Tattooing is an art form, but so is selling someone on the perfect tattoo for them. It takes real talent to create an amazing tattoo that someone will cherish for a lifetime, but the act of tattooing is only part of the process. A truly great tattoo artist has vision, superior salesmanship, and strong artistic talents that yield stunning tattoos. You have to be able to listen to someone's story, draw up a visual that tells that story in a single cohesive design, convince the storyteller that your design is worthy of a permanent parking space on their body, and then create a tattoo they can't tear their eyes away from--a tattoo your client loves so much that s/he honors you by taking credit for every part of the process except for the actual tattoo. When that happens--when you're so smooth that your client feels like they envisioned the design that tells their story and convinced you to tattoo their vision into reality--you've really accomplished something.
Maybe you're thinking, 'People either want what I have to offer or they don't; I'm not selling anyone on my art.' or 'My designs do the convincing.' The truth is that even if you're a total tattoo rock star, there will always be clients who need help--help figuring out what they want, help deciding that they really want what you're offering, or maybe just help deciding on the perfect placement that will make their tattoo flow with the curves of their body. To send a client away feeling totally satisfied, you have to provide that help in a subtle way that makes them feel like they were behind the wheel throughout the process rather than being chauffeured around. How do you do that if you're not a natural-born salesman? Just go with the flow.
The Flow of the Tattooing Process
When someone walks into your shop and says, "Hi, I'm here to get a tattoo", the tattooing process has begun. Whether your client knows exactly what they want or needs a little--or a lot--of help, you have to guide them from that point forward. You have to interview them, find or create a design, fine-tune it until they're in love, and place it before you ever get near a tattoo machine.
When someone walks into your shop and tells you they want a tattoo, your first question might be, "What did you have in mind?" Or, you could ask, "What's your motivation for getting a tattoo today?" However you start the conversation, it's up to you to interview your client and start guiding them towards a design. Listen to your client's story, ask questions to draw out ideas, and then decide if you're sending them to a flash book/rack to get started or if you have enough info to start sketching something original.
Tattoo flash art is a great starting point for people who have no idea what they want as well as those who have a very specific idea of what they want. For instance, if someone comes in and says they want a heart tattoo to commemorate a loved one who's passed, flash is a great tool for figuring out what style they want the heart to be and laying the foundation for their tattoo design. Once the person finds a heart design that speaks to them, then you can start talking about how to personalize it. Maybe they'd like to incorporate their loved one's name or the date they passed, or intertwine another image that reminds them of their loved one. For instance, if your client said that their loved one was a master pianist who collected vintage sheet music during the interview process, you might suggest incorporating musical notes and/or a staff around the heart.
There are a million ways to take an image off the wall and make it unique and special for your client. The key is to ask lots of questions so you can make meaningful suggestions. Information that may seem insignificant to your client at the time they start talking to you could be the key to creating a really amazing custom tattoo for them.
Sketching takes time, so offer this option sparingly. You may be able to work more quickly, and to a more satisfying end for your client, if you use a piece of flash art as the foundation for your design. Then your client has bought in before you start drawing, so you're less likely to have to chuck the design and start over from scratch than you might be if you sketched an original design from the get-go. That said, if your client's story has really inspired you and you can see the design form in your mind's eye as they talk, then it may make more sense to start with an original design--particularly if your client came to you because they're a fan of your art.
There are two kinds of tattoo collectors: The ones who want art--or more specifically, art created by a particular artist--and those who want tattoos for symbolic reasons--they want to commemorate a person, capture a memory, mark a milestone, or symbolically capture some other aspect of their lives. The former are the kind of clients every tattoo artist wants, but the latter are often the ones who put food on the table, especially for artists who are just getting started. Success lies in identifying which type you're dealing with and saving your original designs for the ones who really want them, or for those you think would really appreciate a truly personal tattoo that evolved from their story. Nearly everyone else will likely be thrilled with a flash art base that you've personalized for them. Remember that before you offer to sketch up a design for someone.
You also need to make sure a client is committed to the process before you take the time to create an original design for them. If you haven't yet gotten a deposit, do that before you put pencil to paper.
Regroup, Edit or Embellish, & Finalize
Once you have a base design--whether it be flash art or an original sketch--you have to regroup with your client. If you are working with flash art, this is the time to incorporate those personal touches that will turn flash into a custom tattoo. If you've created an original design, your client may want to make some tweaks--maybe they want their fairy to have bigger wings, or just a softer, more rounded nose. The devil is in the details, as they say. This can be the most frustrating stage of the tattooing process, but it's also often the most rewarding. The reason? You're perfecting a design that's about to take up permanent residence on someone's body--a piece of your art that will roam the earth and be seen by countless people for years to come. That thought alone is exhilarating, but the moment your client falls in love with your work is what makes this stage so awesome. That moment is absolutely priceless.
Tip: Make this stage of the tattooing process a little easier by using a lightbox like the one shown above to add layers to a base design. That way, if your client doesn't love the ribbon of notes you've added around the flash heart they chose, you don't have to redo the whole thing; you can just remove the layer containing the notes and start on that portion of the design again.
Once you've perfected the design, it's time to place it. If your client didn't have an area of their body in mind at the start of the process (which is preferable, so you can design to scale from the start), they have to decide now. You can use a photo copier to shrink or enlarge your design as needed, so that it will work in the space where your client wants it or where you're suggesting it be placed. Once you've settled on the right size, use a tattoo thermal copier like the one shown to the right and thermal copier paper to create a stencil that you can apply to your client's skin with the help of Stencil Stuff or a similar stencil transfer product. Be prepared to try a couple different angles and sizes to get the magic combination that makes your client say, "Perfect!"
Tattoo Your Heart Out
The final stage of the tattooing process is the reward for all of your painstaking efforts to help your client "find" the perfect design for them. Your client gets to kick back, pat themselves on the back for coming up with such a brilliant idea, and brace themselves for the needles you're wielding, and you get to enhance their body with your art. The end of the process is when the real fun begins. Happy tattooing!