Okay before you read on, please understand that everything on this page is just my opinion. I’ve googled around the old internet to find out what people’s most frequently asked questions about tattoos are, and since I have some experience in tattoo shops (both working and being tattooed) I have decided to share my thoughts and opinions on how to be the world’s best tattoo client.
Once again, this site is not officially affiliated with any shop I may or may not work at, and is not associated with anybody who has ever tattooed me or not tattooed me. It’s all me, what I think, and nothing else.
Also, be advised that anything I say is not based on any particular client, friend, or coworker, it’s all generalizations and my personal view.
Get it? Okay, here we go.
And now, some Q’s and A’s.
How do I choose the right tattoo artist? How do I know if they’re good?
This is a very important question. How do you know if somebody is good at doing tattoos? I think that the two best ways to find excellent tattooers are word of mouth recommendations and doing your research. No shop should mind if you just come in and check out their portfolios and leave. It’s what they’re there for. Make a day of it. Visit each shop and look at what they have available to you. This will also help you get a feel for each shop and see where you want to spend your time and money.
A portfolio is usually a book (or nowadays it’s sometimes a website) full of photos showing what the tattooers can do, and what they want to do more of. The subject matter of the tattoos is not really relevant to your search. Instead you should be looking for solid work. Keep an eye out for any shaky lines or disproportionate pin-up girls. Look carefully. Does it look like the artist knows how to draw? Do they know what a dragon looks like? Does that portrait resemble a human being at all?
The portfolios may not necessarily be their absolute best work, but they wouldn’t put anything in there that they’re not proud of, so if you see crappy looking tattoos in the portfolios, that may be a sign you’re in the wrong place. I can’t stress the importance enough of looking at a tattooer’s work before getting tattooed by them.
It may also be a good idea to look and see if the tattooer’s general tattoo-style fits the idea you have in your head. Some use more black than others, some are really into cartoony stuff, some people like doing traditional tattoos the most…not everybody can pull off portraits, large-scale dragons, realistic looking animals, Japanese stuff or graffiti lettering. If you’re looking for something specific, maybe ask someone in the shop who they would recommend and talk to that person.
Tattoo Artist Magazine’s blog has posted more info on looking at a portfolio here. Read it for more really great tips!
Do I have to have a meaningful reason in order to get tattooed?
Absolutely not. If you like tattoos, get one. And honestly we don’t care what it means to you. Sorry. Or maybe some people do. I don’t know. I certainly don’t.
And say you are getting something super meaningful…just tell the tattooer what picture you want, not what you want the tattoo to mean. If you say you want something to represent your kids, nobody is going to know what to do with that because they don’t know your kids. A better idea is to tell the tattooer a clear focused idea, like say maybe that you want a heart with a banner that says your kids names in this font. Be specific.
How much does a tattoo cost?
It depends. If you want to know how much something is going to cost, go to the shop to find out.
Prices may vary depending on the size and complexity of the design, what your skin is like, if it is in an area that may require a lot of touch ups or is tough to tattoo, the amount of colors required, and how big of a pain in the ass you are to the artist, among other things. I mean, they’re probably not going to charge you more for being a jerk, but maybe they will. Or maybe they’ll give you a sweet deal if you’re awesome. (This criteria is different for every tattoo parlor)
Here’s a word to the wise: don’t try to haggle with the tattooer over the price. They aren’t trying to rip you off. I swear. And if you brag about how little you paid for the piece of shit sleeve you got from your buddy in his van, it will get you nowhere. It just kind of makes you look like a sucker for paying for something so ugly.
It’s like the old saying goes:
“good tattoos are not cheap, and cheap tattoos are not good”
Tattoos are a luxury. if you can’t afford it, save up and come back later.
Why won’t you quote me a price over the phone? It’s just a small tattoo. It’ll only take ten minutes.
It’s impossible to tell you what something will cost over the phone because even though you tell me it’s something simple, it may not be. You have no idea. I have worked in a tattoo shop for around five years now and I still have no idea how long things take half the time. One of my biggest pet peeves is somebody telling me their tattoo will only take fifteen minutes so can’t we just squeeze them in between appointments? No. Well maybe, but maybe not. With set-up time, drawing time…even if the actual tattooing only takes fifteen minutes, the whole shebang can take up to an hour. And four words and a penguin are going to be longer than ten minutes. Sorry.
