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

Tattoo Artists, Bed-side Manner, and Flirting

 As a tattoo artist, especially in a shop or studio, you spend much of your time interacting with the public.  A major part of your job, second to tattooing itself, is that of a sales-person.  You have to ease the client's concerns about getting a tattoo, re-enforce their choice in artwork, make them feel confident about you and your skills, and make them feel comfortable.

 This often involves flirting.

 I once worked as a sales person for a major retail outlet, one catering to women.  My female manager had a discussion with me after my first couple of weeks.  She explained that she recognized that I was a consummate professional, knowledgeable about our products and services, and amiable and attentive to our customers.  What she wanted me to do, to really push me over the edge and increase my sales, was to flirt.  She put it that blatantly.  Flirt with the women. Make them feel good about themselves and their decision to shop our store.  Make them feel special.

 So, I started flirting.  I was not entirely comfortable with this, always placing a hard-line between my professional life and my social life.  That same day, after applying my manager's advise, an attractive female customer asked for assistance with some brazier-tops in the dressing room.  I looked to my manager for guidance, and from across the sales floor she motioned me to go and mouthed the words "go on".  I spent the next 45 minutes in a private dressing room with a half-naked woman talking about everything but her tops, including what I was doing after my shift was over.

 She was a very nice girl.  She bought 6 of the tops she selected.

 In the tattoo studio, flirting is an even more important skill, but there is a line between friendly and creepy, and you have to dance it very carefully.  The risk is that, as a tattoo artist, most of your life is spent in the tattoo shop; 12 hour days can be the norm.  When your social interaction is limited to this environment, the flirting your are engaged in to help "sell" the tattoo can easily become actual flirting.  When you are thinking about getting a date instead of just making the experience better for your customer, you begin to run into problems.

 My problem in this arena has always been that, as I get into the tattoo, I stop talking.  I focus on the work at hand.  I really dig tattooing... and I get kind of wrapped-up in it.  It is helpful to maintain a friendly patter of discussion while doing the work.  This helps pass the time for the client, who otherwise is in pain and time is simply dragging-on.  When I remember to do it, I try to keep the conversation about tattooing.  I ask why the selected the design, if they have other tattoos, what inspired them to get a tattoo, etc.  I encourage them to ask questions about anything, from what I am doing to what my political views are.

 Of course, you have to feel your way through this process.  You don't want to say something that will put your customer off.  If you are asked about what your feelings are on issue X, whether it is about tattooing or about something else, it helps to have a response that allows you to back-out or suggests to the customer that you are open to other ideas, especially if they disagree.  For example, I think black-light ink tattoos are a bad idea.  I have never seen one that I liked.  If asked about black-light ink tattoos by a client, I will say that I have my reservations, educate them about the risks, but will not dismiss them outright.  They might think that black-light ink tattoos are just amazing, and my issues would place us at odds with one another.  It is not like they would storm out of the studio, but it would be a point of contention that doesn't need to exist.

 You also might want to interject a little humor into your conversation.  The key word in that last sentence is "little".  While doing a tattoo is not the time to practice your stand-up comedy routine.  Keep the conversation light and upbeat.  It often helps when the client has someone with them.  You can follow their friend's tone and use that as a gauge for your own conversation.  "Professionalism" in the tattoo industry is a little different from other businesses.  We provide an adult service and we are supposed to be a little "rough", but you still want the customer to be comfortable.  It is always better to err on the side of caution.

 Part of your patter will almost always include anecdotal tales of previous customers.  Talking about other customers is always a risk, because the customer your are working on will always ask themselves in their mind if they are going to be a story for your future customers.  Do not talk about specific customers, instead be general, and try to be positive.  When a customer asks if they are complaining too much about the pain, or if they are asking for too many breaks, I point out that I have had "biker-dudes" who have complained more.  If I am asked if a customer has ever passed-out on me, I reply "once, but that was years ago".  Telling tales about previous customers seems to be easier if the client thinks the incident you are talking about happened in the distant past, suggesting that if the issue was something to do with you, the artist, that issue has long since been resolved.

 Funny stories are still funny stories.  Be ambiguous and stick to the funny part, not the details.  Your customer will also think "well, at least I am not that guy."

