I think because tattooing speaks to a broader sense of some of these skills that not only kids need but we need as humans, I think is a great place to jump off as a platform for learning.

Now, I want to be clear, though, also about that is not… I’ve broken tattooing down into kind of four areas, and I’ve spoken about the artistic, the social, and the emotional side of it, and then this technical side, which I don’t feel that somebody without a broad scope of emotional and social management and life experience they should be tackling. I don’t advocate for kids to tattoo. Now, I know having spoke at a continuation conference this year that kids are engaging in the physical act of tattooing, and so it’s something to be addressed. My take on it is you have a broad scope of stuff that can be taught from the artistic, social, and emotional side of things that you don’t have to get into the technical stuff.

That can be taken… I would always encourage somebody if they’re talking about career development, because a lot of these kids are interested in, “Well, maybe I should do this as a career.” I would say become a graphic designer, become an illustrator, become an art… become some other skill that you will have to master if you’re going to be a tattoo artist. You’re going to have to take on your own marketing and your own promotion and your own salesmanship, all these different things that surround it. Feed into those, get some life experience, and then if you choose at a time where you feel you have that grasp on those social and emotional management skills to tattoo, there are plenty of access points to get into tattooing in a proper way with proper mentorship and training.

Tim: That’s cool. Let me ask you, though. You mentioned a couple of times having these multiple access points where kids can get into this, and I guess just looking at it bigger picture-wise, why do you think kids are so fascinated by the art of tattoos? What draws kids to tattooing?

Joseph: I think the permanence and the emotion of it, and I think that we’re emotional being. I know I am, and I know that a lot of the kids that I’ve spoken to, they’re very emotional. That age is a volatile age, not in a bad way, just in fact. It’s a very emotionally-charged time for kids. I think when we have these moments in our lives that are impactful, we’re emotional about them, there is a desire to mark them. I think the permanence of a tattoo is intriguing because it permanently marks that moment or that overcoming… the moment of overcoming something or the moment of a special memory or a memorial of something.

I think it’s the permanence and the fact that we are emotional beings and I think we’re inclined to mark some of these things that we’ve done. Plus, as I mentioned before, Tim, it’s being remarked on and it’s in the visual vocabulary. It’s part of what they’re seeing and they’re engaging with from their own homes, to social media, to the news, sports. It’s around and they’re seeing it and I think there’s a draw to it just by sheer exposure.

For sure, and I think that’s kind of cool. I think, like you said, it’s a good access point for kids, too. I want to ask you a little bit more about kind of the teaching that you do, too. You’ve put together all of these incredible ideas. You’re developing a curriculum that incorporates tattooing. Can you talk a little bit more about kind of the idea behind what you’re doing? The connections that you’re making between tattoos and art tattoos and life skills tattoos and social-emotional learning? Just kind of how you use all of those inspirations for what you’re teaching and what you’re bringing to kids?

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely. I think that just from an art standpoint, tattooing touches a lot of different… Technology has caught up to the talent that’s out there, and so guys and gals… tattooers are able to represent all these different styles of art. One, I think it’s just a broad scope if you’re looking at the styles of art that you can work in. There’s tattooers that draw from oil painting. There’s tattooers that draw from illustrative line work. There’s a lot of different access… those are the access points to different types of art that I’m talking about.

As far as like what I like to bring to the table is this experience with going through thousands and thousands of consultations, the social part, the emotional part of talking with somebody about why they’re representing this impactful thing. Some of the curriculum that I’m beginning to develop talks about the art and it shows different processes like watercoloring and the traditional style of using watercolor, which is spit shading, where you’re using saliva and the pigment to blend. I teach that. I teach some of the other like layering and build up techniques that people use for composition, and then, really getting into the emotional and the social side of it with some of those other things where you have to sit down with a client. It is a collaboration and you’re also trying to infuse a bit of your own art making expression into it.

There’s so many wonderful spots where you can talk to kids about interaction, about connection, about artistic expression. Coming into a school and doing workshops, coming and doing keynote speaking about these topics, coming and do a professional development for educators, what I’ve found is kids are asking these art teachers to creative direct the designs that they will subsequently tattoo. At least that’s what’s happening here in California and-

Tim: Oh, for sure. I think that’s happening everywhere.