What if I don’t like what the tattooer drew up? Should I just draw it myself? What if I can’t draw?
If you want, you can draw something up, but don’t draw it yourself and expect the tattooer to do exactly what you drew. I mean…maybe they can, but probably not. They are most likely better at drawing than you are, and not everything is tattooable. If you absolutely must get something exactly to your specifications, then set up a consultation appointment so you guys can work on it together.
Actually, it’s usually a good idea to set up a consultation appointment with the artist for pretty much anything that isn’t super straightforward. The front desk person/receptionist/whoever is working there should know if you need to talk to the artist first or not.
Here’s a tip: don’t ask a tattooer to draw something just so you can “see what it’ll look like”. They’re busy and probably have seven other tattoos to draw for actual paying clients. I say if their portfolio impressed you, you don’t need to worry. Their time is money. Don’t waste it.
And here’s the thing: if you really honestly don’t like what the tattooer drew for you, that’s fine. They should make the changes necessary for you to like it. That being said, make sure you’re not just being a control freak by asking them to move the stencil an eighth of an inch 45 times, or change the drawing in tiny ways that aren’t going to matter, or add something huge at the last minute. If you really need to make that many changes, maybe you’re not ready to commit. Go home and think about it, and rebook the appointment so you can go back when you’re ready.
Along the same lines, it’s a good idea to have a few ideas about the placement of your tattoo in case your design doesn’t work where you initially wanted it.
Why would my tattooer take a deposit?
Honestly, even the best clients will flake out sometimes if they’re given a chance. The deposit is insurance for the tattooer, so that even if you waste part or all of their day by not showing up for your allotted time, they still get something for their troubles. If you just don’t show up to your appointment, for whatever reason, the tattooer is the one who suffers. They probably spent time drawing stuff up, and even if they didn’t, your appointment was taking up room where other real paying clients could have been booked.
Don’t be afraid of the deposit. A tattoo shop is a business, they’re not pirates out to steal your booty. And in every shop I’ve ever been to, the deposit is much less than the actual tattoo is going to be … you were eventually gonna give them the money anyway. Think of it as a down payment.
Does it hurt? What does it feel like?
Yeah. It hurts. Getting tattooed sucks. I call everyone out who says it doesn’t hurt right now. You are lying.
To me, getting tattooed feels like…getting tattooed. It feels exactly like what it is. Needles and ink and exposed skin and scratching and buzzing and vibration and hot and swelling and loud noises and bleeding and fun and nervousness and ‘oh that’s not so bad’ and ‘HOLY FUCK THIS HURTS, WHY AM I DOING THIS TO MYSELF AGAIN?’ and willing yourself to stay still and breathe. It’s something you have to experience to know.
Are tattoos addictive?
I’m gonna say no. Not physically. In fact, I’d say not at all. I think that it’s somewhere deep in human nature to get tattooed…like cavemen did it, and cultures around the world have been doing it forever, and we are just living in an extremely repressive society in that regard. I think the ‘addictiveness’ comes from getting a tattoo and realizing that it’s not such a big deal. You just kind of cross the line, from not having tattoos to having one, and then why the hell not get more? Yeah, that’s my weird answer to that question. Or maybe I’m wrong and people love endorphins and being totally cool or some shit. I’m no expert.
Is it a good idea to get wasted before getting a tattoo to help with the pain? What about drugs? What about topical numbing agents?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t think that anything really helps. Maybe the topical stuff might, or like, if you take three T3s? But I’m no pharmacist. I have heard that some of that topical crap makes your skin all rubbery and weird to tattoo though, which is a bad thing. Just tough it out. You’ll be fine, it’s not gonna kill you. It’s just your skin that hurts.
In my experience, walking into a shop super drunk or high will just get you a business card because “we don’t have time today.”
What do you wish every client knew before they set foot in a shop?
Be polite. You have no idea how many people come in and try to be all cool but just seem like assholes. We are people too, and a smile goes a long way.
