Not that I have a rapt audience of thousands, but to bring anyone who doesn’t know me in “real life” into the loop as to why I have any grounds writing about this subject — my partner is a tattooer of over 15 years, many of our friends are also in the business, and I personally have been getting tattooed since 2004. Hell no, this does not make me the end all be all expert. Hell no, I am not right all the time. Hello no, this is not a definitive list. But I get asked questions on the topic of tattoos on a weekly basis, at least, and I’ve been thinking about compiling this list for some time. I hope it is helpful to someone!
1. Do your research on the shop and artist.
I have gotten many of my tattoos “on the fly.” I am a big fan of choosing from an artist’s flash (sometimes drawn for a specific event) when I arrive at the shop. It’s not for everyone, I admit. But you can guarantee I have done a bit of Googling or talking to friends before I arrive there, and I’ve most certainly checked out the artist’s online portfolio. If you have something specific in mind, this is even more integral! For custom work, look at their portfolio and make sure the tattoo artist enjoys and is skilled at the style of tattoo you desire. If they don’t have any black and gray portraiture posted in their online portfolio, they probably don’t enjoy doing that kind of tattoo. Some artists will tell you that if you ask — “I don’t do X, Y, Z styles, but so-and-so is really great” — and some will hobble through a style that isn’t really their forte. You probably don’t want the latter.
2. Let your artist draw your design.
Put down the internet print-out image of someone else’s tattoo and back away slowly. Or, at the very least, accept that the print-out is reference material and not the exact tattoo that you will have on your body.
All tattooers worth their salt will be able to design something custom for you — and besides, another artist designed the tattoo you printed out for someone else! Flash has been a part of tattoo culture for decades, but copying custom work 100% (or as best your artist is able to do) is akin to plagiarizing in my book. Some artists will refuse to do this type of work, but I would like to encourage all us customers out there to exercise some trust in our artists’ skills, and some integrity to rock our own designs. You can of course reference the style, the subject, the placement, or the coloring of other work out there. But that’s the difference between a copy and a reference, isn’t it? Be aware of that line, try not to cross it, and find an artist who can do this with you. If your artist can’t draw? See #1 and #4.
3. Don’t feel comfortable? Leave.
Too often I hear stories, from women in particular, about folks who felt uncomfortable or bullied during their tattoo consultation or application. To this I say: lose your deposit and walk the eff out of there. You are the customer, you are paying for a service, and you deserve a positive (or at least neutral) experience. No, I am not best friends with every person who has put a tattoo on my body. I still love my tattoos. They aren’t all going to be earth-shattering, connective experiences, and you shouldn’t expect them to be. BUT — and this is a big-ol’ “but” — you deserve to be treated like a human being and you do not deserve to feel pressured, stupid, small, ignored, or scared. Up until a very high level (we’re talking a year waiting list, famous folks), there is always another shop and another artist who will treat you well and provide the same quality tattoo. And at the highest levels, you’ll often find that those artists are there because they naturally excel at making people feel appreciated while also being incredibly talented in their art. These unicorns exist! Find yours!
If you don’t have the strength to walk out of a tattoo studio minus your $50 deposit with integrity in tact, then please, please, please do not walk into one.
4. Bear in mind that a portfolio is what the artist thinks is their best work.
So if it’s iffy or just ok or you’re not totally sold, do like the Talking Heads and “run run run away.” That’s why #1 is so important. You need to see the person’s work, and if you’re not 100%, there are other artists whose work you will really love. I promise. Keep looking.
5. This is not necessarily an emotional journey for the artist.
No matter what they showed you on the reality TV show, this is the artist’s job. Do you feel emotionally moved by your job every single day? Maybe… but probably not. I serve coffee for a living, and yes, some days I have the great joy of connecting on an emotional level with my customers. But not every day, and not every customer. I still try to serve all of them well and the same goes for good tattoo artists. It’s cool if you have an emotional connection to the subject matter of your tattoo, but don’t expect the artist to feel as strongly as you do, and have realistic expectations about your experience. That doesn’t mean you definitely won’t have a poignant connection with your artist! I simply suggest that you be open to experiences in a range and accept that they can all be good in their own way.
6. It hurts.
The end. Pain is subjective. No one can tell you how much it will hurt you. Let’s not talk about that any more than that, and please don’t ask.
7. Take your gosh darn time.
Laser really hurts, people. Most agree that it hurts worse than the tattoo application. And it’s a process. Any tattoo you allow to be put on your body will take multiple sessions and healing time to remove. Even then it is sometimes not possible to entirely remove a tattoo so that the look of your original skin returns. Make sure that you are sure, and if you’re under 25, maybe consider waiting until you’re older to tattoo your neck, hands, or head. It’s not a race and while I am definitely a proponent of facial and hand tattoos (no, really, I love them), I am a still bigger proponent of people being happy with their bodies and feeling comfortable with their decisions. I want you to be delighted with your body when we are seventy and we are all covered in wrinkly-ass tattoos! So let’s both agree to chill out, take our time, consider our decisions, and get together in our bikinis/trunks for cliff-jumping when we’re old heads.
8. Don’t argue cost.
Please. You will have it for the rest of your LIFE. Do you like the artist? Do you like the drawing? Do you like the experience you’ve had thus far? All of those things are far, far more important that squabbling about $25, $50, or $100. Sometimes you can find a great artist at a great price, but generally speaking, as with most things, there is a correlation between quality and cost.
9. Tip 18-22%. Or 15-20%. Just tip, dammit.
Same as your hair dresser or server, the tattoo artist does not receive the full amount of money you paid for the service. So tip them if you are happy with your tattoo, particularly if you plan on getting more tattoos from the same person in the future. Tip every time you are there for a session! When you get to know them, it’s kind of neat to tip in a gift you know they will enjoy but that doesn’t replace the cash tip. After all, they can’t pay their rent/mortgage in wine/Lincoln memorabilia/old taxidermy. But in my experience a thoughtful gift is a-ok.
This is likely a first installment. Sometimes I don’t follow my own advice. That’s ok. That’s life.
What questions do you have? Do you have questions you’d like to ask an artist that you’re not sure where to direct? Fire ’em at me!