Friday, November 1, 2013

How to Build a Portfolio

 A tattoo artist's portfolio is the primary means of presenting examples of his or her work to the public.  The construction and presentation of a good portfolio helps drive interest in your work and highlights your style and areas of expertise.  A poorly constructed portfolio, even one containing amazing work, can diminish your client's confidence in your skill and professionalism.  With the advent of digital media, it behooves the tattoo artist to maintain both a physical and digital portfolio.

 A physical portfolio should be contained in a binder, photo album, or book.  A binder offers the greatest flexibility as you can select different sleeves formatted for various photo sizes.  Binders, however, often suggest either cheapness or a lack of professionalism.  Photo albums are far more common among shop-based tattoo artists, offering a more professional appearance.  Generally, photo albums are limited to one photo format, such as 4X6", and tend to be more costly than a binder.  Digital printing has made creating a photo book a feasible possibility.  Artists simply upload their photo to a web-based printing service, select the format and text, and print their portfolio in book form.  This portfolio has the greatest professional appearance, but is also the most costly.  Updating your binder or photo album portfolio with a new tattoo is simply a matter of printing a new photo and inserting the photo into the portfolio.  Adding new work to a book means reprinting the entire book.  Outside of your portfolio, you should include your name, logo, or photo.  

 Along with selecting the type of physical portfolio you will have, you must also select the tattoo images you will place in it.  Quality is far more important than quantity.  You want to feature your best tattoos, the ones you feel were executed well and are the best representation of your work.  You also want to display the best photos of your work, avoiding low-resolution photos (300 dpi or larger is best), blurry images, or images with poor lighting.  While photo manipulation software such as Photoshop can help overcome some issues with a photo, it is preferred that the photo be presented with minimal alteration.  While this should go without saying, your portfolio should contain strictly your own work, not the work of others of a style you feel you would like to pursue. 

Another question that arises during the tattoo selection process is what tattoos to feature.  Should an artist display those tattoos that represent his style and interest exclusively, or should a variety of tattoos be displayed?  For example, an artist who has a passion for portraiture may elect to display only portrait tattoos.  The results is that a client who views that portfolio may assume that the artist cannot or will not tattoo script or symbols, and that may mean that the artist loses that business.  Some artists would be happy to let that business go as they are earning what they want working exclusively in their preferred genre, while others want the challenge of doing a range of tattoo types and welcome all clients. 

 Some portfolios are chronological in nature, displaying the bulk of the tattooist's work from the beginning of their careers to the present, beginning with the most recent tattoos first.  This is a good way to add bulk to your portfolio, but is generally unnecessary.  Most clients do not look beyond the first few pages of the portfolio, and those that do reach the last few pages may assume that older works are representative of the tattooist's current abilities.  

 The images selected for your physical portfolio should also be included in your digital portfolio and the same criteria apply.  When applying for a position at a tattoo studio, a physical portfolio is preferred (though this trend is shifting).  Clients may find the digital portfolio more convenient and accessible.  Images in digital format (and possibility physical as well) should include a "watermark", a design or logo which indicates that the image is owned by the artist in order to make things more difficult for those who might wish to pirate the image.  Some artists go as far as to include their shop contact information in the hopes that the image is shared on various sites driving new clients to their shop.  You may wish to upload your portfolio to a variety of sites for this reason.  Also, it may be fruitful to keep a copy of your portfolio on your smart-phone for those occasions when someone you are speaking with wishes to see your work outside the shop.

  Maintenance of your portfolio includes both upkeep of the physical book and regularly adding new images.  Walk-in clients can be particularly hard on a physical portfolio, forcibly flipping pages resulting in tears, damage to the photos, and even damage to the book itself.  It is a good idea to have a back-up portfolio on hand, either just a second set of photos or a completely new book.  Unfortunately, good portfolios have been known to leave a tattoo shop, often to be used by less experienced artists elsewhere as "samples of their work".  It never hurts to be prepared.  Including a water-mark, logo, or even your studio name and address in your images, both the physical and digital portfolios, can help prevent someone from claiming your work as their own.

 A good portfolio is a tattooist's best sales tool.  Good photos of great tattoos in a professional format will showcase your skills and make your clients more confident about your work.  Like everything you may do as a tattooist, paying attention to all the little details will carry you a long way and be well worth the investment.

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tattoo Healing Process

 Something I get asked a lot is, "what happens while a tattoo heals?".  It had been a while since I had gotten a tattoo, so when Kyle Giffen was kind enough to tattoo me this last July, it seemed like an opportune time to document the process.

 Now, I titled this post "A Tattoo Healing Process" instead of "The Tattoo Healing Process" because everyone has a different body chemistry.  Some people heal faster, some go through more scabbing, etc.  I would consider my experience common to what should happen if you take good care of your tattoo while it heals.  Kind of a base-line example.

 Day 1.  Beautiful, isn't she.  Kyle did a fantastic job, putting his own spin on one of my designs.  This tattoo ROCKS!  See all that redness in the green?  That is normal.  Just a mix of some seeping blood-plasma barely coming to the surface and irritation from the tattoo process.  A tattoo, done properly, should not bleed.  The needle doesn't go deep enough to actually draw blood.

 Day 2.  Still have some redness.  The tattoo is still an open wound.  The seepage isn't as bad, and is probably more noticeable contrasted against the green ink.  The first layer of skin has yet to grow over the tattoo.  Something I forgot from my last tattoo was how much direct sunlight HURTS!  There is a reason you are told to keep your tattoo out of the sun as much as possible, and during these early stages, my tattoo reminded me.  

 Day 3.  I've been showering like normal, but avoiding scrubbing the tattoo.  Instead, I get a lather going in my hand and pat the suds on my tat.  I dry the tattoo the same way, patting instead of wiping.  What little redness remains at this point is from irritation, and she is starting to take on a faded look.  That first layer of skin is getting ready to peel. 

 Day 4.  The redness is almost completely gone at this point.  It is still warm to the touch. Direct sunlight still hurts.

 Day 5.  Starting to see a little bit of scabbing and the slightest beginning of a peel.  

 Day 6.  Now the skin is really starting to loosen up.  I am apply lotion at least 3 times a day after every wash.  These pictures have been taken after the tattoo has been cleaned and moisturized.

 Day 7.  More scabbing and peeling.  You want to keep the tattoo moisturized to avoid the skin peeling off too soon or the scabs cracking and falling off early.  If the skin peels too soon or the scabs crack badly, you might bleed, and along with the blood ink will be carried out leaving a faded area in your tat.

 Day 8.  The peeling is really going at this point.  

