Finding the right tattoo artist for the tattoo you want to get done can be a frustrating process when it should actually be a fun one. The tattoo industry does not have an international guideline of operation and even within the same city tattoo artists operate their business in different ways. If you add to that the ever evolving art in itself, it can be confusing for a lot of clients whether old or new.
In my opinion there is no right or wrong in how each artist or shop chooses to operate. There is an artist for every potential client, and there's only a right or wrong match. There are high paying, quality demanding clients that can match with expensive high quality tattoo artists and there are low quality demanding, low paying clients that can match low quality, low charging home scratchers. Then there's everyone in between in varying degrees.
So in order to find the right artist for yourself, you need to first figure out a few things about your needs as a client. the first and most important thing is to decide on what tattoo you want. This can be a tricky one because not everyone can visualize their idea in order to know which artist would be the right match. So start by the basic idea. What is it about? Is it a dragon? Is it a portrait? Some lettering maybe? Or do you want to commemorate something important to you and you don't know how? Whether you know the exact theme or not, the most important thing is to know in what style do you want your tattoo. So lets get into that.
Research tattoo styles
The art of tattooing has gone a long way the past couple of decades. New styles emerge all the time in which artists specialize and there are also personal styles that are exclusive to some artists. Expose yourself to as much as you can before deciding. If you had an idea before you researched and it still holds after you have emerged yourself in the world of modern tattoo styles and techniques, then it had been the right decision for you already. But if your opinion changes then it means you now have a more educated new idea to pursue. So go online and look at as many tattoos as possible and try to understand the different styles. This way you will understand that this dragon you wanted was a "traditional asian dragon", or that portrait of your favourite movie character was a "colour realistic portrait". And in the case you had something important to commemorate like the death of your grandpa but you had no idea how to do that, by looking at the different styles you might get an idea or at least know what style you want and brainstorm with the artist to visualize that in that style you liked.
So after you've emerged into the different styles and you've decided what you like the most, you will have to look for artists in your area (or places you can travel to, if you're willing to) who do that style.
Actually like your artists work
I can not stress enough the following tip about choosing the right artist for you. An artists portfolio is them showcasing to you what they can and are willing to do. When you look at an artists portfolio you need to like the majority of their work. The majority is not one or two tattoos after scrolling down four hundred posts in the past. The majority is 80% of what you see. If you find one or two tattoos to be very close to what you are looking to get for yourself, but you would get none of the rest on your body, this is not the artist for you. The right artist is the one who you get into their portfolio and every second tattoo or more, you could see on your body.
I've been in the tattoo industry 8 years now and all of that time, the issue comes up often enough to be a problem. The client sees one tattoo from 3 years ago in my profile that is close to what they want and is completely convinced that I will recreate whatever is in their mind. When I give them a consultation or even when I design the tattoo according to my style, they realize they don't really like my style, and what had actually happened was that one single tattoo they had seen had only few attributes of what they were looking for, but was not even close to what they had in mind. The reason was limited exposure, they hadn't really seen that many tattoos of the theme and style they were looking for, so when they saw that one tattoo of mine from 3 years ago, that happened to partially match their idea, they mistakenly thought they had found the right artist for them.
So once more, the most important tip in this article: like the majority of the artists portfolio, if not all of it. Tattoos are forever, take your time, research and get what you really want. Which brings us to the next tip.
Contact the right artist
If you are looking for a black and grey tattoo, only contact artists who’s portfolio features a lot of black and grey tattoos. Not one every twenty tattoos. Vice versa for colour tattoos. Don’t message artists whose portfolio consists of only black and grey tattoos and ask them to do it in colour. Same applies for the themes, if you want a portrait tattoo, go to artists who post portrait tattoos. Again, one portrait, 300 posts in the past, is not a good indicator that this artist is the right artist for your portrait tattoo.
Time to get in contact
After you’ve done your research, you know the style you want and you found some artists whose portfolio fits that style in its majority, now it’s time to contact those artists. If there’s a “books closed” indication on their profile, it means that at some point there will be a date in which they will be accepting applications again. If that date is not mentioned in neither their social media profiles or website, you can either wait or you can message and ask.
Always use the specified means of contact. "No DMs” means there’s a different way of communicating with the artist, usually via email or contact form. Normally it should be stated somewhere obvious, like a link in their instagram bio or a highlight.
There’s an on going trend of mocking tattoo artists who don’t accept DMs on social media. Personally I’m having a very hard time finding messages in my DMs, often they disappear, get buried or even flagged for no reason. DMs are simply unreliable, unorganized and can make us look unprofessional if we fail to answer due to any of the above issues.
Being polite can get you a long way. Start you messages with at least a “hi” and proceed to spend more than a second composing your message. Mention what kind of tattoo you want to get, the approximate size, whether you want it in colour or black and grey and the placement. If there’s another tattoo that needs to be covered mention that. You can always add reference pictures, preferably from the artists own work (since you followed the tip that you should like the majority of their work in order to message them). Be brief and informative and allow a few days for the artists response.