Joseph: Right, and so how does an art teacher who maybe doesn’t have any experience with tattooing, other than the same kind of engagement with it culturally that we have, but doesn’t know some of the physical things that you would have to take into consideration when building a design, and because you’re working on a three-dimensional living canvas. Some of that stuff, I like to talk to educators about that as well, professional development for them to claim knowledge on how to inform some of these things and maybe nip those things in the bud as far as, “Hey, why are we jumping straight to the technical?” There’s so many wonderful aspects to tattooing, why don’t we engage in these artistic, the social and the emotional sides of it and really become skilled at that and really understand the depth of history that’s there with it and how it touches so many different aspects of art and our life and day to day?

Hopefully, getting into some of those areas with this information and my experience, I can begin to inform not only students but educators about what I consider to be a remarkable culture of tattooing.

Tim: Absolutely, and I think it’s valuable because, like you said, so many teachers don’t have that experience. They aren’t part of that culture and they don’t even know where to start if they wanted to bring that to their kids. Just having that opportunity and, like you said, there are layers there. There’s so much that can be learned, so much that could be taught, and just giving teachers the opportunity to kind of see what’s out there and decide how they can do that in their own classrooms is really valuable I think.

Joseph: Right, and I love the idea of giving somebody that foundation of knowledge so they can have a nice springboard to then use their own creativity to engage with the kids in the way that they need to be engaged and the way that only a teacher who’s engaged with that kid every day is going to understand how to do. Really, for me it’s about advocacy and it’s about education about this culture and about some of the things that surround it.

Tim: That’s really well said. I think that’s a really good point. Hey, let me just ask you before we go. We’re running out of time here. I know you mentioned your podcast that you do. You also go into schools. You do workshops, keynotes, so much more. For people who are interested in finding out more about you, finding out more about kind of what you teach, can you just share where can they find you on Instagram? Your podcast? Anything else that you want to share?

Joseph: I think you’ve hit it, Tim. I would encourage people… encourage everybody to go check out the podcast. It’s called Art Right Now with Joseph Swanson. It is on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher Radio, SoundCloud, all the major platforms. The way that I would like to… I’ve done a few podcasts in the past as I mentioned before, and with this one I wanted it to create something different. My idea is that every week I’m going to, or every episode, I’m going to put out an art topic and the second segment of the show is an art collaboration segment.

Tim: Nice.

Joseph: I’m going to talk about a topic and whether I know a ton about that topic or I know nothing about that topic, we’ll discuss it and then I’m encouraging people to come out and meet me on social media, on the Instagram, which is @enjoyartrightnow. I’ll post a post about that particular topic and then I want to see the engagement with, “Hey, this is what I know about it, this is what my experience is with it”, and so almost begin to mine these artistic ideas into one place from out there in the ether.

We’ll see if it’s successful. I would encourage everybody to, like I said, go and check it out and then meet up on social media, @enjoyartrightnow, and begin to join the conversation about art. I would love to learn from all of you guys. What else? If you want to hire me, you can reach out at I would be incredibly stoked to come out and talk and work and do art with your educators or kids. Incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to come on and talk. I’ve been a fan of yours, Tim, for a little while. I’m going to admit. You do a great job at this podcast and I listened to the very old… the first podcast, which was live-

Tim: Oh man. We’re going way back there.

Joseph: When I started to get kind of geared towards… I talked to a principal friend of mine, and this is really my love for teaching, my love for kids, and his encouragement has kind of pushed me in this direction to get into education… this stuff into the education space. I really was looking for… I’m also a podcast head, so I’m listening to different podcasts all the time and I was looking for a great education podcast and came across yours. I was stoked on how you were using technology and the live format and people coming together. It was incredible. It was not just the content but the community that you were building and really great stuff, man. Thank you so much for having me –

Tim: Very cool.

Joseph: Inviting me on and I’m super excited to continue to listen.

Tim: Well, I appreciate that a lot and I appreciate you coming on to chat with us and just kind of share everything that you’re doing. Joseph, thank you so much. It’s been awesome talking to you, and hopefully we can do it again sometime.

Joseph: Absolutely. Thank you, Tim.

Tim: So, so many great ideas from Joseph there. We’ll make sure we link in the show notes to his podcast, his Instagram, everywhere else that you can follow him and see what he’s doing. If you are interested in learning more, I would definitely encourage you to check him out because, as I said in the beginning, there are so many kids who are just fascinated by this topic and as we talked about in our conversation, there’s so many access points for kids and for teachers, too, to just dive into the topic.

There’s so much to learn, and not just about art but there are those interpersonal connections, social and emotional learning, and so much more, because with a topic like tattoos that is so engaging, so layered, so many levels of learning. It can definitely be a valuable addition to the topics that you are covering in your art room.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you again to Joseph Swanson, and thank you as always for listening. We’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.