Monday, May 27, 2013

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

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