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How to Choose the Right Tattoo Artist

Updated on June 9, 2013
Research carefully before letting a tattoo artist ink your skin.
Research carefully before letting a tattoo artist ink your skin. | Source

You've decided it's time to get a tattoo. Maybe you have a special moment you want to commemorate, or maybe you just want to get some ink. Either way, be 110% sure it's the right move for you: tattoos are painful and expensive and removing them is even more painful and more expensive.

Let's say the decision has been made. Now it's time to find that tattoo artist that will make your vision become a reality. Put as much thought into choosing your tattoo artist as you did in choosing your dentist; frankly, the two procedures are somewhat similar.

Not a painterly tattoo, but original art by Shawn McDonald.
Not a painterly tattoo, but original art by Shawn McDonald. | Source

How do I research tattoo artists?

If you have inked friends, ask for their recommendations. I never had great success with this; more often I've been the one to discover the artist gem and turn my friends on to this person. But, hey, maybe you have friends who are research nuts like me!

Just like when you're thinking of getting a certain type of car and you see it everywhere, once you decide to get a tattoo you'll notice ink everywhere. When you see someone with a tattoo you admire due to topic or, especially, artistic style, ask them about it. I usually tell them honestly what a wonderful tattoo they have then ask where they got it. Starting with a compliment ensures a friendly response. I have gotten quite a few "out of state" responses, but I got a few great recommendations in which the tattooed one even gave me a business card of their artist.

If you've created your own design, you want to find an artist who is willing to do custom work. Not all artists are. A friend of mine got a motorcycle chain around his bicep; there's a gap under his arm because the "artist" he went to was unwilling to free-hand where the stencil left off! The sad fact is that some tattooist are not capable of much more than ink-by-the-number. They start with a stencil and just fill it in. I'd advise avoiding these shops altogether.

Painterly style of tattoo.
Painterly style of tattoo. | Source

Conduct an internet search. I knew I wanted a painterly tattoo, so I searched for artists in my city who could create painterly tattoos. That specific search produced one result that directed me to the shop I ultimately chose, Th'ink Tank. All of the tattoo artists at this studio are also artists in another medium, usually paint – perfect since I wanted a tattoo that would look like it had been painted on me.

Once you've got the potential shops limited to just a few, check out their website for portfolios. Any tattoo artist worth letting ink your body will have numerous photos of his previous work. At Th'ink Tank, besides the online portfolios, every artist has created a professionally bound book of his work. The artist I ended up working with, Shawn McDonald, included his paintings in his book.

You're going to spend a couple hours with this person -- choose someone personable. (Shawn at work on my friend.)
You're going to spend a couple hours with this person -- choose someone personable. (Shawn at work on my friend.) | Source

I've chosen someone, now I…

The temptation is to choose your tattoo and want to get inked right away. If your main motivation is to get tattooed, and you're choosing a place that's easy to cover, go for it. You probably won't regret it. Probably.

However, if you're looking to create a meaningful work of art on your body, spend some time in consultation with the artist. You'll discover if your ideas jibe with his – or hers. Though Shawn's portfolio features a lot of sci-fi and skull imagery, his use of color and shading drew me to his work. I figured if he could make a devil face somewhat beautiful, the painterly flower would be easy for him. Plus, when I showed him the band logo that goes with the flower (in my design – the flower isn't in the original!), he knew right away who Rammstein was. That made me feel comfortable.

Tell the artist what you have in mind. If you've sketched something, show it to him. If he hesitates or seems like he doesn't want to do it, walk away. I actually consulted with an artist at another shop who had been recommended by a friend. He spent all this time telling me he couldn't do this and that and the tattoo needed to be bigger. Despite the great work in his portfolio, I chose not to work with him. Tattoo is an art, and if the spirit's not in it for the artists, the spirit's not going to show up in the art.

Ironically the first artist was right about the limitations. Shawn raised the same concerns; however, he did so in a knowledgeable manner. He explained to me that a tattoo might look like it's painted on, but the technique is closer to creating comic book images, so he'd need more space to create the shading. That made me feel a lot more confident than "I can't do it that small – it needs to be bigger."

The autoclave sterilizes tattoo equipment to medical standards.
The autoclave sterilizes tattoo equipment to medical standards. | Source

While you're in consultation, check the cleanliness of the shop. The studio is probably not going to resemble your dentist's office, but you want the artist's station to be about that clean. Watch the artists at work. They should be wearing gloves when tattooing. They themselves, though they may look like seedy bikers, should be clean and 100% sober. They may curse more than your dentist, but they shouldn't drink on the job any more than your dentist would.

Tattoo equipment must be sterilized; currently the accepted method for professionals is the autoclave, a device that looks like a microwave but functions more like a pressure cooker: an autoclave sterilizes through a combination of pressure and heat, at least 245˚F for a minimum of 30 minutes. Ask the studio how they ensure sterile conditions. A fabulous tattoo won't look beautiful if you end up with a flesh-eating bacteria!

Th'ink Tank Tattoo

172 S Broadway, Denver, CO 80209:
172 South Broadway, Denver, CO 80209, USA

get directions

The artist studio: Th'ink Tank.

General Tips

  • Look on Yelp or Yellowpages to check out a studio. A bad review or two mixed in with a lion's share of great reviews is not a red flag. Th'ink Tank got a couple bad reviews for customer service (not in evidence when I've been there) but none for quality of work. Avoid any that get bad reviews for cleanliness or ugly art.
  • Most states require tattoo artists to get licensed. Ensure the artist you choose has up-to-date licensure. To get this license they have to take classes related to blood-borne pathogens and infection control as well as CPR. You want your artist knowledgeable on these topics.
  • If the shop features a lot of other merchandise – bongs and other smoke-related products, a wide array of music and skater t-shirts, jewelry – the tattooists are likely only dabbling. Choose a studio. Th'ink Tank features 5 styles of t-shirts advertising their business, and that's it besides their tattooing. They're serious about their skin art.
  • Go with your gut. If a situation feels uncomfortable, do not continue. If the artist is rude or inattentive, there's no reason to give that person your money – not to mention artistic license on your body.
  • Similarly, if you're a woman getting a tattoo in a sensitive spot, you may feel more comfortable with a female tattoo artist.
  • Do not go cheap. Save your money as long as necessary. Cut back on other luxuries to afford the best tattoo available.

Your tattoo and you are going to be together a long time. Put in the research to find just the right tattoo artist for you.

Tips from a pro


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    • nArchuleta profile imageAUTHOR

      Nadia Archuleta 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      I agree completely that tattoos are a form of art. All of mine have special meaning to me, too.

      So sorry about your bad tat experience. I'm actually getting ready to write and article about tattoo removal. My friend just went through this. Thanks for stopping by!

    • webdesignsbyapw profile image


      5 years ago from Petaluma, CA

      Wonderful article. If only I read this when I was 19 and decided to get a tattoo. It was the "spur of the moment" type of think where I thought it would be cool to walk in to get one.

      Well, now I want my tattoo off even though it is hidden on my upper arm (in the shoulder area) because I want to set a better image off myself. Otherwise, I'd get more tattoos. I just hate how people judge someone for tattoos. It's a form of art.

    • nArchuleta profile imageAUTHOR

      Nadia Archuleta 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      No fun. I've seen some bad work, too. Thanks for stopping by!

    • soconfident profile image

      Derrick Bennett 

      5 years ago

      Getting the right tattoo artist is important, I have friends with horrible ink jobs. Looks very smeared.


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