Choosing a Tattoo Artist

Reputation is Al

Tattoo artists fall into two different categories: those who have had formal training or an apprenticeship and "scratchers.'

The scratcher is an untrained tattooist who may be artistically gifted but rarely bothers sterilizing his instruments. The scratcher may work out of a studio, but often works from his home, a basement or the back room of a bar. They may describe themselves as freelancer. A scratcher often purchases equipment through the Internet or email. The worst thing about a scratcher is their tendency to reuse needles which of course can lead to fatal diseases such as hepatitis or AIDS.

In a category somewhere between the shoddy practices of the scratcher and the brightly lit sanitary studio of professional tattoo artists are the artists that just don't have any artistic talent. Their tattoos are badly executed, the outlines uneven, the colors unattractive and their drawing perspective is out of proportion. If a tattoo artist's works seems ill thought out or lacks a pleasant composition then trust your instincts and stay away.

Unfortunately we live in a day and age where tattooing could literally be the death of a customer if proper procedures are not strictly carried out. Needles and equipment must be properly sterilized, cross-contamination and strict sterilization techniques must be adhered to, or disease can spread as quickly. Blood-born pathogens do kill tattoo clients. If you think all that you need to get a tattoo is a needle and some ink...think again! Before you choose the tattoo artist, you need to make an inner decision that you are not going to settle for banal, boring or sloppy work. There is too much talent on the market for you to walk away with a badly drawn or splotchy looking tattoo.

It is your ultimate responsibility to choose an artist who has the cleanliness of a surgeon and the talent of a drawing master. Sometimes this means investing some money and sometimes it means travelling to another city to get the tattoo that you want. You need to tell yourself that this expense of time and energy is worth it, as it is an investment in what is ultimately a permanent work of art.

The only way to properly assess a tattoo artist is to see examples of his or her work. They should have a portfolio that is signed or watermarked in some way. The portfolio should consist of photographs of work that they have done. You can also visit the shop or studio and ask if you can watch the artist in action. One good reason to do this is to establish the verity of the artist's portfolio. Unfortunately anyone can put up examples of tattoos on their walls and then claim authorship of the work.

Another way to find a good tattoo artist is to walk up to someone, whose tattoo you admire, and ask him or her who did the work. They will be the first to recommend the artist if the tattooist is good. Make sure you question these individuals to find out the cost of the tattoo as well as the hygienic conditions of the shop. In this case, strangers are likely to give you better advice than your friends. The problem with a friend is that they may be a "friend of a friend" of the tattooist and not be familiar with the tattooist's artistic or business reputation at all.

Industry and cultural magazines are also a good source of information about tattoos. The intent of most of these magazines is to weed out the scratchers from the fine artists and showcase the best of tattoo artists.

Don't Expect the Moon and the Stars

Like most artists, tattoo artists have their own specific styles that they excel at and styles that they are not so good at. For example, if you want a realistic portrait of Marilyn Monroe on your arm, don't seek out an artist that specializes in reproducing lurid cartoons.

Ultimately when it comes to tattooing, you are the art director and you are selecting the talent to realize your dream. Some tattoo artists are better at fine line tattoos than others, others have a knack for the rhythms and designs associated with primitive work and some are better at flowers than flaming skulls. Usually you can tell by looking at the artist's in-shop photo-album whether or not they excel at colorful traditional work or the fine shadings that create photo-realism.

Most tattooists have a great deal of enthusiasm for their work and are willing to "get into the spirit" with you when it comes to arriving at the style and size of tattoo that is best for you. If the artist has suggestions about size and color, listen to the voice of experience. They may simply know what looks best or they may be trying to subtly tell you something about the limitations of their own talent.

Once you are in the chair, treat your tattoo artist with respect. Don't try to be a "back seat" artist and annoy him or her with impulsive creative suggestions. Of course, this is not going to happen if you and the artist have mutually agreed on an appropriate design in the first place.

Cost is a Factor

If you can't afford a tattoo, than accept your circumstances. Although a tattoo is priceless, it can also be considered to be a form of "beauty treatment." You wouldn't allow a bad hairdresser to butcher your hair, so don't let an affordable tattoo artist brand you for life with a marking that you might dislike.