 Flirting is a part of being a tattoo artist, perhaps more so than other businesses because there is an inherent sexuality to tattooing.  It involves intimate skin-contact (even through a gloved hand at the end of a needle) for an extended period of time.  The tattoo artist must attune themselves to their client's body (so you can tell when the customer might flinch and adjust accordingly).  You are alone with the client who is in a vulnerable place... tattoos hurt!  Tattoos are also often placed in more intimate locations, especially on women, and the industry is primarily made-up of male artists.  Added to this is the "rock-star" aspect of the tattoo artists in most people's minds, and flirting is just going to happen.

 The point, as I stated above, is to help your customer feel at ease and comfortable.  I worked with a guy, years ago, who didn't recognize that line.  Every woman he tattooed, he laid his game on, and laid it on thick.  It didn't matter if they came into the shop with their boyfriend or husband, as soon as the guys were out of ear-shot, he started in.  Sometimes, the women would be into it, but most of the time you could tell that she, already being in an uncomfortable and vulnerable place, felt even more uncomfortable and vulnerable.  I cannot count the number of times I was asked by one of his female customers to go fetch their significant-other or to simply stay in the area myself.

 It is always best to let the customer take the lead.  Be friendly, and if the customer wants to go down that road, then let them make the first flirtatious comment.  Then, follow.  Don't push it yourself.  If the client wants a date, let them ask.  Otherwise, stick to the business of being a tattoo artist during business hours.

 Another thing to keep in mind is that your flirting as a means to make your client comfortable should not be limited only to those you are attracted to, if you are doing it only as a part of your "bedside manner".  All kinds of women flirt, especially those who are less-than-confident about their appearance.  Not flirting back, or at least showing some appreciation for their flirtatiousness, can also put-off your customers.

 And, boys, gay men get tattoos.  All the above applies, perhaps doubly so, because men tend to be more directly flirtatious.  This means (and this is coming from an EXTREMELY straight-male tattoo artist), that you have to learn to appreciate the compliment.  You can let a fella know that you just don't float in that direction without being an ass about it.  Put on your big-boy pants, be professional, treat every client with the same amount of respect, and learn to live with it. 

 To close this post out, I have to also address those who are dating or are married to a tattoo artist.  You probably understand better than most the "rock-star" aspect of being a tattoo artist.  Being a tattoo artist is one of the coolest jobs on the planet, letting a person make a living through their talents and being idealized (in one way or another) by the public.  Tattoo artists, as a part of their job, must be performers to a certain degree.  Our clientele is often young, single, and adventurous.  They are more comfortable dealing with people that they feel that they have something in common with.  This means that customers are going to come-on to your tattoo artist.  If your tattoo artist is professional, and keeps in mind that it is part of the job, and doesn't buy into the own illusion that he has to create, then you have nothing to worry about.  Be vigilant, by all means, but don't push to hard or get bent out of shape when a customer hits on your artist.  This is going to sound bad, but they are paying for the time and the privilege, you get him for free.

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

What to Look for in a Tattoo Studio

 Tattoo Studios are a unique business environment; part retail showroom, part doctor's office.  They are regularly inspected by the state and must meet stringent safety protocols, but they also must be inviting to their customers while convincing those customers that they can be confident in the artists ability to delivery a quality tattoo and a positive tattoo experience.

 Well, at least as positive as having someone jab you with a needle over 100 times a second can be.

 Your primary concern should be your health and safety, but this is typically not the case, so let's start with the experience from the customer's view-point.  The customer is attracted to the studio based initially on the store's exterior appearance.  A neon-sign that says "Tattoos" is enough to attract attention, but as a customer, take a look around.  Is the building run-down, with paint peeling or siding falling off?  Is the parking-lot poorly maintained, with weeds or garbage?  What does it say about the "professionals" inside when they allow the first impression to be a poor one?

 The question I ask myself is, "if this were a restaurant, would I eat there?"

 It is not just a matter of cleanliness, or an older shop vs. a newer one.  A safe tattoo shop with talented artists is a successful tattoo shop.  A successful tattoo shop makes money.  A shop that is making money can afford to pay for maintenance and upkeep.  If they cut-corners on the most common-sense and basic expenses, what else might they cut corners on?