Triple check the spelling of words, because tattooers aren’t human dictionaries. You need to be responsible for this. Same goes for translations. I doubt that your tattooer knows every language on the planet. AND KANJI IS NOT AN ALPHABET. You can’t spell someone’s name in Japanese characters. (You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know this.)
Words, animals, pretty much everything should face FORWARD on your body and away from you. So you shouldn’t be able to read the words on your foot. It’s backwards. And then you say “But I don’t care what people say, I’m doing this for me.” And then I say “Who cares if you can read it, the rest of your life people will have to ask you what it says. It’s going to look weird, trust me on this one. People will fight to the death about it for some reason but I’m right, damnit.”
(for more about upside down tattoos, click here)
Know what you want before you come in, but be flexible. because not everything is tattooable. Some things to think about are: what design you want, where on your body, if you want color or black and grey, how big, do you want background? Remember, tattooers and the other people in the shop are not your research assistants. How the heck are we supposed to know what you like?
Also, don’t try to cram too much into one design. putting your kids initials with a flower and a koi fish and your birthday and zodiac sign and a rainbow with seven stars may represent something to you but it’ll just look like a confusing mess. maybe get one or two of those together and save the others for future tattoos.
If you bring someone along to your consultation or appointment, speak for yourself. Personally I never really trust someone who says “my friend wants…” or even worse, “my wife wants…”. It’s sketchy and super weird to talk for somebody about something like that.
Are there any questions I should ask when I’m planning on getting tattooed in a new shop?
If i were going to a new shop i would try and watch the tattooer set up to be sure everything is sterilized and/or single use. I wouldn’t even consider going somewhere that wouldn’t tell me everything I wanted to know about their shop in that respect. That said, if you go to a reputable shop, everything should be clean, you shouldn’t even have to worry about it.
Why did my tattooer tell me he/she wouldn’t tattoo my neck? It’s my decision, it’s my body. I have a right to put tattoos wherever I want.
Ah, yes. Well, honestly it’s to save you from yourself. Future you will thank that tattooer.
I don’t know, it’s an interesting conflict that tattoo guys have to face. I mean, yes, on one hand you are an adult and should be able to decide what you do to your own body. But on the other…they know what these tattoos can do to your life.
I mean…I don’t really have anything crazy on me, but I do have quite a few ‘visible’ tattoos and yes, my entire world has changed in the past few years because of it. And we’re talking forearms and lower legs and stuff. Stuff I can hide if I want to. I’m still struggling with going outside in a tshirt sometimes because I’m a very private, shy person and sometimes just want to scream at people to stop looking at me and that I don’t feel like talking about my arm today. As a female as well I feel that the assumption is that I’m either stupid, slutty, or crazy. Anyway that’s a whole other thing.
My point is that the people with neck tattoos, face tattoos and hand tattoos…they can NEVER hide them. They are ALWAYS stared at. They are ALWAYS the tattooed person. These tattoos are job stoppers and will change your life in ways that are not positive. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. Society just hasn’t caught up with the whole uh…thing… yet. And so many tattooers won’t do these types of tattoos on anyone unless a) they’re a tattooer themselves or b) they are already completely covered and have visible tattoos, and they have some idea what they’re getting into.
It could also be kind of a bro thing. Some people have the opinion that you have to earn the right to have the kind of extreme tattoos, and not everybody should be able to walk in off the street and straight up get a neck tattoo.
Then again, some people don’t care. You want your baby’s name in script on your neck? No problemo. Zip zap. Tattooed for life.
Why won’t anybody tattoo the bottom of my foot/a ring around my finger/the palm of my hand/the inside of my lip/my tongue?
Well, long story short, the skin is weird and the tattoos won’t hold up. I have heard that in order to do a tattoo deep enough for it to stay on the bottom of your foot it would have to go all the way through the skin into the fatty tissue, and in that case, the body would just get rid of the ink anyway. It will fall out in patches, not fade away nicely.I don’t exactly know the science behind this but I’ve seen the shitty half-fallen-out tattoos enough to believe it.
Well, okay, now I know that it’s gonna fall out. Why won’t my tattoo artist do it for me even though I know this is gonna happen? It’s my decision, right?