As with any product, the cost of a tattoo varies from artist to artist. Popular or award winning artists will always charge more than inexperienced artists.

The cheapest tattoo is a flash or stock tattoo. These are the designs that you find hanging on the walls of the studio, parlor or (traditionally) the barber shop wall. Artists usually charge a flat rate for their flash designs, but this, of course is dependent on the size of the design and the amount of color that is used to saturate it. In general you can expect to pay between $50 and $100 U.S. for a tattoo that is about two by two square inches. For custom work, most artists usually charge by the hour. It is highly recommended that you bring your template or design with you so that the artist can give you an accurate estimation of how long the work will take. Rates for custom tattoos go anywhere from $50 and $300 U.S. an hour. Although price doesn't always dictate the excellence of the artist, you are probably best ensured to receive a tattoo that you are satisfied with by choosing an artist that charges $150 an hour or more.

Professional Considerations

Applying a tattoo involves a lot more than just creating a pretty picture. A professional artist is an artist, a technician and a craftsperson. Selecting the artist who is going to apply your tattoo is the most important decision that you will have to make, so make sure the artist is part-doctor, part artist.

Make sure you take the time to scrutinize the artist's work? Do the lines of the tattoos look shaky or feathery? Do the circles look like circles and squares like squares? What about the coloring? Are the colors blended well to create even forms of shading, dimension, and depth? Do any of the tattoos look swollen, faded, bleary or out of proportion. Trust your own artistic eye when it comes to this, as despite all of the promises or excuses that explain inferior work, your tattoo will probably resemble what is in the artist's portfolio in the end.

Tattooing can be considered to be a form of invasive surgery because it involves bonding color through to base layer of your skin. The more translucent outer layer of the skin grows over this layer, once the tattoo has healed.

When a tattoo "fails" it is usually because the ink was placed too deeply into the skin where bodily fluids can cause the tattoo to spread and lose definition. If the tattoo is not impressed deeply enough into the skin, the tattoo may fade or completely disappear. You also might want to find out if the artist is abiding by city or state laws and what certifications and licenses are required to legally tattoo in your city and state. If the artist cannot produce this certification than don't risk it.

Assessing the Artist's Practice

If the tattoo studio does not look as clean as your doctor or dentist's office than walk right out of the door. Bad places to get tattooed are in someone's kitchen, a local bar, in the bleachers at a racetrack or at a county fair. This is because sterile conditions cannot be met in certain environments.

Watching the artist in action is also highly recommended, as everything that is used to apply the tattoo should be sterilized or disposable. For instance, the artist should not be dipping his needle into a large plastic jug of ink. The ink should be poured into a disposable container that is intended for use with just one customer. You might also want to observe how the tattooist is applying ointments and Vaseline. The tattoo artist should always use steel or disposable wooden sterile spreader and not a finger to apply these substances to your skin. The tattooist should also use disposable sterile latex gloves. If he or she is using bare fingers then you are vulnerable to infection and disease. New sterile needles should also be used for every tattoo.

All non-disposable equipment should be sterilized after each use with an autoclave. Ultra-sonic cleaning does not sterilize equipment. It should only be used as a method of cleaning the equipment before it's placed into the autoclave. Make sure you question the artist to make sure that he or she is in possession of an FDA regulating auto-clave. Dunking equipment in a tub of rubbing alcohol is not enough to sterilize tattooing equipment.

Many artists will use roll-on deodorant to create a darker impression of the transfer copy on your skin before they begin the tattoo. Although this is a very effective method of transferring a stock tattoo to the skin, keep in mind that the deodorant may have been used on another client's skin. The deodorant should be wiped onto a tissue, and then tissue the tissue should be used to place the deodorant on your skin.

You also might want to ask the artist if he or she is vaccinated for Hepatitis B. Never just take anyone's word for it. Do they have proof? Can they show you a doctor's record proving they were vaccinated? The hepatitis vaccination is a series of three shots given over a four-month period of time. It's not something that's going to just slip someone's mind. Getting a hepatitis shot is "an affair to remember."