 Day 9.  Here is a picture of the tattoo before I clean it and apply moisturizer.  You will be tempted by the look of the tattoo alone to pick at it, let alone the itching of your skin encouraging you to scratch.  DON'T DO IT!  Better to suffer through a little itching than to suffer through the condemnation of your artist AND the pain of a touch-up.  If you thought getting the tattoo hurt, try re-applying it!

 Day 10.  Most of the first peel has completely fallen away.  There is still some peeling going on, and the hard scabs where the skin was really worked are beginning to form.

 Day 11.  As you can see, her right arm was really worked.  Not over-worked, but the healing is rougher there than anywhere else.  This is because Kyle was really working a color blend in a very tiny space.  

 Day 12.  Starting to look bright and shiny again!  You have to love Eternal Inks.  Years ago, the hardest part of my tattoo to heal was the black.  This tattoo though, the black hardly scabbed at all.

 Day 13.  The scabs have fallen off on her right arm, and there is a little redness from the irritation and the fresh skin underneath.  However, no bleeding, which is awesome.

 Day 14.  As expected, the redness under that scab all but faded away, leaving a nice, vibrant color behind.  The tattoo looks as good, if not better than the day it was applied.

 15.  This shot was taken about a month later.  My hair is finally growing back over the tat, which makes it look a little more faded than it really is.  The skin feels completely normal, though it can take up to six months for the skin to be fully healed.  The two-week rule is generally how long it takes to be healed enough to safely touch-up the tattoo.

 So, there you have it.  This is what a tattoo healing process should look like for most people if the tattoo is cared for properly.

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Monday, June 24, 2013

How a Tattoo is Priced

"A Good Tattoo Isn't Cheap.  A Cheap Tattoo Isn't Good."

 This is simply a truism about tattoos that is applicable almost universally with a few rare instances or circumstances that disprove the rule. It is ALWAYS in your best interest to shop for quality.  Pricing a tattoo is a subjective art.  Prices are offered as either a flat-rate, generally for small tattoos, or an hourly rate for larger pieces.  A price on a tattoo is open to negotiation, within limits, and is dependent on what the artist thinks his or her effort is worth, how much they want to do the tattoo, and how much they need to do the tattoo.

 As a collector, pricing should be your last consideration when getting a tattoo.  First you should be concerned about the quality and reputation of the shops you are considering.  Then you should find a knowledgeable artist in a reputable shop who is skilled in the style and subject matter you are interested in.  After those concerns have been addressed, then it is time for you to discuss price.  It is worth your money to get your work from a good shop and an artist who knows what they are doing.  A tattoo is an investment in yourself, so don't go cheap.

 The price of a tattoo may be presented as either flat rate or an hourly rate.  An artist who offers a flat rate comes up with an estimate of what a tattoo of that design's complexity, number of colors, size, and location on the body will cost for him to do.  Artist develop an eye for pricing based on the size and complexity of the design with a rough idea to how long it will take them to do and what they wish to make per hour.  If the tattoo is on a spot that presents its own issues; feet, hands, ribs, chests, breasts, or intimate areas, then the artist adjusts the price up to compensate.  A flat rate is typically offered for small tattoos or pre-designed (tattoo flash) tattoos.  The advantage of flat-rate pricing is that both the client and the artist know exactly how much money will be exchanged for the tattoo.

 An hourly rate is typically offered on large pieces that will take several sessions to complete.  Again, the artist knows how much they would like to earn an hour, and can probably offer an estimate of how long a tattoo might take, but due to the tattoos size the exact amount of time is uncertain.  Tattoo sleeves, socks, body-suits, back pieces, touch-ups, and cover-ups are often offered at an hourly rate.  The advantage of hourly-pricing is that the tattoo can be broken down into sessions, with segments of time being purchased by the collector from his artist.  The collector does not need to pay for the entire tattoo up-front, and on future sessions can pay only the amount that is comfortable for them, getting a smaller or larger amount of work depending on the amount paid.

 Tattoo pricing is subjective, and generally open to negotiation.  Rare is an artist or shop that has a rate on any tattoo "set".  A tattoo artist typically offers a price for what they think is fair for their effort.  While some artists may try to "size-up" their customer and offer a price based partially on what they think the customer may be able to pay, this is considered an unprofessional and unnecessary practice.  If your work is worth $200 an hour, it will fetch $200 an hour regardless of a particular customer's ability to pay.

 The price offered, however, may not be the final word on the tattoo price.  This is because a tattoo artist is driven by other motivators than money alone.  The tattoo artist may very much want to do your tattoo.  The design you have selected or the concept you have in mind may be intriguing to the artists and something he or she would like to have in their portfolio.  This is why it is beneficial to seek an artist who's style you enjoy and who has some familiarity with the subject matter.  An artist who wants to do your tattoo may be willing to take less than they normally would to do the work.

 Another factor is how badly the artist needs to do your tattoo.  Tattoo artists have bills to pay like everyone else.  If an artist is feeling the crunch from upcoming bills, has expensive plans in the future, or if he or she  is having a slow day, then their may be room for negotiation.  While you cannot possibly know when an artist's bills are due or what their plans are, you know that their rhythms probably coincide with the rest of society.  Thus, the end of the month and the middle of the month might be more needful times for an artist.  Also, since a tattoo artist makes most of his or her money on the weekends, Monday through Thursday are probably a little less expensive days to visit an artist than Friday through Sunday.  The less the artist has going on, the more likely they are to charge less to simply earn some money on a slow day.

 Negotiation should always be considered a possibility.  It never hurts to ask if you can get a better price.  How you ask, and how you respond, can either help or hurt your price.  They may not look it, but tattoo artists can be a little on the sensitive-side when it come to their work.  Telling an artist that they are asking for too much for a "drawing on the skin" tells the artist you have no respect for the industry or for them as an artist.  Generally, a tattoo artist offers what they feel is a fair price for the work requested, so questioning their judgement suggests you lack confidence in their skills.  Telling an artist that you have gotten better offers from other tattoo artists or shops is also a poor strategy.  More often than not, you will be invited to seek that artist, and to come back for an even more expensive cover-up (because you get what you pay for).

 The best strategy for negotiating the price if the price offered is out of your comfort zone is to simply say so. "That is more than I am prepared to pay, but I really want the work" almost always gets some wiggle-room on the price.  The artist may come down a small amount, which is usually the least they will take to do the tattoo, or they may ask what you are hoping to pay for the work.  The artist will take that information and may offer to do a smaller or less detailed version of your design, or offer to do the work in sessions.  In any case, letting the artist know that you want the work, but are simply short on cash, is far better than suggesting the work is over-priced or that a better deal can be gotten elsewhere.

