I have had this article on my To-Write list for quite a while. I went back and forth between the whole blog-and-work life and really don't have a lot of interest in mixing the two. However, over the past year plus, I've gotten many requests wondering what it's like to work in a tattoo shop.
It wasn't until a recent (terrible) video by PopSugar came out and was being passed all around the internet that I seriously considered posting something like this. It's borderline embarrassing when I see any fashion "publication" write articles about trend tattoos and what you should get. 99.9% of the time they're so ill-informed and really are preparing you for the worst type of experience. With this, I figured it was time to make a long post about what you should expect when you get a tattoo, tattoo etiquette, and other FAQs regarding what I do.
(top image: My most recent piece is the start of a Pharaoh's Horses back piece. This was a four-hour linework session with Matt Pardo at Chicago Tattoo Company)
Beginning with a full disclosure here: every shop is different. I am not a tattoo artist. I've only been getting tattooed for ten years and I've only worked in a shop for 1.5 years. Shops are different and artists are different. Tattoo artists have much, much, much more experience than I do and are the end-all, be-all with this discussion. I work in a tattoo shop and what I write about is from my personal experience
I got this filler from a traveling artist and friend of mine. If you follow artists on Instagram and they travel to your area, sometimes they'll have books of line drawings — stuff they'd like to do on their travels! Email in advance because sometimes traveling artists can fill up their schedules quickly. By JaySoos.
What do tattoos feel like?
Short answer: You can handle it.
Long answer: They don't feel great. In fact, some can really suck. But I fully believe you should go into your tattoo knowing that it's going to hurt in some capacity. Keep in mind that some areas hurt more than others. My worst were my feet (full-coverage), lower-back, ribs, and back of the neck. Arms and legs tend to be the easiest areas. The only way I know how to explain the feeling is that it's more annoying than anything — sort of like a hot scratch. As long as you're well hydrated and have eaten a meal prior to your tattoo (important!), your body will naturally get into the grove of the tattoo. You sort of get used to it, for a lack of better terms.
Ongoing work by Michael Tofano at Chicago Tattoo Company. For the past year we've been working in small sessions on my Botticelli sleeve!
How do I find a good tattooer?
Research! This is so-so-so important. When I was younger, I didn't do my research and ended up with some bad tattoos by inexperienced artists. Like, they're bad. I figured because the person was a friend of a friend, they'd be alright. Wrong. The internet is at our fingertips nowadays, so take the extra time to look through artists portfolios, Instagrams, and websites. Google searches will help you find high-rated, clean shops. It also helps to know what type of tattoo you want — traditional? New school? Photo realism? If you like someone's portfolio of work and you approach them with your idea, there's a better chance of them knocking it out of the park. Another thing to consider is price — you get what you pay for. Know your budget and be open with your tattooer about it!
No Outlines, White Inks, Color Lines
Trust your tattooer. I really can't say this enough times. Once you find a good, clean, professional shop and a solid tattooer, trust them. They apprenticed, they've worked in the industry for x number of years (and more than likely have been paying attention to tattooing for far longer), and they know how tattoos age over time. There are a few exceptions, but consider that even though a fresh tattoo with no outlines may look great on Pinterest, but it could get fuzzy and muddy in the matter of a few years.
Color inks and black inks are different down at a very tiny level. You should think of black ink like a barrier that keeps your colors in place and stops them from looking fuzzy. When you request a tattoo with no outline, your artist will more than likely bring up the importance of that outline. There are some very talented artists who can execute photorealistic styles without outlines. They use lots of blacks in the design to help give the image contrast. Keep in mind that art on paper and art in skin are separate worlds. A design on your skin needs proper contrast to be readable and to age well!
The same goes for those little white tattoo you've pinned to your board. Tattoo inks aren't opaque. When applied, you're looking through layers of transparent skin and ink. Once healed, they can appear grayish, invisible, or like a light scar. And surprisingly, sometimes they heal great. There are many artists who won't tattoo intricate designs in white for the sole reason of inconsistent healing. If you're looking for a white tattoo, be prepared to have the conversation about how white may heal out on you.
Here's a fresh tiny tattoo I got after a friend convinced me that a shop's Friday the 13th $13 dollar deal was a good idea. I got this tiny little wishbone by an apprentice — it healed like shit and I've had to have it touched up already. Like I've said, you get exactly what you pay for and tiny tattoos can sometimes be troublesome!
Can my tattoo be super tiny?
