You have a tattooer that you really like. He or she does amazing work, you have a good relationship, you get a fair price for your tattoos, and you have gotten a few tattoos from this one artist. You feel like this person is "your tattooer", the person you go to for your tattoos and advice on tattoos. Your tattooer is strongest, however, with one particular style of tattoos, and you want a tattoo in a style that you think will be outside their skill-set. In other words, you have another tattoo artist in mind, but you don't want to damage the relationship you have with your current tattooer. What do you do?
If this scenario sounds a little odd to you, it is because with most professionals this would not be an issue. An Italian Chef is not going to hold it against his clients if one night they decide to go to an American Restaurant because they were in the mood for some American Food. Unfortunately, tattooers are often a bit superstitious about the industry, maybe even a little paranoid. We often find ourselves with the mentality that every tattoo done by another tattooer is an opportunity lost, and money out of our own pockets. When one of our clients goes to another artist, we tattooers worry that the shop will be better, that the other artist will offer a negative opinion of our work or try to undercut our pricing, or will frankly just provide a better experience for the client.
The reality is that all of these concerns are valid, at least to a point. We tattooers tend not to see that those concerns are well with in our control. Being tattooers ourselves, we should assume that our work will be critiqued and the other tattooer will try to win over our client. The question we should ask ourselves is what steps we took to prevent that tattooer from being successful? If we are concerned about the quality of our shop, then we should have stepped-up and corrected any deficiency. If we are afraid of a negative critique, then we need to be our own worst critics and truly strive to improve and do our best work on every tattoo. If we think the other tattooer might provide a better experience, then we need to know and correct the ways which we miss the mark.
In short, if our client needs to go to another tattooer for one tattoo because it is simply outside our skill-set, we need to be confident that this is the ONLY reason they are going to another tattooer.
From the onset of this idea, we have a problem. If your client feels that they need to be concerned about offending you, then you have already done something wrong. Your client should recognize that you are a professional, fully aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. If you are a professional, then you should have no issue discussing with your client what their tattoo needs are, how you can address them, and if you are unable to meet their needs, how they should go about finding an artist who can. Indeed, as a professional caring for your client, it may even behoove you to have an artist or two in mind you know will do the job, offer a fair price, and treat your client in the same manner you would.
A doctor will recommend their patients to a specialist when necessary. A mechanic will send work to another shop if their customer's car needs something they do not offer. If your client comes to you seeking advice about getting a tattoo from another artist, you should feel good that you have built a professional relationship with your client and they see you as a resource they can trust in the tattoo industry. Taking care of your client, even if it means sending them down the street for a tattoo that is outside your skill-set, is better than losing them because you have a poor attitude, or worse because you gave them a tattoo that was not on par with your normal work when you couldn't bare to do the right thing and send their money to someone else.
As a client, you should know that despite our sometimes fragile artistic egos, we tattooers tend to be realists. If your tattooer does primarily American Traditional work, and you want a portrait, you should be confident that your tattooer will steer you right. We tell our clients to always, always, ALWAYS look at portfolios when shopping for an artist, and we hope that the reason you selected us was founded on the strength of our portfolios. With this in mind, we also must know that if a style of tattoo that you want is not in our portfolio, you will have concerns about our ability to execute it. You should expect professionalism from your tattooer, and that they will be willing to talk to you about any aspect of the tattoo process, including potentially needing to go to another artist.
If you consider someone your tattooer, simply be open and frank with them. Tell them what you want and what your concerns are about their ability to do the tattoo, Be prepared also to give them the opportunity to show you what they can do with your concept.
What that means is being willing to pay your tattooer's drawing fee and being open to seeing their take on your idea. Your tattooer is your tattooer for a reason; you like their style and their technique. It may be that they can present your concept in a manner that you had not considered, translating it into their style. This will have the added advantage of keeping your work consistent, as you will hopefully get many additional tattoos from that tattooer. Being ready to pay when you have this discussion also demonstrates that you are sincere about your appreciation of their work and that you really do want to keep them on as your tattooer. Your tattooer may even be willing to apply that drawing fee as a down-payment on your next tattoo from them, depending on your relationship.
You, as a client, should never be anxious about addressing concerns with your tattooer. If you are, then you may have reason to be concerned. Not every tattooer can do every tattoo, and a professional tattooer will want you to have good tattoo work, even if the work is not their own. They would rather have you sing their praises for taking care of them than have a tattoo you regret getting and they regret doing.
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 email@example.com.