 Again (because this point cannot be emphasized enough), pricing should be your last concern when getting a tattoo.  If you find a reputable and safe tattoo studio with an artist who is skilled in the style you like and is enthusiastic about your tattoo, they will more than likely work with you on a price and give you a tattoo that is worth every penny.  A little research can go a long way toward saving not just cash, but regret over your tattoo in the future.  Finding just the right shop and artist for you can also go a long way toward saving you money on future tattoos.  Keep in mind, while you are saving money on ink, that artists take tips, and a good tip can also lead to savings in the future.

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Do You Want a Tattoo? Things to Consider Before Getting Your First Tattoo.

 Getting a tattoo should not be a spur-of-the-moment decision, although it often is.  The tattoo you got that night out partying with your friends might be a momento of  a wonderful evening when you let your hair down, but more often than not it is a reminder of why you should not drink in excess.  Getting a tattoo should be a carefully thought out decision, not just what and where but if you should even get one.  Here are some questions to consider before getting your first tattoo.

 1) Are you comfortable with a "permanent" marking in your skin?

 Tattoos are "permanent".  While they may fade and distort in time, your tattoo will more than likely be in your skin well after you have vacated your body.  A tattoo is a permanent "wound" in your skin.  The ink is inserted into your dermis, or your second layer of skin, where your immune system seals what it cannot carry away.  Barring laser-removal treatment (which is far more expensive than the tattoo itself and not 100% successful), your tattoo will be around for your grandchildren to ask you about.  Are you willing to make that kind of commitment to having a design on your body, any design, and are you willing to live with the potential fall-out from friends, family, and employers for having ink?   If so, then a tattoo may be worth getting.

 2) Are you getting a tattoo for you, or because someone else wants you to?

 Your tattoo is your tattoo.  It should be a reflection of who you are, what is important to you, or a way for your to enhance your image.  You will have your tattoo for life, and no one else can live your life but you.  Getting a tattoo because someone wants you to is just a bad idea, especially when it comes to getting the name of your significant other.  Doing so is often the "kiss of death" in a relationship, done as a show of commitment or fidelity while not being willing to take actual steps toward officiating that relationship.  The WORST thing I've seen is when one person in the relationship is getting the other's name, but the other person is not getting their name.  Ask yourself, if the only reason your getting the tattoo is because person X is in your life, would you still want it if they were not?  If the answer is no, you would not get this tattoo without person X being around to appreciate it, then do not get the tattoo.

 3) Do you handle pain well? 

 In case you have not heard, tattoos hurt.  While it is no where near an unbearable amount of pain, it is a sensation that must be endured if you want a tattoo, often for several hours.  The more ticklish or sensitive the spot on the body, the more it will hurt.  I liken the pain to a cat-scratch across a sunburn.  It will get your attention.  Your tattoo may require multiple sessions as well as a "touch-up" session.  Touching up the wounded area will hurt even more.  On average, a tattoo takes about 6 months to heal, although most tattoos can be touched-up after 2 weeks.
 The pain of the tattoo needle is not the only part that may hurt.  To give you your tattoo, you may need to sit or lay in an awkward position for long periods of time.  You may feel nauseous or light-headed during your tattoo.  Days after the tattoo, you may experience stiffness in the area that was tattooed.  The phrase "short is the pain, long is the ornament" expresses how most tattooed people feel about the pain aspect of their work, but while getting a tattoo the pain will not seem "short".  Numbing creams and pain killers have little effect, and can actually make the pain more difficult to endure.
 So, if you get a tattoo, be prepared to deal with some irritation.

4) Are you aware of the health risks involved?

 Even under the best of conditions, there are health risks involved in getting a tattoo.  Your skin will have a large area abraded and a foreign substance inserted into it.  The abrasion will take several weeks or even months to heal, and will be open to potential infection during that healing process.  The substances used to create the pigments and the carrier for your ink may cause an allergic reaction in some, further complicating the healing process and increasing the risk of infection.

 Furthermore, not all conditions are ideal.  When even the best shops can have health problems arise from the nature of tattooing, the high demand for tattoos means that many disreputable persons and establishments are offering tattoos while not adhering to the strictest standards.  In addition, most shops require you to sign a waiver absolving them of any responsibility for the inherent risks involved in your tattoo.  If something does happen, your not likely to be able to sue the shop involved.
 Poor aftercare is the biggest contributor to health issues.  The shop you got your tattoo in is probably cleaner than your home and where you work.  The instructions your artist gives you to care for your tattoo only decrease the likelihood of problems and ONLY IF YOU FOLLOW THEM.  Tattoo clients are loathe to admit it, but the majority of issues while healing are the result of poor aftercare.
 Finally, if you have special health concerns like a compromised immune system, hemophilia, diabetes, or you are prone to seizures, you should consult a physician before getting a tattoo.  While tattoo artists are generally knowledgeable and experienced with such issues, only your health provider can provide any real assurance that you are healthy enough to be tattooed.  

 5) Will you be tolerant of any social backlash for being tattooed?

 Yes, we have come a long way as an industry since the days when tattoos were considered exclusively for sailors, criminals, and harlots.  Still, some people maintain a grudge against tattoos.  Many look upon getting a tattoo as taking an unnecessary risk, both with your health and your social-status.  Having a tattoo to some suggests that you are irresponsible. Some employers frown on tattoos (a recent study suggested that more than half of the hiring managers who have tattoos THEMSELVES would not hire a tattooed applicant), and many religions and religious organizations take a dim view of tattoos. While you intend for your ink to be a personal expression, you cannot predict how people will receive it, and you may give an impression you did not intend.

 6) Are you willing to do some research before getting a tattoo?

 Far too often, a client will walk into a tattoo studio and ask to see some designs.  They have no idea what they want.  All they know is that they want a tattoo.  Often, it is their first tattoo, and they want it for whatever rewards they think being tattooed will bring them.  Getting a tattoo is a process, and the more you understand about that process, the happier you will be with your ink.  Take your time to decide on a design or at least a concept, including placement on the body, that you really want.  Visit several shops and discuss your idea with different artists, getting their feedback about your design.  Look at portfolios and check out the studio's reputation.  When you settle on a studio and an artist, negotiate price and be prepared to pay what the artist is asking for.  Going for less tattoo because you cannot afford it in one session leaves you with a tattoo you may regret, and trying to "low-ball" your artist just frustrates the guy who may be sticking you with a needle for several hours.

 7) Are you prepared to be responsible for how your tattoo turns out?