I think one of the more frustrating parts of my job is the never-ending request for tiny tattoos. Tinier text, tinier mandalas, tinier celtic knots. There's nothing wrong with small tattoos, but you should be aware that the smaller the tattoo, the simpler the design needs to be. If you want lettering, it can't be teeny tiny. Inevitably, all tattoos spread over time. If you make your tattoo too small, it's going to blur together and be non-legible. Trust me. I have experience on this one. In 2009 I got a tattoo of a bird skeleton and some lettering on my left forearm. Within 3-4 years. the text is completely illegible and the spaces in between all the bird bones have started closing up. It looks like shit, to be frank. The guy who did it didn't tell me at the that it was too small. And how was I supposed to know unless someone explained to me why? It wasn't until much, much later that I discovered this fact.
It's not the desire for dainty tattoos that I find frustrating. It's the fact that so often I can explain (and show examples of!) how tattoos age and the response is commonly "are you sure?" Again, this comes to a matter of trusting the shop and the artist you go to. They know how these things age and a good artist will turn down a too-small design.
What about "basic bitch" tattoos?
This is where you will find vastly different opinions from person to person. This is why that PopSugar video was so heavily mocked by tattooers — the "basic bitch" tattoo (I hate that term, really) are the infinity signs and the arrows and the mountain range and the inspirational quotes and ... whatever is trendy. The idea of "trend" tattoos is so ridiculous to me. Trends are fleeting and tattoos are permanent.
My personal feeling is that you should get whatever the fuck you want to get. With that being said, yeah, I wish more people would get big, cool, custom tattoos. In a perfect world, every person would. But hey, here we are.
We see these common designs all the time. In fact, I made a sheet at my shop full of these little tattoos that people get. I lovingly call it the "Cheat Sheet." Things to consider are all those people you know with mustaches on their fingers or how the Tramp Stamp became a huge joke (which, by the way, that area hurts like hell, so I call those Champ Stamps). Think about how the trend of tribal tattoos warped the perception of how cool those designs actually can be. Yeah, I said it, tribal tattoos CAN be cool. Some (not all) artists will do these Cheat Sheet tattoos begrudgingly. Some artists will do them happily.
Just remember that your tattooer is an artist. You're not at Starbucks or McDonalds ordering a menu item — someone is putting something on you that should last forever. Put some thought into it!
How much does it cost?
Again, you get what you pay for! I say this all the time for a reason. Talk to your artist about cost prior to getting started. If you have a budget, let it be known. And most shops won't discuss price over the phone — there are a lot of variables that go into a tattoo and it's much easier for everyone to look at a design together in person.
Should I tip? How much?
It is considered customary to tip 15-20% on the cost of the tattoo. Many people are shy to ask this. Don't be!
This "Who Me?" duck was tattooed by David McNair at Chicago Tattoo Company. Dave is a coworker of mine who has been making tattoos at our shop for 28 years! On the left is the fresh tattoo and on the right is the first round of Saniderm bandaging. Read more about my healing below.
How do they heal?
Most artists and tattoo collectors have a slightly different method for healing. I've had some tattoos heal really easy and other tattoos heal horribly. As a general rule, the healthier you are, the healthier your tattoo will be. Drink lots of water and take care of yourself. And don't pick at it!
For the tattoo itself, keep it dry and clean. Don't use any fragrant soaps or lotions on it. My preferred method is to leave it wrapped in the bandage overnight, wash it off in the morning with liquid Dial soap, and keep it dry throughout that second day. On the third day, I begin using a tiny bit of Lubriderm lotion. My tattoo will scab a little or flake over the next few days. Most tattoos take 2-4 weeks to heal, depending on the level of skin trauma. Line work is quick, but anything with a lot of blending can take longer.
On some smaller tattoos that are on non-moveable areas of the body, I use a product called Saniderm. This is a medical bandage that is breathable but waterproof. I recommend it for anyone who may have to wear clothing over their tattoo during the healing process. It can take some getting used to, though. And it can be sort of pricey. When I opt for the Saniderm, I leave the shop bandage on overnight and clean it in the morning per usual. I apply the Saniderm to the clean, dry tattoo and leave about 1.5" all around the outside of the piece. It will seep and become this little gross bag of plasma, ink, and blood over the next few hours. It's gross, haha. I call it a "Soup Bag." The next morning, I take that bandage off, thoroughly wash the tattoo again, and reapply a new bandage. The Saniderm tricks your body into thinking you have already formed a scab over the wound and begins the healing process much quicker. It sounds great on paper but can require a learning curve!
Everyone has a different method. This is just my personal experience! Talk to your artist.
This is embarrassing. Here's me, ten years ago, after getting my first tattoo. Quite a MySpace-y photo, right? So for whatever reason, I opted for these new school birds on the chest. I have plans to cover them up. But hey! First tattoos are always a good story, right?
What do your tattoos mean?
I actually sorta think people who ask this question are assholes. Don't feel pressure that your tattoo has to "mean something" or "symbolize something." Many of my tattoos are pieces of art I've collected from artists I like. It's as easy as that.
