13 Secrets of Tattoo Artists
Tattoos have gone mainstream: what was once considered a mark of rebellion abhorred by grandparents has become more like a rite of passage. Today, about 30 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo, and among millennials the number jumps to almost 50 percent.
So it’s a good time to be in the tattooing business. But no matter how up-close and personal you get with your tattoo artist, there’s still a lot about the job you probably don’t know. We talked to a few seasoned experts about the intricacies of inking.
1. Tattooing is really hard to break into.
Today there are more than 15,000 tattoo parlors in the U.S., compared to roughly 500 professional tattoo artists operating in 1960. But while the industry is booming, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door. The first step is to get an apprenticeship under a reputable artist who will teach you all they know, but that can take years of persistence.
“I just now have an apprentice and he’s been bugging me about it for three years,” says Chad Leever, a tattoo artist in Indiana. His best tip for landing an apprenticeship? “Hang out, get to know us, get tattooed, but even then it will probably still be no. It’s really tough.”
Tattooing has been an exclusive and secretive industry for years. The “every man for himself” culture has roots in the early days of tattooing when an artist had to protect the tricks of their trade. Sailor Jerry, for example, was known for his vibrant ink shades and Japanese-inspired designs. Captivated by his work, other artists would ask him how he concocted such brilliant colors on the posters in his shop, and Jerry would tell them to add sugar water to the ink. The copycats would realize they’d been sabotaged when they found their posters full of holes—eaten by cockroaches attracted to the sugar.
“Everybody has their secrets and they don’t wanna tell anyone else,” Leever says. “You have to earn the right to gain the knowledge.”
2. Tattoo apprentices get hazed.
If you miraculously manage to land an apprenticeship, get ready to grovel. “Being an apprentice, we can make you do anything,” Leever says. During his own apprenticeship, Leever had to get his navel pierced. “They picked out the most ridiculous navel ring,” he says. “It was this colorful rainbow thing and I had to leave it in for 10 days and show every person who came into the shop. It was horrible.”
Rituals like these are meant to test how far an apprentice is willing to go for the job. “It’s tough but you’re gonna find out if someone’s gonna make it or not based on how much they wanna sacrifice for this career,” says Bang Bang, a celebrity tattoo artist in New York City and author of the book Bang Bang: My Life In Ink. “Do you love it or do you just wanna be part of the show? You have to prove you are just the humble, humble student.”
3. Tattoo artists practice on themselves.
It may be years before an artist-in-training gets to wield a tattoo gun. When they finally get their first shot at inking some real human skin, it’s often attached to their own body. “I just had my apprentice tattoo himself,” Leever says. “It was terrible tattoo. It turned out horrible. He messed it up and he’ll learn from that but now things will make more sense the next time he does it.”
Occasionally they’ll get to tattoo their close friends or even their teacher. Bang Bang says he was the subject of his apprentice’s first tattoo attempt. “If I’m not brave enough to get it, how can I suggest other people do so?” he asks. “I wanted to show them I believe in you, you can do this.”
Other non-human practice materials include orange peel, faux skin, and pig ears.
4. They agree with your parents.
If you’re looking for support for your burning desire to get a neck tattoo, you probably won’t get it from your local tattoo parlor unless you’re older and have a steady job. A lot of artists flat-out refuse to tattoo necks, faces, and hands for young people because they know it could affect the rest of their lives.
“I don’t feel like at 18 you understand the risk of that,” Leever says. “That’s huge. I feel from a moral and ethical standpoint, I could do this and get paid however much, but totally change or ruin this kid’s life.”
According to one survey, 61 percent of HR managers said a tattoo would hurt a job applicant’s chances of getting hired. “People are like that’s money you turn away,” says Jeffery Page, a California-based tattoo artist, “but it allows me more time to do something more positive. Otherwise you’re screwing that person out of at least half of their job opportunities.”