 A tattoo is an elective process.  The function of the artist and the studio is to facilitate the process of giving you a tattoo.  You pick the design.  You select the shop and the artist.  You determine the location on your body for the tattoo.  Others may have some suggestions, but ultimately the decisions are yours to make.  Most studios will require that you sign a waiver stating that you understand that a tattoo is a permanent marking, that the process is painful, that their are risks, and that you assume full responsibility for those risks. This includes issues with the tattoo that arise during and after the procedure.  Once you sign that document, you are absolving your artist and your studio of any responsibilities for your tattoo.  Most studios and artists want to maintain a good reputation and relationship with their clients and will work with you if problems arise, but it is ultimately on you.

 8) Is there an alternative to getting a tattoo that you would be happier with?

 A number of options exist for those who think they might want a tattoo but aren't certain.  T-shirts and "tattooed sleeves" are available to give anyone the look of having tattoos without having ever been touched by a tattoo needle.  Adult temporary tattoos can be purchased pre-made or printed from your home computer.  Latex paint, cosmetic airbrushing, and body-markers can all provide a temporary alternative to being tattooed.  Henna tattoos stain the skin for as much as three weeks.  Any of these options provide a sense of what having a tattoo is like without the pain or the commitment.

 9) Are you prepared for your tattoo to change as you age and your body changes?

 Tattoos are in the skin.  The grow, stretch, shrink, and wrinkle as the skin changes.  Your body will never stop trying to remove the ink from your skin, thus the tattoo will blur and fade.  Exposure to sunlight or abrasive materials and procedures may also damage your tattoo.  While different products exist to help preserve your tattoo, these can only limit the effects of time.  The tattoo is a "permanent" mark, but its appearance can change drastically as your body changes.  

 With these things in mind, you may be ready for your first tattoo.  Take your time making your decision.  A tattoo is an investment in your personal expression and identity, and should not be gotten hastily. 

Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Monday, May 27, 2013

Tattooing in Trade

 "Trade Work" is something that most tattoo artists do now and then.  You need your car fixed, and you run into an auto-mechanic who is looking for tattoo work, so you work out a trade.  You need a new cellphone and want to upgrade, not necessarily to the latest model but something better than the dinosaur you carry in your pocket.  So, you post an add saying you will trade tattoos for a phone and pick from what is offered.

 Being willing to work in trade is usually good for the client and for the tattooist. Both get something they want by either doing something they enjoy doing or by not having to shell out a wad of cash for something they want.  Most tattooist do trade work "occasionally", and typically do not advertise that they are willing to do so unless they need something.  With the economy being what it is, being willing to work in trade can be a lucrative practice, if you know what you are doing.

 One of the negatives of working in trade is the perception that doing so cheapens your work.  Other professions generally do not work in trade... or at least that is the perception.  In fact, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals often trade their services with clients who have something to offer them, but those transactions are usually above the head of John Q. Public.  Being a tattooist, essentially an independent contractor in most shops, affords us the opportunity to set our own rates and methods of exchange.  However, rule number one in doing trade work is to make certain you and the owner of your studio have a mutual understanding of not only that you are doing tattoos in trade, but how you are advertising the fact and what the split will be on a tattoo done in trade.

 Generally, it is not a good idea to advertise that you are working in a particular shop when doing trade work, as it again may lessen your standing in some people's eyes.  Also, if you represent the shop as doing work for trade, it is likely that people will show up expecting all the artist in your shop to do so, even if it just you.  You do not want the studio to be perceived as a kind of pawnshop.

 You should also trade in items that you are somewhat familiar with.  It is in the nature of the game for clients to over-estimate the value of their trade, and if you do not know enough about what it is you are trading for you may be taken advantage of.  The more familiar you are with what you are trading for the better off you will be.

 As I said, the client will almost always over-estimate the value of what they are trading for.  They may not take into account depreciation and expect to receive for their item what they paid for it.  They might assume that the collector's value immediately equates to what the item will sell for on the market (it almost never does).  You must do your homework!  Have a venue to sell your trades, like eBay.  Inform your clients that you will estimate the value of the item based on WHAT IT IS BEING BID FOR on eBay.  Stress this point to them.  The "Buy Now" price for a new item does not apply to their used item on auction.  However you determine the value of an item, stick to your guns.

 A good trade is one where both sides come away feeling like while they didn't get all they could, they did better than they might have.  This is another tact to take when haggling over the value of an item... And, you will haggle.  If the client feels that the value of an item is more than you are willing to offer, they can sell the item on their own and come back to you with the cash, pocketing the excess for themselves.  Your willingness to trade should be viewed as a convenience to the client, not a need you are fulfilling for yourself. A good rule of thumb is to take whatever you think you will get for your trade and reduce that amount by 20%.  That is not for the client, but to set the proper expectations for yourself and your shop.  It may mean that you do a $200 tattoo for a $150 item, but if you and the shop expect to only get $150, then no one will be disappointed.

 Be prepared to inspect the item, confirming its function and authenticity before doing the tattoo.  If you trade for a video-game system, have a television and a game for the system on hand and play a few rounds.  Also, when trading for an item, insist that all its components be included.  Do not take electronics without a power-cord, for example.  If the client tells you that a power-cord can be purchased with ease for a little cash, advise them that is should not be a problem for them to make the purchase based on their assessment.  ALWAYS be suspect of every trade!

 When selling your traded items, the fastest method is not always the best!  Be prepared to take a week to sell your newly acquired treasure.  Running down to the pawnshop is never a good idea.  With this in mind, have your finances arranged to have the needed time to covert your item to the amount in cash you expected to receive.  If you are trading because the bills are due next week, you should re-think your situation and insist on cash upfront.

 How you split your earnings with the shop will depend on your shop's owner.  Most will let you use the same split for cash tattoos; if you priced the tattoo at $200, you think that is what you will get for your trade, and your split is 60/40, you will owe your shop $80.  Your shop owner may be willing to wait for you to get paid out for your trade, but it is best to give them their piece out of your own pocket rather than making them wait.  Of course, if the shop insists on getting a percentage of the end value of the trade, they will need to wait along with you.  In either case, be honest and realistic about the value of your work and the traded item.  You don't want to tell the owner of your shop that you charged the shop minimum for a tattoo and the client gave you a PS3 gaming system and 20 games.  Be fair in your dealings.

 Also, when trading, you are assuming the risks.  If said game system worked fine in the shop and turned to dust the next day, do not expect your shop to eat what they had earned on your tattoo.  Owners are generally good people and will probably be willing to let it go, but will not be happy if that kind of thing happens repeatedly.  If you quoted $200 worth of work and can only get $150 for the item, you should take the loss or you should have taken only cash.

