Some people think that getting a tattoo is like ordering Chinese food. It can be like that, if you want it to be—if you really want to put a #5 Kung Pao Dragon on your body for life without a single customization, like “Make it fire-breathing hot—literally. I’d like you to add flames.” You can walk into a tattoo shop on a whim, with no clue what you want, look through a book of flash designs or choose an image off the wall, and have that image permanently inked on your body with no prior thought, special requests or further consideration. You could… but why would you want to?
Tattoos are deeply personal for serious tattoo collectors and the countless people who’ve gotten a single tattoo for a special reason. Think about these scenarios that involve two different people thoughtfully choosing meaningful tattoo designs:
A daughter wants to commemorate her mother who survived breast cancer by having a pink ribbon tattooed on her ankle. She has that strong idea of what she wants when she walks into the shop and only needs to see the design that speaks to her to know exactly how she wants her vision to manifest. So she looks through a flash book and finds the perfect pink ribbon. She talks to her artist about why she wants the tattoo and which design she likes, and he asks her if she’s thought about how she’d like to personalize it. She says she does want to incorporate her mom’s name, Lily, in some way, but isn't quite sure how. Her artist suggests a unique combination of the pink ribbon and a white lily. The daughter loves the concept and gets a tattoo that will be special and meaningful to her for the rest of her life.
A man who’s been slowly and thoughtfully working with his favorite artist on a tattoo sleeve over the course of two years goes in for the latest addition. The sleeve contains a collection of hobbits, elves, trolls, and orcs. Today his artist will add her rendition of Gandalf the Grey on his forearm. His artist loves hearing his Lord of the Rings stories during these sessions—about how his dad spent months telling him and his sister a piece of the story each night before bed, and how that remained a life-long bond between the three of them. His tattoo tells pieces of two epic tales: the one his tattoo design depicts, and the underlying story of a father’s love that’s spanned his own life.
If you’re getting a tattoo, get one that means something to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t take inspiration from the great flash art that’s available today, but if you’re working with a talented artist, s/he should be able to help you turn any well-formed idea and/or base design into something special—a piece of personal art that you’ll truly treasure for a lifetime. Your flesh is your canvas; it’s yours to tattoo or not, and if you do tattoo it, it’ll be your art to share or keep a special secret—your own private collection that only you, your artist and maybe the one person closest to you may ever see or know the meaning behind.
The Dos & Don’ts of Tattoo Etiquette
There are some basic do’s and don’ts you should know by heart before you ever step foot into a tattoo shop. If you know and follow these rules of tattoo etiquette, you and your artist will get along famously, and you should end up with an awesome tattoo that looks great and means something to you.
Do Know What You Want
Before you even start looking for a tattoo artist, you should have an idea of what you want, why you want it, and where you want it.
What is important, because your artist won’t be able to read your mind and heart. You’ll need to voice—and preferably also show—a concept before s/he can start bringing it to life in the form of a mock-up that you can then tune together to create your perfect tattoo. Be as specific as possible, provide sample graphics you like or actual tattoo photos that inspired your idea if you can, and then give your artist some time to digest the info and create a cohesive design that incorporates all elements that you said mattered to you most. It’s unfair to both of you if you aren’t prepared for the design process.
Why matters because hearing your back story will help get your artist’s creative juices flowing and think of ways to visualize the design elements that will tell your story in a way that’s both attractive and meaningful to you.
Where you want it matters more to you than your artist. Tattoo placement is often important to professionals working in conservative environments. If that’s you, consider areas that can be easily and comfortably covered up. (Do you really want to wear long sleeves and long pants/skirts all summer?)
Tattoo placement matters in terms of your pain threshold, too. If you’re pretty sure you’ll squirm and be a wiggle worm under the discomfort of needles rapidly hitting your skin, armpits and bonier areas like your ribs, feet and hands are likely out. Meatier areas tend to be a little less sensitive, but even that won’t change the fact that getting a tattoo hurts, plain and simple. Don’t let that scare you away from getting your dream tattoo, though. After the initial shock, you should quickly get to a point where you can tolerate the feeling. If you don’t, you can ask to have a tattoo anesthetic such as a numbing cream or spray applied.
If you walk into an unfamiliar shop and choose an artist without at least first reviewing his or her portfolio, you deserve whatever you get. Same goes for those willing to take a chance on sketchy artists operating outside of traditional tattooing environments. Ideally, you should research artists ahead of time, find one whose style speaks to you, and then work on getting an appointment with him or her, even if it means traveling or waiting until the next time the artist’s in town. If you'd rather find a local artist, then start researching shops in your area. Look at their websites to see their artists’ online portfolios, or visit a shop that appeals to you to review their photo books. That will also give you a chance to consult with any artist who appeals to you in person.
Do NOT Haggle Over Price
A tattoo isn’t the same as a silk scarf at a flea market where you can sweet talk your way into a bargain or maybe work out a BOGO deal. A tattoo is art. Art costs money. A good tattoo costs more than a mediocre one. You will get what you pay for, so don’t haggle. Also, you shouldn’t walk into a tattoo shop expecting to see standard prices like those typically listed for piercings. Artists usually charge by the hour, sometimes by the project. A complex tattoo that’s really large and/or contains a lot of detail will take more time and will cost you more. If you have a well-known artist tattoo you, their rate will very likely be higher than a great artist at a local tattoo shop who isn’t a recognizable tattoo celebrity yet.
