Monday, May 27, 2013

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

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