 Take a look immediately outside the shop.  Who or what is hanging around the door?  Tattoo artists and their clients can be a rough looking crowd, so you have to set aside some of your preconceived value-judgments and focus on the basics.  Do these people look clean, meaning that their clothes and hair are well maintained?  If you get a tattoo, you care about your appearance to one degree or another.  Do these people seem to be taking care of themselves?  What are they doing?  Smoking is a common habit among tattoo artists.  Do cigarette butts make it into a can or are they on the ground?  Again, it is a matter of cleanliness, safety, and discipline.  If they don't care about this, what else might they be lax about?  Due to the nature of the industry, tattoo artists tend to have easier access to drugs than most people.  Do these people outside the shop look like they are under the influence?  Do they have open sores?  Do they make frequent trips to their car?  It might sound a little paranoid, but these people may be permanently marking your body with a needle and potentially sharing more with you than ink.

 If the customer has not been scared-off by what they see outside the shop, then they will come into a shop.  Most shops have a "retail-floor", an area where customers are allowed to come in off the streets and look around.  This is separated from where the tattoos are performed and obviously the storage rooms, cleaning rooms, and offices.  This area may or may not be an actual retail-floor, a place where the public can purchase items from the tattoo shop.  It is where the financial transactions occur, usually at a register.  It is also used as a waiting area for customers who are getting tattoos.  It should be comfortable, but not too comfortable.  Let me explain what I mean.

 Most shops will have artwork on the walls (flash or other... more on that in a moment), display counters for both what they sell (after-care products and the like) and their artists portfolios, and some couches or chairs for customers to sit on while they wait... usually with some tattoo-related reading material close at hand.  One shop I walked into years ago had all the above, plus a massive television and a pool-table.  This might seem like a cool idea.  However, the store-front was turned into a hang-out for friends of the shop, people who were not there to do any business, just to take advantage of the free pool and cable.  Kids were running around, the Cartoon Network played on the television, and people stared at you like YOU had no business being in THEIR clubhouse. 

 It was not a great experience.

 No matter what you have in your storefront, as a tattoo studio it is paramount that it all be CLEAN.  Dirt-free, dust free, swept, mopped, and maintained.  Again, as a customer, if the impression the shop is making is that the place they have specifically for their customers is not worth taking care off, then you have to wonder if they will think the customer is worth taking care of. 

 Tattoo shops decorate their walls with art.  This art will either be "tattoo flash" (tattoo designs) or just tattoo-related art.  Shops with flash cater to customers who walk in wanting a tattoo, but may not have any idea what kind of tattoo they want.  The term "street-shop" seems demeaning, as it suggests something scuzzy, but it refers to the shop that caters to anyone coming in "off the streets".  A "custom shop" usually goes without flash, or has very little flash that is either antique and collectible (therefore for display only), or has some flash designs by their artists.  The artwork on the walls is also typically work by their artists.  They are focused more on clientele who know what they want before they even get to the shop, or that want a customized piece designed by a particular artist or in a certain style.  You can get either type of tattoo at any type of shop, just one leans toward one end of the business and the other its opposite.

 Either way, again, what is the condition of what is being displayed?  Subject matter aside, as tattoo people tend to be into some odd things, are the flash-sheets well-maintained?  Are they framed or in racks? Is the artwork clean, or dusty?  Are the displays in poor repair?  All these things can be indicators that something is not right.

 Tattoo studios, like any environment, will give you an impression.  As a customer, you need to trust your instincts.  If you don't like the vibe of the place or the people in it, then that is not the shop for you.  This is purely subjective, but is often "helped" (one way or another) by the artists and owners.  Where you greeted when you walked in the door, and was it a friendly greeting?  Were you made to feel welcome, encouraged to look around, and offered to have your questions answered?  Were the artists pushy, or did they let you have your own space and allow you to browse?  Were they aloof, or did they remain attentive and quick to respond when you did have a question? 

 Just because it is a tattoo studio does not mean that the common things expected from a good customer-service experience goes out the window.  Studio tattoo artists pride themselves on being "professional", but to truly be professional means to be professional in all ways.

 The next thing a customer will want to look at are the artists portfolios.  These should be prominently displayed and easily accessible.  They should also be limited to the artists on duty... or the portfolios of the artists not on duty should be kept in a manner that while available is less accessible than the other portfolios.  Like all other items in the tattoo studio, are the portfolios well maintained?  Is there an element of professionalism?  The best portfolios I have seen were treated just like portfolios for artists in other fields; they begin with a short statement or bio about the artists who's work is on display, and indicate when the portfolio was last updated. 

