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


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