Do Clean up Before Getting a Tattoo
The day of your tattoo, take a shower, brush your teeth, dress in clean clothes, and be generally hygienic. Your artist is about to be in your personal space for an extended period of time. It’d be pretty bad if s/he passed out from the funky smell emanating from you.
Do Eat & Hydrate Ahead of Time
There is a degree of shock that usually comes with getting a tattoo, and it’ll hit you much harder if you roll in with an empty stomach. Do yourself and your artist a favor and eat before your appointment. Take a sugary soda in a lidded bottle with you to keep your blood sugar up while your tattoo artist works. Also be sure to hydrate well ahead of time. Increasing your water intake for at least 24+ hours before your appointment will make your skin easier to work with and aid in lessening the impact of the tattooing process on your system.
Do Dress Appropriately
You know where on your body you’re getting tattooed before you go into the shop—if you’re doing this the right way, that is. If you’re heading into a pre-scheduled tattoo appointment, dress in a way that will give your artist easy access to the area they’ll be tattooing while keeping you decent. Don’t wear bulky, cumbersome clothes that will just get in the way.
Do Not Drink or Take Drugs
Alcohol diminishes your judgment and thins your blood, which means you might make rash decisions and you'd definitely bleed more if you went into a tattoo session intoxicated. Drugs also make you do stupid things that your tattoo artist just doesn’t want to deal with. A true professional will turn you away if you show up under the influence.
Do Call in Sick if You Are Sick
No one wants your germs, especially in a communal area like a tattoo shop. If you’re sick, let your tattoo artist know as soon as you know you can't make it in without infecting everyone with SARS. Seriously, keep your germs to yourself!
Do Not Roll in With Your Posse
It’s super-cool that you’re getting a tattoo. All of your friends will definitely want to see it. Some of them may really want to see it happen, too, but it’s inappropriate for you to roll into a tattoo shop with a group of people unless you’re all getting tattooed around the same time. Go in with no more than one companion in tow. You can go alone, too, but if you want someone to help calm your nerves and keep you company while you’re in a tattoo chair for hours, you can’t assume your artist will fit that bill. Some artists are really chatty while they work, others need to work mostly in silence. Everyone’s different. Respect your artist’s style.
It’s also totally inappropriate to go into a tattoo shop with a posse of mini-me’s in tow. Your kids shouldn’t be anywhere in the vicinity (car included) when you’re getting tattooed. They should be safely under the care of an adult who can actually keep an eye on them while you get tattooed.
Do Not Be “That Jerk with the Cell Phone”
People are so wrapped up in their phones these days that you’d think they were surgically attached to their hands. A tattoo shop isn’t an appropriate place to be taking or making calls or otherwise having your nose buried in your phone when someone’s trying to serve you. Don’t be the jerk with the cell phone who’s holding up someone else’s schedule and annoying everyone around them. Turn it off or at least mute it when you walk in. If you want to play a game while you’re getting tattooed, ask your artist how s/he feels about it first. Be polite and courteous to your tattoo artist in all ways, and you should get the exact same in return.
Do Be Patient
Good art typically takes time. If you’re getting something small and simple, you might be out of there in 30-60 minutes. If you’re getting an intricate side piece, you may need to spend the afternoon—or a couple afternoons—with your artist. Don’t be short with him/her about how long it’s taking or try to rush the process unless you want a cruddy tattoo.
Do Tip Your Tattoo Artist
Wondering how to tip a tattoo artist or if you should tip at all? Yes, you most definitely should tip your tattoo artist for a job well done. Tips are a big part of their income, particularly if the artist isn’t working out of his or her own shop. An artist working in someone else’s shop will likely have to give a large portion of the commission to the shop owner. Then s/he has to factor in the cost of tattoo ink, needles, grips, tubes, tips, covers, and other costly tattoo supplies. When it’s all said and done, your artist will walk away with a very small portion of what you paid for the tattoo itself. Tips help balance that out, so please reward your tattoo artist for awesomeness.
How much should you tip your tattoo artist? The rate can vary from 15%-25% or more, depending on what you can do and how much you feel your artist deserves. If your artist did an amazing job on your new tattoo and it’s within your means to do so, give a healthy tip. If the artist did an amazing job and you can’t afford to give a stellar tip, at least let him/her know how much you love it and that you’d give more if you could, so s/he knows your tip isn’t a reflection of how you feel about the work.
Do Listen to Your Artist’s Tattoo Aftercare Instructions
Aftercare is an incredibly important part of getting a new tattoo. If you don’t do your part, you’ll potentially ruin your artist’s hard work and your investment. Keep your tattoo covered as long as s/he tells you to keep it covered, clean it as instructed, moisturize constantly with a balm like Tattoo Goo initially, followed by a tattoo aftercare lotion later, and generally follow the instructions your artist sends you home with to ensure your tattoo’s long life.
For additional new tattoo care tips, check out our Tattoo Aftercare article.