Choosing a Tattoo Shop and Tattooist

Published on January 18, 2014 by Jodie M
In a perfect world every tattoo artist would be a talented and experienced professional; the type of artist that tattoo enthusiasts wait months or even years to visit. Every tattoo she designed would be a masterpiece and each customer would leave the shop completed satisfied. Sadly we don’t live in such a perfect world.
Like all professions, the tattoo industry has its share of bad apples. These "would be artists" usually mean well but end up causing more harm than good. Though most get weeded out by professional shops, a few manage to set up on their own. In order to avoid these bad artists and a tattoo disaster it is important that you learn a few ways to spot him.

Artist Portfolios

Most all tattoo artists have a portfolio available for potential clients to review. These portfolios are available online or in the shop and consist of photos of successfully completed tattoos. If you stumble upon an artist with absolutely no portfolio you better start asking questions.
Almost every tattoo artist, no matter how new, has at least one photo of a tattoo that they have completed. If the tattoo artist that you are interested in is unable to show you an example of any completed work, start backing away slowly. When a tattoo artist has no portfolio and is unable or unwilling to get one picture of a tattoo that they have completed then you should look elsewhere.

No Shop, No Business

While there are many tattoo artists who will occasionally work in their homes or their friends abode for extra cash, most are affiliated with a tattoo shop. Either they have their own small shop (which might be part of their home) or they work for a local tattoo parlor. When you find someone that is a friend of a friend of a cousin that is not working for a tattoo parlor and has never worked for a tattoo parlor, look elsewhere. There is usually a reason why that person can’t find employment in a tattoo shop or establish enough clientele to open a small shop.

Beware Strange Advice or Methods

Many tattoo artists have their special quirks and methods but most are accepted and often well known. Most people who have gotten ink have heard about keeping tattoos out of the sun, not taking pain killers, taking pain killers, and more. When you come across a tattoo artist that you have never worked with before who is giving you strange directions be very wary.
To help illustrate the point I will share the story of Ms. X (name changed to protect the unfortunate) a tattoo enthusiast who went to a new artist to get her 6th tattoo. This artist was someone she met through a network who was new to the state and worked out of his home. When the time came to give Ms. X her latest tattoo on her lower back he told Ms. X to bend over.
Ms. X asked if she could simply lie down but the tattoo artist insisted that she bend over. When the tattoo was completed Ms. X stood up straight, and since Ms. X was a healthy sized woman, half of her tattoo disappeared. Now Ms. X has a tattoo on her back that is distorted by a pucker of skin. She isn’t happy, the tattoo artist was mildly surprised, and in the end everyone learned a lesson.
These are only a handful of methods that are useful when sorting the bad tattoo artists from the hundreds of good tattoo artists. Using these methods can help you and those you know avoid tattoo disasters. In addition to these methods always use your own common sense and, when in doubt, go with your instincts. It is always better to reschedule an appointment than get stuck with a tattoo you may regret later.
Are you planning your first tattoo and looking to find a new artist because after visiting the first place you stumbled across, you are unhappy with her work? Regardless whether you are opting for a piece of flash off the wall, or desire a detailed custom piece, here are some helpful hints in finding a reputable shop with good artists.
Start your search on the internet or the local phone book. The internet is preferred as you aren’t limited to your local area, although you may have to drive a bit for an artist and shop you are comfortable with. I travel an hour and a half to see my artist! Make a list of shops and start checking them out. Ask people you know who are tattooed, where they go.
Visit the shops. There are some things you want to look for that you should NOT compromise on. Remember this is YOUR body and there are risks. Minimize them.
Ask to see the spore counts on the autoclave. The studio posts them on the wall. The shop should be checking the autoclave at least once a month. If they are unwilling to share this information, walk out.
  • Take a look around as it’s easy enough to tell if the shop is clean.
  • Has she taken a course designed for tattoo artists and piercers in the prevention of blood-borne pathogens? It should be displayed somewhere in her shop or portfolio.
  • In the tattooing area, furniture that comes into direct contact with a client should have a water proof barrier between the client and the surface that is changed between clients.
  • Inks should be poured into individual cups before use and discarded after.
  • Needles should be opened in your presence. A lot of shops now use single use needles that are tossed out and not placed through the autoclave. You can take this one step further and only use a shop that uses Neuma machines, where the entire tattoo machine is autoclavable.
  • Speak with your tattoo artist. Is she someone you are comfortable with? You need to be able to communicate with her if something makes you uncomfortable; e.g. you feel sick, etc. Nothing is worse than going into a studio and talking to someone who acts like they are put out by you asking questions or behaves as if it is a chore to accommodate your requests. No tattoo artist should be too cool to answer your questions and address concerns.
  • Check out the portfolios that are on display. This will give you an idea of the work you can expect from the artist. Make sure his work meets your standards.
  • You don’t really want to pick the cheapest place. If a place seems a lot more affordable than every other shop you visit, they are bound to be cutting corners somewhere.
Do not go to someone who tattoos out of their home because they can give you a good deal, as you are only placing yourself at risk. Sterility cannot be guaranteed under these circumstances. Autoclaves are expensive and a lot of home tattooists believe they can properly sterilize something with boiling water on the stove. This isn’t true, or safe.
Ask about aftercare. How do they want you to take care of your tattoo? Some artists will tell you to use Vaseline or to wrap it in plastic wrap for an extended period. Basic first aid states these are bad ideas, as both run a high risk of trapping bacteria and providing a nice warm home to thrive. Common sense should tell you that an infected tattoo is a bad idea, especially when MSRA (antibiotic resistant staph) is very common.
Is the shop licensed? Every state has different regulations for licensing tattoo studios. Do your homework and find out what those regulations are. Yes, amazingly, there are some studios that will set up shop without getting licensed.
Following the above list will go a long way to ensuring that you have done everything you can to not only prevent getting an inferior tattoo, but also to protect yourself against the health risks involved during the process.