Tip: Tear out this page, scan it, print copies and hand it to new clients walking in the door.
So you’re ready for a tattoo, but have no idea how to find the right artist. It’s OK; that’s what we’re here for. The short version of this is for us to simply tell you to do your homework. Treat it like any other good or service and research, research, research. But you might need more specifics, which is fine, because we need to fill some space. Here are some basic thoughts to consider when shopping for the perfect tattoo experience.
Prepare yourself and set your priorities. First, ask yourself why you want to get a tattoo. If your answer doesn’t go any further than “my friends have them and they look cool,” then by all means, just pop into the closest street shop and pick something off the wall, like a set of nautical stars or maybe a vintage airplane. You’ll be as cool as Christian rock. If there’s thought behind your choice, if there’s a genuine desire for self-expression, be choosy. Bide your time and make sure you pair up with an artist who gets you and can jive with your vision. But how do I do that? Keep reading.
Be realistic. Yes, we would all love to squeeze in a session with Joey Hamilton or Kat Von D, but the fact is, there are a handful of them and millions of us. Besides, they might not even end up being the right fit for you anyway. Imagine saving all that money, waiting the year it will take to fit into their schedule, and making the trip to see them only to walk away with a permanent mark that you’re only half-satisfied with—not because they’re not amazing at what they do, but because they weren’t the right one to catch your particular vision. Start local and start accessible.
Match the artist with your vision. The art of tattooing is becoming more and more specialized every day. We celebrate the artists who can do it all, yes, but we still appreciate those artists who have found a niche. Garth Brooks is a great musician, but you wouldn’t ask him to join your death metal band. Neither should you expect a portrait artist to go all Alex Grey on your arm. Come up with the idea and style that you want and then sift through the Instagram accounts of the artists in your region. When you find the closest match, reach out and start a dialog. As you communicate, make sure there’s the proper balance between what you want and what they suggest. They’re the artist, so you should value their input, but don’t fall into the trap of agreeing to something you don’t want just because they made a good pitch. You’re hiring an artist, not a salesman.
Verify quality. This should be a no-brainer, but in journalism you’re taught to keep things on a third-grade level, so let’s pretend we’re all idiots, lest we leave out the less fortunate. Obviously, if the artist’s portfolio looks good, there’s a pretty good chance he or she is a legitimate choice. But as artists in the space love to say, “You’re only as good as your last tattoo.” Is the artist putting out consistent work or are they just blasting their rare forays into quality on social media? What do the reviews say? Nearly every online platform has a review section. Read all of them. What about the shop? Are they reputable? Are they maintaining proper hygiene standards? Don’t cut corners here.
F*ck the assholes. We mean that figuratively, not literally. If you’re dealing with an artist whose ego can’t fit inside his studio, chances are, there won’t be room for you either. The experience of getting the tattoo is almost as important as the tattoo itself, especially your first. You’re going to be nervous. It’s going to hurt—a lot. The last thing you want is some self-absorbed Primadonna with no empathy tied to that permanent memory on your skin.
Don’t bargain hunt. Everyone wants to save a buck, especially in today’s world where the cost of living is far outpacing the median income. But tattoos are a lifetime commitment—and you can’t put a price tag on that. If you can’t afford the level of quality you want, wait until you can. The only thing less cool than having no tattoos is having a shitty tattoo. You can be a cheapskate in plenty of other areas to offset your tattoo cost. Smoke out of Chinese glass. Drink PBR instead of your snooty, dry-hopped IPA—and order it by the pitcher. Buy a PC instead of a Mac. Granted, none of these are the best life choices, but they’re temporary sacrifices, minor missteps that are far more manageable than a mark on your skin you’ll have to explain away for the rest of your life. Save the haggling for the swap meet. Save the money for your body.