Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What to Do When Someone Wants a Bad Tattoo

 This question was posed in a forum I follow:

 "We've all had clients walk in with a poorly rendered design that their sister/cousin/whoever has drawn for them that you know will end-up on a tattoo-fail-blog.  A design or concept you would not want your name attached to.  I take pride in my work and have gotten in trouble for refusing to do a tattoo someone requested, but it is my career and not the shop-owner's.  How do you handle it?"

 It happens.  Someone walks in with an ill-conceived design or concept.  It could be as simple as something that might be a wonderful piece of art but does not translate well into a tattoo.  Or, it could be something that is badly drawn that the client insists they want as is.  How should this be handled?

A questionable potential client...


 There are limits to what you should or should not tattoo.  Most shops I have worked at, for example, refused to do tattoos that could be construed as gang-related, racist, or derogatory to sensitive segments of our society.  This is for two reasons.  First, the shop's reputation is on the line.  When you do that kind of tattoo, you become known for doing that kind of tattoo.  Others may come requesting that kind of tattoo, but you may put-off a larger clientele base that would consider being associated with that kind of work distasteful.  It is not worth the trouble.  Second, you are doing that client a favor.  One day, they may realize that the tattoo they thought they wanted to be "in" with the group they where trying to impress has hampered them socially and in finding employment.  Your saying "no" may be saving them years of regret in the future.

 These are solid limits that you should stick by.  Everything else comes down to artistic integrity, which can mean many things.  On the one hand, you as a tattoo artist want to have a body of work that suggests excellence and skill.  A poorly conceived design that the client insists on will not help your cause there.  

Funny until your grand-kids get a roll of quarters.

 However, on the other hand is your integrity as a tattoo artist to serve the client.  It is his or her tattoo, not yours.  Your function is to give the client what they want to the best of your ability.  Refusing to do certain tattoos can harm your reputation; you can be perceived as being "stuck-up" or thinking that you are too good to give someone what they want.  While you may be right about a design being bad, the hurt feelings caused by not doing the tattoo can be more damaging to your reputation than doing a bad tattoo.

 If a client comes in with a design that they commissioned or drew themselves, that design has an inherent emotional value to them.  If you look at the design and see a hot-mess, it is your job to educate the client as to their options.  First, be gentle and kind about the design.  Praise the work of the artist.  Ask how much experience that artist has.  Often, it may only be a few years, which can work to your advantage when you try to convince the client to go another way.  Find something you can say is positive about the design, and talk to the client about why they want it.  That design may be something that someone who has passed away has drawn or has some other sentimental value attached to it.  If that is the case, you do not want to change it, or change it much.  The client is not concerned about the quality of the design, only its sentimental value.

 If it is just a design that the client likes, they can usually be persuaded to let you change it.  This is the time to educate the client on the differences between art and tattoo art.  Explain the limits of the medium, why the design may not work well in the skin, or issues with the design itself you are concerned about (proportion, flow, etc).  Suggest allowing you to re-draw the design to make it more like a tattoo.

I really hope this was drawn by the client.

 If the client insists that they want the design as-is, you can try to price yourself out of the tattoo, although this is not always a good idea.  Show the client your portfolio and discuss your style and your strengths.  This may get the client thinking the design could be better.  If after seeing your portfolio the client still wants the design as-is, offer a price 25-50% above what you would normally charge.  If they ask why it is so expensive, explain the effort that will be required to render that design as accurately as possible and overcoming the limits you described about tattooing.  

 Also, have a client sign an "informed consent" waiver, a document that states that you, as the tattooer, have explained that the design selected is ill-advised, and you have discussed with them the limits of the tattoo process and potential issues they may face.  While it won't save your reputation if the client a year from now tries to blame you for a bad design to their friends (why did he let me get this tattoo?), it will give them another moment to re-think what they are doing.

 When you tattoo a design that you do not like, a huge mistake is made if you do not give it the same effort and attention that you would a design you do like.  A design you do not like should be given more effort, to make it as good as possible.  Every line should be clean and every color solid; cut no corners.  Even if the design is bad, the tattoo itself should be excellent.

 Finally, take a photo of the design and the tattoo side-by-side.  This can work to your advantage in your portfolio.  The design may be bad, but future clients can see just how precise and accurate your were in it's rendering, and they can see that the client elected to get that design, as it is distinct from the other tattoos in style and format in your portfolio.

 It is tempting for a tattooer to limit themselves to tattoos that they like or are in a style they appreciate.  It is good to know your limits; one who is not experienced in doing portraits should probably explain to a client who wants a portrait that it is not your thing.  That is being responsible.  Sticking to your style in other matters, however, should not be a major concern until the demand for your style is so great that you are turning down tattoos due to being booked months in advance.  

 Keep in mind also that it is not just your reputation on the line, but your shops as well.  The shop has a stake in every client that walks through their doors beyond their percentage.  The advertising dollars spent brought that client into the shop, which means every client that comes in is an opportunity to recoup that cost that should not be wasted. A client who does not get what they want from a shop will not talk about the snooty artist, but the snobby shop that refused to give them their tattoo.  The shop they go to that does do the tattoo will only encourage this way of thinking in their minds.

Actually tried to sue her artist over this choice.

 Finally, it may not be the design that is objectionable, but the placement.  The hand or facial tattoo will impact that client for the rest of their life.  That silly tattoo across their ass may seem cute now, but not so cute in twenty years.  Advise the client as best you can about the potential risks, and if they insist, video-tape the process and use it for advertising.  

 The bottom line is that tattooing is a service-industry.  We give our clients what they want to the best of our ability.  Do your best to give them a great tattoo, and if they insist on a poor design at least they will get it fully aware of your concerns and in a manner that is as technically sound as possible.


 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 tattoonerdz@gmail.com.

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