Discussion With Justin Haug: Are Tattoo Cons Worth It?

Interview With Justin Haug
Are tattoo contests all about winning? Award-winning artist Justin Haug reveals why he prioritizes clients over trophies in tattoo contests.

Tattoo conventions are a lively and dynamic community that brings together talented artists and passionate enthusiasts. Have you ever wondered what being a tattoo artist at a big convention is like?

In this article, we take an in-depth look at the experiences of Justin “Juju” Haug, an award-winning tattoo artist, as he recounts his journey through a myriad of conventions and competitions, from the excitement of winning awards to an eye-opening realization that shifted his focus. His story offers a fresh take on the tattoo industry, so newcomers can learn from it and decide how they feel about tattoo exhibitions.

Meet Justin Haug!

Meet Justin Haug!

Justin is a seasoned, awarded tattoo artist, and a loving father. Known by his nickname “Juju,” Justin works at The Marked Society, a tattoo shop near Atlanta. If you’re in the area looking for a tattoo artist in Atlanta, visiting him could be your best decision. He takes great pride in his work, but does not let it go through to his head — Justin firmly believes that an artist should be humble. 

Nowadays, Justin states that an artist’s work should speak for itself, rather than relying on awards for validation. For Justin, the focus should always be on the client. After all, they’re the ones permanently etching a piece of art onto their body. Awards hold less weight for him these days, he has a strong conviction that the critic’s focus should never be on the tattoo artist. 

“If I’m a service provider, and I’m providing someone the service of getting a tattoo and marking their body permanently, then it’s not about me. It’s about them. It’s about what they’re looking to wear for the rest of their life, and they’re trusting me to apply a good tattoo.”

— Justin Haug to InkMatch

Justin’s skills are as versatile as they are impressive. He specializes in neotraditional, black & grey, and cover-up tattoos. His dedication to his craft and his clients makes him a standout artist in Atlanta’s tattoo community.

Inside the Structure of Tattoo Contests

When it came to preparing for these conventions, Justin’s approach was straightforward yet diligent.

There wasn’t really much to it for me, honestly,” he shares. “I would just draw up an idea that the client had and then do some research on the subject that I was tattooing. Really, I kind of treated it as any other tattoo.” 

His preparations were also fairly simple, “I just went and did my best work as much as I could,” highlighted Justin.

Works by Justin Haug. Source: Instagram

The judges on such conventions, in Justin’s opinion, often evaluate tattoos based on quality criteria like form and technical application, rather than intrinsic artistic value. They consider factors such as how well the tattoo is applied and how saturated the colors are.

However, he also feels that some judges can be biased and unprofessional, which affected his enthusiasm for participating in such events.

“Some of the judges were tattooers and knew what to look for, and then sometimes it seemed like some of the judges were more like connoisseurs, so to speak, and didn’t really know what to look for. It was kind of cliquey in a way. Like, ‘I’ve got a buddy that’s going to enter the show, so I’m going to give them a few extra points’ kind of thing.”

— Justin Haug to InkMatch

What Tattoo Contests Truly Mean to Justin

Justin’s journey into tattoo contests is a mix of ambition and self-reflection. From 2016 to 2018, he was a regular at various tattoo conventions, including notable events like Ink Fest Live and Villain Arts, alongside smaller expos across the Southern US. Reflecting on his experience, Justin recalls, “I think at that time there was a little bit of excitement to it. It had a little bit of a buzz of getting some recognition, or enjoyable for my client to have an award-winning tattoo, so to speak.”

Justin Haug’s awards. Source: Instagram

During those years, Justin’s exceptional skills and creativity earned him about eight awards. However, with the onset of the pandemic, he decided to part ways with these accolades in the most unexpected way. “I actually had a little ego sacrifice and ended up burning my awards,” Justin shared. 

This bold act of letting go reflects Justin’s perspective on success and recognition, emphasizing his commitment to personal growth and providing the best possible service to the real heroes in his eyes — his clients.

Looking at the Bright Side

Ideally, Justin hoped that tattoos would be judged on both technical application and artistry. However, his experiences at conventions often did not meet these expectations. He observed, “Typically, I didn’t find that much, at least in the conventions that I was going to. I know there are some other ones where they judge a lot more objectively. But after my experience with them, I kind of took a pause from pursuing that.”

