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rec.arts.bodyart: Tattoo FAQ 2/9--Getting a tattoo

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Top Document: rec.arts.bodyart: Tattoo FAQ 2/9--Getting a tattoo
See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge

The bane of the tattoo world is the shadowy, unprofessional person
called the "scratcher." A scratcher is somebody who:
--Does not have the proper training in either tattoo art or of running
  a professional operation;
--Does not know and/or care to use responsible sterilization methods;
--Promises to provide tattooing services for an incredibly low fee, for
  free, or in exchange for drugs (ack!);
--Chooses not to apprentice through a legitimate tattoo shop because of 
  one excuse or another (but lacks the knowledge one needs to work in or
  run a professional shop);
--Will hurt you because they don't know what they're doing;
--Will give you a permanent tattoo you will regret for the rest of your 
--You should stay away with a ten-foot pole.

Never, never, never get work from a scratcher unless you are willing to
accept all the hazards listed above.

Of those in a study by Clinton Sanders who regretted their tattoos, more
than two-thirds of them regretted their tattoo because of poor quality!

Looking for an artist can be as easy as checking the Yellow Pages, or as
complex as checking references, magazine photos, and reading RAB. There
are a number of ways to find good artists, including (but certainly not
limited to):

--Perusing tattoo magazines. While not all tattoo magazines are of the
National Geographic quality, the photos will speak for themselves. Some
issues highlight specific artists' works; a good way see the type of
work someone does. Use the photos in the magazines to compare with those
of the artist you are interested in. These magazines have done a lot to
show what is *possible*.

Some things to look for in magazines:
  -Style (realistic, black & grey work, tribal, etc.)
  -Placement on your body
  -Ideas for images
  -Size in proportion to your body
  -Artists whose work you like.

--Reading RAB and this FAQ. It'll give you a base in which to start. If
you live in an area where an artist is not listed in the FAQ, you might
want to post a query. If you saw an artist whose work you liked in a
magazine, see if they're listed in the FAQ. If not, post a query.
Remember--the artist list FAQ is limited because we only take first-hand
recommendations from people who read RAB There are many artists who are
excellent, who have not worked on RAB participants.

--Attending a tattoo convention. Read the FAQ section on tattoo
conventions for more information.

You can approach this one of two ways. You can either go to a shop
because someone recommended the artist to you, or you can go in cold.
For obvious reasons, you will have a little more information with you if
you already know something about the artist. This may make you feel more
at ease when going into a shop for the first time.

Many of the top-notch artists recommended in this FAQ are very busy and
work on an appointment-only basis. Visit their shop anyway--you will
still learn about them even if it doesn't mean getting work done right
then and there.

Bodyart enthusiast Dr. Kai Kristensen <>, a pathologist
and a recently retired lab director of an internationally prestigious
medical center in La Jolla (California), says the most important aspects
of a good result are to:
 o Choose an experienced, knowledgeable performer who knows about 
   sterilization and avoidance of infection.
 o Avoid infection during the healing process.

With both of those bases covered, healing of either should be
non-eventful and the desired appearance should be guaranteed.


What images do you think of when you think of a tattoo? Do you think of
anchors, of roses or of skulls? While these traditional images are still
available, you will be pleasantly surprised at the variety you will find

There are two basic types of tattoos: Flash, and custom. As you can
imagine, "custom" means you have a design you like that you take in with
you. "Flash" is the stock designs you see on the walls of the shop.

The main thing to remember is that you're not required to choose from
the selection of flash in a shop--You're NOT limited to just an anchor,
a rose or a skull. Remember however, that these smaller pieces of
pre-priced flash are the bread & butter of many shops, since they are
proportionately expensive ($75 for 20 minutes' work, for example where
an artist might charge $100 an hour for custom work). Also, the number
of customers who lay out the big bucks for large, elaborate custom
pieces is too small to keep a regular shop in business.