 Trading for tattoo work can bring you business when others are struggling to find clients, but you have to know what your doing.  Remember also that as good as a trade might be, cash is always king!

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

How to Set Up a Tattoo Workstation

 When setting up a workstation to tattoo, your key focus is creating an aseptic area.  You want to limit the possibility that anything you do or touch will lead to the contamination of your tools (beyond the tattoo), yourself, and your client.  Because of this most pressing need, a proper workstation is only possible in a licensed tattoo studio.  Even when extraordinary measures are taken to set up a station elsewhere, the risk remains greater than with a studio where strict guidelines are in force. A space dedicated to tattooing where procedures are regularly followed to avoid cross-contamination is ideal.  Even in a studio, the space used to tattoo should not be used for any other purpose.

 A tattoo workstation should be a clean area.  It is not an office, not a drawing room, and most definitely not a cafeteria.  Drawing, paperwork, discussions with clients before and after the tattoo, Internet research, and other business functions of the studio should be performed outside the station as much as possible.  While this may not always be practical, it is the best possible practice.  The minimal required items for the tattoo process should be kept in the station.  Everything else should be stored elsewhere.  Eating and drinking should never occur in a station.

 A workstation begins with a clean, non-porous work-surface.  All furnishings within a station should be non-porous; metal, glass, plastic, vinyl, etc.  Furnishings should be clean and well-maintained.  Torn vinyl, for example, should be repaired or the item replaced.  The regular maintenance of furnishings also prevents issues arising with those furnishings which might delay the tattoo application or cause the tattooist to touch things during the tattoo he or she might not have touched. Keeping the furnishings and area clean, disinfected, and dust-free will protect yourself and your client.

Clean, non-porous work surface.

 Knowing what, and when, to touch items reduces the likelihood of cross-contamination.

 Begin by thoroughly washing your hands.  Wash with anti-bacterial soap and warm water between your fingers, on the front and the back of the hands, and up to your elbows.  It is a good idea to keep your fingernails trimmed.

 Put on a new pair of medical gloves.  Many stations mount a glove box near the entrance of the station in order to facilitate the donning of gloves when entering, as well as a wastebasket near the entrance for removing gloves before leaving the station.

 Spray all work surfaces; tables, chairs, and trays, with MadaCide or a similar, medical-grade disinfectant.  While some states require it and others do not, it is a good idea to label all bottles containing liquids in your station, if only to allow the client to ascertain what is being used. Allow the MadaCide to sit on the work surfaces for 3 minutes before wiping the surfaces with clean paper towels.

Treat with MadaCide.
  All bottles and containers placed on your table should be made of non-porous materials and should also be cleaned with Madacide.  Again, place only what you will need for the tattoo on the table; ink cap jars, rubber band jar, green soap bottle, other spray bottles (depending on your process), inks, ink cap tray (if you use one), paper towels, power supply, clip-cord, etc. The foot pedal will be plugged in and placed on the floor.

Clean equipment and non-porous containers.
 All liquid containers should be full before being placed on the table, as a measure to avoid the need to refill the bottle during the tattoo.

 Bag or place barrier film on all surfaces that you will come into contact with while doing the tattoo; green soap bottle, other bottles, power supply, clip cord, and work lamps tend to be the most common items touched.
Bags and Barrier Film.
 Place a dental bib, plastic-side down, on your table or in your work-tray.  In a pinch, a layer of plastic wrap topped with a layer of paper towels can also be used.  The plastic protects the surface it is on, making clean-up easier, and the absorbent side helps manage the spill of fluids that will inevitably occur.

Place dental bib for added protection.

 Ideally, ink bottles should only be touched with gloved hands, and then only with clean gloves.  Only place on your work-table the bottles you will actually be using, if no other convenient options for bottle placement exist.  Ink bottles should be opened and closed with a clean paper towel to absorb any excess ink that may spill out of the bottle when pouring ink.  Ink bottles should be cleaned with disinfectant like all other surfaces in your work area when the tattoo is complete.

 If you do not have a paper towel dispenser in your station, separate a stack of paper towels from your paper towel roll.  It is better to over estimate the number of paper towels needed than to under estimate.  This prevents you form having to touch the roll with potentially dirty gloves during the tattoo (should you forget to remove them).  If you do touch the roll with dirty gloves, assume the entire roll is contaminated and discard.  Discard any excess paper towels not used during the tattoo.

Stacked paper towels.
 Tattoo machines should be kept clean and well-maintained.  When not in use, they should be stored in a container.  Avoid handling your machines with your bare hands as much as possible.  Remove your machines needed for the tattoo from storage and test each machine to ensure function.  Then place the machines on the dental bib.  Lay out machine bags and rubber bands to be placed on the machines prior to starting the tattoo.
Tattoo machines, bags, and rubber bands.

 Place needles and tubes needed for the tattoo on your dental bib in their blister packs or autoclave bags.  Leave them sealed until the client is present for their tattoo, so they can be assured that they are getting a clean or new tube and new needles.
Tubes and needles should remain unopened until needed.
 Place the ink caps required on the dental bib face down.  Any ointments used during the tattoo should also be placed on the table.  Place a new razor for shaving the tattoo area and a cup for distilled water (for rinsing your needle if changing colors) on the dental bib.
Face down until needed.
 Keep your sharps container nearby but away from the rest of the tattoo area.
Used needles, razors, etc.
 While the exact set-up varies from artist to artist, the above is fairly common.  The focus of the process is to avoid cross-contamination.  The more you can do to protect yourself and your clients, the better your business will be.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

Tattoo After-care

  So, you just got your tattoo.  You've been sitting in an uncomfortable position being pricked by a needle 100 plus times a second for several hours.  You are light-headed, sore, and a little giddy about your new artwork.  You probably cannot wait to hit the bar, get a few drinks, and show off your new ink. 

 Your tattoo artist is saying something, and he seems to be very serious about it, like it is important or something.  A few words leak in to your awareness... 2 weeks to heal... wash... no swimming... after-care...

 The source of most tattoo problems; from fading and ink "falling out" to infections, is not the tattoo studio, tattoo equipment, or the tattoo artist.  It is the customer who fails to care for their tattoo properly, especially during the first 2 weeks.  A tattoo is an investment.  The more you do to protect that investment, the more pleasure you will get out of your tattoo.

 The tattoo process basically abrades the skin.  The resulting wound is more akin to a friction burn than any other kind of wound.  The needle enters the skin, going only a few layers deep, depositing ink.  For a time, this leaves the area of the tattoo open.  Your body has a natural healing process, and most after-care instructions try to make the most of that process.

