The Evolution of Western Tattooing

I’ve had a weird summer but things have been in flux for almost 2 years now. Most of this coincides with my having children (who are fantastic) and being forced to travel a lot for work.

Along with these major life changes, I have also been going to school and doing a lot of reading about philosophical ideas. Lately, I have been reading some of the works from Peter Singer (Act Utilitarian). He is famous for many different thought experiments over the past 40+ years but the one I felt compelled to toss into this article was the drowning child problem. (Rewritten for simplicity – Source)

This experiment has many aspects but I will take only a single part of it to make a point further on:

“If you were walking by a stream and saw a child had fallen into the stream, would you stop and save that child from drowning?”

If you were to answer, “Yes, I would stop and save that child from drowning!”, ask yourself: Why?

Why would you take time out of your day, when your happiness and energies could be better spent increasing the experiences you only have one chance to obtain in this lifetime? If you spend time helping this child in need, you will never get that time back. How can you be sure that the child is a good person (here and forever forward) or that they will have a life of value? You have no idea. Yet, in most people’s case, they would take action to save a child because they are not (or do not want to be considered) what society would label a monster or heartless person.

I may have taken a bit of a leap there but, as a society (local or global), we look to the children as something pure and malleable. They are something that has been untouched by the efforts of work-life balance or the politic that make up our daily existence.

So let’s take another run at the previous thought experiment:

What if you are walking by a stream and you see two children drowning. You only have the ability to save a single child at a time. In saving one child you may neglect the other so there’s a chance that the other could perish.

If confronted with this dilemma, how would you act? How would you triage this? Would you check to see if one was bigger than the other in hopes that the bigger one may be able to save itself? Do you go to the closer or further one? Do you save a child based on hair color? Do you let them both drown? What if one was your own child? Or both?


Dark lit lake

Regardless of any action taken in this situation, a rational person must always attempt the best possible outcome, for any and all involved. Their actions must result in what gives the greatest utility to those involved, regardless of how it affects themselves. Without this effort, society is prone to disruption as the efforts of the individual fracture from the cohesion necessary for mutual benefit in society. When removing the idea of an individual ego, we are forced to look outside our own worldview to see how our actions create positives or negatives. This can be applied universally among groups of people, or people and the environment that they exist within.

The practice of considering what is good and bad by picking apart our actions seems to be less organic than it had in the past. In more recent years, I have observed a loss of identity, a greater hive-mind collective and a less objective society. Given our thought experiment above, I think there would be a greater crisis among members of society when presented with the need for immediate action. I believe this is due, in larger part, to social networks and the identity manufacturing that accompanies the use of such technology.


Social Networks

Our use of technology has been of benefit in many ways. We have been able to advance progress in every field of study. Schools are offered via institutions that have gone online; We can send correspondence across the world in milliseconds and we are able to modify genetic structures to assume a godlike control of the physical world. In most ways, technology has been of benefit for society but when applied individualistically, our lives have become a shadow of what is required to be a social being. Our use of social networks has removed the social aspects of society and is leading to the destruction of individuality altogether.

There are a few aspects of ethics and social networks that we can go over. First I look at social network. What I think is absurd about it and what people can do to avoid being sucked into the marketing machine I assume it to be. After that, a bit about language and how we can never be confident when presented with written/texted/typed representations. Finally we will look at what it means to be a responsible person when using these forms of social connections. Throughout this essay I will point out how to critically examine this social network machine and why we should offer a harsh critique to this new aspect of society.


Social Media and Responsible Viewing – My perspective

Social media is a linchpin of interpersonal connectedness in our modern world. Global citizens focus large amounts of their lives on the assumptions others will make when viewing an online portfolio of statements, pictures or videos of their lives. This exclusive access (in some ways, depending on your security settings) gives voyeurs an insight into your life. Your followers and prowlers can choose to live vicariously through you and you never know what they are up to behind their digital device’s screen..

The idea of being a “follower” of a person or brand has always struck me as weird, maybe even a little awkward. In fact, as soon as I had written “follower” above, with those appended quotation marks, I felt a little sick. Why is it that without these markings I am less provoked by an emotional response but with them I feel more separate from the connection? If we look to the past, in our societies, the label of being a “follower” had been attached to something crazy like Purple Kool-Aid or compounds with militant weapon caches. It was a descriptor that labeled a person as being unable to think for themselves.

Followers were always an integral part of a larger mass that, while being led, shook the critical inquiry that accompanies life and disposed the efforts of free thinking while idolizing individuals that benefited from their obeisance. Our lives now fit perfectly into the idea of being a “follower” and we choose to propagate this lack of critical thinking.


From tattooing to social media

I work as a tattoo artist and part time as a thinker. My focus in the tattoo industry is putting what you think looks good into your skin. It is a permanent adornment that creates a myriad of emotions for some, and is quasi cathartic to me when doing a procedure. As tattooers, we utilize artistic skills and technical knowledge to make our clients happy – when they have the urge to make a permanent change to their body. As a free thinker I am always trying to understand what surrounds me and what my place in the world is. Combining these two efforts has been very difficult at times as I am forced to reconcile my want for understanding with the needs of my clientele.

As a tattoo artist, the focus for the business in modern times has been trying to figure out how best to adorn our clients body with an ageless piece of art. When we make a design for the skin we are always looking forward to ensure a tattoo looks great for the next 15+ years.
At least, this had been our effort in the past. We have slowly evolved away from this effort due to the amount of knowledge necessary when designing a piece. It is an insanely difficult endeavor.


Becoming a craftsperson

Growing as an artist combined the study and effort of generations who previously made mistakes so that the future could avoid them. The study of art, tattooing and the body was an immersive experience, wherein people wishing to achieve a mastery were forced to learn all aspects of the trade to become proficient. Once proficiency was obtained, a person practicing the craft was forced to understand their place in the industry. They developed their own “voice” in their artwork and honed this application so they could master their process. This process, once mastered, could be passed down to future generations and the art would evolve to fit a best practice that would ensure survivability and growth of the art form.

A mastery in tattooing included making pigment and needles; understanding and developing your tools of use; drafting and application of art to skin and the actual procedure; client management and running your business. Since the inception of regional and national supply companies, this practice of evolving a personal mastery has slowly devolved and an art-centric focus. The idea of mastery has shifted from the total knowledge accrued in a lifetime’s work to something that can be obtained through social media acceptance and a single applicable style of art. An artisan’s efforts can be so focused that mastery can be achieved in as little as a year.


Short term benefits

The industry has evolved away from mastery due to the inconvenience of time in everyday life. In many ways, it has become easier to learn with the invention of technologies that make designing a tattoo far easier. We also have the ability to capture lost hours with premade, pre dispersed pigments (although the safety of such products is of question), premade needles and, what are treated as disposable tattoo machines and supplies, that can be delivered to your door in a matter of days. Suppliers became an integral part of the operations and, in time, grew to service the entire industry, on demand.

With an increased amount of free time, what were tattoo artists in search of a mastery going to do to fill the time? Newly freed time was applied to becoming a better artist and learning how better to market their products. This is not as it always was…

This shift in free time occurred (in the west) at about the same time media started showcasing a new wave of personalities who sported tattoos. After that, television shows started to come out that introduced legions of captivated viewers the inner workings of a tattoo shop and, through careful manipulations and editing, humanized the tattoo artist. What was once considered an evil, drug-riddled trade for bikers and sailors, was being broadcast on networks across the globe. Viewers were given the chance to learn about the trade, become attached to the artist’s personal struggles and see that tattooing wasn’t occupied by fat-white-dudes riding Harleys. It was the normal folk that were getting tattooed.

This progress of acceptance was amazing for the wallets of those who were already established, competent artists. The influx of tattoo clientele created a ripple effect, where shops that were previously hidden in a basement or the back of a barber shop, were expanding into strip malls and large common areas. The money rolling in was exponentially greater than anything that had been seen before. It was like a biker rally on steroids, and it was happening everyday, all year long.

With the exposure granted by TV and massive marketing campaigns, most tattoo shops became a place where hopeful artists would flock so as to gain a chance to be like the new stars on TV. Walking into a shop in the early 2000’s was not comparable to how things looked in the 80’s and 90’s. Church groups getting a tattoo for God were sitting next to Hells Angels getting a tattoo for Satan, and the hopeful apprentices walked into a scene that secreted a different lifestyle than previous generations. The industry was in the midst of an evolution.


The evolution

The free time that had been granted by the supply companies was again absent from the lives of tattoo artists everywhere as clients packed tattoo shop floors. Demands for new and exciting artwork forced tattooers to evolve into offering custom designs, otherwise they would lose the newly found financial security granted to them. That peaceful nights and weekdays off had vanished. They were being replaced with something tattooers were not prepared for:

Artwork. Lots of artwork.

With this influx of new client demands, shop owners were hungry to open up apprenticeships so new tattooers could fulfil the wants of clientele. Contrary to the demand placed on shop owners, the industry did not become easier to break into. Even if they were desperate, shop owners were what we call now, “old school”, and they were prone to distrusting new people in their shops. They had learned a trade that was far different than the one they resided in and, being overrun with new demands, they were a little cranky about the swift evolution of the industry. It became very difficult to train a new apprentice as the traditional tools and tricks one needed to acquire in an apprenticeship were, at times, meaningless or outdated. Couple this with the shop owners having been thrust into a position of needing to develop new skills, the apprentices were in a unique position to advocate for an exchange.

As soon as they were done scrubbing the toilet.


The exchange and eventual breakdown of the system

Most apprentices were not being utilized to the best of their abilities during the great expansion (I think I will coin that term for this era of tattooing). With new art being demanded by the increased clientele, apprentices were chosen based on their artistic abilities, as well as how their personalities meshed with shop owners. Artists were chosen based on what they were capable of artistically, not on their drive to become craftspeople. Due to this change, shop owners were placed in a role where the power dynamic would become upended and the masters of old were placed on a pedestal next to their apprentices.

In traditional apprenticeships, the master has acquired all necessary fundamental knowledge that will be passed down, as well as their own individual expression of the craft the have mastered. The apprentice is forced to learn by watching and asking questions. The apprentice is forced to learn at their own speed by slowly learning the foundational elements of the craft. But when confronted with the great expansion, shop owners were forced to take a demotion (in a way).

The master’s skills in artistry were subpar in comparison to those their agreed to train. They were put in a place where the apprentice, who had been chosen solely on how much the master was able to learn from their association, held as much power as the shop owner. The master and apprentice had become equals, and in doing so, masters, in desperate need of education, instilled a level of competency that was unearned by the new apprentice. It became easier for a new apprentice to challenge the master and, when conflicts arose, the exit of the apprentice did not accompany their exit from the industry, as it had in the past.


Tattoo Artists – The new masters

As the industry evolved and apprentices were forced out of shops that had started their apprenticeship, many of these new talents had little background knowledge of how to obtain mastery in the trade. The trade master being labeled as a tattooers had vanished. The new masters were tattoo artists.

These new masters had been promoted through the apprentice ranks quickly due to the shop owners need to grow as an artist. Their skills were traded for acceptance in the industry and a basic training the encompassed enough to ensure a modicum of quality in the least amount of time.

The new masters had been brought up in a time where “custom was king” and all the efforts of a tattooers were based solely on their artistic abilities. As the industry evolved, the passing of knowledge to the new masters left behind skills necessary to fully understand the craft.

Suppliers came in and filled the want of freedom for time consuming tasks. Shop owners outsourced all aspects of the operations so they could focus on their growth as an artist to meet the demands of clientele. This shift in applied mastery created a new baseline for artists wishing to join the industry. Art comes first. You can learn by mistake. As the new masters evolved and opened shops, previous shop owners were being run out of business by these dismissed, art focused new masters.


A break in the chain

The apprentice leaving with a lack of complete understanding left a rift in place where, historically, the master was invested in the success of their apprentice and was a part of their future expressions of the craft. By creating a situation where apprentices had moved into independent operations before fully understanding the craft, and by granting apprenticeships based solely on what they could take from the new generations, the masters of the past were dismissed and labelled as the outdated problems inside an evolving craft. To the new masters, the artistic skills of the past couldn’t compete with their own and they did not know what had been missed due to an incomplete education. In driving their own need of evolution towards a new expertise, the old masters created an environment where they were made obsolete.

The new masters had come into the craft without a bridge to the past. They were thrust into a position of power in an industry that was growing at an alarming rate. The new masters were left without a foundation for how to educate the next round of apprentices as mastery was only focused on a single aspect of the craft. Their own lack of apprenticeship was now something that had the potential to ruin the industry.

As it happened before, the growth in the industry made it difficult for these new masters to succeed, as they did not have a complete knowledge of the craft. They were bound to the failures of the previous generation, unable to make growth built on a solid foundation, and were forced to adapt to a new way that would leave a large gap in knowledge moving forward. Social media.


The evolution continues

In the last 10 years or so, tattooing has become something that is a part of who we are as individuals and allows us to better define who we are inside society. The efforts of the new masters created an industry in which a client had the freedom to design something that fit their personality. To the new masters, the collaboration between clients and artists was always present in the manufacture of designs. It was their goal to do something unique as this would set them apart from their competition. Not having a master to help guide their efforts had a positive effect on many in the industry in this way as customization became king. The individual voice of artists worldwide became more pronounced and defined the culture of tattooing we see today.

Without being tied to the techniques of the past, artists were able to push the boundaries in how designs were made and how they were applied. Innovations in style were consistently being shown through access made possible via social networks and were supported by the industry suppliers that made increasingly vivid products. These amazing feats of artistic ability led hungry artists, new to the craft, in making attempts to replicate these newly displayed tattoos. We had superstars of art in the industry, sponsored artists and a lifestyle that was being sold as a way to become something bigger and better than what had been seen before.

For the adventurous artist, there had been little effort to guide or instill a sense of mastery in the techniques being developed. Efforts to spread the information to the new generation were being hampered by what some have identified as “trade secrets “that were able to be purchased by going online, attending trade seminars or paying those in control of such knowledge to give wanting artists a tattoo.

For those who were unlucky, or had little funds to chase the information that was for sale, the guidance given was separate from this practice. Those without time or funds were told: practice on paper so you don’t make a mistake in the skin; clients will willingly give you money to learn on them; you can make mistakes; this is how we learn now; you must sacrifice your client to improve; you can be the best if you focus on one aspect of tattooing.


Social media makes it mark

Those in modern tattooing were faced with the dilemma of training the next generation of masters as the industry continued to grow and evolve. Art was still at the forefront and artistic applications of tattoos were continually being developed. The next generation came into their training in the same way the previous generation had, with a skill that was unknown to their masters; the use of social media as a way to market your ability.

What had happened before with the new apprentices happened again. The new masters fulfilled their obligations by developing the new apprentice in the same way they had been brought into the craft. Their teachings were focused on personal development in art. The training was focused on learning by making mistakes. The imbalance in the exchange of information continued to grow as the new masters exchanged their knowledge and the apprentice gave new techniques to improve the masters business. While this exchange happens, the apprentice slowly becomes detached from the master who is grooming their entry into an industry devoid of the history that holds the fabric of understanding together. There is not enough information left to pass along to the new members of the industry and a greater separation from the past occurs. The new apprentices are pushing the boundaries of evolution and leading the industry in a new direction, just as their were shown by the new masters. Alone.

I fear that this may continue to occur for the foreseeable future. With new innovations that accompany the growth of a new generation, there will always be a tool that the new apprentice can utilize to level the master-apprentice interaction. This aspect of devolution is ever apparent in modern western tattooing. Social media became the new tool that the new masters did not understand and the apprentice was able to utilize these evolutions of society to their favor.


The new class – social networks

We have delved into the idea that modern apprenticeships are undertaken by a master who has less than the necessary experience to pass along an adequate foundational understanding. Now let’s look to the future.

In my opinion, this degradation of knowledge has accelerated in the past decade This is due to the influence of social networks and mass media representations of the tattoo industry. The media is a tool with great power over the populations that choose to enjoy its benefits. Our civilizations have evolved in magnificent ways that allow transfer of knowledge and ideas at lightning speed. We have evolved to know each other over great distances. Our lives are moving towards the true expression of a global society wherein our lives are inextricably intertwined. We will be forced to fight common threats together or face extinction.

While all of this is going on, a cult of personality is raging rampant in many industries. People are held aloft based on “likes” and “followers” and trends that define the generation are bought and sold as commodities to the highest bidder. The media giants have shifted from those who presented ideas on television or radio to those who sell space on portable devices. The new idols of a generation are those who sell lifestyles or products that guarantee – fame if emulated or happiness and longevity if purchased. The lifestyles of the rich an famous are at your fingertips. If you like and follow, you can be a part of it.


Social Media and Ethical Standards

We are confronted with images of what we want by large technology companies that sell advertising space. This spaces of influence are available for a price and are gobbled up by those in society that wish to extort a level of control or influence on others. Advertising is a monster that has adapted to the changes in society better than any industry. Billions are spent so that companies know how to get you, the potential client, to purchase things you do not need. Social networks are a culmination of this knowledge, spanning decades, that collectively alter our perceptions to influence our behavior. As the tech companies has evolved, the idea of social connections have deteriorated as well. Now, our societies are more comparable to the 1984 version of existence. We love the Company and they will tell us what to do.

These companies have little regard to change their practices, regardless of the pressure civilizations, politicians or global alliances put on them. Not to be separated from the global society of this new age, the new class of tattooers are fully entrenched in their grasp. They have mastered navigating this new realm of representation and are rewriting the idea of success hand-in-hand with the social networks and they have brought this mastery to the table when negotiating their apprenticeship.


Social networks and influencers

Since the inception of social networks, our focus has slowly turned towards what I interpret as instant gratification of our cult of personality. We are focused on building followers like a non-sanctioned church. To do this, we develop a personality that is far separate from who we are in reality and sell a story that falsely implies our mastery.

Most of our efforts inside the social network realm are focused not on stealing money or selling products that are misleading or fake; our efforts are focused on building an Image…(dramatic typing there). They are here to influence opinions and trends and to manipulate the followers that hold them aloft. For a price, they can select a product and deliver its benefit to millions of enrapt individuals with nothing better to do than look at a screen while waiting for a social update.

Social networking Influencers are forced to make a product that has a limited shelf life as the media, being delivered to billions globally, must adapt to keep people’s attention. The influencer’s focus is to bring in as many likes as possible and offer a service that is so exclusive that it has bloated industry. So many products are being represented by egocentric individuals who utilize their fame as a way to reconcile their high cost of service.

Influencers are skilled at building a persona that attracts people who are less than willing to think critically. Followers accept the image that is displayed on their phone/computer screen and seek validation of such images by evading critical inquiry. Validation is presented by agreements presented by influenced followers.

We see the numbers associated with an account and determine validity through insecurity. If numbers are great enough, those without mind enough to question will blindly follow representations put forth by the influencers to be a part of the “in crowd”. By denying inquiry, a person can be a part of something larger. They gain acceptance where otherwise they would be denied and, regardless if there is a physical presence to associate the person with the group, commenting on social networks allows users to segregate their ideals, likes, and beliefs to ensure less confrontation when interaction does occur.


Attempts to mislead

New apprentices or young artists in tattooing utilize social networks and media in the same way as influencers. Efforts made to display work that is impossible is a constant and misleads the public by imbuing a level of trust in clientele that is impossible to uphold, while misleading the populace under the guise of mastery. The new artists working towards mastery supplant the ideas of the past and extort a new version of true mastery. To obtain new mastery, follow these simple rules – The process and design are personal possessions of the artist. The client is no longer required to have input; they are canvasses utilized to impress or gain acceptance from competitors. This may seem Machiavellian in away but social networks are not a true representation of quality. The ability of a person to mislead the populace to increase personal value is theft.

