Monday, May 27, 2013

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

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