A few of the major styles of tattooing:
BIO-MECHANICAL: A style popularized by illustrator H.R. Giger, who 
 designed the creature from the _Alien_ movies. Bio-mechanical work
 usually involves an anatomical flesh intertwined with some technical
 drawings of machines. A close relative of this style involves just the
 biological look of flesh without the mechanical parts.
BLACK & GREY: Refers to the colors used, this style requires the artist 
 to have advanced shading techniques for subtlety.
Celtic: Beautiful, intricate knotwork of the Celts (a hard "k", NOT a 
 soft "c" like the basketball team). These are much harder for artists 
 to do, and is best done by someone who specializes in it. Also usually 
 done in just black ink.
Oriental: Big, bold pieces of Oriental images (carp, clouds, dragons, 
 etc.) based on the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of 18th Century Edo-period 
 Japan. Note: It is fine to call this "Oriental" and not "Asian," 
 because it references an object and not a person.
PORTRAIT: Images taken from photos, best done by someone who can render
  realistic photographic images. Usually done in black and grey ink.
Sailor Jerry: Traditional sailor tattoo style made famous by Jerry 
  Collins in Honolulu.
Tribal: Usually bold simple lines, simple patterns. Almost always done
 with just black ink.

With a good artist working for you, you can get practically any image
you'd like. Accomplished artists can render portraits, wildlife,
psychedelic and biomechanical styles with impressive results. Your main
challenge is to find the artist who can best do the design YOU want.


Concerned that you'll end up with a greenish tattoo with little bits of
red or yellow? Worry no more! Today's inks run the entire gamut--and it
would not be terribly sarcastic to take a Pantone color chart with you!

Most tattoo inks are metal salt-based pigments that are not made
specifically to be used under the skin, and have not been approved by
the FDA for this purpose. The idea is that for most people, these
pigments are inert and cause no problems. Some people have been known to
have allergic reactions; any reputable artist should be willing to
provide you with a small "patch test" of the colors you desire. This is
required in the state of Arkansas.

Tattooist Uncle Bud Yates (Pikes Peak Tattooing) says some artists use
acrylic-based pigments, which he feels may be more troublesome than the
metal-based pigments for some with sensitive skin. Best to ask your
artist first.


Don't let the shop intimidate you when you first walk in. For the
uninked, a tattoo shop is intimidating enough. Strange smells, strange
sounds. Some shops even try to look intimidating to create a tough-guy
feel. Just keep in mind that you're a potential customer. Consider it
window shopping.

The first thing you should do is to take a minute to look around.
Chances are, you'll encounter some flash (stock illustrations) stapled
on the walls. These will most likely lean toward the traditional. Skull
and crossbones, roses and the like.

You might also see some signs ("No minors; we ID," "We have sanitary
conditions" etc.). These signs will also be indicators of the
personality of the shop owner. If the signs seem overly intimidating,
patronizing or snobbish, they can be tip-offs of the shop's attitude.
Some are very friendly, with plants, aquarium fish, and signs like
"Tattooed people come in all colors."

Note: There is no national law regarding the legal age for tattooing.
Check with the shop to find out what the local statute regulates.


Do NOT be impressed by the flash on the wall. These illustrations are
usually purchased from other artists and do not represent the work of
your artist. Frankly, anyone with some experience can easily trace the
outlines of these illustrations and fill in the colors. What you really
need to look at is a book that contains a collection of photos of the
artist's work. Go to the counter and ask to see one. If they tell you
they don't have one, walk out immediately. You're visiting the shop to
commission a piece of art to be permanently illustrated on your skin;
for the artist to tell you s/he doesn't have samples in a portfolio is


When you do look in their portfolio, there are a few things to keep in
mind. Do you see any photos of pieces that you recognize in the flash
(on the wall, or in a flash book)? If so, how is it rendered in tattoo
format? Before anything else, check to see that the lines are clean. Are
they well-defined? Straight where they should be; not shaky or blurry?
Are the borders all uniform in width? Do the colors seem true? Are they
bright? Proportionately correct?

Look at the people in the book. This can be an indicator of the
clientele in the shop (besides looking at the ambiance of the shop). Is
there a fair mix of women and men in the book? Are they all sporting
"biker" tats, or any one particular genre/style?

Again, keep in mind that anyone can stencil an outline of an
illustration onto your skin. The skill in the artistry comes in the
shading, use of colors and other subtle things that set an artist apart
from a simple tattooist.

Do you see anything in the portfolio that is not in the flash? These are
the custom pieces that the artists have done, and they should be their
crowning glory. How do they look? Do you like what you see? If there is
more than one artist working in the shop, and you see some photos you
like, make sure to find out which artist did the work.