We, as an industry cannot fault the new generation for taking such actions. This is our fault. We walked away from our responsibilities in search of fame and riches and were taken into the industry in the same vein. We are focused on personal growth rather than the growth of the industry collectively. The efforts of this new generation in utilizing ignorance to build a brand is reminiscent of how the new masters were used to gain artistic ability by previous generations. This epidemic is cyclic and the industry (as well as the majority of the world) is faced with a choice: Slow down and fix what is broken – or – kick it into high gear and get out before the ship sinks.

Sound familiar?


It’s all about appearance

When I go onto a social network, I am always presented with well groomed pages when searching for something entertaining. It is rare that I find many followers on pages that aren’t built to look a specific way and those that aren’t well groomed are not the first to appear in a search. When looking at my social networking pages, or those of some of my friends, we are not spending time developing an image or brand that represents our position in the world. Comparing our pages to influencers is like comparing fire and ice. Normal social media pages are utilized for updating close proximal relations and sharing statuses so friends and family can stay in touch with each other. Influencer pages are polished and are prime real estate for paying companies. I feel that this is due to grooming tactics these social networks have worked tirelessly to promote. In practice, you are attracted to a specific cult, or style, and the pages that have the most “followers” are delivering products more efficiently than others.

When a person joins a social networks, they only want to follow what mirrors what they feel mostly resembles who they are, what they like or who they wish to embody. In joining the ranks of a social media influencer, a person becomes attached to those who release entertaining material. Some wish to emulate it. For those who are bringing forth the next generation of tattooing, their ability to manipulate social networks has become key in their success and those who are not willing or able to competent on this new battlefield are left to fail.


Where the future lies

We are moving ever forward in society. Tattooing has evolved in so many ways that the art form it is today is a mere shadow of what it had once been, in some ways. Artists are marching forward towards a more efficient manner in delivering works of art to wanting clientele. Looking at social networks, tattooers are creating a platform wherein the “flash” of the past is what currently pays the bills. They are creating images, posting them online and clients are free to pick and choose the designs that hand on a digital wall. Social networking has turned our practices into a giant marketplace where social connections are ignored and the idea of customization is absent.

It’s funny when you look at it. We have come full circle and are reduced to the same practices that were commonplace before the great expansion. The only thing that is missing is the link to the past.

As the industry moves forward, they are confronted with a problem: Continue the march of progress and further remove themselves from the idea of mastery or, critically question the practices currently in use to rebuild the knowledge lost from the past.


Final Thoughts

I see the next generation of tattooers evolving in one of two ways:
One Way. I see the same mistakes being remade again. The master will need skills from the apprentice therefore creating an imbalance in power during training. Once the apprentice feels they have gleaned enough knowledge, they will break from the master and lose a little more of the past as the industry evolves. This will continue until tattooing becomes something lost in the translation of society’s evolution.
The Other Way. Tattooing slows down and becomes intertwined with the idea of mastery again. The new apprentices are given a full foundational experience when introduced to the industry and new knowledge is introduced as it becomes available. The industry works together in a way that promotes specialization and spreads knowledge effectively. Artists become attached to the process with their clientele. Insert a whole bunch of goodness!

This leads me back to the thought experiment we started with: If you come upon someone or something that is drowning, do you make an effort to save it?

Or do you just continue walking by?

Without our intervention in this industry, it will likely drown.

Hello and thanks for taking the time to read some of the ideas I have bouncing around in this
“gettin’ -older” head. I haven’t written in awhile due to the work that was being put into the pigment articles. Funny enough, the depth of work that went into that study put me into a bit of a crisis. Professionals around the world were taking the time to talk with me and I feel so much more informed about the safety and efficacy of products that are being used in the U.S.


Authors Note*

Regarding the efforts moving forward with the website, I will stick to describing the ethics and philosophy of tattooing in the west (in my interpretation), tattoo history and some aspects of technical tattooing. I will not be doing the in-depth science articles that have little effect on people’s actions or choices. This may seem like a defeatist attitude, which is not something that I espouse, but in the future I may revisit them. If anyone is interested in what was found during my pigment research, please feel free to send me an email and I will give you a link to the references I had collected over the past 6 months.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


Tattoo Pigment – Safety and Regulations


From the beginning, this article seemed like a simple way to introduce an argument about safety and fair practices. In reality, the companies that sell tattoo pigments, the industry that produces the raw ingredients, and the artists in industry combined, led me to formulate a critique that became a monster, much larger than I anticipated. This article grew to around 10,000 words and is only still just scratching the surface of a debate that needs to occur.  Questions about the industry and its operations came more naturally after studying what was occurring and talking to insiders who manufacture pigments in the US. I slowly formed an opinion of what was happening to the industry and wanted to write this as a way to test these beliefs. 

In writing this article, I have spent hours of research, sent hundreds of emails and traveled many hours away from my family to try and create a framework for what I hoped could be accomplished by releasing any information. It was also an attempt to find the answers I knew were out there. In any event, the information listed in the reference section is not comprehensive, but a starting point for many out there who may wish to learn more.

Part 1 – My Opinion and analysis of the tattoo pigment industry

Currently, there are two sides debating the future of pigment production in the tattoo industry. On one side, the suppliers and distributors of the products tattoo artists use are confronted with questions about how safe their products are. They are confronted with the potential of regulations which will be handed down by regulators which focus on the health and long term effects of products used in tattooing. The suppliers and producers are actively fighting these potential new regulations. Their argument is that self-regulation has been successful and there is no need for any regulations. They have the clients best health interest as their primary focus. They argue that government regulators should stay out of private business as self imposed regulations are the best course of action.

On the other, questions are being presented by scientific researchers and regulators in the U.S. and the European Union. These questions are centered on the safety and efficacy of products being sold and will lead to regulations when enough data is collected about the health effects of tattoo products. Scientists are forced to ask these questions after testing results show that suppliers and distributors have released products that have been contaminated or produced with known harmful chemicals.


The efforts by scientists are progressing slowly and have been exacerbated by the lack of regulations and need for new testing protocol. For the past 20 years or so, companies producing new products for the market have been able to innovate away from the regular testing of products for safety. These innovations brought about more dynamic products for use in the industry but we know little of their long term health effects. Until recently, science was not interested in how products were being developed, but recent testing has shown that a healthy future for a large population on the planet may be at risk.

While new products are continually being developed, the gap in scientific testing has presented itself as something in need of innovation. The efforts of scientists globally have just begun developing ways to analyze and inspect products for tattooing, and in doing so, they are better able to determine what is in tattoo products and if they are safe or not. As testing has evolved, scientists have found new ways to analyze what is in tattoo artist’s supplies. They can tell us what is not listed on the label. 


While writing this up, I drafted a tactical road map in the back of my mind. This road map was what to expect of the industry as time progressed. I go into scattered detail throughout the article of how I feel the companies in question will react to questions and based these tactics off of other companies who were confronted with the asme threat of regulations historically. (Special focus given to the cigarette companies in the U.S.)

Historically, companies facing new restrictions pushed the idea of regulators having an ulterior motive. Companies had previously argued that they being being victimised. Regulators were treating theses companies different than their competitors, AKA- singling them out.These companies argued that regulators attacked their ability to operate by imposing regulations which forced them to lose market viability; the the loss of profits during restructuring to meet these legal hurdles was impossible to overcome; non-scientists argued on behalf of these companies that regulations stood between them and the products that they demanded.  Companies argued that these new regulations were effectively decreasing the ability to innovate and to meet market demand.

While I agree that this may be a possible side effect of regulation, this argument pushes business interests and earnings ahead of public safety. If you knowingly produce a product that has been shown to create ill health in individuals, you have a responsibility to modify your products or remove them from circulation. In my opinion, the guarantee that new products are safe supersedes the want for innovation.

Because the push for regulations have already hit other industries, tattoo suppliers are in a unique position to exploit knowledge gained by others who have gone through the process before. The previous actions taken by other companies or industries give companies facing new regulation a way to prepare for how they will fight regulators. This attack focuses on creating a system of shifting blame to keep new regulations from being applied for as long as possible. 

I keep asking myself: Why are they fighting to keep regulations from becoming a reality and why should they care if they are forced to change?

I believe it comes down to money and looking to businesses fighting regulation the past, it always has been.

What companies are up against when facing regulation

New regulations create new process that must be taken by companies when they release products for the general public.

If you change your production or are forced to utilize new sources or raw materials, your costs will initially go up. There will be a period of time where you cannot produce any product and your profits will evaporate. Depending on the market you operate within, these costs of operation may stay increased for the future which puts stress on your product line to stay competitive, if you choose not to raise prices. Due to this, manufacturers argue that increased costs create a market in which they are unable to successfully operate in. Business thrives on stability.

Regardless of what a company may say is going to happen to their production costs, the price adjustments and lifetime value fall onto the consumer. If companies are forced to pay more to adapt new policies or produce things in an ethical way, they do not pick up the bill, regardless of what they say. We have been shown throughout time that these new costs always pass along to the consumer and have no bearing in successful sales. Businesses that do not make profits are prone to failure.

The Manufacture and Sale

Tattoo pigments are just paint for your skin… right?

Tattoo pigments are a product that is readily available in supply stores or via online marketplaces globally. They are a necessity for tattoo artist operations. Most pigments sold commercially are labelled as “vegan” or  “sterile” and come in a variety of mind-boggling colors. The chain of production is easily followed for companies who release products on a global level:

Manufacturers globally produce the raw materials used in mixing tattoo pigments. These manufacturers sell raw materials to the companies that mix and bottle pigments that are then sold to distributors. These distributors sell tattoo artists the bottles via online marketplaces or local supply shops. The companies that “mix” tattoo colors are not the same people you meet at conventions or in local supply shops.

Please remember, suppliers do no produce raw pigments, but only purchase them from large companies who do the production in bulk for all industries globally. The final product is distilled down through many channels until you purchase a bottle from an endpoint.

Suppliers in the tattoo industry buy raw pigments from these manufacturers, blend them with whatever they use to make the pigments. This is where regulators have begun their analysis into the safety of production.  In the US currently, there is zero regulation for tattoo pigments and cosmetic tattoo pigments. There is no law requiring companies to verify what is put into the bottles they sell. There is no in-house testing or out of house testing of the raw products before the mixing process starts. This is the same for the products that are lining your shelves/drawers right now. The only testing is completed before the product is initially released to the public, in which companies that do testing check to make sure the labels and ingredients match. There is no testing to ensure safety.

Once a product has passed the initial acceptance by the FDA (in the U.S.), companies can begin selling their product. After this initial inspection, companies can make changes to pigment mixes without additional approval. What has been shown by researchers recently is that what has been listed on the label of bottles of tattoo pigment is not all that is in a bottle.

Historically, the onus has been on distributors to release safe and effective products while the suppliers have evaded scrutiny. They (suppliers) have been trusted implicitly and, we assume, have lived up to their responsibilities. With unfettered freedom, these companies have gone forward mixing and selling pigments, as well as other supplies, while avoiding any outside critique or question as to how safe the product is. Tattooing as an industry has operated under the assumption that everything they use is considered safe because there have been no reports openly released stating otherwise. 

A question about quality and safety

For the most part, tattoo artists worldwide believe in the safety and efficacy of products made by these large supply companies. These supply companies have spent millions on marketing and endorsement deals to instill a sense of quality and safety for those who use choose their brands. Marketing the idea of quality is a wonderful idea, especially when quality is meant to describe safety. The idea of quality, to supply companies, is not meant to describe a level of safety, it is meant to denote a level of effectiveness.

When consumers think of quality, various images pop into their minds: Clean, safe, grand, effective… While this is not a full list of descriptors for products, the labels listed above (and many others) are being applied to tattoo products. When used independently, each word has a unique meaning that a person can visualize. When using multiple descriptive labels together, the visualization a person receives is much different. If manipulation of simple language structure create different interpretations when applied to a product, products must live up to these interpretations when being released to the public. It is essential when the safety of an individual who is undergoing a permanent modification to their body is reliant on a product that may not live up to how it is described.

Here is an explanation for what was stated above.

Patients require doctors to have quality training and tools when undergoing surgery. In this sense, quality embodies the feeling of safety. Compare that to a quality cut of meat; when we compare the use of quality to a food product, we expect it to be of substantial size, color and taste. It has little to do with the safety of such an item. Unless we attach a second descriptor like organic or grass-fed. When combining organic, grass-fed and quality we are given a different understanding of what quality means. It feels safer, cleaner and more responsible. This goes with most products that are marketed to us and is no different with tattoo pigments.

While products for tattooing may be listed as having quality ingredients (effective), they are also listed as organic, vegan and cruelty free. This manipulation of product labels falsely applies the sense of being honest, safe and responsible to a product that has been knowingly manufactured with only efficacy in mind. This false sense of security is a blatant violation of trust by suppliers. Combine that with the efforts to resist regulation and sell untested, potentially unsafe products under the veil of what they are not does not align with what the tattoo industry currently believe they are buying. This practice must stop, or be modified to ensure education about product efficacy and safety are well understood by consumers.

The idea of quality has evolved. Quality doesn’t only apply to the products tattoo artist use. It also applies to the people involved in the industry. Clients see REAL artists (real as in the graduated with a degree -Something that was uncommon 2 decades ago) joining the ranks of the industry. Young adults leaving their educational institutions are dreaming of becoming a tattoo artist. These artists are the new rockstars of a generation and have progressed the development of amazing tattoos available for the clientele that trust them with their body. While this progression has been an amazing evolution to sit back and watch, we have been left with a glaring hole in the knowledge of what the industry must know to be successful. Tattooing cannot wholly focused on art; it is an experience for a client that leaves them marked for a lifetime. We are only conduits for their acceptance of our artwork.

Cultural acceptance and this renewed renaissance in applying a tattoo artistically gave tattoo artists the ability to claim the title of being accomplished early in their career. The reality is, they have yet to learn enough to be considered a master when they wholly focus on a single artistic style in their field. Mastery demands a full knowledge of all aspects in a field of study. Beyond that, the person achieving mastery must understand their place in the craft and how they are able to aid in it’s evolution.

My worry is that the application of quality to these businesses and the products they release are a straw man in the industry.

The deficiency in tattoo artist mastery mirrors what the pigment companies face as the threat of new regulations puts them under scrutiny. These companies may be exposed as the inexperienced professional being represented as a master. They may not know as much as they claim, and when placed under examination about their practices, must provide exceptional proof to obtain the mastery which may be falsely applied.

The break in knowledge

When speaking to those who are still alive and remember the glory days of tattooing (old-schoolers), modern practitioners are confronted that what has occurred in such little time is unbelievable. (Good or bad, they usually have an opinion worth listening to.) These long standing veterans come from a time where mastery was a viable option and the critiques they offer should not be ignored. As the industry evolves away from the past, where self sufficiency was a normal practice of business, more reliance is placed upon the suppliers and distributors to release products that are safe and effective.

With scientific innovation tattooists are blessed with unbelievable color lines and new products that break from the clumsy production of the past. As products were developed, tattoo artists trusted their release without question. They were trusted because tattoo artists weren’t given a choice; because without these products, tattoo artists couldn’t do their jobs. They were held hostage as knowledge was slowly stripped away form the industry and held closely by few who made a profit off it. Tattoo artists were led to believe the future lies in innovation, not in mastery.  Because tattoo artists had never learned about manufacturing pigments , they never knew that they could ask if pigments are considered safe.

What was responsible or what harm could come if they continued to use these untested products? This overlooked aspect of operations created an imbalance, as trust in the producers outweighed the need for critical inquiry. Modern tattoo artists never understood they could manufacture these pigments themselves. Through clever marketing, they were led to believe mastery could come from the utilization of modern products and media sources, while sacrificing client experience. While this was occurring, a previous generations knowledge slowly slipped into obsolescence. 

Ethics or Profits

Some (it may be a majority, I am unsure) tattoo artists do not know how to make pigment, build a needle or tune a tattoo machine. In more modern tattoo business operations, local distributors were essential once mastery shifted focus towards art. When this happened, at least to me, they knowingly capitalized on it. While most suppliers or distributors may have started their business in an altruistic way, the money available inside sales globally has become obscene. This newly found growth in profits forced individuals to choose between ethical sales practices and potential fortunes.

Competition with these companies was the excuse to bend morality, as they had to evolve to take advantage of new markets. Whenever new growth opportunities present themselves in business, companies are forced to change their practices, cut costs and innovate to stay viable. They must produce products that could be labelled as unique, better and faster to stay ahead of their clientele’s demand.  In creating innovation, companies are allowed a sense of freedom, if the products delivered increase total utility for those that utilize them.

Pigment companies have had nearly 2 decades of freedom. That freedom has created innovation and helped establish some companies as being at the forefront of product development. These new labels brings additional stress to continue innovation and recently there have been… well… problems. Due to these “problems”, the European Union (EU) has started investigating the operations of pigment suppliers and distributors. They have also began testing their products.

In the U.S., regulators have presented suppliers with a chance to change classifications on products used in tattooing. The idea is to reclassify tattoo pigments as a cosmetic supply. If regulators are successful in doing so, a list of banned substances will be given to producers that will no longer be allowed in the production, manufacture and mixing of pigments. This has brought pigment companies forward in an effort to stop regulations.

An industry that lost control

Most tattoo artists are trained in infectious controls, safe operations; yet, they are unable to explain what is potentially one of the greatest threats to their clientele – what is put into their skin. As tattooing evolved, the industry shifted its focus towards art and left the manufacture of products they utilize daily to suppliers. With the help of marketing and brand management, tattoo artists began to see these companies as a more trusted name in the field. The suppliers gained control of a product that was essential in the operations of tattooing.

Currently, operating a tattoo shop forces owners to apply old-fashioned business management tactics to an evolving field. Mainly, these areas of focus are on growing artistically as an individual (if they tattoo), increasing visibility among those inside and outside the market, and maximising profits.

Shops split total revenues with artists (percentile basis) and, with the influx of clientele recently, have made a business model that requires little effort to grow. All you require is decent work being produced and a mildly acceptable level of customer service. This model was adapted from previous generations and has not evolved much in the past 30 years. What has happened is society accepted tattoos as a form of expression. When that occurred, tattoo artists globally were forced to make accommodations with their time or adapt to new products that allowed them freedom.

Tattoo artists no longer make needles (which really was horrible), or mix pigments (which was so, so messy); there are now suppliers who are willing to sell to professionals. What they sold to artists has been considered quality items, and they were available for a low cost in comparison with time saved. This adaptation was a necessity for many people who had established themselves before modern supply companies had the selections they do currently.

In the past, tattoo artists were forced to spend twice as much time (compared to actual tattooing time) or more making the tools to be used for daily operations. When clientele increased, the total time for preparing the shop increased. Tattoo artists were desperate for an escape and were given it as the market adapted to meet these demands.


There is a core group of suppliers who maintain a sort of oligopoly over products released to the industry globally. This existence at the top of a market, with little competition, occurred as the tattoo shops globally demanded fast access to products necessary for operations. As the demand increased, and these businesses grew to support a global economy, distributors developed the local footprint needed to get the products to wanting artists.

In the modern market, connections between suppliers and distributors are codependent. There is no need for interpersonal connections with local artists and the suppliers; something that had been common practice in the past. With the development of the distributor as a middleman, suppliers were capable of keeping things intimate with their local clientele while growing to fit an expanding market. Their focus shifted to train distributors in their product benefits and sales tactics for new and existing clientele. This practice continued until the suppliers elevated beyond the normal levels of competition to become a supplier of something essential. They became brands, recognized by their logos and labels, and controlled the flow of all products globally. Tattooers stopped making pigments.


These products have little regulations inside the US, but do have regulations in other parts of the world. My worry, and it seems to be the worry of scientists across the globe, is that some of the products being manufactured may be unstable or unsafe.