5. A good tattoo artist will say no.
Whatever your age or employment status, there are some tattoos artists just won’t do, either because it’s not their specialty or they know it won’t look good or heal well. The professionals will be honest about this.
Small, intricate designs might not age well, and finger tattoos won’t last. A good artist will warn you about these potential complications and maybe even refuse the work. Because so much of their business relies on referrals, their art is an advertisement, so it better be good. “A good artist will tell you no because your money is not worth their name,” says Page.
But this isn’t always true, especially for less-experienced artists looking to make as much money as possible. “They probably didn’t train under somebody that taught them well,” Leever says. “It’s become this cash-cow industry where people open up a shop that know nothing about tattooing and hire a bunch of people who don’t know anything about tattooing and it’s just about making money.”
6. Tattoo artists hate it when you don’t look at their portfolios.
One big pet peeve of artists is when customers don’t even peek at examples of their work before asking for a tattoo. This is a little bit like hiring an interior designer to revamp your home without looking at their previous designs or at least checking out their Yelp reviews, except a lot more permanent.
“I want my work to sell itself,” Leever says. “I want you to look at this and realize, yes I am the one for you.”
This is also a sign a customer hasn’t done their research, another pet peeve. “If you’re in such a rush to get a tattoo that you can’t look up a person, then you probably shouldn’t be getting it done,” says Page.
7. They’re tired of infinity symbols.
Tattoo trends come and go, but this one just keeps hanging on. According to Leever, there’s been a huge increase in requests for the infinity symbol (which sort of looks like the number eight on its side) over the last few years. “A guy I worked with did four or five in one day,” Leever says. “It’s a poor, boring design. Maybe it’s on Pinterest or something.” Indeed it is, but it’s also on a lot of celebrities, including Kristen Stewart and Taylor Schilling. And celebrities have a huge influence on tattoo trends.
“When Megan Fox got lettering down her ribcage, it seemed like for a whole year we’d have girls come in asking for messages down their ribcages, saying it means a lot to them,” says Page. “But they never would have gotten the message on the ribs, because it’s more of a painful area, [except] the fact that she had it meant it was a cool summer addition to their body.”
8. They make mistakes all the time.
They just know how to cover them up so the customer never knows. “Every tattoo artist messes up,” says one artist on Reddit. “We just take the time to fix it as we go, adding a flourish here or there, a little bit more contrast. No client would notice.”
9. You can barter with them.
Not all tattoos must be paid for in cash. “I actually love bartering, because both parties involved always get what they want,” says Leever. “No money exchanged, makes it easy. The best barter I've been involved in would probably be when I received a 1977 Kawasaki KZ750 motorcycle with a sidecar. It was quite the deal.”
10. Men have the lowest pain tolerance.
Women handle having their skin pricked with needles over and over again much better than men do, according to Page. “Usually the funny thing is, the more alpha male the guy is, the less of a pain threshold they have,” he says. Leever tells the story of a man who wanted a “tough guy Metallica tattoo” but who couldn’t handle the pain. He left the shop with a single line trailing down his bicep.
11. Cover-ups pay the tattoo shop bills.
The tattoo industry is self-sustaining in many ways. For example, people rarely stop at just one tattoo. According to the Pew Research Center, about half of millennials with tattoos have more than one, and 18 percent have six or more [PDF].
But there’s also a lot of cash to be made in covering up old designs. “I make more money from guys down the street than from new customers,” says Leever, meaning bad tattoos from his competitors. “There’s always a name to cover.” And speaking of names …
12. There are only three names you should ever have tattooed.
According to tattoo artists, if you’re going to get a name inked on your body forever, it should only belong to your pets, your kids, or a dead relative.
13. The bodies of tattoo artists take a beating.
“If your back’s not hurting, you’re not trying hard enough,” Bang Bang says. “I have a bad neck now after many years of being hunched over. Back problems are really common, as are hand and neck and eye problems. It takes a toll.”
This article was first published in 2016 and updated in 2019.