 Every tattoo artist has their own variation of proper tattoo after-care.  This is typically a mix of what we were trained to do by our own mentors, what we have learned through our own research, and what we have experienced with our own tattoos.  While you should follow your artist's after-care instructions as closely as possible, it is ultimately a guide.  It is up to YOU how you take care of your tattoo, as you are the one at risk.

 A tattoo generally takes 6 months to heal completely.  This means that during the first 6 months, the skin where the tattoo is located tends to remain tender (this is why touching-up a new tattoo tends to hurt more than the original tattoo process).  It tends to be more prone to damage, and to take longer to recover from damage.  6 months is also a general figure; your skin might be completely healed in 4 months, or it may take 8 months.  It just depends on your own internal chemistry.  During the first 6 months, things you can do to help take care of your tattoo are the same things that help your tattoo all your life; take care of your skin and keep that tattoo out of the sun as much as possible.

 The initial healing phase lasts roughly 2 weeks.  This is also a general figure, the initial phase lasts until all the skin has stopped peeling, and all the scabs have fallen off.  This period can be longer or shorter, depending on the person.  It is normally at least 2 weeks before a tattoo can be "touched-up", or before the area where the tattoo is located can be tattooed again without serious risk to the skin.  Tattooing over an existing tattoo during this period increases the likelihood of the tattoo being over-worked.  Over-worked skin is more seriously damaged than a normal tattoo.  The skin is basically ground-up when it is over-worked.  It takes longer to heal, does not hold ink as well, and has an increased likelihood of scarring and infection.  A tattoo can be over-worked during the initial tattoo application, but is less likely with more experienced artists (even though experienced artists can occasionally over-work the skin).  Most artists will not touch up a tattoo that still has skin pealing or scabbing, even if the 2 weeks have past, simply because the tattoo is not healed enough to work on safely.

 During the 2 weeks that the tattoo heals, it is going to scab and peel.  An initial layer of skin will grow over the tattoo where the tattoo does not scab.  This initial layer is meant to protect the wound only, and dies almost as soon as it is formed.  Like a sunburn, this skin will peel off.  The skin will itch as a part of this process, engaging the instinctive urge to scratch.  The itching is meant to encourage you to work this layer of dead skin off your body, but must be avoided.  Peeling the skin or picking the scabs can lead to bleeding, which will carry ink out of the tattooed area, and can increase the likelihood of infection.  This layering and peeling process may happen repeatedly during the first 2 weeks.

 During the first 2 weeks, you should keep the tattoo out of the sun as much as possible, and avoid submerging the tattoo under water.  This is because of the nature of the skin over the tattoo during this time.  Since this skin is either dead and peeling or alive but fresh, ultraviolet light is more dangerous to the area.  It also tends to fade the tattoo.  Submerging the tattoo underwater removes the layer of dead skin prematurely, revealing new skin and an open wound, inviting both the ink to be drawn out of the skin by the water and the increased possibility of infection.  Showering under running water for short periods of time is acceptable.

 From this point, there are 2 schools of thought regarding tattoo after-care.  One school recommends letting the tattoo "dry-heal", meaning you use no moisturizers or ointments during the healing process.  You simply keep the tattoo clean, abide by the above precautions, and allow the body to heal normally.  The "dry-heal" process is not as favored as the ointment healing (I am tempted to call it "wet-heal", but it is probably just the standard healing process).  Adherents of "dry-healing" point our that when the skin is abraded or damaged normally you typically do not apply moisturizer to the wound (although dermatologist may say otherwise).  They also suggest that the resulting tattoo will heal faster and have a sharper appearance.

 The other school of thought on after-care involves keeping the tattoo liberally moisturized during the healing process.  Adherents of this process also believe that it helps the tattoo heal more quickly while not so quick that the tattoo does not hold (dry healing results in scabbing, and scabbing tends to draw ink out of the tattoo).  They also believe that this helps prevent that tattoo from becoming infected, as tattoos that dry heal may also lead to fissures in the skin (cracks from being without moisture).  Lightly moisturizing the skin reduces the amount of trauma to the area during the healing process. 

 The process I recommend involves cleaning the tattoo 3 times daily.  You clean the tattoo by getting a thin lather from soapy water (much more water than soap) and patting the suds onto the tattoo.  You avoid rubbing the tattoo, as this could accidentally lift or remove peeling skin or scabs prematurely.  You pat the tattoo dry with a clean paper-towel or a clean towel.  Finally, you apply a very thin layer of ointment onto the tattoo.

 For the first 2 days, I recommend using bacitracin ointment.  It is a very mild topical antibiotic that can be purchased over-the-counter at any pharmacy.  For the remaining period while the tattoo heals after the first 2 days, apply a thin layer of skin moisturizer.  I recommend Lubriderm, but any moisturizer is sufficient as long as it includes no dyes, no perfumes, no medications, and no vitamins.  These can either irritate the tattoo or interfere with the body's natural healing process.  Another alternative is to apply Aquafore to the tattoo, a water-based product designed for babies and very mild on the skin.

 Applying a "thin layer" means that these ointments are not rubbed into the tattoo.  The resulting layer should not be so thick as to actually be visible, and should dry almost immediately.  Over-moisturizing the tattoo can seal in bacteria, increasing the likelihood of an infection.  If you cannot achieve a thin layer of ointment, you are better off dry healing your tattoo.

 Bacitracin, Lubriderm, and Aquafore are the only ointments I recommend.  Ointments specifically for tattooing can be used, but I find that they are generally over-priced when bacitracin and Lubriderm work just as well.  DO NOT USE A&D ointment, triple-antibiotic, Neosporin, or other fast-healing ointments, as this can interfere with the healing process as cause the ink not to hold in the skin.  DO NOT USE Vasiline or other similar ointments, as these can sap in out of the tattoo.  If bacitracin is not available, you are better off to only use a moisturizer as described above or nothing at all.

 When you first get your tattoo, your artist may bandage your tattoo or wrap your tattoo with clean plastic-wrap.  This is meant only to keep the blood-plasma and excess ink from staining your clothes and contaminating other surfaces.  Typically, you are instructed to remove the bandage or wrap within the first 2 hours of it being applied, if a bandage or wrap is even offered.  A bandage is obviously more sterile than plastic-wrap.  The reason that plastic wrap is used is because you can show off the tattoo without removing the wrap.  Anecdotal experience suggests that there is a tendency to remove and re-apply your bandage in order to show your tattoo, trapping potentially infections materials each time you do it.  However,  plastic wrap allows excess blood plasma and ink to seep out from under it.  It also creates an ideal environment for pathogens that may be present on the skin under the wrap not cleansed by the tattoo artist.  While plastic wrap for a short period of time may be sufficient, a proper sterile bandage is ideal.  It is up to the artist to tell the client to not remove the bandage for at least an hour, and up to the client to follow those instructions.   