In the past, we had more control over what we chose to utilize in our tattooing practices. We knew the people who sourced our pigment or we sourced them ourselves. When something went wrong, if a person got sick, the blame rested on our business. This operation seems more ideal to me. It’s like farm-to-table and more personal. This opinion may be sentimental and lacking a global ideology but, our work is personal. If we were in control of our products and developed them in tandem with people who source them, we could have better control over the quality of the products we choose to use on our clientele. 

This idea should not be relegated to just the pigment producing/mixing companies that sell to artists in the industry, but to all who choose to sell products that have the potential to cause undue harm to unwitting populations.

My efforts in this article may seem to unfairly point to the people who choose to make pigments, but I only utilize this argument as I feel they have the easiest route to ensure quality production. My opinion is that suppliers have a greater responsibility to inform the industry, distributors and clientele as to what their practices are; what they are giving us to put into our bodies. Hiding behind the guise of “proprietary blends” is not a way to ensure trust, especially if that blend is potentially harmful to its recipients. We need open dialogue wherein each party can discuss the safety and efficacy of the products they choose to use.

The Fight Against Regulations

Currently, distributors are facing new critique. They are facing the threat of new regulations and outside analysis of their products. In response to this, tattoo pigment producers have been quick to run to the industry for support. It almost seems like an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment, where these companies are gathering the “troops” to fight an offensive ruling party. These troops are artists and any outside regulator is treated like a sympathizer to the crown during the revolutionary war. 

What I have an issue with is the “troops”. Most, if all, are not scientists, nor educated  individuals who offer an objective view on the situation. These “troops” are considered experts and trotted in front of regulators to give an opinion about what is best for clientele. The opinions given are mostly centered on artistic benefit or some libertarian ideology. While I do enjoy the idea of responsible self critiques, these “troops” have a natural bias attached to their efforts.

While the previous paragraph may be centered on the “troops”, pigment producing companies are the ones that have brought them forward to speak on their behalf, and on behalf of the population at large. They offer up paid employees or sponsored artists to speak as experts. This is akin to the efforts of cigarette companies when confronted with regulations and national exposure of possible health effects for using their products. These sponsored artists and employees may be masters of their field inside art or tattooing, but they are not scientists or doctors. There is no way for them to tell regulators what is best for the health of clients.

The industry of tattooing needs to come out of the dark and focus on objective opinions. They need to stop the fight about who is right, or who can tell us what to do. Tattooing is not a shadow of the past reborn to give it to “the man”. Moving forward, tattooists should be asking questions like:

“How will these products affect the clientele and the industry?” Or, on a more personal level, “Am I doing my best to ensure the level of education I have is adequate to make informed decisions about my business operations and my client’s safety?”

What questions I had regarding pigment safety

Through the efforts of my research I ran into questions that were mostly philosophical in nature. While some in society look to the humanities with distrust or apply ignorant labels, I feel happy to find a ground footing in slowly developing a thesis and testing it before making any assumption.

A simple list of questions started my journey:

  • Why is so much effort being put forth by these companies to combat critique in the face of public safety?
  • Are we supposed to follow the giants of industry when they have so much to gain from us following them blindly?
  • What choices do we have in the products that are a necessary part of our jobs?

Ideally, I wanted to have an answer to this question:

What is safe and what is dangerous?

The tattoo industry currently 

According to online sources, the tattoo industry is currently valued at nearly 3-billion-dollars/year in the U.S. There is reportedly, nearly 20,000 tattoo parlors open in the U.S. as of 2018. 

If each one of those tattoo parlors has 1 to 3 people working inside of it, we could assume that there are nearly 45000 active tattoo artists, at legitimate, licensed shops, within the United States. I have no idea how many people are working privately or illegally in the US alone but, I imagine these numbers would add many tattooers to the total assumed.

All tattoo artists, professional or otherwise, must purchase pigments and tattooing supplies from a select number of companies that either distribute or produce them, directly or indirectly.

There has been murmurings that the safety issues we see result from suppliers who refuse to take the stance of  “for professionals only”. This idea seems logically inept and possess the power of secluding products that would otherwise be available in an open market. I believe this strategy (making the products exclusive), places a barrier between our understanding of how safe products are.

If tattoo suppliers removed the ability of researchers to purchase something on demand, these products would be less easily obtained for testing and give suppliers easy ways to obfuscate products. If a product is “leaked” onto the market, meaning it wasn’t sold through an approved seller, suppliers are given a way to shift blame. This practice works against the assumption that regulations, when utilized in a responsible and proactive way, increase the value of products and lead to an increased profitability.

To clarify a point made above, I am not making the assumption that all fake goods on the market are released by the companies that produce. I could argue that some are but there is no way to accurately depict the operations of all businesses globally. I only bring this up because, utilizing a profit maximising model, it would make sense to recoup lost expenses for unsold goods by releasing them to 3rd party distributors that purchase them for a discounted rate. You will decrease losses and waste by offering discounted products on an open, unregulated market. Look at “dollar stores” in the U.S. as a successful representation of this practice.

To continue with these logical failures I see, selling to “professionals only”, such practices will not result in safer products. By removing a product from open scrutiny you remove the ability of educated people providing feedback as to how to improve a product. Short term revenue gains do not offset ethical responsibility. Sadly, when given the choice to make profit or operate ethically, businesses have shown us time and again that they prefer to make a profit. I believe this occurs in the tattoo industry currently.

How Artists Make Choices

Tattoo artists in the U.S. are without relevant critiques or examination by scientists for the products they use on the job. For tattoo product sales in the U.S. it is not essential to have passed any testing that ensures the safety and efficacy. The only testing, is a trial by fire. Trial by fire, as in: we put our clients in the fire and see what happens.

This trial by fire with safety is of serious concern to scientists, especially those from countries with socialized medicine. In countries where the government picks up the bill for health care, they focus not only on immediate care but also what will affect a population in the future.

Practicing ethical thinking is of benefit to society. When businesses focus on safety before innovation, public health is taken into consideration before profits. This argument seems logical to most consumers but is derided among businesses as they claim it slows innovation. I agree that there must be a balance but, if ethics supercede the focus on profits, business and clientele can coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial.

On the consumer side of products, especially when dealing with a product that has heath consequences that are unknown, we require the ability to research and choose what is right without succumbing to influences from marketing, or recommendations from less than educated individuals. This is even more important when faced with sourcing goods that impact others health.

Herein occurs another question: Is it wise for consumers to base choices on advertising materials or personal recommendations when they are apart from scientific evidence?

We have become entrenched in the recommendations of our digital devices. Google tells us the best things to buy. Whatever places high in the search results has an intrinsic value and, regardless of how much proof can be given, reviews are bought and sold to elevate product listings.

Lifting the veil

In earlier times, society rarely acts with hesitation when introduced to new products but, not everything in technicolor was taken as gospel. Some in society took the time to critically analyze new ideas and products and waited a while until a a trusted confidant bought something and offered a verbal critique. If we were convinced a purchase held some utility, we ventured out and bought one ourselves.

Since the dawn of modern advertising, companies have focused much effort in developing techniques to make their products stand apart from their competition. Currently, there is a marketing machine pushing supposed high-quality products by showcasing the best in an industry, or people of fame,  vouching for their products. Suppliers worldwide utilize product endorsements as a way to boost sales and product recognition.While we see this as a pervasive method of marketing globally, the slogans and imagery attached to products emanate a sense of elitism into the tattoo industry. Examples of such statements are:

  • “**** Ink Supports Quality Artists”
  • “**** Ink. For Tattoo Professionals Only”
  • “**** Ink. The ORIGINAL Grey Wash”
  • “By Professionals for Professionals”

Normally, these slogans are attached to visual media with a well known artist. Some of these artists receive forms of funding from the brand they support. They are considered “sponsored artists” who receive products for use (either for a reduced fee or free of charge) so long as they push these products to fans. While this practice is not illegal, the products safety is tied to the artists who represent it.

When work is displayed with a well known name attached to it, the product becomes humanized and appeals to the masses by shifting the focus from the product to the person who recommends it. This misleading attempt to create brand recognition hides the fact that through manipulation of an industry, where no alternatives for sourcing products exist,  a lack of concern for the people who utilize them is expressed by the companies who produce these campaigns..

If you take the time to go to a tattoo shop, a convention, or walk into a supply shop, you will see such advertisements emblazoning the walls. Inside the industry, it is the product that makes the professional, not the skill of the artist alone. Artist inside tattooing are led to believe there are no alternatives. To be the best, you must use a single product.

Beyond sponsorships, the review process of a product has not been vetted for publishing on a website, regardless of what verifications process they claim to use. By seeing a star value, consumers are given a sense of security that the product they are purchasing is of a specific quality, not that it is safe. If artists venture past the faceless application of reviews and sponsorship they are left with few ways to receive confirmation of a product’s safety or efficacy. More often than not, artists turn to each other for validation of a product’s abilities.

The Choices We Make

Tattoo artists are in a difficult position when it comes to choosing which supplies to use. Most product use is wholly subjective, as the application of art is an extension of their person. If there is a need to find something new, how are artists going to make a decision? 

Most of the time, an artist will see something that they determine as quality; they see a happy client and they choose to use the same product that produced those results. This all boils down to something so simple: Artists want happy clientele. This helps them build their business and extend their influence. 

But, what about future repercussions if the products being used are not safe? What is the industry doing to increase its collective knowledge?

Choosing your supplies and offering critiques

New and established artists alike are unable to make decisions based on empirical evidence when choosing a company to source their products from. Instead of having proof that something works well and is safe, they are left with recommendations from the media, professional sponsorship or their trusted, fellow artists.

What we are unaware of, when asking our fellow industry insiders, is if they have any proof as to how safe or how well a product works. Their recommendation is purely subjective, and if we decide to use their recommendation when purchasing a new product, we are left feeling awkward if we do not agree with them after using it. 

By creating a system that places the subjective experience above scientific evidence, we preload bias into our choices. One one hand, we can express our negative experience by telling our coworkers, fellow artists locally, or the sponsored artists who recommend these products as the best quality, that we disagree with their critique of a product. In some cases this may result in a friendly discussion about how or why we came to this result, but the industry has shifted away from the idea of craftsmanship towards artistic ability.

If the person choosing to speak up does not have the same skill set, or social media influence; or if they are judged by the populations inside tattooing to be lesser an artist, or not as “good” as the people they are questioning, it is easy to dismiss their claims. The adoring fans or close friends to the person who is placed in a position of defending their recommendation, will defend the product by defending the person. The focus of any discussion is shifted and made personal. If a person makes an attack on a product, you make an attack on all of the professionals who support it.

With all the burden of proof being placed on artistic skill, and the quickly devolving possibility of critique, how can a person stand a chance in expressing their opinion? 

To start, we need to understand that our fellow artists are not basing their claims on scientific evidence. Those who rush to the defense and shift the focus on a product to a person have no value in the discussion. It is a smoke screen and I imagine that this same tactic will take place when scrutiny falls upon these companies to provide proof their products are safe.

Experience or proof

We know as a population that experience is not a valid identifier of quality. These two terms are mutually exclusive. Problems arise when artists are quick to pick up the latest, trendy item. This includes whatever has been elevated to prominence by those they idolize.

Let me be clear: I do not have any issue with the purchase of items that are supported by industry giants. I only want those products to be verified as safe by scientists who are better trained at identifying potential dangers.

If you are happy with the amount of reading you have done. Here is a pace to leave off and pick up whenever you choose. The next section is an explanation about tattoo pigments and what they are comprised of. 

Part 2 – Tattoo Pigment Chemistry

To understand why we need regulations, we first need to understand what is in pigments, how those ingredients interact with the body, and how these interactions may be harmful to us.

What is in tattoo pigments – preface to the chemistry

Tattoo pigments are mainly comprised of a pigment and a carrier solution. The raw pigments are manufactured by large companies and sold to smaller suppliers who mix and bottle the solutions.

Here is a video by How It’s Made that describes the process of making inorganic pigments.

Differences in application

To add clarification to the term pigment; it is often interchangeable with descriptions like dyes, colors and inks. While we may use these terms colloquially, they stand for different things. We will get into the differentiation later on.

In tattooing, pigments are injected into the skin. That pigment is handled by an immune response that keeps the particles of ink stationery in our skin permanently. Different types of ink/pigments react differently with our bodies.


All pigments go through photodegradation, whether it be in the skin, or outside of it. This unique mechanism between light and pigments increases our need for understanding how the chemicals released ay affect our bodies. We, as an industry, need to know that a pigment is safe or that we can accurately describe to our clients the potential health hazards that may occur from receiving a tattoo.

Modern AZO pigments (pigment found in some tested samples by recent analysis) are photoreactive in a way that releases carcinogenic compounds. Other pigments used have also been laced with inorganic compounds that cause disease. Moving forward. the industry should be able to acknowledge that all pigments are to be non-toxic or biocompatible at best. If that cannot be achieved, they should aim for pigments to be non-effective to tissues or systems inside the body.

The list of what we need to be safe for our applications of tattoos is different compared to the other industries that utilize pigment daily. There is little to worry about when comparing tattooing to commercial or industrial applications, where health effects are not limited to the individual, but to the environment at large, although some of the ingredients in tattoo pigments are known to be dangerous to aquatic life and have the potential to poison waterways.

Tattoo Pigments – Differences is composition

Dyes- Dyes are either a synthetic or natural substance that is suspended in a liquid carrier. Like pigments, a dye is a substance that is added to something to change its color. These are substances retain their color properties when reduced to individual molecules. The term is often used when altering the color of an article in which dyes or pigments are added.

Pigments- Pigments are organic or inorganic substances that are insoluble in a liquid carrier. Some dyes can be precipitated to create pigments (lake pigments). Pigments can also be, in a biological sense, colored molecules found in a cell, regardless of it’s solubility.

Pigments work by absorbing wavelengths of light, allowing only specific wavelengths to be seen. (overly simplified but, ya know…) This is why pigments look different under different light sources. If you look at a red or orange under a warm colored halogen light it will carry a certain hue, but under natural sunlight, it will look totally different.


Raw, inorganic tattoo pigments are insoluble. This means that they are unable to be blended with a liquid (such as water). This trait is unlike what dyes are able to. To blend the colors we use in tattooing, pigments are mixed with a solution called a carrier fluid. These carrier fluids ensure the pigment’s ability to be transferred directly into the skin once picked up with a needle and tube. By utilizing carrier fluids and surfactants (which is described in a section below), a mixture is able to be transferred in the correct ratio, via dipping in a tattoo ink cap, before being injected in the skin.

Carrier fluids are inactive ingredients that act as vehicles for substances. In tattooing, a carrier is a substance that pigment is suspended in. Without the carrier, our pigments would be a dry powder which could not be injected into the skin.

Most modern tattoo pigment carriers are comprised of some, or all, listed here: Distilled water, glycerin, alcohol, ethyl alcohol, witch hazel, Listerine and/or glycerol.

There are also known additives used in some pigment carriers currently. Some of the known additives include surfactants (detergents, binding agents, fillers and preservatives). These additives are utilized to give the product used by tattoo artists, a specific feel, consistency and ease of use.

Organic versus inorganic – Tattoo Pigment Chemistry

The phrase organic has permeated our society in the west and we implicitly trust the idea of it. Organic is known as something safe, clean and healthy – but in the world of tattoo pigments, organic means something totally different. The term organic stands for any naturally occurring matter or compound that is carbon based. It is a scientific term that distinguishes the properties of a product molecularly.

Check that

–> Carbon Based <–

There is little to no application that this idea that should attach a sense of cleanliness, eco-friendliness or health. It is the most simple name-based application of the chemical structure.

Tattoo Pigments – Differences in applications

The tattoo industry, and its clientele, want a quality finished product. It ensures that the work put into a tattoo stays vibrant and legible for the lifetime of the person who wears it. All those involved also demand the best quality for their hard earned money. The price put on experience and talent far outweighs the physical cost of the tattoo setup, so why should artists and clients alike worry about a small increase in price to ensure a safer product.

Inside the industry, the need for bold, bright and lightfast colors pushed the pigment suppliers away from time tested solutions of raw, inorganic pigments. This push has moved artists towards synthetically derived, organic pigments. Some of the colors we use currently in tattoos are not significantly different when compared to what is used in commercial applications (like automotive or artists paints).

Tattoo pigments – Historically

Tattoo pigments have been around for thousands of years. The earliest known substances used in tattooing were ash and charcoal that were injected in the skin via crude tools. This practice continues, and in more modern times, (up until the last 20 years) pigments have been mainly made up of mineral sources. We have a large body of data that shows what to expect when using these pigments and how to deal with potential reactions, when they occur.

Most tattoo pigments were comprised of a carrier and some of the following inorganic mineral sources: Reds were sourced from cinnabar which is a mercury sulfide compound that shows red when hit with light. Cadmium compounds were used to create the warm tones (reds, yellows and oranges). Iron oxide and carbon black were used to create black pigments. Modern colors that are commercially available for tattoo artists are made up mostly of synthetic-organic pigments. There is still widespread use of some inorganic pigments, mainly whites and blacks.

Reactions are more likely to occur with inorganic pigments and the assumption is that the newer, synthetic-organic pigments are a safe, less reactive alternative in tattooing. Whether this is factual or not has yet have been observed.

Reactivity and allergic reactions

The reaction rate had kept consistent year over year, since recording began until the more recent use of synthetic-organics. This increased rate of reactions has been more common following the boom in tattooing that started in the early 2000’s. While one could argue that the rates and the change have only occurred due to increased reporting which is a result of more people getting tattooed, we could also attribute the increase to a change in the products used. In this same period tattoo artists had migrated from inorganic pigments to the new synthetic-organic pigments, as they became the new staple of artists globally.

In recent times, reports of known bacterial contamination in tattoo pigments have been reported. These contaminations make them unsafe for general use. You can find information about these on the FDA website, where they release recall information of the general public. These reports are also listed on pigment producing companies’ websites, when required by the FDA recall protocol.

Onto Chemistry

With a little grounding in what pigments are and how they are made, let’s take a quick look at the chemistry surrounding pigment mixing.

The role of viscosity and tattoo pigments

Viscosity is how thick stuff is and how easily it is manipulated by force. This definition is kind of simplified but, think of Ketchup, it is a viscous liquid that has unique properties when being dispensed from a bottle. This may not seem like something that matters to tattooing, but think about the products you currently use. How would you enjoy a thin, watery ink that fell off needles before the needles make it to the skin? Would you enjoy a thicker consistency? 

Break that idea down and apply viscosity to tattoo pigments: Viscosity determines how well the ink travels. Travelling can be taken a few different ways:

  • How it travels on the needles into the skin,
  • how it moves from dispensing bottle to cap
  • effectiveness of moving from cap to skin.

If the tattoo pigment is too thin, you won’t be able to transfer enough from the ink cap to skin. If it’s too thick, it won’t flow well enough down the needles into the skin.

All variances in travel are modulated by the type and use of surfactants added to a tattoo pigment.

Pigment Chemistry – Surfactants

This class of chemicals/solutions are compounds that modify the surface tension of liquids or liquids and solids (also solids and gasses). Surfactant is a simplification of the term Surface Active Agent. These active agents can be broken down into multiple categories, so let’s take a quick peek at what a few of them do.

Surface Tension – The tendency of a liquid to shrink to the minimum surface area – The water/liquid used in suspensions for tattooing need to have a high level of surface tension to be utilized properly. Increasing the surface tension of a liquid, such as water, ensures it won’t ball up.

