: An untrained person applying a tattoo, often out of their residence. "Scratcher" refers to the quality of the tattoo itself, which often appears to be "scratched" into the skin rather than the smooth look of a tattoo.
Scratchers in the tattoo industry have always present a dilemma. Having no training, they often engage in unsafe and unsanitary practices while tattooing, endangering themselves and their clients. The quality they often produce is sub-par and reflects negatively on the industry as a whole. They also undercut professional shops in price, robbing trained artists of potential clients. As artists, tattooists are often anti-authoritarian and rebellious in nature who frequently celebrate flaunting the rules of society. Normally, a tattooist might support the idea of someone "doing what they had to do" to be an artist, but as professionals, tattooists recognize that scratchers are bad for business and the industry as a whole.
My personal opinion is that scratchers are inevitable and unavoidable in our industry. Tattooing is largely unregulated. We have to meet minimum health and safety standards, but the quality of our equipment and training of artists is completely in the hands of the industry itself and often driven by market forces. We would like to keep it that way, but the trade-off is that tattoo equipment can be purchased by anyone and scracthers are rarely considered a priority by local law enforcement. It would be great if tomorrow every scratcher in the world put their machines down and refused to do another tattoo until they completed an apprenticeship, but that is not likely to happen.
So, instead, these are the top 10 things I would ask scratchers to stop doing, in descending priority.
10. Stop trying to sell me your unused tubes, inks, and needles.
I can appreciate that you are saying you are getting out of the practice of scratching, even as I know that you probably just really need some quick cash and will be back to it as soon as you can. The junk you bought on eBay or from the headshop down the street is no good to me. I might be interested in your machines, if only to get them out of your hands. Don't get mad when I offer you $5 for a machine that I can get new on-line for $15 and you bought at a pawn shop for $50. Everything else, you can just throw away.
9. Stop re-using your grommets and o-rings.
I should include stop re-using your tubes and needles, and "recycling" (eeewwww!) ink you have already pored into caps or whatever it is you use, but in my mind that should be a given. Don't re-use your needles. Don't re-use your tubes unless they are steel, you know how to clean them, and you have an autoclave. DON'T RE-USE INK YOU HAVE POURED! I can't believe I would have to type that, but then I have heard some things...
Grommets are rubber sleeves that help hold the needle-eye to the armature bar pin. O-rings are rubber pieces that are used to adjust the function of the springs and muffle the sound of the machine. Both of these items cost next to nothing, and are made of porous rubber. Even if you are doing everything else right, these parts are contaminated by the tattoo process and should be thrown away when the artist breaks down and cleans between clients.
I recently visited a pawn shop, just to see what kind of oddities they had available. In a display case was a tattoo machine with a gnarled, worn-out grommet still on the armature bar. It probably had the contaminants of 100 different people soaked into it. Simply nasty. Throw that stuff away.
8. Don't get "butt-hurt" when tattoo artists in a legitimate shop treat you like dirt.
When a scratcher walks into a tattoo shop, he or she often thinks for some reason that we are all "brothers", and that they somehow deserve courtesy and respect. They are often looking for equipment to purchase or pointers on how to tattoo, Every artist in a shop has completed an apprenticeship and struggled for the knowledge they have and the privilege of being tattooists. A scratcher who assumes they are on the same level not only demonstrates how little they know about tattooing but also has no respect for the artists they are speaking to.
7. If an artist in a shop does agree to look at your drawings or your portfolio, be as professional as possible.
A lined notebook is not a sketchbook. Photos on your phone are not a tattoo portfolio. If an artist is going to give you some of his or her time, be prepared to make the most of it. Be prepared to be critiqued, and be willing to accept a critique no matter how negative it may be. Set and keep an appointment. Don't waste your time or the time of the artist.
6. Stop carrying your tattoo machines in your pants pocket.
Never mind the mechanical things that can go wrong with a machine that is improperly carried. Never mind that this machine is probably rarely cleaned and nasty in-and-of itself. Walking around with a tattoo machine in your pocket just adds your sweat and funk to the microbe-culture that is no doubt already growing there. Pulling a machine out of your pocket impresses no one.
5. It is a tattoo machine or device. Stop calling it a "gun".
Tattoo machines do not shoot ink. The tube-and-grip assembly is not a "barrel". Calling a tattoo machine a "gun" establishes that you do not understand the tattoo process, and should not be allowed anywhere near someone's skin to do a tattoo.
4. Don't besmirch professional tattoo shop prices.
We get it. You are tattooing out of your kitchen, basement, or garage. You have no overhead. You did not invest years and thousands of dollars into learning how to tattoo. You have no clue what the value of good work is, because you are unfamiliar with good work. Speaking badly about people who tattoo the right way and offer a fair price for seeing to their clients safety and satisfaction is not helping your cause.
3. Stop assuming that you can buy supplies at a tattoo shop.
I know some shops sell supplies to anyone who walks in off the street. If you don't see supplies displayed for sale or a sign that suggests that supplies are sold, don't ask. A professional tattoo artist is not going to "be cool" and sell you a needle when you come-up short. Selling supplies to local scratchers just encourages potential clients to get work from people who are competing (badly) with them. Why walk into a shop and see what a tattoo is supposed to look like when "Jimmy Aroundaway" gets his supplies from the professional shop and will scratch you up for $20 and a case of beer?
2. Don't talk in front of tattoo shop clients.
If you are in a tattoo shop in the customer area for whatever purpose, whether as a potential customer yourself or your lucky enough to have an artist actually giving you the time of day, don't talk to other clients. You have no valid opinion on anything that has to do with tattooing. No one wants to see what you have done on yourself or your girlfriend/boyfriend. No one cares, and you are out of line offering any advice.
And, especially, do not dare to suggest that you could offer a better price. Don't do it. The life you save may be your own.
1. Stop tattooing.
That really is the bottom line. Draw as much as you can. Practice on pig-skin, orange peals, fake-skin, or whatever if you must, but stay away from tattooing people until someone who actually knows what they are doing can certify that you are tattooing safely and correctly. If you love tattooing and love the life, then you will find a way to do it right.
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 an email at firstname.lastname@example.org