 Something that most customers are unaware off is that many shops are not owned by the tattoo artists.  Often, a shop is owned by a third party using it as an investment and is managed by someone employed by the owner.  The tattoo artists are often more like independent contractors and not employees of the studio, and in many cases are renting their tattoo station.  In these situations, the customer can experience two different standards; one on the studio floor and one in the artists station, whether the artist is an employee, contractor, or renting the space.  The same scrutiny should be applied to the tattoo artist's station as is applied to the rest of the shop.  Is the station well lit and well maintained.  Are the floors and work surfaces non-porous?  Are the supplies stored in closed, clean containers?  Are the personal effects in the station kept away from the work area, and are they free of dust and dirt?  Is the station a tattoo station, or the artists private party-room? 

 City and State Laws dictate what should or should not be present at a tattoo studio.  The following are fairly common requirements:

- Most are required to have an autoclave, but many tattoo artists use pre-packaged single-use and disposable needles and tubes.  The autoclave should be tested on a regular basis and a record of those tests maintained.  A studio should have no issues with showing you this test book, tests strips, the cleaning room, and explaining their process to you. 

-If the studio uses metal tubes and mounts their own needles on needle-bars, make sure that they are sterilized in the autoclave prior to use, and that the autoclave bags are not open until the item is to be used.

-Disposables are similarly packaged in inert sterile gas.  These packages should also not be opened until ready to use. 

-All needles should be disposed off after use, as well as all disposable materials. 

-Inks should never be reused, with fresh ink poured for each client. 

-Artists should clean and sterilize their stations between each customer, no matter how busy they may be and even if the customers are related. 

-Work surfaces should by non-porous and layered with a clean, disposable material.

-Tattoo artists should wear gloves during the entire tattoo process, and should change gloves frequently.  Gloved hands should make contact only with the tattoo equipment and the client's skin.

-The tattoo equipment should be clean and well-maintained.  Inks, ink caps, rubber bands, and other materials should be kept in clean storage containers until ready for use.

-In some states, tattoo artists are required to be certified, while in others the studio is required to maintain an over-all certification.  Ask if the artists have been trained in how to avoid cross-contamination and the spread of blood-borne pathogens, and if they have documentation supporting their training (often displayed in the artists portfolios).

 While in the studio, ask to use their restroom.  How clean is it?  Their restroom is another indicator of their discipline and concern about customer safety.  Barring the possibility that the last customer to use the toilet just before you was a slob, the restroom should be clean and well maintained.

 Shop around for your tattoo studio!  The biggest mistake leading to "tattoo-remorse" is not taking the time to do your research.  Health and safety should be your first concern, followed closely by the experience of the artists and the quality of their work.  The last consideration should be the price of the tattoo.  If it is worth enduring what may be hours of irritation for a mark that will be permanently in your skin, then it is worth saving your money to get a high-quality piece in a safe environment. 

 It is also worth doing some Internet research.  Look-up the studio and the artist you are considering on-line.  What are the reviews from past customers?  How active is the artist in the community, and is he or she a respected part of that community?  Are their pending lawsuits against the tattoo studio (when a studio is in decline litigation often increases due to safety issues and shoddy work).  A little research can go a long way.

 Getting a tattoo should not be a decision you rush in to.  Take your time and do your homework, if you are a customer.  If you are an artist or a shop owner, you need to do everything in your power to indicate to your customers that their tattoo will be done safely and professionally.  A neon sign that says "tattoo" might draw in customers, but will not win them over and will not protect your from litigation and a poor reputation in the future.     

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

How to Get a Tattoo Apprenticeship

 When I first started-out looking for an apprenticeship, I was already well into my life.  I had been in the Army for four years, and spent another four years in college (Fine and Graphic Arts).  I had two divorces and two children under my belt.  Honestly, it was not the best time to become career-minded, especially moving into a career that most people considered (at the time) suspect at best.  Prior to looking to become a tattoo apprentice, I had managed a gas station and a video store.  I had worked maintenance for a big-box retailer.  I was a security guard.  I had worked in a metal foundry.  I was a logistics support technician for Hewlett Packard.  I did customer support for AT&T.  I was even an Executive Account Manager for a national data-management firm.

