Tattooing is a massive industry, bringing in $1,650,500,000 annually in just the US alone.
It’s a serious business and quite a lucrative one, at that.
Tattoos aren’t cheap, especially good ones. And if you want a great tattoo—a truly epic, eye-catching tattoo—expect to pay quite a substantial price. Tattooing is one industry where you truly get what you pay for.
In addition to being a popular, lucrative industry, tattooing is—let’s be honest here—essentially a medical procedure. Your skin is repeatedly penetrated by a grouping of tiny needles which leave a foreign substance behind. While this procedure is occurring, you are quite literally putting an open wound on your body.
Unfortunately, tattoo shops aren’t regulated to the extent that outpatient medical offices are. In fact, in some states, there are no regulations at all. In other cases, there are regulations but the health inspectors who are charged with overseeing their area’s shops are overworked and undertrained. Not to mention, there are no accredited tattooing schools or regulated training methods. While the process can vary by state, in all actuality, a prospective tattoo artist simply needs to take an online “education” course covering bloodborne pathogens and communicable diseases and pay a licensing fee.
At no point is skill or ability tested prior to the license being issued.
Unfortunately, this loose method leaves the door wide open for shops and artists who are less than desirable.
So, as a client, how do you know you are in good hands then?
Here are some red flags you should be on the lookout for when trying to decide on a shop/artist.
What to Look For:
One of the biggest points to the quality of your artist will be the shop. A higher end, a sterile shop is highly unlikely to hire poor quality artists. Before you decide to put down any money, take a good look at all aspects of the shop.
Start with the website and social media accounts. Look at the quality, the frequency. Do you see quite a few pieces being posted regularly or do you see the same pieces reappearing again and again? Do they appear to be overly edited or are they clearly untouched photos? How is the spelling and grammar in the content posted and what is the tone of the website and social media posts? While these things may not seem important, they can give you a good indication as to the pride level the shop feels and the vibe of the shop itself. Read through comments and interactions to gauge their professionalism and attitude.
Check out their pricing. Pricing can be a good indication of whether you are working with highly skilled artists whose work speaks for itself or if they are having to grab whatever walks in the door. Of course, always verify their work backs up their prices, as there are some out there who overcharge for their skillset, but you will be able to spot these when if actually review their work.
Pricing is also a good way to determine the material costs. A shop who orders their supplies via eBay from places like China will be able to get away with a really low minimum price, whereas a shop using top of the line materials will have to charge significantly higher. As a quick example, my shop’s minimum is approximately $40 more than a few shops in my area, however, everything we use comes from American-based, well-known suppliers and is hypo-allergenic, vegan-friendly, and all-natural. Our supplies come individually sealed and have sterilization records included for every item. Cheaper supplies are generally ordered from different Asian-based suppliers through sites like eBay. The difference? Asian based manufacturers are not held to the same standards as European and American based suppliers/manufacturers. There are types of metals and ingredients which are banned from European/American inks and supplies that are allowed in the Asian-based ones. Sure, it makes the materials more expensive, but avoiding contamination or allergic reactions from cheap supplies really is worth every additional penny. Always ask the shop about their supplies. If they’re hesitant to give you info, they’re waving a big red flag at you.
Of course, the big kicker is the cleanliness of the shop. When you look at a tattoo shop, you need to keep in mind that it is essentially a medical procedure and the area should be just as clean as your dermatologist’s office. When you walk in, take a good look around. If you can see the tattoo area, look to see if it is clean in appearance. Keep in mind that the tattoo area should be a sterile environment and wiped down after each client, so look to see if there are any statues, toys, or figurines crowding the area. If there are, chances are the artist isn’t cleaning their area like they should. Are there porous items in the tattoo area? This goes for everything from furniture and flooring to canvases, decorations, and taxidermy animals (Before you say Ewwww… know that I have legitimately seen this. It happens). Porous items not only violate the health codes, but they are a cesspool of collected germs and other contaminants and should not be in the immediate tattooing area. If you really want to get a good idea of how clean a shop is, take a look at the smaller features of the room. Do the floorboards have dust or dirt on them? What does the ac/heating vent look like? Check out stationary items, like picture frames, door closers, and even the fire extinguisher. How much dust or dirt is collected on these items? This will be a good indication of the overall cleanliness of the shop, so pay close attention.
Look at the portfolio of the artist. Is there a versatility? Even artists who have a specialty tend to be able to display talent and skill in all aspects of the industry. Take a look at the details of the tattoos. Are the lines shaky or blown out (think what happens when you have a pen that bleeds on the paper as you write)? Does the anatomy look correct? Are their pieces all flash (meaning picked from the wall or copied from Pinterest) or are they custom designs? An artist who has more large-scale pieces (think full back pieces, full sleeves, etc) than shop minimum pieces is more likely to have better quality work than an artist who seems to only do last-minute, walk-in shop minimums.
When you talk to the shop or the artist, is there a wait time? While it may be inconvenient to have to wait for an artist, there is a reason why they are booked up for several weeks/months. If you have your heart set on a truly epic tattoo, don’t settle for the artist down the road begging for work. There is a reason his/her chair is empty and the other artist has a waiting list. Other things to consider include experience, professionalism, openness, and sponsorships. While not every great artist is sponsored, keep in mind that a company will only put their name behind someone worthy.
A tattoo is a lifetime investment. Treat it as such… Verify the shop you select is clean, licensed, and insured. Check up on your artist’s portfolio—don’t ever let just their words sell you, always look at their previous work. Ask questions, feel it out. Know the basic rules and regulations (they’re available on your county’s health department website) so you can spot glaring violations yourself (such as food in the tattooing area). If you get a bad vibe or if something doesn’t seem right to you, move on. After all, it’s your body! Safety is always number one!