When you decide to hire a tattoo artist to carve into your skin, you're entrusting them with your health and even your life. On top of that, you're also trusting them to create a piece of art that can't be erased if mistakes are made. How do you know if an artist is worth your trust? This article will help you to train your eye so you know what to look for--and what to walk away from.
So, my last article talked about the bad tattooers – scratchers – and how to avoid them. This time, we’re going to talk about good tattooers and how to find them!
The good news is, there are many excellent tattoo artists around the world, and no matter where you live, there’s probably at least one not too far from you. But when it comes to seeking out a tattoo artist, you don’t just want a good one – you want one that’s right for the particular tattoo you’re getting.
The Best Isn’t Always the Best
Every tattoo artist has his/her own style, personal strengths and even weaknesses. There are very few who can do every style of tattoo with the same proficiency. Even some of the best and most famous tattoo artists in the industry may not be a good choice for a tattoo that isn’t their personal style.
Take, for instance, Paul Booth. If you’re not familiar with him, check out his website, Last Rites. Paul is one of the most well-known tattoo artist in the world; he’s so busy, he has a two-year waiting list for clients. He’s extremely talented and a great guy to boot. But his personal tattoo style is dark, macabre, horror, blood, and scary stuff in general. He also works almost entirely in black and gray. So, would you go to Paul for a colorful cartoon kitten tattoo? That would be rather ridiculous. If you want a tattoo from Paul, you get something that allows him to work at his best. If you want a colorful cartoon kitten, you find an artist that prefers that style.
Is there anything wrong with a tattoo artist sticking to their preferred style? Television shows like Ink Master give the impression that a “well-rounded” artist who can do all styles adeptly is better. And to an extent, that may be true – it always serves the interests of the tattoo artist themselves if they can work well in varied styles. But, I’m sure you’ve heard the old phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Sometimes when a person divides their attention on too many different skills, they never become masterful at any of them. When an artist focuses on one style, they are able to hone and perfect it to a level that a more “rounded” artist would never have the time to attain.
Finding the Best Artist For You
To find the best artist for your tattoo, the first thing you need to do is decide exactly what you want. Since tattoos are permanent, if you don’t have a very clear image in your mind of what you want, then maybe you’re not ready for a tattoo just yet. Once you’re sure on the design and style, you can start looking for an artist.
Next, start visiting tattoo studios in your local area. Don’t be influenced by public reviews or rumors; go and check out the shops yourself, speak to the artists, ask questions, check out their portfolios, and watch them work for a while if you can. As you’re doing all of this, you’ll be looking for the following:
Does the artist excel in the style of tattoo you’re looking for? How would you grade their quality of work in their portfolio? More Info
Is the artist friendly; do they make you feel comfortable and welcome to ask questions? More Info
Does the shop appear clean? Is the restroom clean, too? Does each artist have their own space to work, and are the work stations pristine? More Info
Is the shop up-to-date on all required certifications, licenses, and autoclave tests? Are they happy to show you proof of these things, or do they behave as if they have something to hide? More Info
Does the artist follow cross-contamination prevention methods? More Info
Can the artist translate your idea to paper in a way that you’re happy with? More Info
Does the artist’s fee sound reasonable for their skill level and does it coincide with your personal budget? More Info
Once you’ve found an artist who you feel you can work well with, make your appointment! But what if you don’t find anyone locally? The next step is to branch out your search. Neighboring cities or even neighboring states, if you’re willing to travel. Take your time and talk to as many artists as it takes to find the right person for the job. Tattoos are for life!
Too Far, Too Expensive
What do you do if you know exactly what artist you want for the job, but they’re just too far away or too expensive? Well, you have a few options:
- If they’re too far away, you could see if they travel. Many tattoo artists do guest artist spots at other shops, and many also go to tattoo conventions. There’s always a chance they may be planning to travel somewhere closer to you, and maybe you could see about getting an appointment with them at that time.