 Career-wise I had been all-over the map; blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar.  I wanted to be a tattoo artist because I knew that being a tattoo artist would make me happy.  No matter what I did at other gigs or how much money I made, I was never happy.  In fact, more often than not, I was miserable.  I was an artist, and though I was good at most everything I did (earning promotions and raises as quickly as possible), it was never what I wanted to do.

 I have an art-degree, essentially a piece of paper that says that I had four years of classes and created artwork close enough to my professors' expectations to pass a sufficient number of those classes and earn a certain number of credit hours.  That experience, while wonderful in-and-of itself, translates to very little in the real-world.  Not exactly a lot of demand for classical painters and the like.  I know my way around photoshop, but I don't have the certifications that many graphics and commercial firms like to see.  It seemed like I had all this training, along with talent and skill, and no marketable way to use it.

 I had always loved and been inspired by tattoo-art, but had always been told that it was not a career to invest in.  It wasn't until I did my own digging that I found out just how legit a career tattooing could be.  A tattoo artist can make between $30,000 to $50,000 a year on average, really just starting out if they are good and at a fair shop with regular walk-in traffic.  More importantly, the relative number of hours a tattoo artist actually works, compared to someone earning the same income at another job, is significantly smaller.  A tattoo artist's day is generally spent waiting at the shop for a customer (there are other things that a good tattoo artist will do while he or she waits, but that is for another blog).  They can do $100 worth of work in about 1 hour, earning roughly the same as a guy working a regular job at $13.00 and hour after taxes for 8 hours.  That means that the tattoo artist has 7 more hours for themselves every day that the regular guy does not.

  The problem is that while the regular job is consistent; 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, $X an hour, a tattoo artist might not get a tattoo done for days... and then have to hustle to make their money in the weekend.  The regular guy knows the work (and the paycheck) will be there.  The tattoo artist generally has to hope for the best.

 One of the very first pieces of advice I got was that tattooing is a young-person's game.  The guy telling me that had recently opened a shop.  He had been doing tattoos for a while, but had gotten into it late in life and was getting ready to retire from a factory.  The shop was a way to supplement his retirement and give him something to do.  He had hired a much younger artist to do the bulk of the work.  He wasn't being an asshole... he was speaking from experience.

 Tattooing is a young-person's game.  What he meant by that was that the younger you get into tattooing, the better-off you will be.  You could say the same about any career, really, but this especially applies to tattooing.  What he meant has a lot to do with what I said earlier about the income you earn as a tattoo artist.  Your income is inconsistent.  Some weeks you might not make any money, while other weeks you will be flush with funds.  Your bills, however, will be consistent, and if you don't pay them on time then whatever those bills are related to goes away.  Don't pay the rent, you get kicked out of your home.  Don't make a car payment, then you lose your wheels.  Don't pay for groceries, and you risk starving. 

 If you're young when you get into tattooing, then you have less of these obligations to be concerned about, and you have (generally) fewer people relying on you if and when you cannot meet those obligations.  If you get into tattooing when you are 18, you can probably fall back on mom and dad for support, so most if not all of your earnings you can use for yourself.  If you are an adult with a wife, a litter of kids, and all the bills associated with that, then getting into tattooing is a little more difficult.

 The first, and probably the largest hurdle, is the apprenticeship.  Technically, you can learn to tattoo without an apprenticeship, but I would not recommend it.  You will make more mistakes, possibly learn some bad-habits, and take years to learn what an apprentice learns in months under the tutelage of an experienced artist.  However, during most typical apprenticeships, you make no money.  You are expected to be at the shop whenever your mentor is at the shop (often 12 hours a day and 5 days a week), which means you really have no time for a job... or a life for that matter.  This is where the support of your family really makes a difference.  An apprenticeship might last 2 years, and while you might be able to get a part-time job (if it is convenient for your mentor to have you out of the shop), you could be facing those two years without an income.

 If you can convince your family members that this is essentially like going to college and getting a degree, then their support will come much easier.  A tattoo apprenticeship is career training; it is a 2 year certification during which time you will be learning not only how to tattoo, but all about safety and sterilization procedures, business management (specific to the tattoo industry), machine operation and maintenance, and a variety of other skills.  The environment is different and the career-field is not exactly mainstream, but the experience is no less complex and if you stick with it you end up with a trade that will serve you for the rest of your life.

