Thinking of inking? Great tattoos start with a little (or a lot) of research. Browse our gallery of tattoo styles (think Japanese, watercolor, black and gray), get some inspiration from our favorite artists on Instagram, and then use the tips below to narrow it down and find the artist who's right for you.
Pick something meaningful or beautiful, silly or fantastic.
Avoid your hands, neck, feet, and face.
This might sound obvious, but hear us out. Lots of tattoo artists won’t even touch the hands, neck, feet, or face unless the client already has a significant number of tattoos. And even though some celebs have insanely intricate finger tattoos, the seemingly inevitable blurring or fading of those designs is well-documented. “The smaller the tattoo, the less detail it has to have,” says Mario Delgado, an artist who has been tattooing since 2001 and owns Moth & Dagger Tattoo. “[A tattoo] is always going to migrate. The lines will look thicker over time, so the tiny details will go away the fastest.”
As for your face and neck? Unless you’ve got a stellar reason (and a rock-solid career plan), it's probably best to avoid.
Do your homework.
Like we mentioned, research is key. Read reviews for shops in your area, browse websites, search Instagram, and ask tattooed friends.
Most tattooists have Instagram accounts or online portfolios you can look through. Or stop by the shop to see what kind of vibe you get.
Remember your tattoo style and your artist go hand in hand.
Don’t go to the guy who’s known for detailed Japanese dragons and ask for a traditional sailor’s anchor. Likewise, if you want something in full color, don’t book an appointment with the gal who specializes in black and gray.
“You want to get the artist that suits the style that you want," Delgado says. "Make sure you have a rapport with the artist, that you could hang out for a few hours.” Bottom line: Play to your artist’s strengths so you’re sure to get a tattoo you love.
Lots of artists book months in advance, so chances are you'll have plenty of time to refine your design even after you pick your artist.
Get an idea of price ahead of time.
“Ask what the minimum is and about hourly pricing,” Delgado says. Most tattoo artists have a minimum—say, $80 an hour—and prices can vary significantly depending on the artist’s experience, popularity, and city. Many studios also require nonrefundable deposits once they start sketching your design. Why? Because even if you back out, the artist still spent time and effort drawing an original design, Stern says.
Oh, and another thing: You usually get what you pay for. “Most people might not be able to tell it’s a bad tattoo, but I can,” says "Sailor Bill" Johnson, a tattoo artist with more than 30 years of experience and owner of Tattoo Time. “Are the lines straight? Is the design centered on the part of the body where it should be? Is it shaded properly? Is it colored properly?” Basically: Getting a bargain when we're talking about a design being permanently etched into your skin might not be a good thing.
Go with ideas, inspiration, photos, and a Pinterest board—but be flexible.
“Bringing in reference art is great, but [the client] shouldn’t get upset if there are things that have to be changed,” Delgado says. “Sometimes artists may need to change things that won’t last over time with a tattoo.” In other words, if you bring an incredibly intricate reference, the artist may need to simplify the design in order to preserve it for decades to come.
Another tip: “Don’t pick something directly online—that’s a bad idea,” Stern says. Every body is different: Varying skin tones and body shapes mean tattoos won’t be identical from person to person. And perhaps more importantly, there’s an ethical issue with asking an artist to copy someone else's work, Stern says. Let your artist do his or her thing and draw something original.
Check the shop’s licenses and certifications.
Depending on the articles you read, tattooing can sound really scary. While there are some risks, most reputable shops offer a safe, clean, enjoyable experience.
Regulations for tattoo studios vary by state. However all tattoo artists are required to undergo bloodborne pathogen training each year (it's a special training because tattooists are regularly exposed to blood and other bodily fluids that put them at higher risk for diseases like hepatitis B or HIV).
“I don’t think it hurts to ask how sterilization is done,” says Idexa Stern, owner and tattoo artist at Black & Blue Tattoo. “Or ask, ‘Can I see the packaging before you open it up?’” (In some states, like New York, it’s actually a requirement for tattooists to open all sterile equipment in the presence of the client). All shops are required to have their sterilization equipment tested regularly, usually by their local health department.
If you’re curious about specific requirements and licenses in your state, check the CDC’s website or look up information on your state’s Department of Health website.
These days, most shops follow strict cleanliness standards, says Stern, but it’s also one more reason to check out the shop’s reputation beforehand.