From what I’ve observed, the people who do get these types of novelty moustache-on-the-finger or whatever tattoos and stuff already have tons of good tattoos. From the same shop. This is the thing: if you go somewhere and get one crappy falling out tattoo and nothing good, then when people ask where you got your crappy tattoo from you’re gonna soil the name of the shop. People don’t want their name attached to bad work. And no matter how much you promise you won’t tell anyone where you got it, you will. Just get something awesome instead, okay?
Why won’t anybody give me a white-ink tattoo?
Because they’re stupid.
Just kidding. Sort of. But here’s the thing. You can’t get a ‘hidden’ tattoo. What? Why would you go to the trouble of getting a tattoo that you can’t see? Don’t get one if you don’t want one. That’s my personal opinion.
White ink doesn’t generally work because after a very short while, like usually under a year, your skin completely grows back over the tattoo ink. Depending on your natural skin tone the tattoo will change from white to a weird yellow-brown and it will look like a scar. From what I’ve heard, the general consensus between tattooers is that it’s not something they are willing to do, unless again, it’s on somebody they’ve tattooed before and are friends with, and it’s something they really feel like doing. Which is practically never. Just don’t ask.
What’s the deal with black light/glow in the dark tattoos?
I don’t know. It seems pretty fucked up and dangerous though. None of these inks have been tested for any extended period of time, and um…they glow in the dark. Ew.
What should I do to prepare for my appointment?
Eat something before you get tattooed, and have some juice or candy or something with you to bring your blood sugar up in case you feel woozy. Don’t be hungover either. It sucks for everybody.
Um, remember your personal hygiene. Have a shower before your appointment, don’t eat garlic, wear deoderant…don’t fart… you’re going to be directly next to a person you hardly know for HOURS. Think about it. And dress appropriately. You are going to have to move your clothing out of the way, like it or not. they can’t tattoo through your clothes.
What should I do while getting tattooed? Any tips on being an awesome client on the day of my appointment? What about how to survive the pain and not embarrass myself?
Be on time. If you don’t show up on time, you screw up the entire day. Especially in a busy shop where the tattooers have to turn down business because you have an appointment. If you’re twenty minutes late then everyone is for the rest of the day.
DO NOT BRING YOUR KIDS! Even if little Suzie is just a sweet little ray of sunshine and ‘oh she never cries’ or whatever…it’s not a child friendly atmosphere. It’s boring, and there are dangerous things around. Bio hazardous materials and um…I don’t know, pictures of naked girls and stuff. Also, kids are loud and not everybody likes them and I’M NOT A BABYSITTER! RAAH.
When the tattooer is setting up, drawing or getting your stencil ready, just wait in the designated waiting area. Don’t lurk over their shoulder or walk around behind the front desk. It’s super annoying and you’re in the way. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a regular customer or not. Just stay where you’re supposed to be. Same with if your friend is getting tattooed. Ask if you’re allowed to visit with them, don’t just barge back there. (This is a major pet peeve of mine)
If you are under 30, be sure to have government issued photo identification with you. it’s just like buying cigarettes or booze folks, we check ID.
While getting tattooed don’t move. I know, I know, it sounds obvious, but…yeah. People do it all the time. Don’t wiggle, dont’ jiggle your legs or talk on your cell phone or gesture with your hands. Etcetera. Just stay still.
Maybe this next one isn’t very fair to say, but I hate it when people whine. We all know it hurts. The best thing to do is to stay in good humor and try to stay calm. Tattoo guys don’t usually enjoy hurting people, and they may have to ask you to come back another time if you can’t handle the pain. Just breathe, and know that it’s not gonna kill you and it’s all worth it. That said, make sure you do tell the tattooer if you feel light headed or “green” or “funny” so they can do something about it right away.
Should I bring friends with me to my tattoo appointment for moral support?
YOU DON’T NEED 34098534098 FRIENDS TO COME WITH YOU. One friend is plenty.
PARENTS: sometimes having mommy there to hold her hand can cause 18 year old Mary crybaby to act like a child. If you leave, she may actually handle the tattoo better.
FRIENDS: make sure you ask about taking pictures. Most tattooers don’t mind but maybe some do. Don’t take pictures of things like their machines, drawings or other clients. Turn off your flash. And do remember that sometimes people handle tattoos better when they don’t have to talk. Personally I hate it when people hang around. i always say “go away” to my friends when they come back to “see how i’m doing”… Stay out of the way, sit still and try not to be a distraction.