Whenever you ask to see their collection of photos, the person in the
shop will hopefully immediately recognize you as someone who knows a
little more about tattoos--at least enough not to be satisfied by
looking at just the flash. If the shop is not too busy or if the artist
is not in the middle of working, they might stand on the other side of
the counter to have a conversation with you. This is a wonderful
opportunity to ask questions of the artist.

Some reasonable questions to ask in your conversation that shouldn't
take too much time for the artist to answer:

What is their favorite style?
 If what *you* are looking to get done happens to be their specialty you
 are in luck; be it tribal, wildlife or whatever.

Is there any one particular subject they like to do?
 One artist, without hesitation, told me his favorite was skulls. I 
 would've jumped for joy had that been what I wanted.

How long has the shop been here?
 This may be an indicator of the stability of their business. The tat 
 industry in itself fluctuates, but continuity implies business acumen, 
 responsible practices and that they are not a fly-by-night operation.

How long have they been at the shop?
 The shop may have been there for 20 years, but the artist may only have
 been there for a couple of months. If they have been there for what you
 consider a short period, ask them where they were before.

How long have they been tattooing?
 It might not matter so much that the artist has only been there for a 
 short while, if they've been tattooing for several years. They might 
 come from various backgrounds--anywhere from working on friends to 
 having a fine arts degree. This type of information will give you more 
 insight into the artist's attitude as well as aptitude.

Do they get to do much custom work?
 This may depend on where the shop is located, but it also depends on 
 how good of an artist they are, and whether they have their own style 
 for which they are known for.

Do they use apprentices at the shop?
 It is often difficult for new artists to break into the business, and 
 an apprenticeship is often a very good way to learn not only about 
 tattooing itself, but also about the day-to-day operation of a small 
 business. For artists to take apprenticeships means they're interested 
 in expanding the artform, in giving a new person a break (so to speak) 
 and feeling confident enough about their own skills that they feel they
 can offer some insight and experience for the new person. This again 
 goes back to the attitude of the artist and the shop.

Don't let the looks of the artist intimidate you. Tattoo artists usually
have a lot of tattoos themselves. In fact, I would be somewhat leery of
an artist who has *NO* tattoos at all. The main thing is that you need
to talk with them and get a feel for what they are like. As you talk
with the artist and build a rapport, if you feel comfortable you may
want to broach the subject of what you're interested in getting done.
Bounce your idea off with the artist and see what they are willing to
help you with.

Remember however, that the artist is running a professional business! Be
polite--don't linger and overspend your welcome if you don't plan on
getting any work done at all.

[Note: Don't base your decision according to what tattoos you see on the
artist--they were not done by that person!]


If the design you choose contains *any* text at all, be sure to
proofread it and agree on it beforehand.  If not, you might end up
like the gentleman in this story:,2110,208595,00.html

His tattoo ended up with a word misspelled.  Definitely not the sort
of thing that one wants to wear for life.


Looking critically at the shop is as important as choosing your artist.
Make sure the place is very clean, make sure the artist uses disposable,
single-use needles (that are not re-used after one client), and uses an
autoclave for all other equipment. Don't be afraid to ask them, either.
A legitimate artist will be glad to show you.

What does the shop look like? What is its ambiance? Does it look like a
barber shop, a hair salon, dental office or an art gallery? If you are a
nonsmoker, will cigarette smoke bother you? Look for used ashtrays as
signs. Do the work areas offer you any privacy? Do they use shower
curtains, private booths or shoulder-high room dividers?

Try to go and visit and then come back another day. Don't feel pressured
into having to get one right then and there. Try and talk to some people
that have experience with the artist (and not the groupies that you'll
find hanging around the shop). You should feel comfortable with the
artist and you should like him/her. If you don't, then don't get a

Make sure the artist is willing to listen to you and respects what you
want. Don't go to an artist that has an agenda of what he/she wants to
do. The artist may make suggestions, but the final word is always yours.

Finally, make sure you take their business card with you. If the artist
you talk to does not have his/her own card, jot down the name on the
back, and perhaps some notes to yourself about the shop and the artist.


It has been brought to my attention that some tattooists have an
attitude problem when it comes to potential customers. Tattooists (and
piercers!) need to realize that not every person who walks in has to
look like a grunged-out leather-wearing biker, or a raven-haired
cleopatra-eyed septum-pierced zombie. People from all walks of life may
be interested in bodyart.

