“They were touching our windows, moving our signs,” she says over the phone one day in early August. She’s supervising a group of students at her New York school but has taken a few minutes to share her thoughts. “I’m bummed that such a beautiful town with so many fabulous things has one of the scariest hate things going on there.”
Fasulo had been tattooing for “a couple years” when she opened her school in upstate New York in 2003. She says her “extensive art training” and her 22 years of experience hand painting clothing helped her to “slide into [tattooing] because it’s like painting. It’s just with different tools.”
The Tattoo Learning Center, she says, is the kind of program she was looking for when she first started out. She didn’t believe she needed art guidance as much as she needed help with the fundamentals of safety, sterilization, and how the tools worked.
“I had two little kids at the time. I couldn’t sit and apprentice in a shop for a year or two,” she says. “I know I’m like a lot of people that don’t have the option to sit in a shop without getting paid.”
She says the program is not meant to be a substitute for an apprenticeship but rather a course in “fundamentals.”
“As much as everyone’s having a heart attack about this, I don’t believe what I’m doing is wrong at all,” she says. “I really, really believe from the bottom of my heart that we are doing a great service for those people who are going to do it anyway. So if they don’t come to school, they’re going to be boiling the needles on the stove at home, which you cannot do.”
Fasulo’s opponents claim that it would be nearly impossible to teach health and safety completely in such a short time, especially if she’s also trying to fit in the basics of other important aspects of tattooing.
“It’s not just ethics and the professionalism that you need to deal with customers but also the knowledge of blood-borne pathogens, disease control, cross-contamination,” says Rob Benavides, owner of Flying Panther Tattoo in Golden Hill. “I don’t think that any professional you ask is going to be confident that someone can learn it in that amount of time.”
Fasulo says her opponents are unfairly judging her curriculum as incomplete because of what they’ve seen on television.
“Our curriculum isn’t featured [on the show] at all,” she says. “What you’re seeing is a few of the incidents that made for reality TV.”
While she will not disclose her curriculum, she says it’s been approved by the New York State Department of Education, which should suggest that “we’re not just some crazy people just winging this,” she says.
Fasulo believes that some of the anger toward her is the result of her having breached a code meant to keep the tattoo industry “underground.”
“I understand why they’re so incensed by it, because it’s taking this mainstream,” she says. “However, my argument is that this is already mainstream. All you have to do is go to any public pool, and you’re going to see every mom, dad, teacher, banker, doctor — everybody has a tattoo. It’s over, the days of the secret society. They were gone 20 years ago.”
Benavides says Fasulo’s school makes it clear that she is one of the “leeches or parasites who are feeding off the tattoo industry or tattoo craze. When the rest of the established community of tattooing around the world is saying, ‘This is bad for the industry’ and you’re saying, ‘Screw you. We don’t care what you say. We’ll do what you want,’ how else are we supposed to view it?”
Fasulo says the number of tattoo shops in San Diego has nothing to do with her or her school. She takes only two or three students at a time and holds one session per month in San Diego. Her students, she says, come from other parts of the country and the world, drawn to San Diego by its tourist attractions. But these students then go back home to look for work.
“There isn’t one student that’s in San Diego looking for a job,” she says.
Pat Bieck, the 21-year-old apprentice at Tower Tattoo near Euclid and University in City Heights, says graduates of the Tattoo Learning Center would get laughed at if they applied for a job at a respectable tattoo shop. But he still believes the school is bad for the local tattoo industry. The two-week school goes against the “ancient art form,” whose tradition includes the apprenticeship, he says, but his complaints also concern pricing.
Tower Tattoo is located down the street from the Tattoo Learning Center’s former City Heights facility. Bieck says people still come into his shop asking for free tattoos.
Fasulo confirms that her school, like a barber school, offers huge discounts on tattoos, but she says, “Honestly, we have more people [waiting for discounted tattoos] than we’ll ever get to.”
“I think that with all that free tattooing by tattoo schools, people are not understanding the prices of tattoos,” Bieck explains. “They’ll walk in, and something that’s like a good $250 or $300 tattoo, they’re trying to get it for $40. It’s horrible for real tattooers.”
Despite the opposition she faces from San Diego’s community of tattoo artists, Fasulo promises to keep her Pacific Beach school open.
“To close down because I was tired of running back and forth is one thing. But I’m not going to let these people stop me,” she says. “We are going to reinforce things a little bit before we open the doors again. I don’t want people milling around, touching our stuff.”