The popularity of tattoos has really exploded over the past 10 years. Along with that popularity comes an increased demand -- and more and more tattoo studios and tattooists to meet that demand. It almost seems like "Tattoo Shops" are popping up on every corner.
Choosing a Studio/Tattooist
Now, just because a person buys a few wrenches, a couple repair books, and hangs up an "Auto Repair" sign, that doesn't make them a professional mechanic or that building a legitimate repair shop. Likewise, buying a couple tattoo machines, a few needles, and a bunch of designs doesn't make a person a professional tattooist. And just because a building has a cool looking tattoo sign, that doesn't make it a legitimate studio either.
Your tattoo will be a permanent part of you. Your skin should be a canvas for fine artwork -- not a sketchpad for someone to "practice" on. Make sure you choose quality art and take the time to find a professional studio and tattooist that will do justice to the design.
So... how can you tell the difference between a well-established professional studio and a fly-by-night shop that's just out to make a quick buck? How do know whether a tattooist is a well-trained experienced professional or just an inexperienced wanna-be? How do you find an established reputable tattoo studio and a talented professional tattoo artist?
Finding the Right Tattoo Studio
A storefront shop with a slick sign doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. Be selective in choosing a studio -- and be observant! What are the "public" areas of the studio like? Are they neat and clean, or cluttered and dirty? If you have to blow dust off the display books, or kick a beer can or two out of the way in order to reach the counter, you're probably in the wrong place. The degree of cleanliness and order you can see is a good indication of the cleanliness and order you can't see.
Be aware of "bootleg flash" when you are shopping for a professional studio. Spotting bootleg flash can tell you a lot about the ethics, quality, and potential safety of a studio. Does the flash on display look professionally printed, or like cheap xerox copies? Does each sheet have the artist/company name and copyright, or are they "missing" from the sheets? If a studio is willing to cut corners out in the "showroom", how many corners have they cut in the "backroom"? What other inferior or counterfeit products may they be using? A studio that offers their customers stolen, inferior art may well offer questionable service in other areas as well -- areas that could affect your health and safety. (See Bootleg Flash for more information on the bootleg industry.)
How many years has the tattoo studio been around? If it isn't listed in the yellow pages, the studio is probably less than a year old. (That's not to say a new studio should be avoided, it simply means there may be very little shop "history" to consider.) What kind of reputation does the studio have? Do you personally know someone who has gotten a tattoo there? (Recommendations are great, but they're no substitute for personal research.)
Ask questions. Lots of questions. Particulary about safety. A professional studio takes pride in its safe tattooing practices and won't mind answering your questions -- they are just as concerned about their own safety as yours. Whether you are dealing directly with a tattooist at the studio or an assistant at the front counter, they should be thoroughly familiar with studio safety procedures and practices.
Is tattooing really safe?
If proper sterilization and infection control standards are practiced by the studio, tattooing can indeed be safe. Safe tattooing means anything that comes in contact with blood or body fluids must either be disposed of (single-use) or sterilized (autoclaved).
Does the studio practice "Standard Precautions"?
This term describes part of OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Rule. It means all infection control procedures and practices are followed all the time. No exceptions.
Is an autoclave used for sterilization?
Autoclave sterilization is the only method that kills all micro-organisms known to man. All needles and tubes should be removed from sealed sterilization pouches and assembled in front of the customer.
Are the tattoo work stations thoroughly cleaned between customers?
EPA approved disinfectants and virucidals should be used to clean all work surfaces.
Are all needles, inks, ointments, razors, gloves, cups, etc. "single-use"?
Absolutely essential. Any item that comes in contact with blood or body fluids must be single-use and properly disposed of after the tattoo. Items that cannot be disposed of, such as tattoo machines, cords, equipment dials, knobs, light fixtures, etc., should be protected by single-use disposable plastic barriers.
Choose your tattoo studio carefully. Make sure they know and practice safe tattooing. For additional information on safe tattooing and FAQ's, visit the Alliance of Professional Tattooists website at www.safe-tattoos.com
Finding the Right Tattoo Artist
Unfortunately, not all "tattoo artists" are created equal -- not all tattooists are artists, and not all artists can tattoo. In fact, it is somewhat rare to find someone who is truly talented in both "art" and the "art of tattooing". So where do you start...?
First, you need to check out an artist's work. A photo portfolio of tattoos the artist has done is a good place to start (if the artist has no samples, leave now). Look over their work very thoroughly and carefully. Are the lines smooth and crisp, or shaky and broken? Are the colors bright and solid, or dull and washed out? What about placement, overall quality and artistic appeal?
Even better, check out the artist's work on actual skin if possible. Top quality work on a satisfied customer is an artist's best advertisement. Photos are usually taken immediately after the tattoo was applied, while the tattoo is still fresh, bright and shiny. But what will that tattoo look like when it is healed, after it has "settled" into the skin? It should still be bright and clear, but with a velvet softness about it. Check it over carefully, just as you did the artist's photos.
Beyond an artist's technical expertise and artistic abilities, be aware of the "attitude" as well. Is the artist willing to patiently answer all your questions? Sure, they have probably answered those questions a thousand times before -- but it is the first time you've asked them and you deserve thorough and professional answers. Is the artist willing to listen to and respect your ideas? Helping you understand both the possibilities and limitations of your ideas is fine, but if the artist seems more interested in doing his/her "thing" than yours -- you may want to look elsewhere.
You shouldn't have to put up with some primadonna artist's ego just to get a good tattoo. Getting tattooed is a very personal (and permanent) experience. You need to have confidence in, and feel comfortable with, the artist you've chosen. A truly professional tattooist will exhibit honest, sincere interest in his/her customer.
The Bottom Line
Just as you must take personal responsibility for your decision to get a tattoo, so too you must take responsibility for choosing a professional studio and an experienced artist. Take the time to research your options, educate yourself, and make an informed decision.