By Emily McCombs
(This post originally appears at xojane.com.)
I used to do this dweeby game when I was about 20 and had recently moved to New York, where I would imagine my teenage self viewing my current life. Like, somehow a movie device portal would open up and she’d get a glimpse of her future life and she’d see me like, at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe!!! or kissing a really cute guy who’s totally in a band!
Since my home life today largely consists of DVRed reality television and ordering two large pizzas for two people, she’d probably be less than thrilled if this happened now. (GO PIERCE SOMETHING WITH A SAFETY PIN, TEEN, YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND REAL LIFE.) But I think she’d probably still be pretty impressed if she watched me walk into my tattoo shop.
Because one of 15-year-old me’s main life goals was to walk into a tattoo shop and feel comfortable and have people be nice to me. (And also go back to that cool record shop I was so intimidated by as a teen and have my “BIG MISTAKE HUGE” moment and also return that copy of My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” because I didn’t really know who they were and I never got into it anyway.)
Tattoo shops can be intimidating places. Even as a grown adult, there’s a part of me who still assumes everyone who works there is like rilly, rilly cool and making fun of me behind my back. While there are dicks in any industry, in my experience people who work in tattoo shops are as nice as anywhere else and will treat you with the same respect you give them, whether you have a bunch of tattoos or not.
That said, as in any customer service field, they deal with a lot of crazy assholes, and if you are acting like one, they very well may be making fun of you behind your back. A few common sense dealies:
1. Know what you want.
Tattoo artists are very talented people, but they can’t figure out what you want permanently on your body without your help. Tattoos look cool and sometimes you just want one, but for their sake and yours, decide what you’re looking for before you make a consultation. It doesn’t have to be exact — I often come in with a general theme or elements that I know I want in my tattoo and my charming and talented artist Virginia Elwood designs something for me.
I knew I wanted my most recent tattoo to have a cosmetics theme, so I brought in several images of vintage lipsticks and makeup compacts, along with ideas of the kind of flowers and colors I was looking for. Virginia figured out how to incorporate it all together and make it look cool.
Don’t bring in a picture and expect your tattoo artist to copy it — instead look for things that inspire you. For my left arm sleeve, I brought in a floral-patterned vintage dress as representative of the kind of “spirit” I wanted the tattoo to have.
Look for prints or iconography you gravitate toward — I was always buying stuff with bow prints, so I got little bows tattooed on the backs of my ankles. What makes you happy to look at? What are some things that define you and how can you represent them graphically? (I’m a reader and writer — I have a stack of books on my arm and a vintage typewriter on my leg.) That said, your tattoo doesn’t have to be deeply meaningful or have an epic backstory. It can just be something you think is pretty or cool looking. Once you’ve thought of the right design, you’ll hardly be able to wait to get your new tattoo. Don’t go until you’re FULLY ENTHUSED.
2. That said, be flexible.
While it’s important to come in with an idea of what you want, you shouldn’t come in with a RIGID idea of what you want. Some things look awesome on the page and not on the skin and your tattoo artist knows that because of their years of experience. If they tell you that you shouldn’t tattoo something in the specific size or color scheme you want, listen to them, and figure out how to fix your design together. They are just trying to help you end up with something that looks as good as you want it to.
My motto with Virginia is “You’re the professional,” because let’s be honest, I don’t know jackshit about tattooing. This is why it’s also important to have an artist you trust. If you don’t fully trust the artist you’re working with to give you a tattoo that looks great, get a new tattoo artist! Check out artist’s “books” online or in the shop and look for someone whose work speaks to you. This person is marking you for life and you should believe in their vision.
3. Don’t haggle about the price.
Good tattoos are expensive. Along with razors, they’re one of the few items in life you should never skimp on. Don’t argue, complain about the price, or go on about how much cheaper you could get the tattoo somewhere else. Your artist is putting a piece of custom art permanently on your body. It costs what it costs. If you can’t afford a tattoo, don’t get a tattoo.
4. Be clean/smell good/eat/don’t be drunk.
You’ll be in ultra-close proximity to your tattoo artist for several hours. Take a shower. Brush your teeth. Don’t wear perfume or cologne that may irritate your tattooer. Prepare yourself for the physically demanding process of getting tattooed by eating. Don’t be drunk or be on drugs — most shops won’t tattoo you if you are, as it can fuck up your blood flow as well as your judgment.
5. Don’t bring an entourage.
Some shops allow you to bring a friend with you to your tattoo appointment, which is fine. Don’t bring your entire sorority. It’s annoying and distracting.
Tip your artist. I tip 20 to 30% on the cost of the session, because my tattoo artist is a special person and our relationship is important to me. Again, if you can’t afford a tattoo, WITH a respectable tip, don’t get one.
Since having a lot of tattoos is not, in fact, the same as being a tattoo artist, I asked Virginia what a customer can do to avoid being a dick in the tattoo shop, and she sent the following list, all based on real occurrences:
1. Don’t expect your tattoo artist to chant with you while you’re getting a tattoo, and, actually, how about not chanting at all because we are in a tattoo shop and not in an ashram or at some weird ayawaska ceremony.
2. Don’t bring a friend with you and then ask your friend to tell you a story while you’re getting tattooed, because it always sounds like this: “OK, so, like, I woke up today? And like had some coffee? But the guy at the place made it really like weak? And then I did yoga? Oh, it’s OK, it’s OK, just breath! Just take, like, deep yoga breaths? OK, I’ll keep telling you a story. So then like I was late for that class at NYU that I’m taking that combines French literature with, like, Orson Welles? And I’m, like, I don’t even care about Muslims, you know? Oh, my God! Does it, like, hurt really bad?”
Just come alone for your tattoo or bring a quiet friend. Also, don’t bring your mom or your baby.
3. If your tattooer starts asking you questions every time you start singing along to the music, it probably means you should not sing.
4. If your tattoo artists keeps telling you to look the other way “because it helps to stretch the skin,” it usually means you have really bad breath.
5. When a tattoo artists asks you to describe what you want to get tattooed, it’s not an invitation to discuss the origins/symbolism/spiritual quest/path/journey behind your tattoo. We really just want to know if you want roses or a dagger.
6. Tattoo has 3 Ts, not 2. Probably not a good idea to argue about that, because it’s a fact, not an opinion. Unless you’re foreign and then all bets are off.
7. Although your friend is probably super-duper talented and should definitely become a tattoo artist (because it’s, like, really easy to do, duh), most tattooers will not want to replicate his/her drawing on your skin. Usually because the drawing sucks. And if you want it that bad, get your stupid friend to do it.
8. Don’t talk about how your lame boss micro manages every single thing you do while asking your tattooer to redraw the tattoo or replace the stencil on for the 20th time.
9. Don’t ask what’s playing on the stereo while you’re getting a Social Distortion logo tattooed on you. Because it will probably be a Social Distortion song you haven’t heard and then you’ll look like an even bigger moron.