There are a few things you can learn from observation and common sense while paying a stranger to drag sharp needles across your skin. Tattoo culture is a real thing. This community has unwritten rules, and they can only be learned through exposure.
After spending countless hours in the chair, I feel I’m slightly qualified to impart a few do’s and don’ts to the general public. Some of these rules are for the comfort and satisfaction of the person getting inked, and some are for the comfort of the people in the shop.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from the tattooed heathens in my life.
You get what you pay for
Just because your cousin’s weed dealer says he can do a full sleeve for $200 does not mean it’s a good idea. Tattoos, like most things in life, are a reflection of the work and money you put into them. A good artist knows the true value and quality of their work, and a bad or mediocre one will offer to do it for much cheaper. Like buying a car, beware of a price tag that sounds too good to be true. This investment is permanent.
Agree on a price before ink ever hits skin
You’d think this rule wouldn’t need to be spoken, but unfortunately this happens often. Always make it clear with your artist what your budget is before getting started. Trust me, the artist will work with you. They still want whatever cash you’ve got. Don’t get halfway through your session before realizing you’ve shot your budget.
Discounts are earned not asked for
Regular customers typically get better deals. That hook-up must be earned, though. Don’t expect to get one or two sessions knocked out and have a better deal waiting the third time around. That’s not how this works. You must develop a good rapport with your artist. Once they know you’ll keep coming back, that’s when you’ve earned your discount.
I spent at least a grand working on my half-sleeve before I started seeing any changes in price. You have to establish yourself as a repeat customer. If you obviously have a lot of work from different artists, or not much work under your skin at all, then it’s only fair for the current artist to make the assumption that you won’t be coming in a second time.
Just like getting large tattoos, earning your discount is a long process. If you ask for it, you can almost guarantee that it’s not going to happen.
A solid way to earn that discount is to always tip your artist. Most people don’t realize that tattoo artists have to pay a percentage of every transaction they make to the shop owner. Tips aren’t included in that percentage, so it’s a surefire way to get on their good side. And that’s exactly where you want to be.
Know your artist
It all depends on what you want and how you want it done. You may know an amazing artist who specializes in American traditional, but that doesn’t mean they can pull off clean portrait work. Most artists have a specific style they like to play with, so make sure their style matches what you’re looking for.
A good artist should have control of their ego and enough experience to tell you when you’re asking for something outside of their wheelhouse. Remember, this is a community. Tattoo artists network like crazy. They’ll probably be more than happy to recommend someone.
Every artist tattoos differently
Two primary artists did most of my work, but there have been a handful of others who have done some smaller pieces on me that were a bit more spontaneous and random. I can tell you from experience, each one of them felt different. Some were more heavy-handed than others, and some work light as a feather, just softly applying layer after layer of ink. Sometimes your artist will be heavy-handed on their line work but light-handed when it comes to their shading, or vice versa. It all depends on the individual artist and who taught them. Never expect one artist to feel the same as another.
Check for quality
This is the age of social media, and artists definitely keep an online presence to promote business. In the old days most artists would keep a portfolio of their work in the shop. Now it’s much more common for an artist to tell you to check their Instagram page.
Zoom in on those pictures and really look. Check out the line work. Is it shaky? Is the shading a smooth gradation? Does their style match what you’re looking for?
In general, does it look good, or does it look like chicken scratch?
This isn’t a race
Yes, it can be frustrating when you’re working on a big piece and realize you probably won’t have enough time to finish it during your session. No one likes walking around with an unfinished tattoo, but that does not mean you should rush your artist. It’s better to temporarily walk around with unfinished work than to walk around with a mistake under your skin for the rest of your life. Let your artist take their time.
Hands, face and neck
These areas are considered prime real estate in tattoo culture. It is heavily frowned upon to walk into a shop with a blank canvas and immediately request a tattoo on one of these three places. You have to earn these spots. Fill out your arms, torso or legs first. Hands, face and neck are to be saved for last, after you’ve paid your dues.
Don’t bring your friends to the shop
This is probably one of the biggest mistakes people make when walking into a shop. Don’t bring 12 of your friends with you to crowd up the place and annoy everyone else with endless talk of what they’re “going to do some day.” If you aren’t spending money, stay out. Bringing a buddy or something is all fine and good, but even Christ himself shouldn’t walk in the shop with all 12 of his disciples.