 Ideally, if this is the route you are going no matter what your age, you have some talent as a draftsmen.  You can draw.  Understand that being a great artist is not a prerequisite to being a tattooist.  Being a great artist can even be a hindrance.  There is a difference between "art" and "tattoo art", and when you are well-versed in "art" it can make aspects of "tattoo art" difficult to accepts.  The expectations you develop applying ink to paper are woefully inadequate for ink applied in skin.  Still, being able to draw is a plus. 

 Before you even pick-up a tattoo machine, you should study "tattoo art".  Most tattoo art relies heavily on the black line to define form.  Tattoo ink is not opaque (even the inks labeled "opaque"), so darker colors will show through lighter colors.  This can be used to your advantage.  Blends and transitions are achieved not so much by laying one color on-top of the other, but instead by feathering or shading one color through another (shading is a tattoo process that uses the needle to sporadically dot the skin with pigment leaving open-spaces to create the illusion of a transitional tone as opposed to filling the space with pigment).  Skin, over time, changes, distorting and blurring a tattoo.  A good tattoo not only accounts for this in its design, but is placed on the body to take advantage of the skin's movement.  You can read an article about tattoo design here.

 Studying tattoo art involves looking at the work of other artists.  There are a number of tattoo publications that are good for this (and not much else).  There are also several on-line artists communities; both focusing on tattoos or not, where tattoo artists display there work and interact with the public.  It is helpful not only to study the art itself, but the different styles of artists... even those artists who's typical work you might not be drawn to.  I am interested in erotic, occult-oriented, horror, and generally "masculine" tattoo work, and this is where I focused my attention when designing tattoo-art (flash).  However, the bulk of the tattoo work I do is cursive lettering, hearts, butterflies, cherries, and tribal designs.  I have had to gain an appreciation for those kinds of tattoos by studying the work of artists who specialize in those designs.

 This leads me to another aspect of being a tattoo artist.  Usually, especially early in your career, you will not be doing the tattoos you want to do.  You will be doing what the customer requests of you... and their requests will be redundant as well as less-than-spectacular.  Until you are able to take a mediocre flash-design and make it spectacular, no one will be coming to you about your designs.  This is just a part of the development process.  You have to love tattooing above the particular kind of art you would prefer to tattoo.

 Read about tattoos and tattooing.  As I stated above; there are several publications that are good for seeing tattoo art.  These publications cater to the tattoo-collector, not the tattoo artist.  Most publications that cater to the tattoo artist you will not find on any news-stands, and often you have to be in the industry (ie, working at a shop) to have access to them.  Books abound about tattooing that are available to the public.  Many books focus on the history of tattooing, its cultural impact, and how to go about selecting a tattoo-design and a tattoo artist.  This information is a MUST for any tattoo artist, as these books are setting the expectations in the minds of your better customers... the ones who aren't coming in asking for a design off the wall. They are invested in their tattoo, they are willing to pay large sums of money for good work, they will be coming to you as a repeat customer if you meet those expectations, and they will recommend their friends and family to you.  They are good customers because they understand the investment they are placing in their tattoo work and have chosen YOU to invest in.  Many of those books provide information to the customers about not only design but what safety guidelines are a must to follow. 

 Several books specifically about tattooing exist.  I recommend "Tattooing A-Z" by Huck Spaulding as an excellent first resource, along with the companion DVD.  While the information cannot replace an apprenticeship (and much of what is presented will not truly make sense until you are in a position to have a mentor explain it to you), it does provide a good foundation for all aspects of tattooing.  Other books should also be explored.  A good tattoo artist is always learning and studying his craft.

 If you can get access to a tattoo artist in a shop, they are your best resource.  They will not answer all of your questions... some things are shared only with apprentices, but they can talk to you about the industry itself, tattoo design, and might even provide their opinions about tattoo publications, resources, and equipment.  Having a relationship with an artist in a shop can also blossom into an apprenticeship over time.  Another possible resource are tattoo conventions.  In most large cities there are several tattoo conventions each year, spanning a weekend to a week in length.  This is a good way to meet tattoo artists who are generally more chatty because, unless they are busy, they have little else to do but sit at their booth and talk.  Tattoos are generally done right out in the open, so you can also observe many artists and the techniques being used... comparing and contrasting one artist from another and from what you have read or seen elsewhere.

