Ten Tips to Finding a Good Tattooist and Studio
1. Get recommendations, but choose for yourself.
If one of your friends has a good experience at a particular shop or with a certain tattooist, chances are so will you. However make sure you still click with that tattooist on a gut level. If you have a bad feeling about them don’t let them tattoo you. While trusted recommendations are good, everyone is different. For that reason, you should really consider visiting several shops (perhaps from several recommendations), starting a dialogue with the tattooist, and looking over his or her portfolio in-person.
2. Make your health your primary concern.
Reputable tattoo studios should have a policy regarding health safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidelines for Universal Precautions recommended to prevent transmission of HIV and other blood born diseases. According to the CDC, your tattooist's hands must be washed routinely, gloves should always be worn and all tattooing tools and equipment must have some barrier (paper towel, plastic, etc.) between them and the normal work surface. The autoclave, the sterilizer that all tattooists must have to sterilize their equipment, should undergo monthly spore testing to ensure it is working properly. The studio should also practice a single needle use policy. All needles and tubes have a color indicator that turns brown when they’re properly sterilized. You have every right to ask your tattooist to set up in front of you, show you their spore testing records, and make available their applicable health and inspection documentation as well as any certification required by the local authorities. If a tattooist refuses any of these requests or if you’re uncomfortable with what you see, don’t hesitate to leave and seek out a studio that puts more value in healthy practices.
3. Inspect the premises.
When you’re considering a tattoo studio, look around – and not just at the pretty pictures on the walls. Check out the premises. Is it clean? Use the bathroom. Is it sanitary and presentable? The outward appearance of a tattoo shop can often reflect a tattooist’s dedication to cleanliness and sterilization practices in general. The shop should feel clean and hospitable. Your tattooist, too, should look clean and kempt, regardless of their personal fashion tastes.
4. Ask about apprenticeships and training.
Generally, a reputable tattooist has gone through some type of apprenticeship (oftentimes lasting several years), during which they would have learned the many skills required of the craft. More recently there has been an influx of “tattoo schools,” but there is definite resistance to them from within the industry since these programs are generally short term (sometimes six months or less) and don’t often include any actual tattoo studio experience. It’s hard to balance the education of a “schooled” tattooist with someone who went through an apprenticeship. Talk to your tattooist about their training experience, including their education in health precautions and practices.
5. Understand what is (and isn’t) guaranteed.
Some shops guarantee their work for life, while others will only guarantee your tattoo for a certain period of time, maybe six months or a year. Some shops abide by a “one pass, first class” policy, which means that if there is a problem with the tattoo, they believe the liability lies with the client. "One pass, first class," protects studios from mistakes clients make with tattoo aftercare. If your studio has this policy in place you should expect to be charged for any subsequent touch-ups. Ask questions and educate yourself before you’re tattooed. You should know and be comfortable with whatever shop policies are in place.
6. Scrutinize portfolios.
Any reputable tattooist should have a photo album of tattoos they have created so you can review and determine their level of craftsmanship. Their previous tattoo work should be diverse and well executed, with a large percentage of the examples looking healthy and healed (unhealed or just-completed tattoos will look red around the edges, swollen, and have a definite sheen). Make sure the black lines in the tattoos look smooth and are not raggedy and uneven. Also check to make sure the color fields are solid and not patchy. Check the transitions from shading to solid pigment and make sure they are smooth and not awkward. Also look at the tattooist’s past work with an aesthetic eye. While you may not personally connect with all of the work displayed, you should take note of the professional touches. If a particular tattoo was done from tattoo artwork in the shop, ask to see the original design on the wall. How does it compare with the actual tattoo in the photo?
7. Decide if the tattooist's specialties match your particular needs.
Any reputable tattooist should be able to skillfully apply any tattoo design to skin (keeping in mind the limitations of the craft). Some tattooists do focus their work on certain types of tattoo styles, like photo-realism or Old School. This type of specialization might be based on a tattooist’s personal preference. If you have a particular style in mind, find someone who you feel is genuinely interested in that style. Sometimes this can be determined by simply looking through their portfolio and at the type of work they most commonly do.
8. Make sure you feel comfortable with this person.
Needles alone can be unsettling, so being tattooed by someone that you’re not personally comfortable with is only added stress. You may be artistically collaborating with this person in the design process, spending possibly several hours together during the tattooing and in some situations showing them parts of your body you wouldn’t generally let others see. Part of your tattoo experience will consist of your memory of actually getting your artwork tattooed and your time spent in the chair. Your shop of choice should provide you with top-rate customer service and make you comfortable and happy.
9. Make sure both you and your tattooist share the same vision.
Both you and your tattooist should have the same design goals before the needles hit your skin. If your tattooist isn’t committed to making sure you get exactly what you want you may need to find someone else to tattoo you. Avoid tattooists who are less focused on your vision and more on their own, and don’t let your excitement in getting new ink distract you from really evaluating them and choosing a tattooist that shares your vision. Compromising on this point may leave you with a tattoo that the tattooist wanted to create, but not one you want to wear.
10. Communicate any special needs or considerations.
If you want to cover a scar, have a dark complexion, or if you have any conditions that might affect healing or how well the ink takes to the skin, you need to communicate this to a tattooist. This is especially important you have hemophilia or other blood diseases that may be contagious or dangerous to the tattooist. Make sure you are working with a tattooist who has experience in dealing with your particular needs or circumstances and as always don’t be afraid to ask for evidence via their portfolio, experience stories, or both.
A Note About Cost.
Cost should not be your main consideration for selecting a tattooist. Think of your tattoo as what it is: A long-term investment. Of course you don’t want to get something you can’t afford; on the other hand, “bargain hunting” could potentially lead to sub-par work and health consequences. Most reputable tattooists will give you a fair price for the work, generally basing their estimate on the number of hours it will take to do any design modification and to actually apply your tattoo. You can of course limit this time and cost by doing your homework and being prepared with Tattoo Friendly® reference from TattooFinder.com. For more information check out our article, “The Benefits of Using Tattoo Friendly Design Reference”.