 Once you have removed your bandage or wrap (if it was applied), do not re-bandage the tattoo afterward.  Other than the ointment applied, the tattoo should be exposed to the open air.  A bandage may actually trap bacteria that is attracted to the wound, providing a dark, moist environment that can lead to infection.  Simply keep the tattoo clean and try to avoid touching the tattoo or making contact between the tattoo and other surfaces. 

 Slight puffing and redness around the tattoo is normal, along with the feeling of heat or the area being fevered, especially during the first several days.  If the redness becomes brighter, "veins" out from the tattoo, or the tattoo becomes more swollen and painful, see a doctor.  If the tattoo has puss or oozes anything other than a thin, watery liquid, see a doctor.  Your tattoo artist may be able to differentiate between "normal" healing and something abnormal, but an artist may not be experienced with unusual skin conditions or may be concerned about reprisals due to an issue with a tattoo.  A professional artist always places the health and welfare of his client first, and will recommend that if you are overly concerned about the tattoo or if the tattoo appears to be healing abnormally that a doctor be consulted.

 You may also notice, especially during the first few days, seepage from your tattoo, both of ink and of a thin, watery liquid (blood plasma).  This is normally, will happen most often while you shower, and may leave reversed impressions of your tattoo on your bed-sheets   The tattoo is open for several days, allowing ink and blood-plasma to escape.  If, however, you have any doubts, it is always best to consult a doctor.  It again is your body and your risk... better to be overly cautious than to risk a serious infection.

 After all the skin has stopped peeling, and all the scabs have fallen off, you can begin caring for your skin as normal.  Keeping the tattoo out of direct sunlight as much as possible will help prevent fading (and the more pale the skin is over the tattoo, the brighter it will look).  Some moisturizers and ointments may help keep the appearance of your tattoo looking brighter and sharper with time, but in my experience are probably not worth the money.

 If someone insists on slapping your tattoo as a matter of "tradition" or to "encourage healing", punch them in the mouth as a way to discourage stupidity.
Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at

How to Pick a Tattoo Artist

 There is a distinction between your tattoo artist and the studio he works in.  This article goes hand-in-hand with the "What to Look For In a Tattoo Studio" article, focusing on the artist.  The distinction between the artist and the studio should be kept in mind; some great artists work at some less-than-great studios, and some great studios have some less-than-great artists.  It is up to you, the customer, to determine what is best for you by doing your homework. 

 One of the first things a customer thinks about is price when it comes to getting a tattoo.  This is only natural, as this is what drives many of our other purchases.  The problem is that a tattoo from one artist is not the same as a tattoo from another.  Artists have different styles, different amounts of experience, different degrees of skill and talent, and have different levels of concern for health and safety.  Though price is a priority in your mind as a customer, it should be the last consideration.  You are paying for something that will be with you for the rest of your life (barring a laser treatment).  You should want the best possible tattoo for your money... and if that means not getting your tattoo right away while you save a little extra to pay for it, that time will be well worth it.
 "You get what you pay for" is a saying that is correct more often than not when getting a tattoo.  There are exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far-between.

 Let's say that, as a customer, all you know is that you want a tattoo.  You have no idea what you want exactly; maybe you have a few ideas in mind, but nothing concrete.  You have done some research and know what shops in your area you can be confident will provide a safe tattoo experience.  What do you do then?

 Visit the shops and browse artist portfolios.  The artist portfolio is the best way to gauge the skills of the artist.  It also displays the style the artist works in.  Every artist has a distinct style, and though their portfolio may display a variety of types of work (black-and-grey, street, old-school, realistic, etc), they tend to gravitate toward one style over others.  You will also be attracted to a particular style if you do not know for certain what it is you want.  Take your time, checking out a number of artist portfolios at a number of shops, and ask for business cards from the artists that you might like.

 If you have an idea of what it is you want, you should look at not only the style the artist favors, but also look to see if what you want to have done is part of their portfolio.  For example, if you want a dragon, or a pin-up girl, it will be helpful if you find an artist who has done dragons or pin-up girls before.  The more comfortable your artist is with the style you want and the subject-matter, the better your tattoo will be. 

 Another consideration is whether or not your artist is comfortable with custom work, or prefers to work from existing designs (tattoo flash).  If you want a design created, you will not only want to look at the artist's tattoo portfolio, but also their portfolio of designs or artwork.  Some artists are very skilled tattooists, but lack the skills to create a design from scratch.  Keep in mind that designing a tattoo requires time and effort on your artist's part, and generally involves a design fee.  Most artists will take the fee off the price of the tattoo, but require the fee paid upfront in case you decide to take the design elsewhere or decide not to get the tattoo.  These fees are also non-refundable and there is a limit to the number of revisions that the artist will allow before charging additional fees. 

 Artists cannot be expected to draw for free.

 Speaking of designs, not all artwork will make a good tattoo design, and some designs need to be modified in order to be tattooed.  This is something to think about when you do have an artist-friend who does not do tattoos create your tattoo-design.  Your tattoo artist may have to translate the design your bring them into a tattoo-design.  The more skilled your tattooist is as an artist, the closer they will come to rendering your design in the actual tattoo.

 Looking at tattoo artists' portfolios will also help develop further the idea of what you want as a tattoo.  If you are still unsure, or you would be interested in having your artist design your tattoo with only a minimal amount of input from you, then it is time for a more involved conversation with an artist.  During this conversation, you want to see if the artist believes they are capable of doing the design.  You also want to discuss safety concerns, ask them to describe the precautions they take to keep their customers safe (usually, the steps taken will be quite extensive).  Some artists may invite a client to actually watch as a tattoo is being performed so they may observe those precautions.

 Once you have settled on an artist, are confident that they will perform your tattoo safely, and have a concept for your design that you want, it will be time to discuss price.  Tattoos are not cheap.

 Let me re-iterate that last point: tattoos are not cheap.

 The range in price for tattoos can go as little as $50 and hour to as much as $200 an hour or more.  These rates are not as much to do with the skill of the artist as they are to do with how much that artist is in demand (although an artist who is in demand is also typically very skilled).  Kat Von D is what most people in the industry consider a fair portrait artist... but because she is in demand she is able to command a higher price for the same skill level than other artists.  You are paying more for getting a "Kat Von D" tattoo.

