How to find a great tattoo artist and get the ink you want

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I have enough tattoos that I've completely lost count. Some of them are so small that I think of them sort of like I think of one-night-stands — they’re fun memories but they don’t really count. I am 100% down to get a matching tattoo with a stranger or something cheesy on a dare. I have a panther tat that I got when my partner at the time said that it wouldn’t look cool on anyone. He was wrong. Most folks, however, aren’t so casual about getting permanent designs engraved on their bodies. For you all, I've done years of research to help you find a tattoo artist that will give you the skin art fix you’re after, regardless of which ink-craving situation you’re in.

Courtesy of Tracey Anne Duncan

When you know what you want

Finding an artist is easiest if you know what you want, but there are still a couple of variables. If you already have the exact design you want chosen and it’s not very complex, you can pretty much take it to any tattoo parlour. Same goes if you want classic bold lettering or simple shapes. While only some states require tattoo artist licensing, the field is largely unregulated, but don’t stress about it. You can trust any reputable shop to do basic designs.

If you know what you want and it is complicated, you’re going to have to do some research. Instagram is the best place for this. Every reasonably popular tattoo artist has an Instagram presence.

How do you find them? First, think about the style of your design. Is it a portrait? Is it a watercolor? Is it traditional tattoo art? If you aren’t sure, upload an example and crowdsource artists in an Instagram tattoo thread. Ask people what kind of artist you should be looking for. Every tattoo artist I’ve ever known is obsessed with skin art and will be able to give you more details than mere tattoo tourists can process.

If you have a while to think about your tat, you can follow a thread for a while and see who pops up in your area. If you don’t want to wait, post a picture of the design you want with a caption that says, “Seeking artist.” Specify where you are, a window of time, and the rough size and place you’d like it and ask folks to DM you with some rough quotes.

I have found all of my favorite artists word-of-mouth, a.k.a. crowdsourcing. If I see someone with a tat I like, I always ask who did it so I can file it in my mental rolodex. It can even be okay to go up to strangers, but please don’t touch them. If I had a tat for everyone who has creepily caressed my arm with a tattoo compliment, I would have zero bare skin.

When you don't know what you want

I almost never know what I want when I get a tattoo. What I want is a midset shift. It’s like when you want to change your life so you get a haircut. With the exception of the Lisa Frank sleeve I’m working on, my tattoos are all impulsive. That doesn’t mean that I don’t do any research. Au contraire: I find and follow local artists obsessively. I try to create some kind of social media relationship with them. And then I make an appointment.

When they ask what I want, I ask if they’re okay playing it by ear based on what we come up with when we meet. I’ve never had an artist say no and I’ve never gotten a bad tattoo this way. When we meet, I ask what they love, tell them what I love, and we hash out a plan. Most artists work really well when they get to do work that they help conceive of.

My approach may seem kind of risky or reckless, especially to chronic planners. It’s not for everyone. If you want a more strategic plan, start visiting studios, or at least studios’ websites. Look through pics until you find something you love and then schedule a consultation with the artist. Tell them you’re not sure what you want, but that you love their work. They will probably be very happy to show you their portfolio and you can go from there.

Courtesy of Tracey Anne Duncan

If the experience of getting a tattoo is as important to you as the art, find someone who does hand poke. Hand poke (or stick and poke) are when the tattoo is given with a needle poked into the skin (as opposed to a gun). It takes a lot longer than the gun, but they heal faster. They feel like rituals because many times, they are.

If you choose a stick and poke, though, please be smart about your choice since they put you at a greater risk for infection.

When you’re drunk and/or feeling impulsive

I’m supposed to tell you about how alcohol thins the blood and you shouldn’t get tattooed when you’re drinking. That’s true. So, don’t do it.

But if you do decide to get a permanent reminder of a night you won’t remember, my best advice is, don’t skimp on anything. This is the moment to find the tattoo shop with the highest Yelp reviews and the highest prices. Why? They probably appeal to a more mainstream clientele than other shops. That does not mean they’re better, but it does mean that you pay extra for them to toe the line of social acceptability.

When you’re not in the mindspace to make good decisions, you need folks who can balance out your potentially questionable judgement. The mainstream, high-rated (often expensive) shops will make sure you don’t end up with a satanic goat on your forehead. It seems far fetched now, but some drugs will *poof* make your inhibitions disappear.

Courtesy of Tracy Anne Duncan

If all else fails, choose flash. Flash is what artists call the predesigned images you see wallpapering every studio. Those pics are posted either because they’re popular and because they are not the name of the ex you’re obsessing over in your drunken haze. I once saw a guy with 15 names crossed out on his arm. Don’t be that guy.

Flash is an easy win. If you’re worried that you’ll see someone else with your tattoo, well, you might, but it makes for a great icebreaker. I’ve met some pretty cool people by saying, “Hey, I have that tattoo, too!”

If you’re nervous about getting tattooed, don’t be. Tattoo artists generally know how to wield their responsibility. They are used to working with skittish, unsure people and they are also accustomed to people with far out ideas. You can’t shock them. Tattoo artists are also aware that your body is their byline. They are not going to risk their reputation because you ate shrooms and wanted something stupid tattooed on your face.