So many articles about choosing your tattoo to be found online. These fanciful jaunts into airy, photo laden websites give you a one-sided perspective that you, the client, need to treat your artist a certain way to enjoy you experience. This is an incorrect, albeit flattering, method of interaction.
I was honestly amazed at how pervasive the ideas about being careful with your words, respectful with your actions and bringing treats to your artist are being thrown around. I mean, who doesn’t love that but… it’s kind of creepy getting treats before performing a tattoo. Plus, you should not be placed in a position where you, the paying client, are in an inferior position of power when first walking into a tattoo shop.
My take, as a professional tattoo artist, is a little different than what you find online and is stated below. Take it as a starting point for those of you who haven’t been introduced to shop life, those of you who have had a negative experience or those of you who want to know how another artist may expect out of you when coming in for work. Choosing your tattoo can be difficult but, if you are prepared and vocal, it can be a fun experience.
What Do You Want!?
Choosing a design.
When starting the process of choosing a tattoo, ask yourself a few questions:
What style do you like?
Are you into hair metal band logos? Do you enjoy simple geometric designs? Find something that you are believe you will enjoy through your life, not just today. I can guarantee your love of something trendy (getting Yeet or YOLO tattooed dropped out of fashion just like Kanji) won’t have the staying power you expect it will, unless you are a very special case. Who likes seeing Motley Crue logos on your uncle’s outer arm, surrounded by barbed wire armbands? No one. Don’t be like that uncle.
Once you have taken the time to figure out what style you enjoy and think has the staying power to be impressive for your lifetime, look at the most common themes or images you see in that style. The most commonly tattooed images are the ones that will have small variations or nuances that you may not notice unless you look really closely. Being able to describe small nuances is a thing tattoo artists enjoy when critiquing tattoos. If you can spot small variations that you do not want to see in your tattoo, your tattoo artist will thank you and be better able to craft the tattoo that you want.
Think of other styles you enjoy
There are so many styles to choose from! Don’t limit yourself by thinking inside the box. Be open to both options of blackwork or color if you don’t have an image theme already picked out. Let your imagination roam free, you are working towards designing a work of art that will be on you for the rest of your life.
Take any combination of ideas and write them down. Bring those ideas in with you when you have a consultation. If what you want is not possible, the artist you will be working with will be quick to tell you it is not a good idea. Make sure that you ask why it won’t work! There has to be a good explanation for any dismissed idea. Just not liking the tattoo is not an option for a tattoo artist and if they give you this option, you know better than to get it done with that artist.
Are there any examples of artwork that you enjoy?
Having some form of visual reference to show your artist can help them understand your style wants much quicker than using descriptive words. For example, showing someone a picture of the Hulk is better than describing something “Big and Green”.
Use your words well and bring high quality photos that explain for you what you like to see. Be brave and have a simple hand drawn example to show. You would be surprised how much this helps when translating your idea. Don’t worry, we know that you are not a tattoo artist. If you were, you wouldn’t be having a consultation.
Finding an Artist
Once you have decided on a design, follow up by checking out artists near you. If there isn’t anyone close by, find one you are willing to travel to. Do some research before making the trek. Make sure they are versatile enough, or practiced enough, in the style of artwork you want to adorn your body with.
There are misconceptions about us tattooers and how invested we are in what you mark your body with. While tattoo bros worldwide enjoy the idea that they are marking you with their specific brand, most of us really don’t care how you choose to adorn your body. The lack of caring and detached persona you walk into when getting a consultation shouldn’t be taken personally as tattoo artists do this as a job.
We seriously do this all day, every day. There is a good chance that the idea you found while surfing social media has been done before and it isn’t being done the way that we would prefer to do it. That doesn’t matter.
It is your body and your choice how you want to adorn it. If you get a negative reception from the artist when you share your idea, they may not be the best fit for your tattoo. All tattoo artists need to treat you with respect. You are paying them to mark you. They should be willing to treat you and your idea with respect.
If you walk into a tattoo shop and the artist you have been excited to meet is rolling their eyes and trying to change what you want to mark your body with, take a chance and walk out. This practice should be applied to any situation where you are planning on altering your body, as well as in everyday life.
Tattoo artists should approach your tattoo completely ambivalent about what you are getting. We should only be invested in the process and making it perfect.
What do they like to do?
Checking to see what “style” the artist puts up on social media is a good indicator as to what they enjoy doing. While I have a harsh critique as to why artists choose styles, it is still in your best interest to pick someone who has practiced a style when choosing your tattoo. If the artist enjoys what they are doing, or has a lot of experience in a specific style, there is less chance the final product will be opposite what you may ask for.
Work with the artist, if you feel comfortable. Ask questions. When choosing your tattoo, be involved in the process from start to finish.