 A big step in learning about tattooing is getting a tattoo yourself.  Other than being an apprentice, there is no way which places you closer to the tattoo process without being a tattoo artist.  You will be able to observe the tattoo process, feel how the tattoo is applied, and more freely ask questions about tattooing.  Being in the seat also gives you a perspective on what your customers might experience from you in the future.

 Drawing tattoo flash and having it evaluated at local tattoo shops helps teach you about tattoo design and gives you another route of access to tattoo artists without an apprenticeship.  It does require that you have a bit of a thick skin; that you are able to take criticism.  Tattoo artists are not often known for their tact and tend to be very blunt about their opinions, and some artists (and shops) actively discourage budding artists to help decrease potential competition or to put those artists "through their paces" (tattooing requires dedication to your craft, and the theory is that it should not be easy to become a tattoo artist... that this dedication should be proven through often harsh treatment).  When presenting your flash designs to a tattoo artist, you want them to be as professional as possible.  The standard flash-sheet format is 11X14", and includes 3 or more designs per sheet.  Two versions of each sheet should be made, one "colored" (or shaded, if it is gray-work), and one of just "line-work" (just the outlines of the design with nothing filled in).  The preferred method for coloring tattoo flash sheets is water-color paints or colored pencils (as they best replicate the actual tattoo).  The next-best method of presentation is a sketchbook.  Under no circumstances should you present a lined note-book with your designs.  This is considered very unprofessional and suggests that you have no real understanding of the industry or desire to be considered a professional.  Everything about the tattoo process is intentional and planned in advance.  A lined notebook says that you did whatever came easiest and took no time to really prepare. 

 After much study and personal introspection (are you sure you want to be a tattoo artist?), you should consider purchasing tattoo equipment.  Understand that, unless you are in the industry (ie, working in a shop), you will not have access to what is considered "professional" equipment, at least not through most tattoo publications.  The difference between professional equipment and non-professional equipment often is simply the quality of materials used to make the equipment.  A professional tattoo machine will function more consistently as expected than a non-professional machine, but the function itself does not vary greatly.  Needles, tubes, and ink are where there is the greatest variance in quality that can effect the tattoo.  While direct sales channels are closed to most people, indirect channels, such as conventions or on-line auction sites like eBay will give the public access to professional equipment.

 If the buyer can tell the difference.

 Unless you know what you are buying and are confident that this is indeed what you want to do, it is not worth investing hundreds of dollars in tattoo equipment at this time.  You will be using your equipment for study only, so your equipment should be what you can easily afford, especially your non-reusable equipment like inks and needles.  You should get two or three machines, one of which will be for taking apart to study the individual components (having a spare means that if you cannot get the first machine together again you still can study the operation of the other).  An inexpensive power-supply, clip-cord, and foot-pedal, along with inks, needles, and tubes, are all you really need to study.

 What you will be studying with the purchase of equipment is the differences and nuances in equipment, technical terminology, and the operation.  You can look all day at a technical schematic of a tattoo machine on-line, but until you have held one in your hand, hooked it up to a power-supply and watched it operate, and taken one apart, the information on a schematic will not mean much to you.  This is also why you do not want to spend a great deal of money on materials.  It should all be considered throw-away goods.  Your inks will not be used on people, and only serve to allow you to see the consistency of the ink, to paint with the ink, and to use on practice materials in the study of your machine operation.

 When studying practical machine operation, many people practice on material like grapefruits, oranges, of even chicken skin.  A plastic practice-skin is available on the market, but I would not recommend it.  Instead, I recommend going to your local butcher or meat department and asking for pig-skin, which is sold less per pound than the other options and is the closest to human skin.  Unfortunately, it does not keep well, and should be used the same day it is purchased.  The intention of the exercise is so you can see and gain a basic understanding of the machine's operation.  Understand that seeing a machine run a line through pig-skin teaches you nothing about depth, consistency, or safety.  It only shows you that the machine is operating and how the needle performs in the skin.

 Keep in mind that most shops and tattoo artists frown on people practicing tattooing without proper supervision, so studying equipment should not be considered "practice".  Studying, however, gives you a head-start on developing a feel for the heft and operation of the machine, how the needles applies ink into the skin, the frequency with which the needles needs to be "charged", the kind of lines each needle creates, and beginning to develop an ear for the sound of a properly running machine ("tuning" a machine is the least efficient way to determine proper operation, but it is the most common manner).  It also provides you an opportunity to practice machine maintenance.