Unfortunately, mandatory testing for hepatitis B is not required before an artist can pick up a needle. For ultimate safety, make sure that you are vaccinated before you receive a new tattoo.

Ten Signs You Are in the Right Studio

1. The Tattoo Artist Provides Samples of Previous Work

Never select an artist who can not produce some kind of portfolio. A photo album of tattoos done on living skin should be provided for you to look at in the studio. An artistic display of stock tattoos on the walls is not enough to tell you that the artist has a good reputation.

2. The Tattoo Artist Lives in a Disposable Universe

Nothing that that the tattoo artist uses should ever be placed back into a container. This includes ointment, ink and water. Usually these substances have been in contact with your blood plasma. Such thriftiness increases the risk of the spread of infection to you and others.

Ink should always be placed in ink caps, which are tiny cups used to hold just enough color that is needed to tattoo you. This ink should never be returned to a bottle or a jar.

3. The Tattoo Artist Possesses an Autoclave Certificate

An autoclave is an electric sterilization unit that resembles a steel pressure cooker. It is used by doctors to sterilize medical equipment. In order for equipment to be sterilized it must sit n the autoclave at a temperature of 246 degrees for at least thirty minutes. Just being in possession of an autoclave does not guarantee that it is in use. Ask if the artist possesses a recent autoclave certificate that shows that the unit is regularly tested and in use by the operators of the business.

If the tattoo artist gives you any "attitude" or is evasive with regards to the use of the autoclave or tries to pass off an ultra-sonic cleaner as a sterilization equipment then head for the front door.

4. The Tattoo Artist Uses New Sterile Needles

New sterile needles are always removed from a pouch called an autoclave bag. The needles should not be removed from this pouch until your tattoo work is in progress. Each autoclave needle bag usually boasts a small label called a "sterile confirmation" label along with the name of the manufacturer. If you do not see this label on the bag or if your needles are sitting outside the bag, then the artist may be reusing materials. New needles are bright silver in color. If needles appear stained, brownish or dulled then stop the procedure.

5. The Tattoo Artist Wears Latex Gloves

Fingers spread germs to raw, freshly tattooed skin faster than anything else. For this reason the tattooist should always wear standard medical latex gloves. The gloves should not have holes or tears in them and fit the artist properly. It only takes a pinhole in the latex glove to increase the risk of cross contamination.

6. The Tattoo Artist Disposes Needles In a Sharps Container

A Sharps container is a plastic container, usually red, with a biohazard symbol on the outside. You also see these containers that are labeled "hazardous waste" in dental and doctor offices.

Used needles, and anything else contaminated and not scheduled for autoclave sterilization should be placed in these containers and removed in a timely manner.

7. The Artist Has a License to Practice

Most states require a tattoo artist to have some kind of license before they can touch anyone with a needle. Check the laws in your state to make sure that you are dealing with a licensed practitioner.

8. The Artist is Trained and Certified

Unfortunately, there isn't any kind of official certification given to tattoo artists that complete their education. Tattooing is an oral tradition that is usually passed down through generations through an apprenticeship. However most tattoo artists will be able to produce proof that a well-known tattoo artist has trained them in safe and hygienic practices.

9. The Tattoo Studio is Clean and Well Lit

Although most tattoo studios are kind of Goth looking, complete with black lights and loud stereo music, this doesn't mean the place is dirty. What matters most is that the "surgical" area looks spic and span and is well lit with halogen lights.

10. You and the Tattoo Artist "Click"

You must revere and respect the tattoo artist and he or she must revere and respect you. You do not have to become best friends, however this is a situation where you should not be subjected to any kind of humiliation, sarcasm or displays of artistic temperament. Behaviors that fall into the category of displays of artistic temperament include anger, giddiness, and a reluctance to stick to schedule and inviting you to get high or drunk. A tattoo artist should also not consider him or herself to be too hip to conduct themselves in the civil and courteous manner that is usually associated with good business practices.

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