  • Detergents – A group of compounds with a pos+, neg- or neutral charge that bind to specific elements or compounds easily. Detergents bind with water and can be used to ensure uniformity of particle distribution. (see PEG – Polyethylene Glycol –Pigment article Hazard Prediction)
  • Wetting agents – These compounds are used in pigment chemistry to increase the likelihood of a liquid staying in contact with a smooth/metallic surface. Wetting agents are used to increase a pigments ability to cling to needles. (see a brief article, 2nd page, about wetting agents –Materials used in Body Art)
  • Foaming Agents– These can either increase or decrease the amount of foaming that occurs with a mixture. Foaming agents are used to decrease the bubbles that form when the mixture of tattoo pigment is shaken to mix. These additives are also used to decrease shipping weights of products by requiring less pigment to achieve the same results (see a particular post rabbit hole article about a foaming agent alcohol ethoxylates  –HERA Risk Assessment of Alcohol Ethoxylates
  • Dispersants– While the dispersant is typically assigned to the water substance a tattoo pigment is held within, there are additional additives used to change the consistency of pigments. These additives are called plasticizers and are used in tattoo pigments to help in the dispersion/separation of pigments collected inside the mixture. They prevent clumping and collection at the bottom of a bottle. (see an article, or do aGoogle Search on Dibutyl Phthalate –Black Tattoo Inks)

Why surfactants matter

All of the above types of materials/compounds/agents are used in some pigments to increase the users (you) enjoyment of the product. If the pigment you are using is too thick, too thin, doesn’t transfer well into the skin or goes in too quickly, your idea of quality will be quick to change.

Tattooing is all about feeling and intuiting what is going on. If things don’t feel good, you want to keep doing it. Due to this very personal expression when using tattoo inks, mixers/chemists will add various surfactants to change the viscosity of the pigment.

There is also a ton of info about how viscosity affects the physical flow of pigment into skin but, I am not a physics major so I shall digress and move to the next bit.

Types of pigments used

This list and image is taken from BASF’s website. They are the largest chemical producer in the world with revenues in excess of 60 billion euros yearly. They produce pigments that are used in tattooing and have information about pigment safety available for download for the general public.


Organic pigments 

  • Azo pigments
    Monoazo yellow and orange
  • Diazo
  • Naphthol 
  • Naphthol AS
  • Azo lakes
  • Benzimidazolone
  •  Diazo condensation
  • Metal complex
  • Polycyclic pigments
  • Phthalocyanine
  • Quinacridone 
  • Perylene and perinone
  • Thioindigo
  • Anthraquinone 
  • Dioxazine 
  • Isoindolinone and isoindoline
  • Diketo-pyrrolo-pyrrole (DPP)
  • Triaryl Carbonium 
  • Quinophthalone 

Inorganic pigments

  • Titanium dioxide white
  • Iron oxide
  • Carbon and vegetable black
  • Cadmium
  • Lead chromate
  • Chromium oxide green
  • Chrome green
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Iron blue
  • Phthalo chrome green
  • Manganese oxide (MNO)
  • Mixed metal oxide
  • Bi-vanadate

While I don’t have enough time to go into the exact nature of each pigment type, I will create additional articles describing the pigments listed above at a later time. Now, we will look into the use of azo pigments.

Azo Pigments

To start, here is a little video about azo pigments and where they come from. (it was hard to find any video that was like… useful)

While the results of azo based pigments are something beyond the natural world and lend themselves to tattooing well, we have evidence that some of these pigment sources are unhealthy for humans and animals.

There has been studies done more recently that showas much as 80% of pigments produced and released in Europe contained azo pigments. Findings of these studies show most dyes/pigments found in those samples collected may not cause issues with human/animal health, but that they were sourced and designed for purposes other than use in humans.

The pigments found from analysis were the same used in automotive and industrial applications (auto paint), or weren’t the most pure of samples (meaning they contain heavy metals to augment the effect of the pigments).

This is where I leave you. If you wish to find more information, check the link at the top of the page. It will take you to a folder with many articles about pigment safety, as well as the results of testing done by the Kanton Basel in Switzerland.

Thanks for reading!



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


Titanium Dioxide – Pigment Chemistry

The role of titanium dioxide in tattoo pigments

Have you taken a look at the labels of your tattoo pigment lately? One thing you may notice is that there is almost always titanium dioxide in your pigments. Why is that?

Titanium dioxide ( TiO2 ) is something that is ubiquitous in our society. You may not have heard of it before but, trust me, it is everywhere. We find TiO2 in sunscreens, food as an additive and commercial products like paint and steel. It gets spread on our faces, doughnuts and spaceships. When I said ubiquitous… I meant it.

TiO2 is sourced from raw minerals and is defined for specific uses by the size and dimension of the individual particles. The particles have a high refractive index, are photostabile in high UV applications and, although costly to manufacture, are in high demand globally.

So why oh why do we put this into our tattoo pigments? Is it safe? What should we know so that we can be a better educated client/tattooer in the world?


Titanium dioxide in our pigments

TiO2 manufacturing is kind of complicated and, since this is a tattoo blog, we won’t get into what goes into the sourcing and processing. If you want to learn more, Google is your friend.

TiO2 is used in our tattoo pigments because its use makes our pigments look brighter. This particle refracts light and disperses wavelengths that are enhancing to colors. The refractive ability is determined by the particulate size and can be tailor made by manufacturers to most sizes… even nano-particle sized.

Titanium dioxide health concerns

While TiO2 may be a food-safe product there are questions about the safety of this product when injected into the body. Here is a paper that discusses the health effects of TiO2!

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles induce DNA damage and genetic instability in vivo in mice

Evidence that ultrafine titanium dioxide induces micronuclei and apoptosis in Syrian hamster embryo fibroblasts.

Human safety review of “nano” titanium dioxide and zinc oxide

and a couple of papers for whomever wants to read them:

Chemistry Handbook- TiO2

Titanium Dioxide white paper from DuPont



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


Needle Technique – How to hold your tattoo machine

Needle Technique – Preface on how to hold your machine:

I’ve read many articles over the years that have laid out certain needle techniques. They are very specific and focused on how to use your needles to achieve a clean tattoo. This is a question that has popped up many times during my travels and I have noticed that many tattooers are quick to dismiss any critiques on this simple yet foundational aspect of tattooing.

Regarding the articles from years back, I noticed while reading them there was a lack of consensus on what was correct. They all had a difference in technique. The articles touched upon the difference between liner and shader needles but left out grouping effectiveness and what to expect when using them in out-of-context ways. Almost none of the articles focused on small-grouping liner needles or the best way to avoid blowouts when using them. I also never caught wind of an article discussing what is necessary to achieve optimal results with different needles.

Before getting into the short article here that broaches the subject of needle technique, you should read our article about tattooing hands and feet, it has a load of info about the skin.

Needle Technique – The article origin

Funny enough, I was at a convention this week and I had noticed many people using many different machines and different needle groupings.

One thing I had noticed was that everyone was running their machines incorrectly. The speed, angle of inflection and hand speed were all inconsistent with how different types/areas of skin should be tattooed. Nearly all of the tattooers I watched work had the same basic misunderstanding of direction, angle and depth.

I avoided giving any critiques, as many of you would agree with, they were unasked for and totally unwarranted.

I wanted to walk up and give a couple pointers because, truthfully, if they were paying better attention to a couple things, that needle would be giving them better, cleaner, easier lines; quicker and faster.

shitty tattoo lines

I know this sounds like a crackpot-asshole calling bluff on a bunch of seasoned artists… I assure you it is not. This is another friendly critique for those out there who want to improve.

So with that preface, on to our article.

Part one – Nah… Another Preface

Let’s start out with liner needles because they are the most commonly overlooked tool. After we work our way through some simple improvements, we will move on the mags. Mags are tricky, mainly because there is many different ways to use them. There is also an inconsistent consensus on how best to use those needles. Some people say “just shading”, others claim ” I fuckin’ line with those bitches!”.

Evidently this is the second preface ( ya, we need a second )

I’m going to skip writing a section on stretching skin. I can imagine that if, by now, you are tattooing full time, that you already have a decent or standing as to how to stretch skin correctly.

If not, Let me know and I’ll work up an article about proper skin stretching. I could cover techniques associated with what type of skin that you’re working with and how your stretch with these different types of skin can affect your quality of work.

Blah…Blah…blah…bl…. *HICCUP!!* get on to it already!

Ok… Onto the article.

Rules of the Tattoo – Liners

Regardless if you use small or large groupings, you will get varying results on the healed end of the tattoo if you don’t follow a few simple needle technique rules.

  • Rule 1- Always run your needle against the tube back. This is called moving forward. This ensures the needle stays in contact with the tube tip while running lines. The tubes work best without the needle bouncing around in the tip.
  • Rule 2- Look at rule 1

I believe, in the beginning of our careers, when we’re all starting out, that we have focus. Maybe even superhuman focus…

What I’m saying may ring a bell with all y’all,  or maybe it is still a thing you live with. There was an ability to focus so hard on all the mechanisms that went into a tattoo that dissipates as we grow in our understanding of the trade.

In the beginning…

In the beginning, we overly focus on what some of us experienced tattooers think of as the mundane. Running lines, whip shading, light source… It something that we may take for granted as practice leads to understanding. That understanding leads to mastery, in most cases.

This leads me to a question: If we are working towards a mastery with knowledge that is incorrect, can we ever obtain mastery?

Funny enough, some of those things that we used to be driven crazy by, when our mentors or just by ourselves we’re trying out new things, have become something that we rarely focus on what we’re doing tattoos as we mature towards mastery.

How often do you pay attention to where your needles are?

Do you only pay attention to what feels right?


Liner needles

Let’s move on and take a look at needle technique using Liners

Small needle grouping – Liners

Needle Technique – Standard Angle

When I first started tattooing, I was told that you had to keep the needles in the tube at an angle somewhere between 45˚ and 60˚ (standard angle or SA) when running lines in the skin. This idea seems to be true for most applications when using a tattoo machine.

Always using that SA will result in the most consistent of results. Especially when using smaller groupings.

I personally only use 3 round and 5 around liners for the vast majority of my work. When this practice first started it was nerve wracking and shit was a bit of a disaster for a week. Luckily, every tattoo I did was built to take a 7-9 round so, the repairs were free and embarrassing.

The result of this experience is that I’m very cautious when ever I run a line. My tube is held in the SA and I am always pushing (mostly) when I’m running and/or sculpting lines.

Needle Technique – Shallow Angle

If you’re like most of us, your hand gets a bit tired and those machines start getting heavy.

When that happens, your machine sags and you run your needle too shallow. Shallow is considered <45° angle

So what dude.. The ink is going in. Who gives a shit… right!?

maths needles tech

Nah.. You see, what happens when you run your machine shallow is:

  • Your needles won’t penetrate the correct amount unless you press your tube tip and bury the needle.
  • You lose most of the pigment by increasing the traveling distance of the needle
  • Your machine has to work harder to push the needle in which increases load and decreases machine life.
  • If you are pulling a line, the needle will skip across the skin surface leaving little ink but more trauma.

To explain

As you’re moving forward at whatever speed your hand moves, the needle at the end of the tube seems to bounce around. This is because it’s not hitting a directly flat surfaces allowing the needles to penetrate the layer of skin we want, directly.

This also occurs if the skin is in stretched too tight. You see the needles going in but there will be little pigment deposited into the epidermis. The pigment will be trapped in the uppermost layer as the needles won’t get deep enough to deposit the ink properly.

Worse yet, if the needles are running at a steeper angle the needle will just hop along the top not making any sort of penetration, thus leaving any pigment that you want to put into the skin stuck on top of the skin. In this case, the needles just chew up the upper layer of skin for no reason.

Steep angle of tubes

What happens with the needle facing straight-up-and-down to the 90゚ angle, or somewhere between 75 and 90°?

protractor angle

The needle has to work harder to pass through the skin, especially if you have a very tight stretch on a specific area.

When the needle strikes the skin, it doesn’t so much a slide in as it does blow the skin apart to create an opening for the ink to enter.


To bypass this some artist have lightened their stretch and kept the steep angle when tattooing. This needle technique, which may actually work when using smaller needle configurations, still isn’t totally efficient. You can utilize it when trying to build/sculpt lines, but if you’re trying to do very fine lines…Not so much

A bit about Stretching

What you push the pigment into the skin with the needles at a steep angle, while holding a softer stretch, the skin layers that accet the pigment are out of alignment. You can tell this by releasing the stretch after running a line.

When you release that light stretch you will notice that your lines are wavy or inconsistent. This is because the skin is an organ that is susceptible to stresses, like stretching. When you pull skin tight, you squeeze the layers together making an easier path for needles to push through. If you hold it too loose, or stretch incorrectly, the skin layers will move to the position of

What happens with the needle facing straight-up-and-down to the 90゚ angle, or somewhere between 75 and 90 The needle has to work harder to pass through the skin especially if you have a very tight stretch on a specific area. When the needle strikes the skin it doesn’t so much a slide in as it does blow the skin of parts to create an opening for the ink to enter.

To bypass this effect, some artist have lightened their stretch, which may actually work when using smaller needle configurations. It also may work when trying to build lines, but if you’re trying to do very fine lines, the increased trauma will make it impossible let to heal a long sitting, single sitting tattoo well.

Large groupings

Large liner groupings should only ever be used in one way. Run any of your lines the standard 45 to 60゚ angle with a decent stretch, which is determined by skin type.

Just steep enough to get the needles in for some reverse whip shading

Watch the effects of your lining when you use these angles. From experience, you’re only going to be getting partial saturation. This is due to a lack of full penetration of all needles entering the skin. This is especially evidence and needle groupings that are loose, such as round shaders

What happens when you bog down?

Yes it is true that you can run steep angles with round shaders, or loose groupings, or large groupings of round liners if you take it slow enough. The partial needle grouping entering the proper depth will deposit enough pigment if you go slow enough. However, this is incredibly poor needle technique.

But, this defeats the purpose of using large groupings. You wanna be able to move fast put the ink in the skin and move on to your next tattoo.

I remember back in the day of Spalding Rogers’, National’s and Danny Fowler’s; people would just crank their machines up to 13 just screamed the pigment into the skin.

When your tossing your needle technique out the window like that, regardless of what your angle was at, the ink went in.

Magnum needles

The industry hasn’t reached a proper concensus about how to use needle mags. Regardless of this fact, there is one generally accepted procedure when using them that will ensure quality results, depending on the style you’re working with.

Soft shading

Soft shading can be accomplished using any dispersion of pigment that you have laid out on your table. The trick here is your needle angle when entering the skip.

Softer shading is better accomplished by having the needles at a steeper angle i.e. Between 75 and 90゚. Having the needles at this steeper angle a causes them to bounce off the surface of the skin due to the largest surface area that is being engaged by the needles. This bouncing off the skin ensures that not all the pigment you want to put in will go in it will just sits superficially in the upper layer of the epidermis.

Just like stated above, care needs to be taken as you will burn through that top layer of skin quickly if you keep a tight stretch while continuously running the needles over the skin surface.

Inversely, you can lighten up on the skin and allow the mags to just bounce off the skin surface. This will give you a softer tone while keeping the potential of a hard edge at a minimum.

Color filling

When filling color you can alternate between steep and normal angles 75 to 90゚ (which is steep) or 45 to 60゚ angles (which is standard). The steep angles can be used to feather out colors when blending while the SA are used for full filling.

Be careful when using the steep angle technique for shading. You need caution because the needles are more prone to chew up the skin if you don’t Get the saturation correct on your 1st pass. Use a standard angle between 45 and 60゚ to put color into the skin. Most people work in small tight circles, but with mags, I have found that a Box Motion works better than circles.

Box motion explained

  • The Box motion for filling in color or solid black is as follows
  • Start by pushing forward into the skin with the Magnum needle.
  • As you start to circle back just pull a hard 90゚ right while lifting the needle out of the skin.
  • Finish pulling out of the skin as you pull straight back away from the skin
  • Make another 90゚ turn to start heading towards the skin while dropping your needle depth towards the skip.

Lather rinse repeat.

Proper technique

Using small liners proper technique for putting people into the skin is

Get a stretch on the skin or area that you are planning on Tattooing

Get ink in needles and tubes by dipping and in ink cap.

Start your line with the machine tube set up 45- 60゚ off the skin surface

Only move forward with your liner. You will be pushing the needle against the back of the tube. you can shortcut this and/or cheat it by going in a side to side motion.

Never drag your needles backwards when running lines.

Run your line in a smooth motion. What do I mean by smooth?

It’s easy.

Everyone has a range of motion. When you push past the natural range of motion for any muscle grouping that you’re using, your body has to switch between the one muscle group you are using, to another. That switch is necessary to complete the movement.

When you pull a long line, the transition between muscles happen and you’ll get a little shake. Sometimes the shake can be extremely evident, sometimes, not so much.

Finish your line by feathering the line out. You’ll need to do this with every line. Especially if you have to tie one line into another line to complete a longer segment.

Lather rinse repeat until your job is done

Packing tribal

This one seems to be elusive to most people nowadays. When I started tattooing all we did was tribal. It’s what you cut your teeth on you did it 7 days a week 14 hours A-day and if you couldn’t get it right by God you wouldn’t get a color piece.

Perhaps that’s way tribal is just not so in demand now

To pack tribal you go with a mildly shallow angle

Normally, I’ll use the box method of filling, moving in very tight squares. Those squares create a line pass that overlaps each other. When making a pass over to fill in an area next to a spot already done, overlap the area already filled in 1/4 to 1/2 of the way.

To some, this is the most boring aspect of tattooing but I normally make a game out of it and enjoy large swathes of black!

To keep myself busy most the time when I’m doing tribal such as this, I hum meow mix in my head for hours on end.

The cool thing about this (packing tribal, not humming Meow Mix) is when done correctly, the amount of touch ups needed for the person who is receiving the black work is going to be minimal.

That’s correct if done correctly you only really have to touch up tribal you won’t have to redo the whole sucking thing.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


Tattooing – Cost of Setup

In this week’s article we look at the cost of setup up for your tattoo!

We have come up with a handy cost of setup calculator located near the bottom of the page that uses the numbers collected in this article to create a total cost. You can modify it and see what a tattoo setup is worth.

To preface this serious tech-type article, I stole every image on here. They are sourced mostly from Amazon but also Alibaba. Why you ask, because ‘Murica, that’s why!

(Any pros out there should get a laugh out of what I did. If you don’t get it, don’t feel bad. Shoot me a message and I will explain it to you)

What’s the cost of setup?

The cost of setup is how much actual money the artist or studio must spend to create that fine ass tattoo you want to get.

While this may not be forefront in your mind when choosing your tattoo or choosing a place to get tattooed, you should know why and how the shops decide the pricing that affects you, dear reader.

What is the real cost for setting up a tattoo?

All costs found are hopefully the highest prices listed. I refrain from attempting to use a potential midground when selecting prices and hope that the high end of this pricing scheme is more beneficial to all who are concerned. We are also only using disposable supplies in this article. The total cost of reusable products is too variable depending on artist habits and traits. Due to the variability, we chose to ignore pricing reusables.

Onto the costs!

Needle Groupings and cost

You usually need a small needle grouping to do a smaller tattoo while you may have to change or utilize multiple needle groupings for larger tattoos. Taking that into account, create a grading system that allows for additional costs to the tattooer. This will be applied per sitting:

For all small tattoos- (Liner Needle X 1) + (Shader Needle X 1)

For all Medium tattoo sittings – (Liner Needle X 2) + (Shader Needle X 2)

For all Large tattoo sittings – (Liner Needle X 3) + (Shader Needle X 3)

Keep this in mind if you want to play around with the calculator.

Cost of Setup – Needles

Most needles chosen by artists come premade and sterilized, individually blister packed and are single use. They range from single needles to multiple needle configurations.

The fine art of needle making is slowly disappearing from the industry as the options for premade needles become less expensive and a better option for conservation of time. We will not be looking into the costs of making your won needles but, please know, the costs of making your own needles is substantially less than anything listed below. The only cost really is time, and time as we know it, is money.

Onto the costs of needles.

Needle Costs – Liners

Liner needles are used to create borders and fine details inside a tattoo. While some of the larger groupings can cover huge areas quickly, they lack the softness given by a shader needle.

