One in a possible series; The following presumes you already have an idea of what you want, and can verbalize it with some decent level of clarity. An example drawing is even better, as artists love visual aids 😉 Rather, what I intend to impart upon you here is how to take that next step from deciding you want a tattoo, and have an idea for a design, into the space of actually seeking out someone to ink it for you…
First and foremost: talk to your friends who have tattoos you like. Ask where they got theirs, and who did them. More often than not they will have recommendations for you. And really, recommendations are worth their weight in gold. (My recommendation: Wendi Ramirez, who is now in Austin, Tx. as owner of Dovetail Tattoo… or Eli Falconette at Blacklist Tattoo, Portland, Or.)
Like anything you commit a large sum of money or any permanence to, you will want to do your research. www.bmezine.com is a great single resource for a lot of articles on (and photos of) tattoos, as well as key tips for sanitation and what to look for in a shop on their Tattoo FAQ wiki: http://wiki.bmezine.com/index.php/Tattoo_FAQ
Doing your research now will pay off in the long run and help you understand what to look for in an artist and a shop.
Failing any local friends/artists, start on the internet and do some searches for prevalent and established shops within your comfortable travel distance. Check out the online portfolios of some of the local artists and make a list of a few whose art you like. In general, I’d recommend finding someone who has some portfolio pieces of the quality you want in the style you are also looking for. (As an aside I don’t take my own advice here, typically I look for quality of work over the actual content. I chose one of my favourite artists based on a particular piece, a blackwork leafless tree, because the skill to do that work would translate well to the piece I wanted her to do for me. I didn’t want the same content, I wanted someone who could provide the same quality, and her portfolio proved to me she had the chops, even though nothing resembled the style I wanted.) If the artist does high quality American traditional work, well, bets are that they will provide you with the same high quality work if you want that same style; asking someone to go outside their normal artistic style may not prove to be as fruitful.
Before doing anything at this point, do not expect to get a tattoo the day you walk into the shop. Expect to schedule an appointment for a later date with the artist you choose. While most shops do handle walkins, you will likely get whichever artist is available, not necessarily the one you choose. And you want to choose! Be prepared to schedule as far as a month or two out, or as quickly as later that week, or next week.
Once you have found a few shops and artists you’d like to visit, do just that: go to the shops. Literally shop around. Take a look at as many shops as you can stand, and thumb through all the portfolios each shop has on their artists. If the artist is around and available to talk, speak with them. Tell them what you are looking for, where you want it, how big, and keep an open mind if they have ideas to change the piece a bit to make it work better. While you are talking with them, tune in to how they treat you, and what questions they are asking… and be sure to ask some good questions yourself to get a sense of their craft and the shop they work in. Following are some of my initial questions I find useful:
- How long have they been tattooing
- how long have they been at this particular shop
- do they autoclave their tools
- do they wear latex gloves
- what style do they prefer (celtic, american traditional, japanese traditional, new school/oldschool, realism, portrait, custom, etc.)
- do they primarily work from flash or do they do mainly custom pieces (flash is the pre-drawn stuff you find littering the walls at most shops)
- If you don’t have a final drawn piece, are they willing to work with you to draw something up
There are really no wrong answers to the above (aside from the obvious medical safety items like autoclaving and glove usage, etc.), but rather these types of questions are intended to give you a starting point for a better idea about the artist’s skills and establish a comfort level with the artist; to stimulate the discussion, if you will, so you can feel your way around the artist and make sure you are comfortable with them. The more shops you visit and artists you talk to, the more likely you will find the artist who is right for you.
Now, while you CAN and should ask about pricing, I’d highly recommend not making that your first or main question, as when it comes to tattooing the primary focus should be in finding the right artist first, not necessarily the lowest price. After all, this will be something you carry with you the rest of your life, do you really want the task of inking it to go to the lowest bidder?
When it comes to pricing, from my experience, most artists worth anything charge around $85 to $150 / hour for their work on custom pieces. Of course some may be more, or some less costly; it is up to you to decide where the balance is in terms of quality/comfort/and cost for you. Some may quote you a set price per piece depending on the size and amount of work involved. So be prepared to deal in hourly rate or price per piece. Some pieces may take more than one sitting, so be prepared for that as well, and know how your artist will charge for multiple sittings etc. Being clear up front will help avoid misunderstandings later.
I’ll leave you with this: Taking the time to research before you commit to getting inked will help ensure your happiness after you get your first tattoo… and your second… and your third… and so on.