A potential customer should *NOT* be made to feel out-of-place or
ashamed for walking in wearing a business suit, or an LL Bean dress. It
is amazing to think that someone with purple hair and eyebrow rings
could actually discriminate against someone, but apparently, this seems
to be happening.

Just as a customer should expect certain sanitation standards, they
should also expect an inviting atmosphere.


Most reputable tattoo shops are insured. The problem is, they're usually
insured against premises liability. This means that they have insurance
coverage if you fall and hit your head on their floor, but *NOT* if
you're unhappy with their work. In the past, the only insurer who would
cover the latter was Lloyd's of London, and their rates were apparently
very high.

This has changed recently, with the availability of a comprehensive
insurance package available from one agent based on the West Coast. Many
shops do have some form of insurance (this may be a requirement in their
rental lease). Just keep in mind that the insurance does not necessarily
cover QUALITY.


This is an age-old debate, so the following is just a very basic
ballpark. You usually pay for work either by the piece, or by the hour.
The smaller pieces in the artist's flash book are "standard stock"
material that usually don't take the artist too long to do. For these,
you might find prices listed right next to the artwork. The artist may
have a "minimum" charge that might vary with each artist.

Larger (or custom) pieces will usually be charged by the hour (unless
you and the artist decide beforehand on the total price). If you get a
"stock" piece (probably about 2" x 2" in size), you will probably not
pay more than $100 and sit no longer than an hour in the chair. Your
mileage may vary.

If you bring your own design, the artist may charge anywhere from $50 to
a few hundred dollars an hour, depending on the artist. However, you may
want to work with someone who charges $100 or so an hour; after all, you
DO get what you pay for. Also, some artists charge for illustration time
prior to beginning tattoo work. If they do, this might increase your
price by an extra hour. If they tell you that your piece will be charged
by the hour, ask them how many hours they think it'll take. If you are
on a limited budget, tell them how much you can afford.

Price negotiation should be up front and straightforward, a part of your
initial discussion before work begins. Some shops take credit cards;
most don't. Out-of-towners may be asked to put down a deposit. Be
particularly wary of people willing to work "for cheap" or "for free."
They are often artists just starting out, who are still developing their
skills. Caveat emptor.

Warning: Once the artist quotes you a price, *DON'T DICKER WITH IT!* The
best way to get on the artist's bad side is to try to bargain with the
price. If you think the price is too high, renegotiate the scope of the
artwork--NOT the price. I usually do it this way: "Hi, I have X amount I
can spend on this design. What can we work out for that price?"

If you are very pleased with their work and service, you are strongly
encouraged to tip the artist, even if they own the shop. Even shop
owners don't pocket 100% of what they make (remember--it's a business!).
Tips can range from 10% to 20% of the piece, so be prepared with cash on

I personally recommend a tip for any work which you are pleased with, or
any custom work where the artist spent time drawing up your illustration
(since drawing time is usually not included in your price). Nothing
brightens up a day for the artist, or helps to build a friendly
relationship with your artist more than a generous tip. If you're very
happy with the artist and you think you might get more work from them
later, TIP!!

There have been heated discussions on rec.arts.bodyart in the past
regarding the appropriateness of tipping a shop OWNER. If you feel that
an owner does not deserve a tip on top of the price s/he charges you,
then A) do not give a tip at all, or B) bring some sort of offering, be
it food, flowers or whatever.

Many tattoo artists have told me that the BEST TIP is good word of
mouth. If you are happy with your tattoo, show it off to your friends
and tell them where you got it done!


Once you have settled on a design and a price that you and your artist
agree on, the work will either begin right then, or you will be asked to
come back for a later appointment (e.g. if the artist has another client
coming in in 15 minutes).

Once you're in that chair, what can you expect? Most likely, the artist
will begin the long process of preparing for your work. This is
especially true if the artist is going to do a custom design that you
brought in. First, the design will have to be worked on. Most artists
will play around with the design on paper first, although some artists
will do it freehand. "Freehand" means the artist takes an ink pen to
hand and begins drawing a design on your skin without the use of a
stencil (NOT where the artist begins work with the tattooing machine
immediately--the artist, no matter how good, still needs to envision how
the work will look on your skin--proportion, placement, etc.).