Liner Needle on Bar

Liner Needle on bar

The average cost of a single needle on bar, sterilized is:

 $15.00 per box of 50 needles ($15.00/50 = $0.30 per needle grouping on bar)

The average cost of a standard, 7-needle round grouping, sterilized on bar is:

$25.99 per box of 50 needles ($25.99/50 = $0.52 per needle grouping on bar)

The highest cost (I could find) of a large grouping, like the superior graded 14-needle round liner, sterilized on bar, is:

$83.98 per box of 50 needles ($83.98/50 = $1.68 per needle grouping on bar)

Let’s take those numbers and create and average cost of a liner needle grouping, premade and sterilized on bar, at $0.83 per liner needle.

Liner Cartridges

Liner cartridge

Another type of liner needle used is the cartridge type. These cartridges come premade, blister packed and sterile. We will use the same grading and costs system as we used above to come up with an average.

$10.49 per box of 10 needles ($10.49/10 = $1.05 per needle grouping on bar)

The average cost of a standard, 7-needle round grouping, sterilized on bar is:

$20.20 per box of 10 needles ($20.20/10 = $2.02 per needle grouping on bar)

The highest cost (I could find) of a large grouping, like the superior graded 14-needle round liner, sterilized on bar, i:

$22.40 per box of 10 needles ($22.40/10 = $2.24 per needle grouping on bar)

Let’ take those numbers and create and average cost of a liner needle cartridge as $1.77 per cartridge.

Needle Costs – Shaders

Shader needles (associated mag needles and bug-pin groupings) are used to create gradients and\or fill large areas of skin when working through a tattoo. They lack the tightness of a liner needle and cannot do the same level of detail as the liner needles are capable of.

Shader Needle on Bar

mag needle on bar

The average cost of a shader needle on bar, sterilized is:

 $19.00 per box of 50 needles ($19.00/50 = $0.38 per 5 mag-needle grouping on bar)

The average cost of a standard, 9-needle mag-shader grouping, sterilized on bar is:

$34.94 per box of 50 needles ($34.94/50 = $0.70 per needle grouping on bar)

The highest cost (I could find) of a large grouping, like the superior graded 19–needle shader, sterilized on bar, is:

$83.98 per box of 50 needles ($83.98/50 = $1.68 per needle grouping on bar)

Let’s take those numbers and create and average cost of a shader needle grouping, premade and sterilized on bar, at $0.92 per liner needle.

Shader Cartridges

Mag cartridge

Shader cartridges come in a variety of flavors. They are commonly priced below:

$10.49 per box of 10 needles ($10.49/10 = $1.05 per needle grouping on bar)

The average cost of a standard, 7-needle round grouping, sterilized on bar is:

$20.99 per box of 10 needles ($20.99/10 = $2.10 per needle grouping on bar)

The highest cost (I could find) of a large grouping, like the superior graded 14-needle round liner, sterilized on bar, i:

$23.51 per box of 10 needles ($23.51/10 = $2.35 per needle grouping on bar)

Let’s take those numbers and create and average cost of a shader needle cartridge as $1.83 per cartridge.

Now that needles are taken care of, lets move onto the cost of inks (pigments).

Cost of Setup – Tattoo Tubes

Tattoo tubes are used with needle bars. They act like reservoirs for the pigment when transferring between the ink caps (listed next section below) and the skin. They also control the oscillating motion (up and down) the machine provides.

Tattoo Tubes and grip sizes - Taken from Painful Pleasures

Tattoo Tubes – Disposable Costs

The cost of tubes ranges from $0.69, up to $2.50, per unit (with some single units priced at $25.00 being deemed an outlier). The average price being $1.50 per tube. Cartridge machines do not need separate tubes

Cost of Setup – Ink

On average, a single ounce (oz.) of tattoo ink runs around $8.00-$9.00. Taking

 into account that a single square inch of your skin takes roughly 1/25 oz. of pigment to fully saturate. The normal, small sized ink cap (#9) requires 1/25 oz. to fill.

Choosing Ink Caps

When setting up for the tattoo, the artists should pick and fill the appropriate sized ink cap. I personally use only #9 ink caps. One big reason why is dipping.

When working on skin that is being tattooed the needles and tube pick up things that are being excreted by the skin. Your body dumps exudate, a substance made up of cells and fluid ejected during an inflammatory response (like what happens during tattooing). This fluid waters down the pigment you are placing and, when dipping into the ink caps, dilutes your pure pigment.

Back to the math, lets give the average ink cap used a total value.

#9 ink cap filled – average – $0.36 per cap

When doing larger compositions or tattoos that require multiple colors, the cost can be multiplied by how many ink caps are used during the duration.

Cost of Setup – Disposables

Here is a list and the total cost associated with the average disposables used in a tattoo.


Gloves are a must have when doing a tattoo. The good thing about the (past keeping you clean and safe from infection) is their low cost. The industry standard is using nitrile, latex free gloves, at a 4 mil. thickness.

 Nitrile Gloves

The average cost for a box of gloves is around $8.50. You may be able to find them at different prices based on your location globally. My location dictates these price estimates.

Cost per glove used during a tattoo is $0.01 ($8.50/1000 per case = $0.0085)


Razors are used to prep the skin by removing hair from the procedure site. This keeps the needles clean and free from plugs (image a round grouping filled with broken hairs. It forces the needle into a new shape which is not round) and allows better adherence for dressing adhesives after the tattoo is finished.

A razor

**An aside –> There is evidence that using a razor is not as effective as clippers when prepping a site for any procedure. Clippers have been show through meta-analysis to have better results at keeping infections at bay.**

Razors cost on average $0.09 per unit ($52.50/600 per case = $0.0875).

If you are a very hairy person, or are getting a large area prepped, you may use more than a single razor per tattoo session.

Dental Bibs

Dental bibs are used to cover prep areas, clean sites for placing instruments and other spaces that may encounter bodily fluids.

Dental Bibs

Dental bibs cost on average $0.05 per unit ($23.95/500 per case = $0.0479)

I use at minimum 1 dental bib per procedure. On average 3 per tattoo session but each artist has different habits.

Drop Sheets

Drop sheets are larger than dental bibs and are used to cover procedure areas.

The cost of a drop sheet per unit, on average, is $0.52 ($78.00/150 per case)

I use a single drop sheet every tattoo.

Clip cord Sleeves

These are used to cover and protect the cord that powers the tattoo machine. While you have two options when choosing to purchase these disposable covers, I will stick with the precut option.

On average a clip cord sleeve costs $0.02 per unit ($28.50/1500 per case = $0.019)

Bottle Covers

Bottle covers… cover bottles. They look like ziplock baggies without the ziplock. Surprisingly, there were little to no usable pictures from Alibaba or Amazon I wanted to throw up here.

The average bottle cover costs $0.02 per unit ($25.50/1500 per case = $0.017)

I typically use 4 bottle covers per tattoo. 2 for each wash bottle.

Barrier Film

Whether it be a load of saran wrap (not up to industry standard) or proper tack-back barrier film, this is used to cover things that may be a weird shape or are unable to be fitted with a cover.

Barrier Film

A roll of barrier film (tack-back) costs $0.01 per sheet. ($45.00/4500 sheets = $0.01)

I typically use 5-10 pieces a tattoo.

Plastic (or Clingwrap) is used by many artists. Go to Costco and you can find the megalithic rolls for sale at a cost of around $15.00 for 36,000 sq/ft. That’s equivalent to 4.16^e-4 per sq/ft. (Jesus that’s cheap… No wonder they last 6-12 months when used frequently)


This product is used to fix ink caps to a station and lubricate the skin during a procedure. (hydrophilic substances repel the water-based pigments so they don’t dye the skin during a procedure)

A box of A&D packets

The individual packets are priced at $0.07 per unit ($63.00/864 per case = $0.07292).

I typically use a single packet for a small tattoo, 2-3 for a medium sized tattoo sitting and 4-5 (or more) for a large sitting.

Face Mask

Face masks should be used in every tattoo session. While most tattooers do not, those who sit especially close to the skin they are working on should really consider getting some. (wear a plastic face shield for a day tattooing and see how much crap gets built up on the outside of it).

Face masks cost around $0.09 per unit ($4.50/50 per box = $0.09)

I am guilty of using face masks only occasionally but after reading this number… I feel obliged to start wearing them for every client.

Disposable Sleeves

Disposable sleeves are used to cover the arms during a procedure. These are key to infection control like the above stated face masks.

Disposable sleeves cost around $0.07 per unit ($7.00/100 per bag = $0.07)

Tongue Depressors

While I do not utilize tongue depressors, many people do. They are used to get products out of containers or move things around in the procedure and equipment site. They are sticks and I hope that all artists get the sterilized version.

A sterilized tongue depressor costs $0.04 per unit ($25.50/600 per case = $0.0425).


Aprons keep our clothes clean and are essential for infection control. Please don’t use leather aprons as they cannot be properly disinfected!

Disposale apron

Disposable aprons cost around $0.10 per unit ($9.99/100 per box = $0.0999)

Rinse Cups

These are used to rinse out the tubes when switching between pigments (inks). They are also used by some as a way to wet towels to clean an area during a tattoo (better infection control)

Rinse cups are cheap, and you can get them everywhere. They way to make thee a bit more expensive was to price Red Solo Cups. I know, that is ridiculous.

Rinse cups cost $0.05 per unit ($12.99/240 per bag = $0.054125)

Bandages – Dri-Loc

Dri Loc bandages

Used to cover a tattoo after the procedure. (I have left out the Tegaderm/Saniderm pricing for now. Maybe I’ll add it into the spreadsheet if people call for it.)

Dri-loc bandages cost roughly $0.07 per unit ($41.70/600 per case = $0.0695)

These cover roughly 12 sq/in (or 3 inches linear) of skin when used.

Medical Tape

Medical tape

Used to stick stuff to you or things!

Medical tape costs around $0.13 per yard of 1-inch wide tape. ($93/720 yard per case = $0.12917)

I split the 1-inch thick piece in half and use the two bits for a small tattoo (approx.)

Cohesive Bandages

cohesive bandages

Many artists are using these to pad their machine tubes.

Cohesive bandages cost approximately $0.18 per yard ($32.95/180 yards per case = $0.1830 per yard)

Paper Towels

Paper towels

We use a lot of paper towels in the industry. Most choices are not similar to the Scott Blue Shop Towels some artists use, but those are the most expensive, so they are determining prices here.

Shop towels cost around $0.03 per sheet ($17.99/550 sheets per case = $0.032709)

I can admit that the shop towels do last longer, that price is just nuts! So here is another cost analysis of Costco brand paper towels, per sheet

Costco Brand Paper Towels cost $0.01 ($18.99/1920 sheets per case = $0.00989) àLiterally 30% the price so stop using those shop towel ya wierdos! (It’s still not as wild as the pre-packaged sterile towles that go for $0.25 per sheet)

Disinfectant Wipes

These are used to clean up the area and disinfect all surfaces exposed or used during a procedure.

I’ll use Opti-cide3 wipes versus any you-make solutions as I really like the brand and I don’t know how you mix your solutions.

Per sheet, Opti-cide3 costs nearly $0.09 ($105.00/1200 sheets per case = $0.0875)

Cost of Setup – Non-Disposables

This is going to get a little tricky. I am going to get assumptive here and apply lifetime values to various things so we can get a depreciation value that applies to a single tattoo. These may be far from correct and if so, I apologize.


This one is going to get me in trouble… I know it.

Coil Machines

coil tattoo machine

Coil machines, if used properly and have their routine maintenance done by someone who knows what they are doing, last forever. Seriously. The average price for a decent machine runs from $250-500 and they last 30 years. Springs are about the only thing that breaks on these machine types and those cost around $2.00 to purchase. I have had springs last 5 years at a stretch.

Cost per tattoo @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.05.

{[$500/(365*30)]+[(6*2)/(365*30)]} = $0.046758

Rotary Machines

rotary tattoo machine

Rotary machines have a variable lifespan. Their DC motors have something called a mean time to failure (MTTF) which can make assumptions about how long the motor will last. I won’t go into detail about how you should run your machines but, be warned: The larger the grouping and bigger the needle (larger load placed on the machine) the shorter it’s lifespan will be. I have had a rotary for a few years and have been murderous to it. In 3-years I have replaced the motor once. A replacement motor cost me about $15.00. If the wiring starts to go you are in for a whole new model.

The Rotary machines run about the same price as a coil-based machine and can have an assumed lifespan for those not mechanically inclined of 5-7 years.

Cost per tattoo @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.21.

{[$500/(365*7)]+[(15*2)/(365*7)]} = $0.2074388

Cartridge Machines

cartridge tattoo machine

These are dressed up rotary machines with a great ability to run smooth and act like a coil machine. The issue with these machines comes from their smaller load capacity and higher initial load placed on the motors. Remember above? The MTTF is dictated by load forces exerted on the machines during use. Higher load = Shorter lifespan.

Cartridge machines run around $500 and have a lifespan of 1-3 years. Replacement repairs are free if the device is deemed worthy by manufacturer. You are still stuck with the shipping costs for rebuilding/replacement which is around $30.

Cost per tattoo @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.46.

[$500/{3*365)] = $0.456621

Power Supplies

National Tattoo Power SUPPLY!

A good power supply should last you forever. I have a friend who is 3rd gen with an analogue National “brick” power supply. It cost him $100 bucks. My power supply is digital and cost around $250 and feels kind of cheap. If I get 5 years out of it, I will be happy.

Cheap Power Supply

Just like everything in life now-a-days, manufactured obsolescence is a part of any new purchase.  You can expect a half-decent power supply to last 3-5 years and at a cost around $250 per unit.

Cost per operation of tattoo power supply per day is approximately $0.14.

($250/(5*365)] = $0.1369863

Clip Cords

Clip cords connect the machine to the power supply. They come in a couple varieties such as 2 prong, RCA, Phono, etc. Clip cords commonly cost $20 and have a lifetime of around 5 years.

The cost per day of using a clip cord @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.01

[20/(5*365)] = $0.0109589

Foot Switches

tattoo foot switch

Foot switches connect to the power supply and are used to operate the tattoo machine. Foot switches commonly cost $50 and have a lifespan of 10 years if cleaned and maintained.

The cost of operating a foot switch per day @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.01

[50/(10*365)] = $0.01369863

Arm Rests

Tattoo arm Rest

This shop furniture is used to prop body parts up for easy access during a procedure. Arm rests cost approximately $150 and have a usable lifespan of around 15 years. Longer if they are well maintained.

The cost of using an armrest per day @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.03

[150/(15*365)] = $0.02739726

Massage Tables

Massage Table

Massage tables are going to be listed here versus barber chairs because I hate moving barber chairs.

The average massage table costs $250 and has a lifespan of around 10 years if cared for properly.

The cost of using a massage table for tattooing @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.07

[250/(10*365)] = $0.0684931


Medical Lamp

Lamps are bright. We use them and they need bulbs. The LED lightbulbs they utilize now in these exam lamps are rad and have a lifespan of nearly 10 years. Which, coincidently, is about the same lifespan of the fixture. Exam lamps run around $170.

The cost of using an exam lamp for tattooing @ 1 tattoo per day is $0.04

{$150/(10*365)] = $0.04109589

Cost of Setup Calculator

I did up a little calculator on Google Sheets. It can be clumsy but it works well.

Here’s the link – It’s external and hosted on Google Sheets:


Some Questions about Cost of Setup

Let’s toss out a few questions that I have heard from clients regarding the cost of setup . Here is a few that I have heard to start us off:

All shops charge the same rate near where I live… Isn’t this an industry standard?

No. There is no industry standard that dictates what a shop or artist can charge. On average, shops and artists charge what is common to keep competition focused on artwork or style. This way most of the shops in an area fill a specific demand and leave little for those less qualified.

Why would we want to talk about the costs with the artist? It makes me uncomfortable to discuss money!

If you are concerned about the price or if you have a budget, speak up. There is a need to be upfront with a person that is going to mark you permanently. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing something as trivial as pricing when marking yourself permanently, wait for that tattoo.

They claim to use only the best supplies, is that why the cost is so high?

Most likely not. Sometimes artists charge what they do because they are really good. Other times it is because the area of operation influences the prices.

Think about large cities like New York or San Francisco; would you want to get a tattoo from a person who charges $50 an hour when the tattooers on average charge $250 an hour? Probably not.

Why charge so much

This will be covered in the next article. We have almost hit 4000 words and I bet, dear reader, you need a break.

Go, have fun looking at the cost of setup and don’t break my fucking calculator!

Like, Share and Comment if you feel like a real badass.




Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


The Apprentice- What’s Missing in the Industry – Part 2

We left off our last article with our fictitious apprentice who is stuck with the task of attempting to grow inside the industry.

If you are reading this article and need to catch up, follow this link to the previous article.

APPRENTICE – Article 1 

Let’s try and ensure you, dear reader, know that the ambiguity of all phrasing included in this article is:

Not attempting to masculinize any statements.The words in here not intending to exclude any person(s). I utilized them because it was the easiest way to get the ideas out of my head.

The Apprentice Part 2

Here’s an excerpt from last week. I think it’s a good way to start us off.

Ha- You have made it past your first tattoo and have started learning how to draw simple designs. The shop has accepted you as one of their own and has mostly left you to figure out what to do next. Your career has begun but you have little knowledge of what to do here.

You actively seek out others to help you better understand they why’s and how’s of the industry, but something is missing.

You, the young apprentice, have so many questions and little knowledge of where to find an answer.

While you are getting confident on smaller designs there have been requests for larger scale work that you do not feel confident enough to take on. While this lack of confidence is not outwardly expressed, you attempt and fail at multiple complex designs, learning with each mistake.

Journeyman Status, so long apprentice

 In a Western or American trade talk, the stage after apprenticeship is becoming a journeyman. A journeyman has this designation because the person in question has enough knowledge to go forth and work for another business or master. They journey away from the master crafts person and, sometimes for years at a time, and work day-by-day. (The word Journee” is French for day)

The craftsman is not competent enough to work by themselves, yet, but are well enough on their way to breaking down the formulaic process of the trade and work towards becoming a master. They are working at it a day at a time.

I keep popping back to the idea that the tattooer shouldn’t have many questions dealing with the functional aspects of tattooing when they have moved past the apprentice stage. The foundation based on what they do and how they do it should be strong enough that new questions or problems can be figured out through intuition. There should be confidence in the ability of the post-apprentice student that they can understand how to move forward. There shouldn’t be questions that pop up in daily practice that can’t be answered with a little thought.

Dear apprentice, this is where tattoos go to die

I have an issue with the structure of wandering and practicing your trade. In an altruistic society there is no doubt that the master of a young apprentice is going to give the student a proper working knowledge of the industry and they will be confident in their outward facing career after training.

In the scenario we discussed last week, the apprentice was left out to dry, alone and guessing. The apprentice isn’t being given the freedom to explore their craft or trade. They are unable to move quicker and develop advanced skills. and taking less time focusing on the fundamentals that are becoming an extension of themselves.

What they are left with is focusing on the most simple of skills as there is little practiced actions and confidence in their ability.

When that person goes into the world and expects something so rewarding and defining that they actively change their person though training, self-modification or re-identifying, the assumed result is to be so great their hopes and dreams should come true.

The critique starts here

This is the stage of learning I find most, if not all modern tattooers, get stuck inside of. There is a need to succeed and a drive that is powerful for those who have sacrificed (little physically in comparison to a common Japanese tattoo apprenticeship, but, perhaps greater due to the promise of commitment, hope for a better future and a lack of societal input that brings a grounded sense of self and aspirations), that forces the self-described journey person in tattooing to settle.

So, what would you do if you were that person? You were made a promise so great that you uprooted and rearranged your life. You worked hard and focused your entire being, only to find that the result was a total disruption of your previously wonderful conception (tattooing)? Would you feel depressed? Perhaps you would feel slighted? If you didn’t give in and quit, you would definitely settle.

