Tattoo artists fall into two different categories: those who have had formal training or an apprenticeship and "scratchers.'
The scratcher is an untrained tattooist who may be artistically gifted but rarely bothers sterilizing his instruments. The scratcher may work out of a studio, but often works from his home, a basement or the back room of a bar. They may describe themselves as freelancer. A scratcher often purchases equipment through the Internet or email. The worst thing about a scratcher is their tendency to reuse needles which of course can lead to fatal diseases such as hepatitis or AIDS.
In a category somewhere between the shoddy practices of the scratcher and the brightly lit sanitary studio of professional tattoo artists are the artists that just don't have any artistic talent. Their tattoos are badly executed, the outlines uneven, the colors unattractive and their drawing perspective is out of proportion. If a tattoo artist's works seems ill thought out or lacks a pleasant composition then trust your instincts and stay away.
Unfortunately we live in a day and age where tattooing could literally be the death of a customer if proper procedures are not strictly carried out. Needles and equipment must be properly sterilized, cross-contamination and strict sterilization techniques must be adhered to, or disease can spread as quickly. Blood-born pathogens do kill tattoo clients. If you think all that you need to get a tattoo is a needle and some ink...think again!
Before you choose the tattoo artist, you need to make an inner decision that you are not going to settle for banal, boring or sloppy work. There is too much talent on the market for you to walk away with a badly drawn or splotchy looking tattoo.
It is your ultimate responsibility to choose an artist who has the cleanliness of a surgeon and the talent of a drawing master. Sometimes this means investing some money and sometimes it means travelling to another city to get the tattoo that you want. You need to tell yourself that this expense of time and energy is worth it, as it is an investment in what is ultimately a permanent work of art.
The only way to properly assess a tattoo artist is to see examples of his or her work. They should have a portfolio that is signed or watermarked in some way. The portfolio should consist of photographs of work that they have done. You can also visit the shop or studio and ask if you can watch the artist in action. One good reason to do this is to establish the verity of the artist's portfolio. Unfortunately anyone can put up examples of tattoos on their walls and then claim authorship of the work.
Another way to find a good tattoo artist is to walk up to someone, whose tattoo you admire, and ask him or her who did the work. They will be the first to recommend the artist if the tattooist is good. Make sure you question these individuals to find out the cost of the tattoo as well as the hygienic conditions of the shop. In this case, strangers are likely to give you better advice than your friends. The problem with a friend is that they may be a "friend of a friend" of the tattooist and not be familiar with the tattooist's artistic or business reputation at all.
Industry and cultural magazines are also a good source of information about tattoos. The intent of most of these magazines is to weed out the scratchers from the fine artists and showcase the best of tattoo artists.
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