During the design process, it’s your job to be available. Answer emails or text messages, and give input as they work up a design that you will be wearing permanently. If the artist has any issues with you working over their shoulder, give them some space and offer up critiques that are constructive, if needed.
The artist should take the time and ensure all critiques are heard and understood. If any part of the process results in the tattoo artist acting in a way that is disrespectful, walk away from the tattoo.
Baggage. Do you have any?
Walking into a tattoo shop can be an experience that brings joy or, to some, terror. Needles, blood, crazy moustaches… It can be intense! If you have gotten any tattoo work before and have chosen a new artist, don’t walk in thinking all tattoo artists are a uniform breed. They are humans, just a bit more colorful.
Take the time to have a consultation and get a feeling for the artist. Your experience will be that much better and ensure you’re not strapped to a chair for 60 hours with a person you can’t stand. Suss out the artist’s vibe, energy and tact. If they don’t align with you, regardless of the final product, you should move on and find someone who you will mesh with better.
Also, when meeting with your artist, be very plain and direct about why you are getting the tattoo. If the tattoo is just rad and you have no deeper meaning attached to it, let them know. If this is a memorial for the sister you lost to cancer 2 weeks ago and the family would like to be there during the tattoo process, let the artist know.
Where do you want to get your tattoo?
The placement of the tattoo will influence how the design is made. Have at least 2 spaces prepared for the tattoo that you want to be. The process of getting tattooed is collaborative so take the ideas for you tattoo, and the placement, to your chosen artist. Talk to them about where the design is going to be placed and listen to their explanations about what is the best option for you. Also, bring up how it may connect with other/future tattoos will help create a congruent theme (if that is what you want).
How big should you go when choosing your tattoo?
In tattoos, size means everything.
Size will determine price, time to complete and limitations on location. Knowing how big you are willing to go (as well as how small) is essential when planning ahead. Most tattoo artists are going to want to make your tattoo as big as possible. Be prepared to stand your ground if you are set on a specific size. Leading with what your budget is, when choosing sizes, ensures the tattoo artist won’t push too hard to cover your entire thigh.
Do you want more tattoos?
If you are going for your first tattoo, try and put it in a place that isn’t at the high end of the pain spectrum. There is no reason to take an enjoyable process and mark it with a painful experience. If you have plans for multiple tattoos, you may adjust your ideas for the future due to the pain you may experience. To keep the process as quick as possible, which will decrease the total discomfort you experience, keep the first designs you get palm sized or smaller.
If you do want to plan ahead and really commit to the process, talk to your artist about how the tattoos you want to get are going to work together. Also discuss tactics for planning multiple sittings. If you have a theme or some ideas that may work well together, create a plan to make the final product cohesive.
How much time was spent choosing your tattoo?
Is this a spur of the moment idea, or have you really put some thought into what you are planning to get? Regardless of the scenario, don’t go carrying bias into the tattoo shop when choosing your tattoo.
Leave that ego in check and be ready to actively collaborate with an artist. They have the training and expertise to get what you want on your skin.
Some additional points to consider
What local options are there for you?
Do you live in a major metropolis, or the middle of BF nowhere? Seeing what options are available near you may influence your decision if you are locked into a specific region with little ability to commute out.
Your buddy knows a guy named Dale at the 5 & Dime who shoots tattoos in his basement. Dale only spits out trad angel wings so it’s a good bet that you don’t want to go to him for that photo realistic tiger on your thigh.
Plan to venture out of your comfort zone if it ensures quality work. If you are truly unable to, keep the most sentimental tattoos on the backburner until you can get exactly what you want, from who you want.
What is your budget?
Pricing is usually non-negotiable.
Seriously, nothing good has ever come out of those arrangements where the artist is starving and sacrifices on price. When this does happen, people rush. The final quality will never be as great when compared to a properly paid for and prepared tattoo.
If you have a budget, and the work that you want to get is outside what that amount is, start saving. If you are not a person who enjoys the build up the anticipation, get something smaller that is inside your budget. Taking you time and not price shopping will give you want you deserve. Remember, you are in a place of business. Be respectable inside this person’s place of employment.
When choosing a tattoo, please, please, please… Don’t try and design the tattoo yourself. This is ultimately important if you are unsure about what you want the final product to be. There is a greater chance that your chosen artist will make something better than what you can imagine. Give them room to surprise you.
This above statement doesn’t stand if you know precisely what you want. Do you want your baby’s name in Scriptina font across your wrist?
After that has been expressed, listen to your artists recommendations about how this chosen tattoo may age, tie in with future work and how much it might hurt. There is far more to the tattoo than the final design.
Hopefully you are in a better place now and have confidence about choosing your tattoo. You control the fate of what is put on your body.
But please… Do not tattoo your partner’s name on your arm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.