 Artist price their work either by the piece or by the hour.  The pricing generally works out to be the same.  A tattoo artist is familiar with their pace, as well as the general pricing for tattoos in their area.  An artist looks at the size of the piece, the amount of detail (including the number of colors), and the location on the body.  Some spots are more difficult to tattoo than others, mainly because they are more sensitive, which may require more breaks for the client.  Based on all that information, the artist offers a quote.  Pricing by the hour allows the artist to be paid for their time even if the customer takes numerous or long breaks while getting the tattoo, but also allows for the unscrupulous artists to extend the amount of time by taking long or numerous breaks themselves.  It is always best to get an estimate and ask your artist to hold firm to that estimate.

 There are a couple of things to keep in mind.  A tattoo artist at a shop earns anywhere from 40% to 60% of the tattoo price.  The shop takes the rest.  These rates are fixed.  In other words, the artist generally will not skim some of his percentage to give you a lower price, and the shop will not give up part of its percentage.  If the artist comes down from $300 to $250, both the artist and the shop lose what they would have made on the $300 tattoo.  So, while technically the artist is earning a "commission" for their work, they do not have the same options as a car sales person to negotiate price. 

 Also, it is not uncommon for some artists to "size-up" a client and pad their quote based on what they think their client can afford.  It sounds sneaky, but it is just the nature of the sales business where prices are not fixed.  This means that, while they will not reduce their commission, they may be willing to negotiate down on the price.  This also means that some of the same tactics customers can use to get a better price on a car, such as not dressing like you have a lot of money, can be used to help get a better price on a tattoo. 

 Negotiations normally do not take long.  If an artists tells you that a tattoo will be $350 and you think they might be willing to negotiate, simply tell them that you only have $300 or $250 to spend.  This might bring the price down.  Do not say that the shop down the street said they could do the tattoo for $250... remember that the tattoo business is not like other businesses.  An artist will probably tell you to "go to the other shop then", just as a matter of professional pride.  If an artist tells you that the price is the price, then he has reached his limit.  You are just as likely to get a price from a negotiator as you are one that simply gives you a straight quote, so do not expect every artist to haggle and be willing to lower their initial quote.

 In addition, while the price of the tattoo involves a split with the shop, the tip you give to the artist does not.  If you indicate to your artist that "the price doesn't leave much for a tip", you might get a better price for the tattoo and pay less than the first quote, but this requires that you tip somewhere in between.  Burning your tattoo artist by turning around and not given a significant tip is a good way to ensure that the artist is not happy to see you in the future.

 Some artists and shops charge strictly by the hour.  They may be able to give you an estimate, but you need to be prepared to be at least an hour longer than that estimate.  Almost all artists will have a minimum, charging 1 hour for a tattoo even it it takes 5 minutes to perform.  In most cases, if the tattoo is taking longer than expected due to the artist under-estimating the amount of time they would take on the tattoo or some other artist-related issue, then they will stick to the estimated amount.  However, if the tattoo runs long because the customer needs more than the normal amount of breaks, or otherwise slows the process down in some way, expect to pay more or expect to leave the shop without a finished tattoo.  It is a rare occurrence, but not unheard of.

 Also, ask your artist about their touch-up policy.  By their nature, tattoos often need touch-ups after the initially healing process is complete (roughly 2 weeks on average).  Scabbing and pealing can lead to some of the ink "falling-out", leaving empty spaces in the tattoo design.  Most artists offer one free touch-up session within the first 90 days of getting the tattoo. 

 Again, tattoos are not cheap.  Due to their expense, some customers may be drawn to artists who do not work in a studio.  Instead, they work "privately" out of their own homes.  While I highly recommend getting a tattoo only from a licensed shop, no doubt some of you will still seek the cheapest route possible.  A rare few of these artists have facilities which are separate from their actual residences and are in full compliance with state laws.  Most "private" tattoo artists work out of a space in their homes; near their kitchen, a spare room, garage, or basement.  These artists are often referred to as "scratchers" by studio-based tattooists, a term of derision.

 This term is also incorrectly applied by some to all home-based tattooists.  A "scratcher" is technically a tattoo artist who has not completed a professional apprenticeship.  So, technically, there are some "scratchers" who own tattoo shops.  A further distinction is made by their quality of work; "scratchers" tend to do poor work and do not abide by the minimum safety standards common to a tattoo studio.  Just because a tattoo artist operates out of their home does not mean that they lack professional experience or do not meet those standards, just as being in a shop does not mean they have professional experience or that they follow those standards.  The likelihood is just greater in both circumstances.  This means that YOU, the customer, must do your research.

 Understand that the artists who work out of their homes are technically in violation of the law in most states, especially if they charge money for their services.  Artists are not permitted to operate a tattoo studio out of their homes, however, performing tattoos in their homes for family and friends for free is normally not a violation of the law (the disposal of materials that present a potential bio hazard can be, but the amount of those material, such as used needles, are typically so small as not to be worth pursuit by the state).  The reason behind this is similar to the same laws that restrict a person from operating a hair-salon from their home; there are public concerns about the disposal of a larger-than-normal amount of biological waste.  Operating such a business covertly in your home also makes your business more difficult to regulate.

 Many professional artists leave studios and tattoo from their homes, often for the cost of supplies plus a hefty "tip", or trading in material goods for the work, usually amounting to about half what would be charged in a studio for the same work.  A common red-flag suggesting that you are being put at risk by a "scratcher" is when a home-based artist offers to charge you much less than half the common price for that tattoo in a shop.  You, as the customer, need to look for the same standards of safety, if you decide to risk going to a home-based artist.  You also need to be aware that your options for recourse are even less than when you go to a shop (almost all shops have the customer sign a waiver stating that they are aware of all the risks of getting a tattoo and will not hold this shop or the artist responsible for their decision to be tattooed). 

 Home-based tattoo artists, even former professionals who take every precaution possible, are more likely to make their clients and themselves ill.  A tattoo studio adheres to strict sterilization standards, is cleaned frequently with professional quality disinfectants, and is subject to state inspection.  Home-based tattoo artist more often than not will use lower quality cleaning products, are more likely to be lackadaisical about their cleanliness, and are not subject to an inspection.  If you choose not to heed my warnings and get a tattoo in a home, keep in mind that if they are not tattooing in an enclosed space with at least a door separating the work area from the living area, you are at greater risk.  If the floors is carpeted in their work area, you are at greater risk.  If the walls or furnishings in the work area appear to be made of porous materials (wood, cloth), you are at greater risk. 
 Your health and safety are ultimately your own responsibility.  My recommendation is to get your tattoos only from studio-based artists, but barring that option you should take every step to ensure that your artist tattoos safely and has demonstrated professional experience.  The better informed you are about your artist, their work, and their practices, the better your tattoo experience will be.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him a message at