Where should I put my tattoo?
I'm always so confused when a person insists that they need to hide it for work, and insist on getting it on their wrist or on the inside of their finger. Those are very visible place. Very. If your tattoo needs to be hidden, consider a spot that is easily covered by a t-shirt — upper arms, ribs, chest, or back. Thighs are great too.
There are parts of the body that simply do not hold tattoos well. Hands and feel will fade quicker over time. Some specific areas like the heal, palms, sides of the feet or fingers just really don't heal well in general. At my shop, we always present this information up front to clients, because of these reasons, we don't guarantee touch ups.
Consider the season. Feet tattoos are harder to heal in the winter when you're layered up with boots and socks.
Think about your favorite t-shirt. Is the logo facing you or is it facing everyone else? Traditionally, it is considered "correct" for your tattoos to be visible to other people when your body is at rest. This is another one of those subjects that will split tattooers' opinions. If you're "Breathe" script is facing you, that means it's upside down to everyone else. Even though you're 'getting it for you,' you'll still know what it says if it's readable to everyone else. Besides, if you get it upside down, you'll forever have people asking, "...what does that say?" Your for-you tattoo suddenly becomes something you have to explain to ev-er-y-one.
And that brings us to...
Tattoo shops can be really intimidating for some people. And that's okay. They don't need to be. Here's what you should know so that you don't accidentally become that person in a tattoo shop.
❖ Do not mock the artwork on the walls. This one makes my heart hurt. In my shop, our walls are filled with traditional designs and repaints and tributes to those important parts of tattoo history. There are pieces of art that someone took the time to make. To watch someone make fun of a design or a style is extremely insulting and doesn't make you look cool.
❖ Do ask questions! We want you to be comfortable and confident when you get tattooed.
❖ Don't take photos of the artwork. Again, someone spent time on it. If you want it, you can probably buy a print or get it tattooed! The worst thing you can do is copy someone else's art and take it to another shop. Additionally, if you want to take photos while you're getting tattooed, check with your artist. It's only polite to make sure that he/she is okay with being photographed.
❖ Do bring your ID. If a place doesn't ID you, that's concerning.
❖ Don't be annoying. By that I mean you should keep your voice down, keep your phone volume off or use headphones, take any phone calls outside, and respect the space around you. There may be people in marathon tattoo sessions who don't wanna hear your YouTube videos. Heck, there's probably a concentrating artist who doesn't need to be interrupted by it either. A tattoo shop isn't your apartment and you shouldn't treat the furniture as your own. Coming in drunk makes you the ultimate turd.
This thigh piece was done by James Travis at Chicago Tattoo Company. We started off brainstorming about Zoltar machines together, and eventually ended up with a fortune teller woman instead. I love the whispy biker skull in her crystal ball!
❖ Do be prepared. Know at least a general idea of what you want. Bring photo references of the subject matter or style.
❖ Don't touch your fresh tattoos (or even healed piercings!). Sometimes we see someone come in with a healing piece and they begin touching and rubbing it. This is a big no! Don't be offended if you're asked to stop touching your tattoos or piercings — it's a measure to protect your health and everyone else's!
❖ Do respect your artist! If you ask for an opinion or they give you advice regarding their professional experience, be open and listen.
❖ Don't bring ALL your friends. Watching someone get tattooed can be boring. And sometimes having a friend with you is more difficult to deal with than you'd think. There's no need for a group of cheerleaders gathering around to distract your artist.
❖ Do speak up if you're feeling faint or nauseous. It's not uncommon for people to get light-headed. Tattooers have experience dealing with this and can help you through.
❖ Don't bring your kid without calling first. I think this is a no-brainer, but tattoo shops are typically not kid-friendly environments. There can be inappropriate conversations, imagery, and other dangers during your visit. Kids can be very distracting and it is pretty common for stops to have a no-children policy.
Leg piece by Scott Santee. This image was published in a book about the history of Polaroid!
And finally —
People always ask me what it's like to work in a tattoo shop. Well, it's fantastic. Like any job, there are certain things I have to do that I don't really love. For example, sometimes I kick drunk people out. Sometimes I deal with jerks. Sometimes the hours are really long. But at the end of the day, I'm happier here than I ever was in corporate America or retail. Working around other creative people definitely boots my inspiration in many other ways. The people I've had the pleasure of working with are all amazing and talented, and I really could not ask for anything better.
And that's a long-winded post, I know. I could go on and on, but in reality, I still have so much to learn! I'm at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to tattoo shop stuffs, but I'm still a lot of peoples' first point of contact when they walk through the door. I'm forever willing to learn more about the industry, which is important in any line of work.
At the end of the day, your tattoo is your tattoo. Please feel free to share your tattoo shop experiences or discussions in the comments below!