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As tattoos grow in popularity, they're no longer taboo — if they're good, that is! How do you choose a tattoo artist who will permanently decorate your skin with a real piece of art, rather than an ugly infectious cesspool you're going to want removed?

Tattoos are no longer taboo — 29 percent of adult Americans now have at least one, and that figure rises to 47 percent for Millennials [1] — but you still need to think before you ink. Once you're sure you want a(nother) tattoo and have a good idea of what and where, choosing your artist is your biggest decision. With tattoo studios mushrooming, you're drowning in choice. Watch out, though, 'cause they don't all know what they're doing. 

How do you spot a studio that should make you run for the hills — and what are the signs that you've found the right artist for you?

When my editor asked me, a fairly inked gal, to write about tattoos as SteadyHealth's resident "tattoo expert", I decided that that just wouldn't do. I reeled in a real expert — the guy who did most of my tattoos. Voja Djordjevic, the owner of BotRich Tattoo in Belgrade, Serbia and a tattooist at Needles & Pins in Runding, Germany, has been tattooing for eight years and tattooed for even longer. 

Stalk Their Social Media

"Social media is a powerful tool you can use to research your artist and to get a better idea of the style and quality of their work," Voja says. Look at pictures of the previous work of artists you're considering on Facebook, Instagram, and wherever else, and look around for reviews too. Is the artist nowhere to be found on the net, do you come across one poor review after another, or do you simply not connect with the artist's style? Look elsewhere. 

If you're in love with the work, keep investigating the studio. Voja shares: "You’ll usually see pictures of the studio as well, so you can get an impression of the working conditions."

Make Sure You Don't End Up With Unwanted Souvenirs

You want your new tattoo to look good for a very long time, but before that, you want to get inked without ending up with souvenirs like an MRSA infection, warts, or worse though unlikely, HIV [2]. Not getting tattooed by that college friend who bought a "tattoo gun" off Ebay is a good start, but it's not all good just because it says "tattoo studio" on the front and it's open. 

"Plenty of studios accept walk-ins," Voja says, "and you'll be able to look around as soon as you enter." This starts with needles — which should be "individually wrapped in sterile packaging and always opened in front of you" — but it doesn't end there. You're also looking for:

  • A studio that generally looks clean, tidy, and uncluttered. 
  • Disposable bed sheets and coverings for the work station and the machine itself, fresh ink caps (the little containers they put the ink into — nobody should be dipping needles straight into bottles of ink!) and a fresh pair of medical-grade disposable gloves on your artist. 
  • All work spaces to be sanitized with medical-grade disinfectant sprays. 
  • Safe disposal of old needles by way of bio hazard containers. 
  • No smoking or drinking in the studio. (Duh!? But apparently it happens!)
  • The artist should shave your skin and rub it with alcohol to prevent infections. 

Voja stresses:

"The needles are crucially important. Don’t accept any talk about artists having ‘sterilized’ old needles — that’s not OK. As the customer, you pay for proper equipment and hygienic working conditions and shouldn't accept anything less. Sometimes people mainly look at the cost of a tattoo, but they really need to be looking at everything else first."

Reputable tattoo artists will always be happy to answer questions about hygiene and safety, and to give you a tour of the studio. Sketchy behavior around that should be enough to make you run away. Depending on where you live, your studio should also be certified by their local health board, something you can verify with them directly in addition to taking the artist's word and looking at their certificates. 

Good Artists Don't Do Whatever You Want

You're drunk. You're 15 and don't have parental consent. You're telling your artist that you'd like to get the name of your boyfriend of one week etched into your skin for all eternity. You don't have any tattoos yet, but have decided you'd really dig having a giant Yoda performing fellatio on Darth Vader on your neck. You think that ink your fave singer or some Instagram star has on them is cool, and would like to copy it, so you march into the studio with a picture.

I get it — OK, at least some of it — but if you walk into a tattoo studio and the guy or gal there says they're happy to work with you, they're not a tattoo artist but a co-conspirator in a decision that will likely affect the rest of your life in a bad way. 

Good tattoo artists don't simply do whatever whoever shows up on their doorstep wants. They have a reputation to uphold, they have ethics, and yeah, they actually care that you don't go around with that gross idea you had for the rest of your life. 

"The majority of people who get tattooed don’t understand much about tattoos and some come in with unrealistic ideas,
 Voja shares, adding:

"If you come in with an idea — rather than a finished picture from the internet or something — and the artist gets to know you, they can create something unique on you. Similarly, a lot of folks come in with plans to have tattoos in places where it’s not really OK. Hands, feet — tattoos in those places don’t heal too well and fade quickly too. Someone young who wants tattoos in especially visible places… they’ve got plenty of time for that. Better to avoid tattoo regret! Lots of minors come into the studio, and they need parental consent to get tattooed, but besides that, you’ll have changed a lot even by the time you’re 20… Artists should use their common sense and decide what they’re willing to do and not do."

A good artist will give you the advice that leads to a unique tattoo that is just right for you, not simply do what you want. Conversely, good clients will listen to that advice — and if you don't and insist that that clip art would look great on your skin, a good artist may well turn you down. 

You Don't Click 

Not clicking with your artist on an artistic or personal level? Get out, and keep looking. Whether it's a quick and small tattoo or a sleeve, your artist is creating a piece of permanent art for you, and you want to love their style, their skills, and hopefully their personality too.

Bigger tattoos will have you spending hours upon hours in the studio, and there's really no need to have your skin decorated by someone you dislike. On the artistic front, don't ask your artist to create pieces they don't get with — if an artist is into photo realism, they may not be the right person to create that Japanese koi fish for you.

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