How To Spot A Bad Tattoo Artist

I have six tattoos and I hate four of them. I can spot a bad tattoo artist from a mile.
Publish date:
July 17, 2014
tattoos, National Tattoo Day, bad tattoos, ink, tattoo artist, tattoo coverups, tattoo removal

Is your Facebook feed filled with tattoos? At least for today, it's not Zuckerberg's wonky algorithm. It's National Tattoo Day.

It seems like everyone I know has a tattoo, wants a tattoo, or has a strong opinion about tattoos (and tattooed people).

Me? I got my first tattoo when I was 14 years old.

Those were the days when you could walk into a tattoo shop and present a signed note from your parents, a bad fake ID, or even a good story and walk out with ink embedded into your dermis.

My friend Renee had already been tattooed at the shop I went to, so I knew I could finagle something. I had my design--a rainbow constellation--all drawn up. Real estate-wise, I wanted it to be in an obvious, bad-ass place, you know, so it would show in school pictures. I decided on upper arm, with the hopes of one day filling out a starry sleeve that could be speckled with body glitter.

Unfortunately, things didn't go quite as planned. The guy who gave me my first tattoo was mean and paunchy, and he kept asking Renee and I about our pierced nipples (we bought some barbells). He shakily scrawled my design onto transfer paper and held it up for an OK. "I was hoping for more geometric stars," I squeaked. His reply: "Well, you have $50, princess." Onto my arm it went. As the needle buzzed, I wondered how much it would cost to cover up what was being done.

Flash forward to today and I now have six tattoos, four of which were done before age 18. And those are the four that I hate. Given the time (and money) that I've spent in tattoo shops, I've learned how to spot a bad tattoo artist--and how to find one who will fulfill all of your tattoo hopes and dreams (0r erase your tattoo mistakes).

A Good Artist Is A Known Artist

Who lets a stranger put a forever mark on their body? I made this mistake not once, but three times. If only someone had told me that you can't expect some wretched dude who has been doing tribal anklets for 10 years to understand what mehndi designs are.

So, please, vet your tattoo artist. Do some research, look at their portfolio, read online reviews, meet in person to discuss the price and piece beforehand, and then... sleep on it.

Professional Artists Are Great Listeners

When I started my sleeve (well, not quite, as you can see below), I didn't like the artist's style at all, but I figured the pattern I drew up was simple enough for him to duplicate. It wasn’t. He kept wanting to add "dimension" and "movement." Those were codewords for NOT WHAT I ASKED FOR. But for some reason I said nothing. I felt like it was rude to disagree--or maybe I was just scared to piss off the guy with the needle. Either way: bad call, Trista. A professional artist honors your design vision above their own. The customer is always right at the tattoo art drawing board. And remember for afterward: A good artist will offer free or discounted touch-ups for a few months post-tattoo.

Coverups Are An Art, Too

Of course you can have a tattoo removed, but it is by no means quick, effective, or reasonably priced. Coverups--which are an art unto themselves--are a widely embraced alternative, but I'll take you through the major options for saying goodbye (kind of) to an unwanted tattoo.

- Burn it off. This is done with lasers, acid, or dermabrasion (aka skin planing). Complete removal is not guaranteed and, on top of a hefty charge, you might also walk away with significant scarring.

- Cut it out. Excision, literally cutting the tattoo out, and cryosurgery (using nitrogen, generally), which freeze-kills the cells holding the ink, both come with warnings of infection and significant scarring, often in the shape of the original tattoo.

- Cover it up. Coverups are a whole subarea of tattoo art specialty. It's also more cost effective than the above options. Usually, the idea is to go bigger and darker. For example, the giant cross tattoo on Angelina Jolie's hip is a coverup of an odd little dragon she got on a drunken night in Amsterdam.

It Pays To Pay For Quality Work

I’m now working with an absolutely stellar artist, Jeny, who not only listens (and does coverups), but is full of interesting ideas. She charges more, but she’s a professional who has been honing her craft for decades, and she has the portfolio to back it up.

As soon as I have time, I’ll start giving Jeny all my money to get this mess covered for good. I’ll also try to follow my own advice in the future.

Anyone else have tattoo a horror story? What's your dream tattoo? Let's dazzle each other with our cool tattoo design ideas.