- If they’re too far away and don’t travel, you may simply need to save up the money to go see them if it’s really important to you.
- You could also talk to/email the artist and tell them that you really love their style but you’re just not able to get to them, but do they recommend another artist in your area with similar talents? Tattoo artist circles are very close; everyone knows everyone, so they just might be able to make a good recommendation for you.
- If they’re too expensive, do not haggle. It’s very disrespectful to suggest that an artist isn’t worth his/her price. You can, however, tell them what your budget is and ask if they could do a smaller version within your limit. Or you may just need to take some time to save the money you need to get it done exactly the way you want it.
Most of us don’t have wads of cash just laying around, and tattoos can be expensive. They’re also time-consuming, painful, and require care. Why would you go through all of that but not take a little extra time to make sure you’re getting the best tattoo possible? Take your time now and you’ll enjoy your ink for years to come.
Does the Artist Excel? In order to know how you would grade or rate a tattoo, it’s important to know what’s possible. If you haven’t looked at many tattoos lately, you may not even know how amazing the potential is these days. On my grading scale, for example, this Sith Lord tattoo is an A+ piece of work. This Geisha tattoo, however, is a D at best. You have to decide what level of quality you want and how much you’re willing to spend for it.
Is the Artist Friendly? A personal connection with your artist is very important. It doesn’t matter if they’re an amazing tattooer if you don’t like them or vice versa. Getting tattooed is a very intimate and even bonding experience with your tattoo artist, so make sure you enjoy their company as much as their talent!
Is the Shop Clean? Be nosy when you’re visiting a shop for the first time, but do it politely. Is the waiting area clean and neat? Are surfaces dust free? Is the floor mopped, toilet scrubbed, sink clean and toiletries stocked (especially soap)? Attention to detail in those areas (or lack thereof) can give you a good idea of how clean other areas may be. Don’t invade an artist’s space, but if you can peek into a workstation, does it appear neat and clean? There shouldn’t be any trash or open tools anywhere if no one is currently working.
The waiting area should be clean, organized, and welcoming like the one here at Dragon Moon Tattoo, in Glen Burnie, MD.
Do They Follow Sterilization Protocols? Ask to see their sterilization area – there should be a separate room or cordoned area for sterilization with an autoclave, ultrasonic, scrubbing sink, and biohazard waste disposal. They should also have recent spore test results, which is a mandated test (usually monthly) to ensure that the autoclave sterilizer is working properly. They should be more than happy to show you their latest spore test results and answer any questions you have about their sterilization routine.
The Sterilization Room at Dragon Moon Tattoo. Not every sterile room looks exactly like this, but it should be pretty darn close.
Is the Artist’s Work Area Sterile? There are a lot of things to watch out for when an artist is working, but at the very least you should be satisfied that they are keeping themselves, their client and their work area clean. As soon as one client is finished, the area is to be immediately cleaned and scrubbed. Nothing should be left lying around, and everything should be sprayed down with a special germicide.
Workstations should be pristine if no one is currently working.
Any equipment that can potentially be exposed to pathogens but can't be sterilized should be protected with some kind of barrier, like the plastic you see around this tattoo machine and the cord leading out from it. This is not required by law in all areas, but is just good practice and shows the artist cares about their client's safety.
Do You Click With the Artist? Sometimes no matter how hard you try to explain your idea, and no matter how hard the artist tries to draw what you’re thinking, it just doesn’t work. Don’t give in and say okay to a tattoo you’re not absolutely in love with. You may need to look for an artist who understands your vision better.
Is the Price Acceptable? Haggling with a professional artist over their price is never okay, but it is your right to say that it’s just simply more than you can afford. If you feel they are genuinely asking for too much, then find someone else. If you think the price is acceptable but it just isn’t in your price range, ask if the tattoo can be simplified to work within your budget. Or, you could just put the tattoo on hold while you save up the money for the tattoo.