What do I mean by settling?

The apprentice choosing a style – Tattooing and its downfall

Most Western tattoo apprentices today are faced with this crisis (most or some at least). When they reach the crossroads of quitting or pushing forward, they lack the ability and knowledge to adapt properly. They choose to limit themselves to what they mimic rather than attempt to fail any further. They choose a style.

What’s a Style?

In my limited understanding as a tattooing journeyman, a style is supposed to be an expression of the individual artist. It is the embodiment of the artist’s creativity that has been made their own. It is identifiable, unique and fluid. Damned near every artist that has graced an art museum shows how work is fluid, evolves and has a unique stamp that attaches it to their soul. That was written as an artistic person and was a bit ethereal, so here is another breakdown that doesn’t stray too far from the real world.

If a billionaire has a private collection, you can bet they have some legendary piece of art that comes from an artist who had a developed style. Monet, Mucha, Da Vinci, Michelangelo; these masters studied for most of their lives and, so damned slowly, a style emerged for each individual artist, sometimes it evolved as they aged and went nearly blind. Their style was an expression of that person and how they viewed the world. It was how they interacted with what was their life.

Brand Awareness?

Style now-a-days is a brand. A fucking advertising method. It is a something that precedes you and gives you a pretense to work from as a tattooer.

When you ask a tattooer about their style you are asking them what they are limited to or what they feel the most comfortable with. This style excludes everything else that is encompassed in tattooing. In my experience, and on average from what I have heard, Tattooers of few years will laser focus on a single “style” and become damned good at it. They neglect any sort of education that comes from failure but attempting to step outside of that comfort zone they have built in their style.

Yes, I know: as a tattooer you have a responsibility to do the best you can, for every client.

I agree.

The apprentice – a journey to understanding

The issue I take with that sentiment is that you or I are claiming to have a vast working knowledge of how to tattoo when we speak with a client. That is an assumption that is drizzled into every consultation or email and placates the clients into believing we have the job covered when really, there is a huge gap in the knowledge base that is required to effectively tattoo.

How do you know that you are competent to be doing your work? Is it because you clients love their work, you have a large social media following or you continually pay your bills? The designation of competent is to be applied by the master, not your environment. Because you know how to use a single liner grouping, a couple shaders and only rotary machines doesn’t make you competent. If that is your style you need to branch out and experience more.

This idea is leaving me bit flustered by all this and I feel that it may be coming out in my writing.

Why put a heading here? Style.

I am a bit tired as I write this, and I am out of town working far away from my babies and wife. I really have no reason to roll off into a non sequitur about how crap styles are. They really aren’t. Really. The companies that have the money to market are the ones pushing a branded lifestyle approach to the industry. We had seen in historically with companies like Harley Davidson (click the link for a story about the history of the companies branding) where you create a lifestyle, sell it to the under educated masses, jack up the price of everything and slowly burn away.

Companies that have come and gone in the tattoo industry are numerous but the companies that have staying power now don’t give you technical information, they sell you a branded image of what you could be if you buy their product. Pigments, Machines, Power Supplies… IT’S NUTS.

Back to the idea of styles…

Style Positives

The positives are that we have seen “styles” develop into something unique in themselves. When there is such dedication to a specific style, where you understand the nuance of every single line and have tattooed it so often, on so many types of skin, you can start to assume a working knowledge of the tattoo client(s) and the industry as a whole. Hell, it only takes 10,000 hours to work towards a mastery! 10,000 hours is equivalent to 20 hours a week for 10 years.

Wait… 10 years. Shuhari strikes again!

Where is the focus of that mastery being applied to those who are new to the industry?

Is it towards a single interpretation and the application of an art or is towards the understanding of the craft?

Styles as a camouflage

Our tattoo art is now more like music with sub-classifications that disperse the art form into these small punk-rock niches that you need a doctorate to decode. It is rad to see how tattooing moved into this designation as art. It can be a bit confusing though

My style is a bit trad, nouveau watercolor realism with a hint of trash polka.”

What the shit?! I have no idea what the fuck that means…

If we choose to select a style as a way that a person identifies their art for others to understand, you have removed the idea that art is a form of self-expression. You are taking your art and making it mundane so that the audience in front of you understands you.

Tattooing has some concrete rules. Skin is not a canvas; it isn’t a sheet of paper. It is part of a being that live and breathes. (hopefully no cadaver tattooing is going on.) Treating your tattoo(s) as a piece of art steals ownership away from the collector (the person you are tattooing). What law permits us to patent and marketed some other persons outward facing being and claimed it as your own?

Yo have no right to that which is another’s. You cannot copyright a tattoo.

The style pitfall

“Style” choices are the result of an under educated representative group of people in the industry.

Regardless of what a master may choose to do, they are experienced.

They have found and are able to fully express their own style

The younger and less educated populace in the industry is pigeon holing themselves by choosing to limit their experience. They work within one type of imagery, not seeing or studying all others that are available. By choosing a single style of tattooing, they are unable to complete the necessary journey to become a master.

A comparison for the new apprentice

We can assume that a person cannot be a master if they focus on a single aspect of it. Look at those inside any craft that focus on a single aspect of it:

The Potter

Pottery – A potter can just make bowls. Fuck can they be great. They can make so many bowls that they intuit the ability for making vases, stemware, wall sconces, whatever. They have achieved a mastery. That mastery has given an innate ability to intuit how to do other things inside the craft. That intuition is not the same as mastery.

I would argue the master of making bowls is at a journeyman’s level for all other aspects of the trade.

Think of it in another way, for the outside in:

The Plumber

If you had a plumber who could only install sinks but not toilets, pipes or anything else plumbing related. Would you trust them doing the plumbing in your house?

What if they laid these amazing sets of sinks in your restrooms before any pipes were run? They may look good, but the Master Plumber comes in and surveys the damage. This master begins to point out simple flaws that make perfect sense when explained to you:

  • Whats been installed is in the wrong place.
  • Whatever they had used for the project is the wrong size
  • They don’t match the style of pipes you’re are putting in.
  • They clash with the rest of the house.

While the work done may look perfect from an uneducated fan or client, it takes a master to be able to see the bigger picture.

This idea shows why the masters are left to teach the new generation, not the journeymen. What we currently see is the journeymen are bundled into a group that utilizes a herd-mind to expand the craft while others are left to fend for themselves.

The journey (journee’)

They go forth, work together and mix the masters knowledge to break apart their own understanding. What they are left with, they rebuild and that becomes a defining aspect of their craft. Ha.

When an apprentice is forced to choose a style or quit, of course they will bend and focus on a something that will allow them to continue their journey. There is no tangible entity that tells them to quit or that they may not be made out to do any craft. There is no master.

The apprentice chooses a style as that is where they feel comfortable. Maybe it is more mirroring what they already do in their free time. It brings them joy. It is comfortable.

They were lured into the industry with wide eyes and rose-tinted glasses and, after a short time being “trained” they were left to fend for themselves. Even worse, they may not be left by themselves, but they are being told this is just the way it is. This is the aspect of tattooing that needs to change.

That took a bit, thank you for staying with me as I work these thoughts out in my head while typing them down.

How we should look at the idea of a journeyman

My critiques may be harsh. This is a total flip side to what has become the norm inside our industry in the west. I look at things this way knowing that I am a journeyman in the industry. I am working on breaking down the techniques and aspects of the business and making them my own. This is all encompassing for me. My focus is so spread out I often get migraines and feel like plateau’s are my home, but, I know that through continued efforts my understanding will be complete and, if I am lucky enough, I can continue this process by taking on an apprentice of my own in the future.

A comparison

The idea of a journeyman is simple. Observe through your efforts, learn through your mistakes. The mistakes you make should not be catastrophic, they should be simple. In tattooing, I would compare a mistake that you should see from a journeyman as:

Linework that could be thicker to increase contrast in a large-scale piece. You can fix that with the next sitting.

This is opposite to the idea:

You need to rethink how the lines are going to work for a simple image after you have already committed it to skin. You can get it right with the next client, hopefully.

Making uneducated decisions leaves a moral quandary to the uneducated artist. They are forced to become entangled with their ego, using their clientele as a “means to an end”. These errors detract from the total value there is to offer inside the industry. We should focus more on their initial training to ensure they are successful when they move into the journeyman stage. From there, the industry can secure its ability to grow in a controlled environment like a bonsai; versus unfettered growth with little direction, like a weed that chokes and kills the host.

A true apprentice – Looking at the Master

Right now, it’s Lord of the Flies out there. A renewed focus on examining the industry and actively engaging with it to improve the future of the industry needs to occur soon.

Moving forward

When seeking to improve the industry in which we work in, we need to lay down some ground rules. Those rules should be a unifying aspect and all inside the industry should agree with their ideology, application and how these rules will influence our present and future. To start, how do we engage and train those new to the industry? I know I have no place inside these discussions, as I am a journeyman and still actively trying to understand my own process, but we should designate certain people whose understanding is greater than ours.

It’s time to rebuild

This is where input from masters comes into play. They should examine the aspects of what it takes to become a successful tattooist, not a successful artist. The people in question, the masters of the trade, should be at the stage where they have moved past learning through application and are thinking about the theory of what is being done. They why’s. Think of masters acting like the PhD’s of the industry. They are, or may be, focused into a specific skill or imagery but have all the foundations fully mastered. They are the minds that expand the understanding of the art and they must choose where the trade moves in the future.

Some questions I think we should ask are:

What should you look for in an apprentice? Is it outward or inward?

Is there something that makes a good apprentice? The masters should look at themselves and see how best they can train a recruit. What inside them makes them great and how can they share it with a willing new protege. Are they focused on how the apprentice will make them look due to their natural skill or are they confronting something in themselves by taking on an apprentice? Is there something in a person that makes them a perfect fit for this industry?

What should the master be responsible for when taking on an apprentice?

This can either be personal, physical or something all encompassing. What responsibilities do the masters have when they take the future of an apprentice in their hands? Do they have a responsibility as in Japan where they educate, feed and train the individual, or is the schooling enough of a sacrifice? If the apprentice falls behind or suffers due to life’s happenings, is the master responsible for assisting the apprentice during these times?

What are the apprentice’s requirements during the training?

What is it, past the training they are willing to receive, are they required to take care of during their training? How are they going to live, work or have a family? Is there an age limit for taking on an apprentice? Do they have to feed themselves?

Should the education be adaptable to each apprentice, or should it be a static program for all to undertake?

Should we as an industry have a one-size-fits-all approach to the fundamentals of tattooing or should there be a uniqueness to each apprentices training? Would a uniform foundation create a lack of individuality or would it decrease the time an apprentice has to spend training, getting them into the real world seeking their own place? If there is a uniform training routine, can apprentices study together if they have different masters? Is this going to be a foundation, school or guild or should it be a one-on-one experience?

How long should the training be? Is it fluid, based on the apprentice, or should there be mandatory lengths of training?

I am unsure if apprenticeships be based on the same structure as college or trade school. If we do have some formal structure, should there be credits, badges or test results?

About training… A lot of questions…

  • How should we training the apprentice?
  • Can it be based on the individual and their strengths/weaknesses or should everyone be forced to adapt to the same stress?
  • Should it cost anything up front?
  • What should an apprentice give up when getting in?
  • What are the fundamentals that are needed to reach a journeyman status?
  • Should there be an entrance exam and licensing that is universal throughout the country for anyone who makes it past the apprenticeship?

Once we have those figured out, what next?

  • Is there a basic understanding that can be expressed and tested? If so, how can we ensure quality from all who choose to enter the trade.
  • Should there be accountability to the master’s for any issues that come about with an under trained apprentice entering the trade/craft?
  • What happens if someone claims journeyman status and isn’t up to code? Would it be plausible or the master to lose their ability to teach or practice?
  • What do we do with apprentices that fail?

More questions

  • If someone doesn’t make the cut, what should we do. They may have enough knowledge to go forth and work in the darkness of basements and kitchens.
  • Is there a way to ensure those who don’t make the cut are placed into something better fitting their personalities/skills?
  • How many apprentices should a single master be allowed to have? During their lifetimes? Concurrently?
  • Is there any benefit to having a single student versus 200? What about during their lives as they grow and evolve? Is it unethical to train someone earlier in their career and let those students miss out on things they can teach later in their lives? Should all apprentices stay attached to the masters for their lifetime to ensure new knowledge is passed along as it is discovered?

We will leave the article for now and wrap it up in the finale, Part 3 of, Apprenticeships- What’s Missing in the Industry



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


Body Mapping Tattoos– Basic Version #1

Body Mapping – Artist Version

Hello artists! Today we are going to be looking into the allusive body mapping techniques used by the great artists worldwide. This isn’t a complete, in depth article but more of an introduction into the world of mapping. Sit tight and get ready to practice your hands off. This topic is crazy difficult to wrap your head around when designing tattoos but gets easier with practice.

Introduction to Body Mapping

Have you ever seen a tattoo on the web, social media or in real life, that just looks good? The subject matter may be simple and the work may be mediocre but there is something about that tattoo that just… well it works!

More than likely the tattoo you are seeing has been place well by a skilled and knowledgeable artist. Their understanding of simple skin mapping can take an ordinary design to new levels by having it work with the body.

Concepts to know before moving on

Focal Points:

A point in a design where you want the viewer to focus. It usually has a great amount of detail and has the job of explaining the design to the viewer. Are you tattooing a humming bird and flowers with a washed-out background? What part of that tattoo would you like people to focus on? The bird, the background or the flowers? Whatever the choice is, dump your details into that part of the design. By doing so the viewer will be directed to look at that part of the image first. The other aspects of the design will fill in the blanks and create a whole composition.


Aspects of the design that lead a viewer through the design. If you want to join multiple focal points, use these transitions to point and flow between every focal point. They can be subtle bits of soft shading or a foreground element that literally points to the focal point you want to be seen.


This is where, when the body is at rest, the focal point is viewable.

We now have that cleared up so, what is placement and why does it matter in tattooing?

Body Mapping Basics – Elements

The skin

The skin is an amazing organ. It covers our bodies, keeps us warm and makes sure we don’t get sick from all the pathogens that lurk in every crevice of our existence. It also carries those rad designs we cover our bodies with. While I won’t go into detail about the mechanics of the skin and how pigment interacts with it, I can tell you that your skin and how it interacts with your underlying tissues and bones influences how the tattoo will look once completed.

Look at my best friend’s forearm in all its glory!

A Forearm

To the untrained eye, it is just an arm. I want you, the studious tattoo artist, to look at bit deeper and compare it to your arm.

Ask Yourself

  • Is your arm and theirs the same?
  • Do you have the same skin?
  • Is it the same length?
  • No to all the above. That was a simple set of answers, right?!

Body Mapping – We are not the same

If this arm and yours are not the same, how can we accurately place the same tattoo on both of your forearms and have them produce the same effect?

The answer is you cannot. There would have to be some modifications done so that any and all designs are custom fit to each client. This is the true idea behind “custom tattooing”. It has little to do with artwork that is custom made (anyone can draw an anchor), the tattoo is supposed to be custom tailored to the individual. It is supposed to fit the contours and movement of the specific individual. In the case of a custom tattoo, it is one size fits one.

Things under the skin that influence tattoo designs.

The Muscles

What is underneath your skin? Yes, that is correct, muscles and bones. Muscles are responsible for your ability to move through the world. Your mass and strength can influence how your tattoo ages and how it is viewed by the world. Simply put, the muscles underneath your skin create hills and valleys that can distort an/or create movement in a design.

Do not let this deter you though; knowing how these will influence the movement of your tattoo can add to the aesthetic and decrease the awkward effects of aging.


What is everything stacked on inside your body. Bones. They add structure and support, so you don’t end up a gelatinous mass, quivering on the floor. The bones are connected to the muscles by tendons, and to each other with ligaments. All that gooey mess inside your badass self is covered by your skin and gives you structure so you can move through the world.

What’s on top


Some people are sasquatches. That dense blanket of fur can affect how you view the image. Want to use a bug pin single to line this crispy daisy tattoo on ol’ biker Tom? Think again. That hair acts as a buffer that distorts any image you put into a person’s skin.


Burns, scrapes, cuts and gunshots. These marks left over by your lazy ass body trying to fix some nasty wound can affect the results of your tattooing effort.

Knowing how the skin reacts to stress, as well as how it changes with age, will help you plan the perfect “custom” tattoo for your client, because we know “custom” means “custom fit!”

Light details about what’s underneath

The muscles:

The muscles are a variable that changes constantly in all people. If you start working out, stop working out, get hurt or, as is the inevitability of all humans, age, your muscles will change in size and affect the skin above it. If that is so, how do we include this ever-changing variable into the design concept and placement?

First, look at the muscles in the area you are placing a tattoo. The muscle groupings have a stacked effect and create a crisscross pattern over most body parts. Where the lines following the muscle groups meet, a grid of offset perpendicular lines is formed.

Those perpendicular lines that form by tracing the edges of the muscles, gives you what I call distortion areas. These points are prone to movement whenever a person flexes or extends this part of their body.

Movement and body mapping

If you rotate your arm, pull or push your hand or grasp something with your fingers, those muscles are going to move. These lines can be placed anywhere the client may want to be tattooed as they all are boundaries as to where a muscle will affect the skin above it.

Putting a focal point or a static part of the image you are working with on top of these lines will create distortion whenever the person moves, so avoid that. These areas are best left for organic shapes and transitional elements of the tattoo that would benefit from distortion.

Work with the body

If you must place part or all of a focal point on top of a distortion area, do your best to place whatever curve or organic shape in line with what is going to move. It will cause a distortion but placing an aspect of the tattoo which is contrasting to the natural curves and movements of the body will make the final tattoo look out of place and age it prematurely.

The appendages

Keep in mind that any point between 2 joints creates stress to the skin with muscles contraction. Your hands and feet are the greatest example of this as they are highly mobile, have many bones and a ton of muscles.

Moving in closer to the heart, the forearms and lower legs have a higher incidence of torsion stress (twisting). You can see the torsion stress decreases as you move further in. Look at the gastrocnemius in the legs or the brachioradialis, flexors and extensors of the arm. The lines that they draw across those areas of the body show a distinct increase of torsion the further you move past them however, they are easily dealt with if approached correctly.

Connecting to the core

The upper thigh (quadriceps on the front and hamstrings in the back) and upper arm (biceps on the front and triceps on the back) create a great amount of compression stress. Images placed here will crush and stretch to a higher degree than the other parts of the extremities.

The buttocks and Iliac muscles, The shoulders and chest

You can apply the same tracing aspects when mapping the buttocks or shoulder. The leg areas are broad, flat and have torsion and compression stress. The shoulders work in tandem with the back and chest to rotate the upper arm so you get a good amount of torsion stress when those are engaged. You also get a ton of compression on an image when someone lifts their arm in the air.

Remember to pay attention to the amount of compressions and movement each of the places on the body exert.

The chest and back, midsection and neck

This shit stretches and twists a lot. These parts of the body are hypermobile, like the fingers, when compared to the upper and lower extremities.

We will go into greater depth later in this article about how those movements affect your design, so read on!

“For those that want an in depth look at muscles and how they interact with our body, follow this link”


For more information.

The Bones

While the bones are relatively static throughout our adult lives, they grow and change constantly during our childhood and early adult years. The bones behind an image being placed onto the skin create stresses that modify the image. Look at how the bones connect at different pivot points, and with your new knowledge of how muscles work, see how the bones and their attachments affect the movement of muscles.

We attach a straight line to any bone when mapping that follows its course and a circle for any junction point that they attach to (joints).

For an in depth look at how the bones age follow this link

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To an article about bones and aging.

Onto Body Mapping

This may seem like a large order, asking an artist to take the initiative in understanding what is going on with the placement of the tattoo, but there is a reason for such a task to be undertaken by you, dear reader. If you gain a working knowledge of this practice your tattoos will be better fit to the body, legible from a distance and age better than others place incorrectly.