This disenchantment with the judging process led Justin to step back from participating in such contests. The biased judging took away the joy of winning, making the prestige of trophies feel hollow. What Justin valued more was the acknowledgment by the people who possess a great deal of knowledge about tattoo and tattoo culture, as well as by the people he tattooed.

Works by Justin Haug. Source: Instagram

Recalling a memorable experience at conventions, Justin shared:

 “I was entering a tattoo for the best of the day, and when she saw the tattoo that I did on my buddy, she said, ‘That guy did his homework.’ And she’s been tattooed by Jack Rudy and Ed Hardy, all these guys that I aspire to. And that was probably the most memorable experience, a head nod from someone who knew the ins and outs of tattooing and respected the trade for what it was.”

— Justin Haug to InkMatch

The atmosphere at some conventions left Justin cold. He no longer enjoys the atmosphere around most conventions, believing they are overly focused on the ego of participants rather than appreciating artistic skill or the tattoo craft in general. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that some conventions still employ experienced judges who can evaluate an artist’s work with objectivity and a true appreciation for the art form.

Advice for Artists Participating in Tattoo Contests

To put it briefly, Justin strongly suggests that all tattooists who wish to participate in any sort of competition always know what they want to achieve by competing in it.

His first and foremost suggestion is to always be clear about what you want to achieve by competing. He emphasizes the importance of maintaining focus and knowing the direction you want to grow as an artist. 

Justin is against the idea of viewing tattoo artists as rock stars or constantly striving to be at the top for the sake of ego. Instead, Justin believes that the honors should go to the client. After all, it is the client that influences the artist’s vision the most and patiently endures the tattooing process.

A documentary called “Stoney Knows How” served as a turning point for Justin. “I watched a documentary where they interviewed Stoney Sinclair. I get choked up just thinking about it,” he confessed. “It enlightened me to the fact that I wasn’t focusing on the charm and beauty of tattooing. I was focusing on the industry and the shenanigans, so to speak — the facade of it.”

Works by Justin Haug. Source: Instagram

Looking back, Justin realized, “It was very focused on the entitlement for me. I’m pretty against them now.” This realization led him to shift his perspective away from entitlement and towards a more client-centered approach.

He also advises tattoo artists to check their intentions. “Whether this award is some elusive idea in your mind that you think is going to elevate you to some status or position, or if it’s an ego boost,” he clarified. Some artists even give the award to their clients, viewing it as the client’s trophy.

“Sometimes people will enter pieces, and they’ll give the award to the client because that’s their trophy. I feel like, at least, they’re the ones who showed resilience and patience to endure getting tattooed. And I think it belongs to them more than it belongs to the tattooist, in my opinion.”

— Justin Haug to InkMatch

Summary

Justin Haug is an inspiring example of how artists can find fulfillment by staying true to their values. His experiences offer a refreshing perspective on what it means to succeed in the tattoo industry and highlight the importance of personal growth and prioritizing client satisfaction over seeking external validation.

Justin has evolved beyond the competitive aspects of tattoo conventions, choosing instead to attend events like the Days of the Dead tattoo expo as a guest artist rather than a competitor. His philosophy embodies the idea that “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

Interview with Justin

FAQ

🏆 What Is The Point Of A Tattoo Convention?

Tattoo conventions offer artists a platform to showcase their work, network, and gain new clients. They bring together talented tattoo artists from all over for people to browse portfolios, get tattooed on-site, and enjoy the art form. There’s often live music, contests, and vendors selling tattoo-related stuff too.

🏅 How Do You Prepare For A Tattoo Convention?

To prepare for a tattoo convention, start by securing your booth early and updating your portfolio to showcase your best work. Gather all necessary tattoo supplies and equipment and promote your participation on social media. Justin Haug advises adopting an honest and straightforward approach without over-complicating preparations. The best prep in his opinion is to check your intentions and do good work.

🌎 What Is The Largest Tattoo Convention In The United States?

As of today, the largest tattoo convention in the United States is the NY Empire State Tattoo Expo, offering a unique opportunity for attendees to get tattooed by some of the best in the industry. Held annually in New York City, it can host over 500 tattoo artists across the States.

💪 How Competitive Is Tattooing?

Tattooing is very competitive, with many skilled artists striving for recognition and clients. Success requires talent, creativity, marketing, and good customer service. While competition is fierce, there is also a strong sense of community and support among tattoo artists.

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