Do not expect a tattoo artist to draw for you so that you decide after you see the design whether you are getting the tattoo or not. If this is what you want, inform the artist beforehand, pay them for the time they spend drawing for you and be aware that you don’t own the design whether you get the tattoo or not. Do not be surprised if you don’t find any artist positive to that approach, as this is not how the industry works.
What price is “normal”?
When the artist you messaged answers you back and wants to take up your project, they will inform you about the deposit, drafting, scheduling etc. Deposits are non refundable and the amount varies between artists. Some artists do online consultations, others do it in person. Some artists charge for the consultation, others don’t. Some charge a lot for the tattoo, some not so much. Some charge per hour, some per session, some by piece. There’s no rule about that no matter what your friends or even industry people tell you. The only rule is that there’s no right or wrong, there’s only reasonable.
So you can find artists who don’t charge for consultation, take a 10-20% deposit and charge per hour the amount that is their areas standard, which is very common deal. However there are artists who charge for consultations, ask for 50% deposits and charge way above the areas standard. If this artist is world renowned tattoo master, yes that’s reasonable. If it sounds unreasonable to you, not the right artist for you. Simple.
But who’s "good"?
If you cannot tell a bad tattoo artist from a good one, research. The more you expose yourself to tattoo styles and artists the more you will be able to tell the difference. Go on social media, look at feature pages, check out all the shops in your area and their portfolios, read articles, go to conventions if there is one in your town. Most conventions will only allow artists who are at least decent, so what you see there is most likely good work. The more you see the more obvious it will become. And the least likely you are to be charged 4ooo dollars for a draft of a badly drawn fox...
There’s nothing wrong with not knowing anything about cars, but when you’re planning to buy one, you can either research and make an educated decision based on your budget or you can rely on someone else’s opinion or even luck and make a potentially poor choice for yourself. You can resell a bad car but you’ll need to laser or cover a bad tattoo.
What’s more important?
Tattoos are painful, expensive and last forever, so prioritize quality over money. Try to get the best tattoo you can for your budget. Don’t try to get more tattoo for less money. There's no shame in being on a budget and you can always let the artist know from the beginning. For example: "hi, I love your flower work and i would like to have one on my forearm but my budget is no more than 400 dollars, could this work" is an absolutely acceptable and respectable way of conduct. This way the artist can let you know what you can get from them for your budget, and you never know, if you are a nice person with an interesting project, on time on your appointment and sit well, they may even end up giving you a tattoo that would normally cost you a bit more.
One last thing on pricing. If after your research you end up getting a good deal from a good artist, don’t start trashing everyone else in the industry for being expensive. It’s disrespectful first and foremost to the artist who gave you the good deal. They didn’t do that because they enjoy getting paid less, no one likes getting paid less. They most likely did it because their booking is low and need the money. By telling them how amazing they are for being cheap is like telling them they don’t deserve more and that tattoos are not worthy of their money. So think before you speak, we may look tough and cool but were actually sensitive people. We're artists!
Overall the quality of work you receive will be equivalent to the work you yourself put on all the above.
Don’t leave it to luck and you will get the best tattoo you could afford. Besides, happy clients is what keeps the industry alive and thriving. Because in the end, we may refer to ourselves as the "tattoo industry" and to you as the "clients" but we are all together the tattoo community. This is why one of the most common things you will hear in a tattoo shop when a client gets their first tattoo is "you're one of us now"
A lot of artists post their healed work. The reason we do that is surprisingly not what you think. We don’t do that to boast on how awesome our tattoos are compared to other artists. The main reason we do that is to show potential clients who have no prior tattoo experience, how tattoos actually look when they heal so that they don’t have false expectations that they will be walking around with a bright,crisp, studio lit tattoo for the rest of their life.
We all put a lot of effort in the photos of our work to be appealing, so we use photography lighting, tune the colours to look as close as possible to reality and all that while the tattoo is a few minutes old. So obviously when it heals and settles it looks…healed and settled. For anyone who has tattoos already and for the industry people that’s obvious, but for a lot of people who scroll through the internet, it’s not. A lot of people believe that if a tattoo doesn’t look exactly like it did the first day under the professional lighting, that it’s not a good tattoo.
So look at the healed pictures because they prove that the artist is confident enough to prove their skill and you get to evaluate for yourself if you like what you see. But more importantly to get accustomed with how tattoos eventually look.
Even if you (obviously unknowingly) are the most annoying person to walk this earth, no artist has the right to give you attitude. If you feel like you're being mocked, if you are treated with disrespect or rudeness or even disregarded, leave. There are plenty of wonderful people in this industry, who even when they turn down work, they do it with politeness and class.
Yes, we love it.
I could go on about how, we work on percentage, or chair rental, we pay taxes and materials etc and tips are vital for our survival but honestly there's no point in this discussion. I know there are people who are against tipping in general, even for servers, and then there's people who tip tattooers, hair stylists, etc so do your thing whatever it is.