When you and the artist are happy with the design, the artist might
outline the design with a piece of carbon paper, or use an old-fashioned
copy machine to get a working copy of it. This would be when the artist
would properly size the design. The artist will then clean your skin
where the work will be done (probably an alcohol or antiseptic rub), and
will swipe your skin with an "adhesive," which is usually Speed Stick
deodorant (for some reason *I* haven't seen any other brands). The
artist will then put the carbon side of the design directly on your
skin. When the paper is lifted, ta-da! A carbon line drawing of the
design should appear on your skin!

The artist will probably let you look in a mirror to make sure you are
happy with the design and the placement. Once this is agreed upon, the
artist will then begin putting the supplies out.

At this point, your artist should be doing things like dispensing
various colors of ink into little disposable wells, and rigging a new
set of needles into the tattoo machine. At this time, you will probably
try to look cool by looking around the studio walls or occasionally
looking to see what your artist is doing. Your artist might have a radio
playing, which will help distract you a little.

At this point, it is best for you to try and relax. You can ask the
artists about some things, like the colors of the ink. Depending on the
work you are getting, the artist will need to mix some colors, for
example. You're probably somewhat nervous, but excited at the same time
because you're actually gonna get a real tattoo! Whether you realize it
or not, your body is going through quite an adrenalin rush. Try to
remain calm and not too anxious. Your hyped-up condition and your
anxiety about the anticipated pain of your experience by themselves may
trigger a fainting spell. It will help if you are not there on an empty
stomach. Get a bite to eat about an hour or two before you go in for
your session. Having hard candy or some juice on hand during the session
is also recommended.

Just relax and try to stay calm. For women, the experience of anxious
anticipation is similar to a pelvic exam at an OB/GYN, where you are
more nervous about it while waiting for the doctor as you lie prone on
the examining table, feet in the stirrups. Just as most exams aren't
painful or really all that bad, neither is tattooing.

Bzzzzzttttt....The artist starts up the machine, dips the needle into
the ink and starts to work toward your skin! Aaaaaahhhhh!!! Will it
hurt? Will it hurt? Grit your teeth! Hang tight!...

Ooohhhhhhh! It *does* hurt! Ow! Ow! Ow! I'm okay, I'm okay, this is
fine, it's not that bad. I can grit my teeth. Grit, grit, grit. Try to
smile a bit. My teeth are gritting, anyway. Oh, I hope this pain doesn't
stay like this!! Breathe. Don't forget to breathe. Relax. Relax. Relax.
Okay there, that's better. Not so painful. I can handle it. Yeah--look
at all the tattoos HE's got on his arms. I can handle it, too. Yeah.

...The most painful part of the process will pass in a couple of
minutes, after which the area will feel abuzz with electricity and
warmth. Just try to relax and breathe deeply--enjoy the one-of-a-kind
experience that you're feeling. Oftentimes, you end up clenching your
jaws, grinding your teeth or grasping the chair with your white-knuckled
hands. But once you pass the first couple of minutes, you'll feel silly
for having worried about it so much. If you still feel uncomfortable
after a few minutes, it may be because you're sitting in an
uncomfortable position. See if you can get into a more comfortable,
reclining position--but make sure to ask the artist first before you try
to move.

Some people try to distract themselves by trying to talk with the
artist. This is kind of like with hair stylists--some stylists just love
to gab and gab (just ask them an open-ended question), while some
stylists would rather concentrate and not screw up your hairdo. Same
with tattoo artists. While some will like to "talk story" with you,
others would rather concentrate on the work you're paying them to do.
After all, their job, income, and reputation are on the line when they
have the tattooing machine to your skin. Often, they'll talk during easy
parts, and less during complex work. Just go with the flow and not worry
about it.

The only thing I don't particularly prefer is if there's a lot of
traffic walking around in the studio and the artist has to keep talking
to them (either potential clients or tattoo groupies). For this reason,
a cubicle or dividing partition is a nice option for privacy.

Most people can sit through over an hour of work, but if you get
uncomfortable, just ask your artist if you can take a break. If you feel
woozy, you might consider bringing some candy with you to give you a
little lift, or some water to drink.

User Contributions:

Report this comment as inappropriate
Aug 16, 2012 @ 12:00 am
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Jul 19, 2022 @ 12:00 am
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