Let’s look at my besties arm again:

A forearm with no markings.

Imagine how the muscles contract and where things twist or bend. Where do the muscles underneath the skin cause distortions that could affect a tattoo. Do you notice something unique? How do you feel it is best to approach this aspect of mapping?

Let’s go into the paint program on my phone and start detailing a few aspects of this arm.

Body Mapping- What to look for.

As stated before, the joints on the body are usually denoted with a circle when mapping designs on the body.

A forearm with basic mapping done.

The muscles create perpendicular lines that traverse the section of body you are working with and move in opposite directions

The bones create the limitations in movement and structure that effects the muscles under the skin.

Creating a mess

If we put all of these together, you end up with a bit of a mess. It kind of looks like a demonic symbol, eh?

A forearm with all aspects that cause distortion mapped onto the skin.

I know, I may have lost you there but stick with me as you already know about the muscles, how they move and what stresses the exert on the body. We can utilize our knowledge to create a complex image that will age well.

Mapping with foreground and background elements

We use something that approximates a distorted figure 8, a loose “s” curve or infinity symbol, when mapping out a design that is custom fit for the body

Finding Muscle Lines

By utilizing the muscles, and their contraction lengths, we can map and place foreground and background elements. Trace the flow of each muscle grouping you are working with and find the points that the muscles crisscross to create perpendicular lines.

A forearm with a basic mapping done by the elbow.

The perpendicular lines create the crossover you see above. Those lines and where they cross over each other can be made into directional foreground or background elements in a tattoo design. These secondary elements can be utilized to create movement through and around an image by placing them on top of the muscle contraction lines you had mapped out (the dotted lines with arrows above).

Creating Flow

These flow lines indicate movement through the design and are able to move with the muscles as they contract or extend, giving the applied tattoo the ability to breathe and move with the person as the interact with their world and age. The flow lines also create a way of bypassing the joints that move through the appendages, so the designs can continue past the normal boundaries applied by the mobile joints.

A koi fish tattoo with foreground and background elements.

Finding Focal Points

Back to the arm again. I drew directly onto my friends skin to show you how i would approach finding the focal point areas and mapping where we can place those focal points to create multiple viewpoints.

A forearm mapped with marker.

I start mapping the body with finding the joints and drawing on an organic line that follows the contraction points along a muscle grouping.

One thing to notice is that the focal points aren’t aligned. This is important because the points where you want to put detail inside a tattoo aren’t competing for space.

To explain image focal point competition:

When you have a design placed that has a ton of detail occupying the same linear space as another design that is detail packed, your eyes will be forced to pick one.

A problem with competition

Our brains draw an imaginary line through the image that will bisect it as it tries to rectify what it should focus on. If you have multiple detailed designs that are competing for space, the brain (which is lazy) will try to look at both simultaneously.

By doing this the brain takes the competing images in and levels them out on the same plane of space. This makes an image look flat. Contrasting that idea, when you have multiple aspects of the tattoo that are working together with foreground and background elements, you end up with an organic piece that is mapped to the body and moves well with it. It gives depth and dimension to a piece and will work well as the tattoo ages.

(Focal point competition is an advanced concept, so I will leave it at that and explain it further in another article dedicated to design and mapping later.)

Body Mapping and Distortion

Every part of the body you want to tattoo has different muscles that overlay different bones. This technique isn’t relegated to the arms or legs though, all sections of the body can be approached and mapped in the same fashion. Practice mapping out different areas and see how you can manipulate the more static parts located near the transitional areas where muscles contract and extend.

You can take your time and experiment with where each one of the different parts of your tattoo interact with the skin by placing different stencils of the same image onto people’s skin and have them move around with them. Try moving foreground elements higher or lower, change the focal point locations you have worked into the tattoo and see how the design moves when placed onto different parts of the body.

Body Mapping – Conclusion

Taking in all of this information might give you a migraine , so work towards understanding the application slowly. Take a few minutes before and after each design you do and check to see if you can better map it to a body part. Is there anyway you can increase the depth of the image or create better transitions between elements? Is there any competition between your focal points? Does you image look good from a distance as well as up close?

If you are lucky enough to have a tablet for producing artwork, take some pictures of legs and arms and back etc. and start drawing design directly mapped to body parts.

In conclusion

This is the end of the introduction article. We are working on a complete guide to body mapping right now and will post it once we get it finished.

Let us know how we are doing.

Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Or, send us an email with a critique or recommendation for an article.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus



The Apprentice- What’s Missing in the Industry – Part 1

Part 2 of the Apprentice can be found here.

Part 2 – The Apprentice

Today’s article focuses on the history of apprenticeship training. It then moves into a critique of the current apprenticeship system inside the current body art industry. I may throw a little ethics inside the opinions below, so hold tight!

Apprenticeships, the backbone of dropout education in the USA! You got your GED and your family thinks you are lazy as fuck, go get an apprenticeship!

That is harsh, and I apologize if my first few words offended anyone. My view on this topic doesn’t really align with disgust towards the trades in this fine county.

My issue with apprenticeships is that we have moved away from the idea of mastery in a whole to the income-seeking on-the-job training that leaves huge gaps in the knowledge of those who undertake one.

So, let’s back it up a little and peek at what apprenticeships were like oh so long ago. Maybe this will give you, dear reader, an inside peek as to why my disgust lays not with the apprentice but with the system.

The Apprentice.

The idea of on the job training has been around for millennia. I am not going to go back as far as Mesopotamia to get to the point I am trying to express. I know that we have been working together since the cradle of civilization was a current place to be.

In our more modern time, I always look towards Japan with fondness when thinking of apprenticeships. The Japanese have a philosophical belief that the self must always grow and learn, to always improve. It’s rooted in the Zen ideology of kaizen, which explains that one must continually grow through one’s own efforts. This simple break-down in our lazy, native language, does not do the word kaizen justice. This word evokes such deep feelings when uttered in its native tongue that we would have to write a freaking book to get anywhere near its depth.

Deep eh!

The apprentice, a brief history.

In the Western world we think of apprenticeships as merely being able to produce work after enough technical knowledge obtained through work labor ensures you make few mistakes. In Japan, things are different. When you go into an apprenticeship, as an accepted apprentice, your master takes your burden on, full tilt. You were accepted at a young age and lived with the master as a lower stationed member of the family. You would do menial tasks around the house like cooking and cleaning, sweeping and tidying the master’s workspace and, for some, take a good beating daily. The matron of the house would educate you in your basic school studies (thing reading, writing and arithmetic). All along you would watch from a safe distance as the master worked.

Stealing Knowledge

From an early stage of your apprenticeship, you were offered a simple theory on how to grow your knowledge, Nusumi-chishiki. This theory gave the apprentice a chance to steal knowledge in order to learn. You used your eyes and learned through your own interpretation.

This process of Nusumi-chishiki would carry on for a long enough time as to when you could show your competency and then be released into society to carry on your own workings business.

To further explain that last bit:

You were not allowed to go forth until the master, who is attached to your success in the trade, was confident in your mastery of the trade. Your failure was the master’s failure. In the society that Japan still holds today, this was considered a disgrace. The master did not their job well enough that you, their ward, could make a living off their tutelage.

Now, the standard model of apprenticeships that mirrors some of the western schools of thought leaves out a major philosophy in Japan where stealing knowledge is only a single aspect of becoming a master. Hopeful masters must apply the concept of Shuhari to obtain what most would consider a true mastery of a craft.


Shu-Ha-Ri is a belief system which, loosely translated breaks down the process for obtaining mastery. In tattooing you can see specific milestones that are achieved by someone willing to undertake this journey.

Shu (Obey – Look)

10 years stealing knowledge and mirroring the master. A single master. This is where you gain the fundamentals and copy the master to obtain a working knowledge of your craft. In tattooing, the apprentice must earn the trust of their master before any attempt to mark another person in their name is attempted. Although, look at the thighs of those lucky enough to have made it through this stage. This stage is all about the how and why techniques are used.

Ha (Detach – Feel)-

10 years actively improving on your own. In this phase you step away from the master and seek your own understanding of the craft. You break apart and dissect the practices learned from the master to advance the teachings you were given. This is the stage where you innovate. With their master’s name and blessing, the newly released tattooer goes forth and define their own personal understanding.

This stage is about making the how and why of their process. The make their own and understanding their place inside the craft/trade.

Ri (Leave – Think)

10 years developing your own style and mastery. This is where everything has moved beyond practiced and becomes a pat of you. Your own style emerges and becomes a natural extension of yourself. The tattooer has come full circle and has become a tattoo master. Their work is unique and wholly their own, although it carries with it the images/themes given by the master. They are answering the questions that have been developed by the work of this generation and give knowledge to those actively seeking the future.

Connection to Martial Arts

This ideology is practiced in many ways but is very evident in martial arts.

Think of Bruce Lee and his water analogy,

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

What Bruce Lee describes is the final process of mastery. A formless reaction of one’s self. Read a book on Jeet Kun Do sometime and you can get a feel as to how the concept of Shuhari influenced his martial arts and philosophy.

Anyways, back to the topic at hand,

Apprenticeships and the less than modern tattoo industry.

The tattooing we know in the western world, in my opinion, lacks a complete understanding of the tattooing process. But it’s not our fault. We can trace the separation of knowledge back to the early 1900’s and the burst of tattooers that stemmed from these original badasses. While our efforts over the past few decades opened the industry and offered unfettered access to all those who wished to join, the western history is fraught with trial and error applications that built a separate knowledge base, completely absent of the knowledge our Japanese cousins utilize.

America – The apprentice’s journey: A history

Back when tattooing became a (somewhat) rational option of employment for carnies and societal outcasts, us in the USA relied on second hand knowledge to understand what it was that we are doing.

Yes, I know there were greats and some people who everyone looks up to, but I am looking through some frosted glasses with this critique. I am talking about an apprentice so don’t toss out Paul Rogers, Sam O’Reilly or Bob Shaw to me and think you can shoot me down, ok!

The problem was that, since the early 1900’s, there was no one actually offering up any knowledge. There were no real masters. To get into tattooing you had to know someone to get in or beg and compensate someone to get a meager education. Worse yet, you could just manufacture your own machine and start stabbing. You learned through error and, if you were lucky enough, had a career that spanned enough time to get a good hook on how to get pigment into skin.

Japan adds influence

The idea of ceremony that the Japanese brought to their teachings, which was part of their culture, was replaced with the motivations of the industrial revolution and progressive national politics (ya, that is a reach, I know). People were out to make money, gain some fame and focus on what trends were popular (especially in the 50’s-60’s). These efforts focused on exploiting the eager public’s want of what was in fashion. While they did enhance the quality and expand the repertoire inside the industry, there was a further separation from educating the next wave of professionals that were carrying the torch into the future.

We found a cool article from a personal perspective from Kotaku.

You can read it here

The Tattooing Families – Apprentice validity through naming

Legitimacy among tattooers was gained by working with someone or doing some sort of training underneath them. Tattoo Families were born of this practice and it ensured professionals a preceding sense of respect, if they were lucky enough to carry the name of someone who was respected. We can assume that this practice also lent itself to people abusing the respect associated with the labels attached to a family. I can imagine a young kid, gear in tow, moving across the country stating his association with Bert Grimm or other famous big-names in the industry, failing and having to run away or deal with the repercussions.

Some non essential stories

I remember hearing stories from a few old time tattooers about their apprenticeships. While I cannot claim that any of this is factual, let alone not a figment of their imagination, their telling’s did show me what may have been commonplace during the years preceding what we now call the age of enlightenment.

  • There was a story about a guy being given a machine when walking into a tattoo parlor, inquiring about a job, and just starting to hammer clients for nickels. No training for the apprentice.
  • I believe I had read a story about people joining the circus to hone their skills and have an easy escape when they fucked up.
  • I read about a guy who tattooed drunk people he dragged in off the streets. He practiced on their sometimes-unconscious bodies.

It’s crazy to us now but some people may have gotten their start by sheer dumb luck.

Families and growth

Once these families started to grow, they expanded out and connections were established from the coasts inward, in the USA. Yes, the Navy sure helped tattooing get a foothold inside this country but the people who guess-worked their way to an understanding of the industry used capitalistic ideas and means to spread that shit like fire! A mass-produced product that was easily transported to the masses countrywide.

Suddenly you had some guy in Kansas moving to Where-Eversville, USA to open a shop with a name like Maud Wagner attached to his pedigree.

The expansion created a consistent environment where American tattooing became more normalized, even if it wasn’t accepted societally.

A More Modern, American Tattoo Apprenticeship

I am going to depart from any additional history and move forward as I think I have introduced bias into the argument I am intending to make. I also laid in unconfirmed stories that lay waste to any legitimacy this article may carry. The stories and ideas about the US and tattooing are amazing and should be some TV series carried by Netflix into some super docudrama.

I really feel the story of tattooing inside the US has all the earmarks of what it is to be an American. As an industry we took the efforts of those who came before us and created our own style of apprenticeship that we see today, albeit today’s standards and practices are losing the things that made them truly American.

Let us look at what the common practice is today when you are an apprentice.

In the beginning

You, an aspiring tattoo god, walk into a shop and start asking about training. You get turned away from multiple shops but find one that is local, willing and seems to be able to offer you a break into the wonderful world you love from the outside. After a few meetings and discussions, they offer you an apprenticeship. They say it isn’t going to be easy.


For the first bit you awkwardly haunt around the shop, learning people’s names and some of the terminology. There is little to no interaction on a professional level coming from the artists there. You mop and clean and maybe get a few questions but your attempts to fit in are failure.

After a while the artists start letting you watch them tattoo, if you have finished your chores and do not interfere with their work. If you are lucky (I can’t tell if I am writing sarcasm or not at the moment) you can get into skin shortly after you start your apprenticeship.

This is where I feel the system starts to break down. Let me explain before we move on.

Japan versus USA – Apprentices


Compare the ideas applied to understanding tattooing from a Japanese master and this poor sap we are talking about above. How the apprenticeship started may have same style of initiation but that is where both worlds separate. The “master” isn’t a single person in the US version. The shop as a whole is attempting to move this person through their education. I can see the argument here as there are more hands, it should take less time. The issue is that the person taking the apprenticeship is still an individual. There isn’t a way to tailor an education that is to be crammed down a person’s throat if you have their best wishes in mind. What you are doing, in this case, is rushing the results.

USA (The West)

Contrasting the ideas above, it may take years for the hopeful apprentice in Japan to prove themselves. The must impress upon the master a level of competence before they can start marking people permanently.

Back to our scenario, our new apprentice above has little understanding as to the why or how any of the techniques are used. However they got here, they are now left to fend for themselves. The “masters” of the shop have given little in time and effort that will ensure the apprentice will succeed. That success should be the focus of those claiming to have the ability to train and further the willing apprentice.

The Next Step

Ha- You have made it past your first tattoo and have started learning how to draw simple designs. The shop has accepted you as one of their own. Yet here you are left to figure out what’s next. Your career has begun but you have little knowledge of what to do here. You actively seek out others to help you better understand they why’s and how’s of the industry. You’re doing your best but something is missing.

You have so many questions and little knowledge of where to find an answer. While you are getting confident on smaller designs there have been requests for larger scale work that you do not feel confident enough to take on. While this lack of confidence is not outwardly expressed, you attempt and fail at multiple complex designs, learning with each mistake.

Time for another break in our story. We will carry on in part 2.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


The Social Contract of Tattooing – Artist Version – Part 1

In this comprehensive, 3-part article, we will be tackling a difficult topic discussed in philosophy, the Social Contract. More specifically, we will be discussion how the Social Contract pertains to tattooing.

Hang tight and stop rolling your eyes! I’ll try to keep this entertaining. TL: DR at the end or part 3.

What’s a Social Contract

Social contracts? What the fuck does this have to do with tattooing? I’m not leasing a car or renting an apartment Rian, I’m doing a goddamned tattoo.

To start, let’s toss out a minor correction there ace. This isn’t a contract you sign to walk away with something new, this contract deals with your societal, interpersonal and political responsibilities. It’s the unspoken contract you have with your clientele, the people you work with, the shop owners or your employees and the place/region/society you choose to do business and the industry as a whole. Its fucking heavy bro/bra, so pay attention.

Social contracts have been around since the dawn of civilization. They are responsible for our species’ ability to grow and hopefully, continued existence. A social contract implies that either vocally, through action/inaction or just being present, a person agrees to specific terms that is defined as their natural and/or legal rights.

Fucking heavy, I told ya.

An Adventure in Social Contracts.

Let’s take you on a fucking journey to get your brain going:

Your normal day goes awry

You, a fabulous and famous tattoo artist, are crushing a tattoo. It’s the sickest shit ever! A backpiece of 2 mechanized dolphins with razor-wire covered fin-gloves, battling a T-rex over Chicago’s city skyline. You are getting into some thick, 13rl highlights when your eyes get heavy and your legs start to shake.

You give your client a heads up that you gotta take a quick 5 and drop a 2fer. He nods his approval and you exit the booth, smokes and cell in hand. As you crack open the door, a sharp pain shoots through your colon. It feels like warm butter is starting to roll down your tight pant leg. Fighting through the discomfort, you suck it up and walk towards the toilet. You get about 5 steps down the hall and cringe. Ah damn, that Chipotle you had for lunch is revisiting the scene! Your cringe turns into a loud scream as you feel your soul being ripped from your body. As you fall towards the ground, you try and brace the potential facial impact, the world goes black.

Welcome to…Erf?

You wake to find your surroundings not as they were a minute ago. Startled, you scan the area and see that you are lying in a field, covered with some hay looking shit. There is a long, well beaten path is next to you running into the distance. You dust yourself off as you stand up and, luckily, you haven’t taken a crapper in your tight pants. Time to take stock.

Your clothes look the same but everything in your tiny, tight pants pockets are gone. No smokes, no phone.


A new friend and a social contract

As you think about what the fuck to do next, you turn a 360 and look into the distant surroundings. You spot a figure in the distance, which is growing larger as the seconds pass, heading up the path towards you. You hail this stranger who is walking along and rush to meet them. It’s immense. Fucking huge. It’s some goblin looking fucker with a crazy axe attached to his back and red ass, blood dripping eyes focused on your chest. He looks masculine and his head top is all shiny

He lifts his head to the sky and screams,

“Me Glarg. You Friend!”

Yes, this is the start of a social contract. Glarg, the glorious eminence has described you as a friend. Cool. I don’t fucking know Glarg. What’s in it for me to be his friend?

Considering the social contract

These are questions every person should be asking when they meet a new person in a new land. Simple ones like: Am I sure they are a nice person? How should I act around them? Are they packing heat past that wicked axe? Are they going to eat me?!

Maybe you won’t ask the last 2 in normal life but these questions should sound relevant to anyone who runs into a monster, whose name sounds like projectile sick:


Back to our adventure

Take a pause and relax. We have control over this fictitious timeline so let’s freeze it.

You’ve asked yourself some questions, that is good.

Dig in further and you can grasp any deeper concepts or threats in what’s going on here. Does it emerge from your timeworn and far travelled brain? Do you need a alittle help as you aren’t prone to fantasy role-playing?

You can see that all of the questions you asked above have a simple, underlying theme:

Am I safe?

What answers do you have? Well, none to be honest. We know nothing about this big fucker or where we are.

Understanding your place and how the contract works

This is where you notice a fucking crown atop their head. You wonder if royalty stands before you?

You can ask yourself a few simple questions until you suss out this monsters’ station and intent: Is he a benevolent person who works weekends at the local kids’ hospital doing balloon animals for kids, or is he a murderous “Ted Bundy” esq person looking for a midnight companion?

Regardless, you can rest assured that you have this covered. He’s alone. You may be able to take him if he don’t get their hands on that axe… But what about that crown?

