7 Things That Should Never Happen At A Tattoo Parlor

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When a friend of mine got her first tattoo, her artist told her it would change her life. “You’ll start seeing other people with tattoos and bonding with them over it,” he said. “Of course, some of them might not be very good…”

So how do you make sure that you not only get a safe tattoo, but a great one? Turns out, a custom ink job is only as good as your artist, which means finding someone you can trust. After all, getting a tattoo isn't just about getting ink. It's a complete experience, from consultation to going under the needle to life post-getting inked, whether it's your first tattoo or your 15th.

We reached out to some of our favorite artists to ask them what red flags would make them walk out of a shop, as well as how first-timers can know if their artist is someone to trust. Ahead, seven warning signs to look out for when shopping around. This could save you a lifetime of regret (or a cover-up job).
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First things first: The shop should be clean — a place where "you can trust you won't get a skin infection or any sort of trouble," says tattoo artist Evan Kim from West 4 Tattoo in New York City.

Licenses should be prominently displayed, but beyond that, keep a look out for common-sense signs that something is wrong. Just like a restaurant, you should be able to walk in and feel comfortable making a judgment call. One easy trick? It should smell like disinfectant. As artist Stella Luo says of her shop Golden Iron Tattoo in Toronto, "The tattoo shop smells like a hospital to me." That's a good thing.
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The second major — and obvious — red flag? Any shop that reuses needles without sanitizing. "Any reputable shop is going to be using single-use needles and single-use inks," says Michelle Myles of Daredevil Tattoo in New York City.

The main goal here is to avoid cross-contamination. Practices may vary based on the studio, but ultimately you should see that needles are being sterilized or are single-use. Your artist should always be opening the tools and tubes in front of you before putting needle to skin.
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Nowadays, you should be able to find every artist's portfolio on Instagram, as well as in the shop. But if you're just walking in to check out a studio, the books should be openly available. "You should be able to see their work on display and in books," Kim says. "You should be able to look at their history and look for people whose work speaks to you."

Most artists will recommend that you look not just at current work, but also past work, sketches, and any other artwork. If they're hiding it? That's a sign that something is very wrong. "It could be that they're an apprentice, which you have an obligation to know, or there might be some practices they're trying to hide," Luo says.
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Most of the artists we've talked to say some variation of this: "Good tattoos aren't cheap, and cheap tattoos aren't good."

Yes, sometimes you can get a free tattoo, or a cheaper one depending on your market. But generally, "to walk away with a good tattoo, you have to realize that there is a certain amount of preparation, and that includes saving up your money to get what you want," Myles says.

Often, the total price isn't just the cost of the raw materials. It's the price of the experience, the consultation, the design, and the tattoo itself. "The size, level of detail, and how much thought and planning goes into the design all contribute to the price," Luo says. And tattoos aren't cheap in general; expect to pay at least $100 for quality work in a cosmopolitan area.

This doesn't mean you can't get a tattoo on a budget. "Most of the time, free tattoos or $50-and-under tattoos are apprentice tattoos," Luo says. "Sometimes they're amazing, and it's great to give them a chance if you're willing to do it. But just be aware that there could be some designs that aren't manageable for them yet."
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If you're asking for a custom tattoo, don't expect to walk out that day with something new. "Generally, you should expect some modification," Myles says.

You should set up a consultation, so the artist can get a sense of what you want. Then, you might come back for final approval, stenciling, and inking. With custom work, there will always be some back-and-forth.

"Some artists might only do what the clients want, which isn't wrong, just different," Kim says. "But most artists will give you options. Some people want tattoos in a specific spot, which might not work, so we might suggest another area."

In fact, a sign of a good artist is being able to say no to you. "I might say, 'I’m a little worried about this design. If you really want it, I can try it, but I strongly suggest you change your mind,'" Kim says. "But I’m not going to say, 'Oh, come on. Just trust me. Have a seat.' For me, it’s maybe just an hour’s work, but for them it’s their entire life. All artists have to work under that responsibility."
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Freehanding is tricky territory; many artists will use a stencil to help guide their needle, but more experienced ones might opt for a rough outline in marker if the tattoo calls for it.

If you're working with someone who doesn't have years and years of experience under their belt, however, it might make you feel better if they use a stencil. "It would be very unusual for someone to tattoo without some sort of guideline," Myles says. "I know one artist who has been tattooing for 40 years who could maybe do it — he can do anything — but anyone else will need a stencil."

Granted, the ability to use a stencil instead of an outline does depend on where you're getting the work done. So do your research. "Sometimes, it's better to draw directly onto someone's skin with a surgical marker as opposed to using a stencil," says Virginia Elwood from Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn. "Every tattoo calls for different measures."

The big no-no here? Having someone not give you 100% pre-approval before inking even a dot. "Clients should always get 100% approval," Kim says. "Even if the client wants to change it, you have to re-stencil it and show it to them again. I've stenciled things more than 10 times before."
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Ultimately, the client should always make the last call, which means you should trust your artist to listen and respect what you have to say. "If they feel like the artist is pushing them to just doing a tattoo, at that time try and step back," Kim says.

In turn, you should respect the artist. When you book an appointment, you're not just asking for their tattoo services. You're also asking for their aesthetic and design sensibilities. To find the right artist for you, do your research first. Find people on Instagram, look at their portfolios, and make sure that the work they do is work you love and admire.

In the end, your entire experience should be a pleasant one. "If I'm marking someone's body permanently, I want us to have mutual respect and trust," Elwood says. "I'd like the experience to be as enjoyable for me as it is for my client."
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