Should I tip my tattooer?
YES! ALWAYS. (Unless you’re absolutely dissatisfied with what they’ve done.) They have a tough job (really!) and usually they aren’t keeping the entire $150 an hour or whatever they’re charging you. They changed your appearance for life, and they are highly skilled artists. I honestly feel that ten to thirty percent is a good range for how much to tip.
Oh, and tell your friends who did your tattoo if you’re happy with it.
How should I take care of my new tattoo?
Do what your tattooer tells you to do. Don’t listen to your friends, and don’t listen to the internet. Everybody tattoos a little differently and has different opinions on how to take care of your new tattoo. If you have any questions, call them and ask. Don’t be shy. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Of course. It’s a tattoo ‘MACHINE’ not a tattoo ‘GUN’. Never a gun. Never.
Don’t get a tattoo when you’re pregnant or think you may be pregnant. Seriously. Why would you do something that could possibly cause a miscarriage? Just wait the nine months. your baby is more important than your impatience. Tattooers are not physicians…they can not tell you whether or not it will be safe.
If you have a pacemaker, talk to your doctor before going into a tattoo shop. Tattoo machines could possibly interfere with it because some of them run on little magnets, which I’ve heard can do something weird to pacemakers.
If you’re sick please reschedule your appointment…giving the tattooer a day or two notice at least. You will most likely know whether you’re going to be under the weather 24 hours in advance. If you think you’ll be sick, tell the shop ASAP.
Women…if you get a tattoo when you’re on your period it hurts more and you’re bound to be more whiny and less likely to sit still. Try and schedule your appointment around your…schedule.
If your tattooer asks you to, come back so they can take photos of your healed tattoo to use in their portfolios.
Not every shop has a piercer. Tattoos and piercings are not inextricable from one another.
Don’t assume the girls in the shops are “just receptionists” or piercers. I know of some amazing female tattooers who run circles around the boys. And no, they’re not Kat VonD, nor do they want to be. I’m not a tattooer (and never will be) and I even get annoyed by this…I can’t imagine how they feel! I’ve had people condecendingly ask me things like “So…do you work or are you just the receptionist?” “Are you an artist too, or…” “So what do you do, just model their work?” One man actually asked me how I decided to have the job I had by asking me “Were you just sitting in home-ec one day …” WHAT? Actually I order supplies, do reception, clean the shop, run errands, keep tabs on everybody in the shop at all times, do a lot of the social media stuff, ensure the money goes where it’s supposed to, sterilize the equipment and make sure you don’t get hepatitis. Doesn’t that count as “working”? lol sorry, sore spot.
This might sound kind of silly, but try and have some respect for the … uh, tattoo culture. Not to sound like a snob or a jerk but it’s not Walmart and tattoo shops don’t have to give good customer service if they don’t want to. Most places will make an effort to come off as friendly, but remember the roots of the (modern North American) industry: bikers and sailors. Just because some tattooers are on TV and your 18 year old niece likes tattoos now doesn’t necessarily mean that has changed. Don’t demand that they turn down the music and cater to your every whim. It’s not gonna happen.
Only use the words “tat”, “tatty” and “inked” ironically, or else I hate you.
For more info, see:
Danielle’s post on How Tattoos May Change Your Life. Good advice over there!
Kaelah’s Guide on How Not To Be A Douche. It’s awesome.
Please Stop Asking Me What My Tattoos Mean is a must-read
Sarah Rose writes about how she’s found her tattoo artists here.
Tattoozen is a great blog run by a tattoo artist.
Here’s a paper written by a modern tattooed woman. You Were So Pretty Before. Gender and its Implications Within Modern American Tattoo Culture. Interesting!
This anonymous blog, penned by a tattooer who tells funny stories and rants about working in a street shop.
Most Honerable Blog tells us all why text tattoos are hardly ever a good idea.
And here are all kinds of other things I’ve written about tattoos over the past couple years.
If you have anything to add, or any questions or comments, feel free to send me an email,
I’ll do my best to answer you promptly.