It may not be a big deal! If he is a murderous fuckwit on the solo, he’s got no power over you! Just run away and hope he’s not packing heat or can throw that axe very far, right?

That sounds about right. No connection. run past Glarg like those bums you step over in the street during the Christmas holidays!

The Bigger Picture. Why Choose?

Well, that may work out but what if Glarg is the boss. Like the fucking boss of everything. It’s Independence Day, “Welcome to erf”, shits falling down, and the Eiffel Tower is a giant beacon summoning these bastards down to your home. It would make sense right, he is wearing a crown?

Good thing he’s stated he’s your friend though, right?!

If he’s the boss, is there any unspoken terms or arrangements you are bound to, regardless of your ability to say yes or no? I can almost guarantee Glarg’s up to no good and the planet is in for a world of pain and, after a very lengthy tangent, you’re finally faced with the social contract I’ve mentioned earlier.

Instead of simple questions like, “Is he dangerous” you are faced with something greater. If you can’t find a way home, how are you to act in the new illustrious society of almighty Glarg so as to not bring about the fury of his righteousness?

By following the rules his almighty has set forth for truth and prosperity for all, of course!

Laws, Rules and Your Place

Now, laws are contracts. We can see them, hold them and trust they are for our collective benefit (Mostly. I’m looking at you, humanity, you’re still a fucking mess). These laws are supposed to level the playing field inside a society, keeping all people equal (yeehaw freedom) as well as defining the roles of those existing inside a society.

You don’t have to sign up for these friendly laws. By merely existing inside a society, you are bound by their laws. The law of the land, or this land to be specific.

Since you are now in Glarg’s domain let’s hope you get some rules and regulations figured out quick.

Association – Simple rules of the social contract

You remember one simple rule from home:

Don’t kill.

A big, nay, grand law, this one is! It is shaped in a way to which there are heavy penalties. All lives are considered equal. It’s an overarching, general will, expressed by society. I don’t want to die because I’m overdue at Blockbuster. Keeping Weekend at Bernie’s for that extra 6 years carries a heavy fine. What of Glarg doesn’t like late returns? Could you imagine getting an axe in the skull because of an overdue movie!?

In most societies, you have no right to believe your life is better or more valuable than another. (Fuckin’ Freedom!) We have laws like this in place, so society has stability. If you break this law, you suffer consequences. Muthafuckin jail time. You entered into agreement with your society, by existing there, not by signing a piece of paper. Since you are existing there, your agreement ensures that you will give some or all of your life if you break this agreement. Do not pass go. Go directly to jail. Wait to maybe get out. (Unless its Guantanamo. Then you’re fucked.)

Another association

Let’s look at an unspoken law you can identify with to further our understanding of these contracts.

You live in a small tribe on the plains in a far-gone time. The tribe always feeds the hunters/protectors first, the women and children second, while they feed the sick, weak and elderly last (Literally trickle-down economics).

Yes, another social contract. You choose to live with this tribe, so you are bound by the feeding schedule and rights that are imposed upon you. In this society a hunter/protector is revered as something necessary. Maybe they don’t have an agrarian society? Who knows?

To ensure all get fed, the ones who bring home the food and keep everyone safe are fed first. Keeping these people happy and healthy ensures a better survivability for all in the tribe. Everyone wants something (safety), agrees on a way to make sure they are safe (having those hunters armed as fuck and well fed), and even though some people may not feel as well fed at the end of the day, they agree that it is in the best interest of all to abide by these rules. No signature required!

Does Glarg’s system of governance follow a hunter-gatherer societal structure. I sure hope not. You can’t even remember to brush your fucking teeth in the morning, how are you going to rise through the ranks and achieve that Rockstar status you have come to enjoy?

Now a tangent to fill in a plot hole.

Yes, we have skipped around a bit, but I do want to move backwards and define an aspect that may make this whole contract theory more complete by the end of this essay. Let us talk about psychological egoism.

Fuck. More heavy shit. I’m dropping this crap right meow.

Just hold your donkeys there rock star. This small detour is made for you.


Psychological egoism is the philosophical school of thought brought about by the famous philosopher and social commentator Tommy Hobbes (Thomas Hobbes). It is largely debated but it comes down to the idea that you, dear reader, are exclusively self-interested. You are an ego maniac. You like your looks, your personality and, by God or Glarg’s will, your fucking tattoo skillz. Your direction and purpose are wholly motivated by your own need to make yourself feel good. Like, really good.

This is exclusive to the other ideas that you may be personally motivated by some other outside force. Your ethics have little to do with what your final internal actions may force you to consider paramount concerning your actions.

Let’s science this a bit

Thought Experiment:

Your wife/husband/partner/sibling etc. is trapped in a burning building and you rush in to grab them, saving their life. What is your motivation for doing such a thing? You could have died yo! Psychological egoism holds true that you did that entirely for your own benefit. Maybe you wanted to get on TV. Maybe you wanted to save them, so you had someone to talk to. Whatever the reason, there is always the underlying theme that you have acted for your own benefit.

Back from this tangent, we can assume that you have already wandered down the path of being a fucking ego maniac by thinking of how you can better your own station inside of Glarg’s magnificent society. That’s fine and it brings us to real life where we can break this all apart an reassemble it in a way that gives relevance to this crazy op-ed.

The Industry as a Whole.

You, an industry insider, enter into a contract, albeit unspoken, every time you sit down to do a tattoo, do a consultation or even advertise your ability to the world. Your actions have a direct consequence and the clients have a level of trust in your decisions, regardless if they are included in those decisions.

So, what are you doing to ensure the future, or current client’s, success as they meander through this crazy industry? Does this only apply only to you, or is this a critique of the entire industry as it stands now?

The idea of a social contract may normally be applied to those things bigger than a simple tattoo appointment but, in our case as professionals on the inside, we must do everything in our power to define and understand what it is that we are agreeing to when we take on a project.

The big and small picture of social contracts

This application as well isn’t just micro in scale. Think macro. Look around you. Go to a convention and see how paying clientele are ignored, disrespected or turned away because the person involved is more focused on their own personal gain rather than accomplishing a goal based around the gains of the clientele and industry. It seems as if we have degraded into a more natural state of lawlessness. It’s turned into a jungle out there.

Yes, a counter argument stands that the efforts of the ego and the artists involved currently have progressed the industry to new levels, increasing the utility of all involved exponentially. Think of the needs of the few outweighed by the needs of the many. (Spock still rules)

We have seen insane abilities being tossed around in the media and artwork that extends far beyond what we thought was possible a decade or more ago. The products being produced for artists and clients are of better quality. The negative consequences have decreased over time (attach links to demographics) and we are seeing a so-called renaissance in the industry.

I do agree, but I also believe that in doing so we haven’t stopped to think about where this effort is leading us. Where will we be in the future if this ideal, self-centered focus on artistic ability drives the industry forward? We are rushing forward so fast and we really don’t know what is going to be common knowledge 25 years from now.

Acting alone or together – a social contract

If we, as industry insiders, step forward and act inclusively with our clients, will it be a detriment for us as a whole? I think not. The idea that the client(s) who are available to help us progress are incapable of understanding the why’s and what’s of our daily grind is ignorant. We all started somewhere and knew absolute shit nothing about what we do. We were apprentices, kitchen magicians, jail birds.

Even if we tried to ask questions the inevitability was a failed attempt things knowing we could have done better. What we have learned isn’t some hidden gem boxed in our own ego, its information that can be spread around. If we choose to spread it, inform ourselves and our clientele, the industry is the only entity that benefits. Keeping this specific demographic (clients) out of the future of the industry will hurt, not help our efforts.

Let’s move back to the fictional universe you were placed in earlier.

After a brief pause where you had turned inward for 1000 words, you look to Glarg and ask him to lead the way. You follow his majesty for a few hours regaling in his stories of conquest and impossible love making and finally fall upon a giant village. The village is dwarfed and surrounds what looks like the Burj Dubai that is made of solid-fucking-gold.

Glarg leads you into the village and tells you to wander and look around.

Well, that’s a lie. What he actually said was,

“Stay little person. Glarg need pussy!”

As he tromps off you feel relieved and head off in the opposite direction.

Into the village

Your soul feels lighter as you start to wander the streets that are occupied with vendors, children and what looks like garden gnomes scrubbing cobblestones with toothbrushes. You feel that now is a perfect time to ask around and find out what the fuck is going on. It’s also a great time to get some information on how you should handle yourself while occupying these new surroundings.

For what feels like an eternity, you greet and chat with every available person. Past the insanely long introductions, bows and acts of fealty, you learn that every person inside this village is deathly afraid of Glarg. He is described as:

  1. Rude and prone to flatulence.
  2. Actively ignores the needs of his people.
  3. Tries to fuck anything that moves inside his town.
  4. Overcharges for simple goods and services.
  5. Claims to always be, “too busy,” when confronted by the village-folk.
  6. Never returns an email.
  7. His attire is generally seen as abusive. The bedazzling is accosting to the eyes.
  8. Is always accompanied by a large theatrical troupe.
  9. Shows up late to engagements.
  10. The garden gnome people fucking hate his face.
  11. Has literally destroyed multiple worlds.
  12. Kills scores of people and steals their belongings for fun.

Yes, those last two seem to trump the others, don’t they?

Past the jokes, what I mean is:

Responsibilities and a social contract

Doesn’t Glarg have a commitment to those who reside under his majestic rule?

You could throw out an argument like:

Why don’t these people just leave! They can get away from this guy and do their own shit and live in harmony.

Well, he is a badass destroyer of worlds. He would probably just hunt them down, incinerate them all and rape their cattle. They really don’t have a choice.

Back to the real world.

So, here we are again, and I bet you know right where I am going with my argument.

People sometimes are left with little choice as to who does their tattoo. Perhaps they lack transportation to get to the best shop around. Maybe they lack the funds to get something wicked by the best artists around. For all I know the artist they enjoy so much is booked out 5 years in advance! That still doesn’t mean they can’t have a great experience and walk away educated about the process.

You, dear reader, must identify the contract laid in front of you when you work in, or walk into, an industry shop. What is it that is expected of you? What do you expect from your artist?

Do you have a contract and what does it state

In all reality, you shouldn’t have to assign a value based on familial recommendations or Facebook likes You should know that what you are getting is the best that is possible from each artist you encounter.

You should know what terms and conditions are being placed upon you by entering into the contract being presented but not spoken. You should know that your best wishes are being kept and focused upon. If you do not have the knowledge to make such decisions about your body, it is the industry insider who has a responsibility to inform and educate you so you can make those choices.

Right there I probably lost a few people and gained a few haters. That’s fine, I will deal with it by drinking heavily tonight.

Looking at ideas to the contrary

The counter arguments are really a tough cookies to crumble. Let’s take a look at a couple and defend our position:

  1. As industry insiders, people choose to listen to our advice. We are experts in what we do. As tattooers, we do not have an obligation to explain or educate anyone in what we feel is the best course of action. I have their best interests at heart.

Yes. That is a good argument. I feel ya.

But, what if other people in our lives used that same argument? What if doctors just did shit to us base don their belief that they know what’s best? Would you complain if you woke up with DD’s and a missing kidney?

What about another argument in favor of dismissing client interaction:

I do not have enough time in the day to sit down with every client. There is little I can do to extend myself. I cannot discuss every aspect of my work, the causes and effects of any action I may choose or utilize.

I would go broke, need a second job or be forced to quit to survive.

There may be a disconnect with what I believe and you do but, I understand where you are coming from.

Fighting the urge to take it easy

If you are working with multiple clients on a walk-in basis, and you have no steady clientele to speak of, you may be in a bind. The service you are offering is simple and these people do not have, or want, any of this information. They know what they want, and they chose you to do it.

This doesn’t mean that you must shirk your responsibility to your clients. They may think they know exactly what they want, and they may think they have it all figured out, but do they? When you, dear reader, were first gracing this industry with your presence, did you know everything or was intuition what guided your understanding?

Our job is not just to offer up sexy tattoo work, our job is to educate and inform those we work with, tattooer and client alike.

(This is a sliding scale and I put those who are working in situations like this a couple standard deviations away from the top dawgs in the industry. The responsibility of all artists involved in this industry is to create progress in a way that improves the experience and results for all involved.)

Be honest with your clientand a social contract

If people are led to believe what they intuit versus real facts, they will believe the earth is flat and the Sun revolves around Earth. It is only when confronted with reality and facts that people make decisions that are considered informed. You dear reader, would be amazed at how much information you need to pass along to your client so they can make an educated decision. It isn’t a whole lot. The mind is amazing at filling in the blanks and making connections.

You are not forced to give an hour long seminar about the workings of your tattoo machine for those clients to make a good decision about their body, you only need to go so far that they understand why you are doing what you are doing and ask if they need more information.

Even if there is an hour or so in your day lost by giving the same information to each client, and it may bore the fuck out of you, but you are working in a way that ensures the clients are informed. You are also practicing and expressing your understanding of your chosen trade.

Your arguments against the social contract

One final argument I have heard:

  1. I am a skilled artist and people choose to get tattooed by me. My clients fly from all corners of the world and come from all walks of life. I do not discriminate as to who I will tattoo. They know what they are going to get and are considered collectors. I do not have a responsibility, much like the great artists of antiquity, to explain anything to my clients past what the final product is going to be.

Whether it be due to hard work or just dumb luck, we in the industry salute you, artist! You have made it to the top of the tattoo pyramid and have won the $64,000 allotted by our sponsors!

I do feel like you may have overlooked something along the way though… With your station come great responsibility. You have a debt to the industry to spread your knowledge. You do conventions and teach a ton to anyone willing to pay and listen? Good. What about your clientele and the artists who are just making it into the industry? What are you doing for them?

This is a long term solution – Social Contract

Take a step back and remember, we are all in this together. This entire industry isn’t based around what you, as an individual, can do alone. Even if we broke down everything and focused on just the single tattoo that goes on between you and your client, it is still a collaboration.

You may be thinking that you can tattoo yourself and this argument isn’t very effective. I would argue that you are already educated as to the why’s and the what’s. It’s moot to offer that up as a way to deny me my right to rant. Every interaction that you have, whether you are a great artist with a worldwide audience or a person who works in a simple walk-in studio, is a collaboration.

You work with your fellow artists and clients, day after day. If you work solo, you still need that paying client, right? And while you may be able to hide behind the artistic wall that is dead artists, you are still very able to influence your surroundings. Your tattoo work is not the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa, well it very well could be, but it isn’t literally those works of art.

When people purchase something to hang on their walls, they are taking a direct action that doesn’t affect their person directly. They are making an investment to dress up their walls and hide money for tax purposes. You, the great and powerful Oz of tattooing, you must separate your ego from your actions and work. You should be skilled enough to know how to succinctly answer questions posited to you by your clientele and be humble enough to know that those artists seeking to gain your level of greatness deserve what you have to offer.

My closing thoughts on part 1

I reserve the rights to come back into this and rework this thought but I always welcome our thoughts and critiques, dear reader. I will leave you with one final observation:

The best tattoo artists out there produce amazing imagery but the best are also great at working with their clients.

Do you feel the social contract you are holding your clients to is fluid and should only become more inclusive as you improve, or is this something you can master today?



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


Tattoo Checklist – Artist Version

We present to you the tattooing checklist for you tattooers, tattoo artists, tat bros and kitchen magicians! As you may notice after reading this article, there is no Teen Vogue esq writing. This is straight to the point and not dressed up. There is also a printable version at the end of the document.

Today we will be going over a simple checklist for your upcoming tattoo appointments. Let us skip past the initial consultation stage and assume you already have your deposit, an agreed upon art piece and time booked for the appointment.

2 Days Before the Tattoo Appointment

  • Check in with your client. Has something come up where they cannot make the appointment? Are they sick? Are they nervous?
  • Do they have any changes that they want to see in the design? Find out and get to work when you have a chance.
  • Get all drawings done and sent off, if needed, to the client for approval.
  • Amend any pricing at this time and come to an agreement as to what the final price is, if changed.

The Night Before the Tattoo Appointment

  • Get your client information setup. I use manila folders to keep all of the artwork, client contact information etc. on hand. If you utilize any cloud-based appointment applications, Google Calendar, OneDrive or if you store everything on your tablet.
  • Sterilize all equipment that you will need for the coming day.
  • If you are industrious, prepare the stencil and set it aside in a safe, clean location, for tomorrow’s work.

The Day of the Tattoo Appointment

  • Get ready. Clean your space, disinfect everything.
  • Get all positioning of furniture done and do a simple mockup of what you are going to use for the tattoo.
  • Throw down a dental bib, stack the pigments, machines, needles, tubes, wash bottles as well as whatever else you need for the tattoo.
  • Do not get setup yet.

The Client’s Arrival

  • Greet your client and go over everything that you plan to do for this session.
  • Ask if they have any questions about what is going to take place, if they have any concerns about the design, placement or pain.
  • Keep them occupied as you clean and prep the area to be tattooed.
  • Do a quick muscular mapping and get that stencil on their body.

The Setup

  • Setup all equipment in from of the client.
  • Break open needles and tubes so they can see that you are using clean gear.
  • Dispense pigments and break off some paper towels so you aren’t pulling from the roll.
  • Stay clean and wear gloves. Change them as needed to ensure sterility.

The Tattoo Procedure

  • Do what you do, when you tattoo.
  • Treat the encounter like an Uber ride. Let your client dictate the pace of conversation, topics to be discussed and when the breaks should be taken.
  • If you must answer phones, keep it to the shop line only and make sure to deglove when picking up the handset.
  • Keep your music to a level that doesn’t interfere with the ability to talk if needed. Better yet, let the client decide what you should listen to and how loud it should be.
  • Put your phone on silent and don’t check it while active in the procedure. If you need to check your phone, do so during a break.

Break Time

  • Take only necessary breaks during the tattoo.
  • 5 minutes or less every 1.5-2 hours, if needed.
  • 1 longer break at 3-4 hours in (30-45 minutes for a meal)
  • Stay off social media and your phone. You will lose track of time.
  • Make an effort to check in with your client during this time to see if everything is good with them. Ask questions and ensure they understand where you are in the process.

The Breakdown

  • Discuss your aftercare in detail with the client and answer any questions they may have regarding the care of their tattoo.
  • Clean hand. Dirty Hand.
  • Break down and don’t get a needle stick.
  • Clean and disinfect all surfaces.
  • Sweep and mop your area.
  • Take out the garbage if you utilize an open-top trash receptacle and replace trash bag.
  • File all relevant paperwork in the DONE pile.

Collecting Payment

  • Ask them how the experience was and anything they feel you could improve upon.
  • Give any media links, business cards and aftercare sheets.
  • Get your Google, Yelp or business reviews.
  • Collect payment. If you are a soloist, contracted artist who handles payments or at a convention, give the client time to offer a tip without any leading.
  • Setup any additional appointments as needed.
  • Take a picture of your work.

After They Leave

  • Start post work on any images collected, if you do such things.
  • Post to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter at your normal intervals with what you accomplished, if necessary.
  • Keep artwork and photos in relevant client folder / cloud location.
  • Send outreach email if needed to client 1-2 weeks after completion.
  • If needed, schedule a touch-up.



Rian Othus got his initial break into the tattooing industry in the early 2000’s. He worked in many locations throughout the United States and Canada. The opinions expressed on this site are based on his experiences and time spent in the industry. Some are also from amateur scientific study.

The journey to increase his knowledge began on the road. At times Rian had to travel far from home. Others, he had to beg to get any information. It was an amazing journey and it paved the way for Rian to start analyzing the tattoo industry to figure out where he fit into it.

These articles are written to engage and educate those who are out in the wild world of tattooing, working in a shop or just enjoying the culture. He admits that some of the articles may be very specific regarding who they are written for, but hopes that anyone who reads them is able to take things from a different angle or better understand what someone else may be experiencing.

Rian Othus


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