 You should photograph your efforts on pig-skin to document your progress.  When you approach a tattoo-studio about an apprenticeship, your pig-skin portfolio along with tattoo designs may help make your case, especially if you demonstrate skill and an understanding of the proper safety procedures.  If you have made the mistake of tattooing someone or yourself, do not include photos of tattoos you have done on other people.  Nothing can kill an potential apprenticeship faster than someone willing to ignore the safety of themselves and their customers by tattooing outside of a shop without professional training.  This is another reason why shops tend to disapprove of the sale of tattoo equipment to those outside the industry... the temptation to tattoo friends and family (and to potentially earn money doing so) is too great. 

 However, let us have a moment of total honesty here.  There modern safety protocols and practices were developed by old-school electric tattoo artists (as opposed to the ancient tattoo practices) who themselves often did not have an apprenticeship.  They purchased or built their own equipment and learned to tattoo in their garage or basement.  It was a risky business and the quality of tattoo work was not always the greatest.  Much of the prohibition against learning to tattoo without an apprenticeship was developed purely to protect their livelihood... the concerns about public safety were secondary.  Having worked in the industry, I have seen a number of artists who never apprenticed, who learned to tattoo on their own (or worse, in prison), built a fair portfolio, passed themselves off as professional artists, and were hired.  They may have tattooed for years out of a back-room in their apartment.  At the end of the day, a professional tattoo artist is defined by three qualities; his knowledge of tattooing, his knowledge (and not necessarily his adherence) to proper safety procedures, and most importantly the strength of his portfolio.  An apprenticeship is the short-road to becoming a professional tattoo artist, but not the only road.  In spite of all that, those self-taught tattooers almost universally agree that if they had the opportunity to do it over again they would opt for an apprenticeship.

 Ideally, these first steps should be taken while you are in high school or earlier.  As a teen-ager, you have the advantage of time and family-support.  What is often lacking is the ambition, drive, and dedication that comes with experiencing the real world as an adult.  Also, as an adult, you don't have to be concerned about a family refusing to support your efforts, you can buy your own resources and materials.  If, as a teen-ager, you have the drive to do all the above, by the time you are 18 or 19 you could be working as a professional artist.  Usually, though, it is the adult who has the drive, but is hampered by life's obligations.

 So, what do you do if your in your 20's or 30's, you have a job, bills, even kids?  Well, you have to understand that all the above is going to take you longer, and you are going to have to make some sacrifices.  You will need to immerse yourself into the tattoo industry as much as possible.  Get tattoos, draw and try to sell your flash to shops, go to conventions and shows, learn all you can, and practice.  Stay dedicated to whatever goals you set for yourself.  If you are set on getting an apprenticeship, then keep talking to local shops while preparing for the potential financial hardship of being able to only work part-time (or not having a job at all) presents.

 Be prepared to be told "no".  Some shops have it as a policy to say "no" the first time to anyone who asks about an apprenticeship.  If you don't have the drive to try to overcome your initial "no", then you don't have what it takes to be a tattooer.  Find a shop and artist you like, who you feel will give you the education you are looking for, and who seem open to interacting with you.  Then, make yourself available.  See about helping out with shop chores; running fliers, taking out the trash, being a go-fer.  Keep asking for advice about your tattoo designs.  Get tattooed.  If you can demonstrate both desire, tenacity, and talent, you have a greater likelihood of becoming an apprentice.  

 Check out this article on how to find a shop, and how to pick an artist.

 If, however, an apprenticeship is out of reach or if you have been studying and practicing for several years, you will have to make a decision.  As a professional artist, I cannot stress enough the value of an apprenticeship.  However, as a realist, I recognize that not only is an apprenticeship not always going to be available but also that many of the best known names from the earliest times of the modern industry did not go through an apprenticeship, nor did many of the professional artists working today.  At some point, someone is going to look at your pig-skin portfolio and be blown-away.  They are going to suggest that you should be tattooing, and possibly even offer to pay you to tattoo them.  When that day comes, you will have to make that decision, as an adult.  If you and your client believe that you have the skills, and you are confident that your familiarity and adherence to the safety procedures you learned will keep you and your client safe...  Just know that you are risking not only their safety and yours, but also your reputation and integrity as a tattooer.  Make the wrong choice, and getting an apprenticeship will be next to impossible.

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