How to Communicate with Tattoo Artists to get Exactly What you Want

Now that I have four tattoos, I’m obviously the expert, hah! However, I’ve accompanied many friends and with Malcolm to get them, and I have friends who own their own tattoo shops. I’m sure to their annoyance, I asked many stupid questions. Over the years, I learned that if you don’t communicate exactly what you want, you will not get exactly what you want. I don’t find it easy to communicate my wishes for my body to a hard old tattooer, especially one who obviously does not want to be there. Below are my tips on how to communicate effectively with an artist, especially when you feel they don’t hear you.

  1. When choosing an artist, don’t settle for a grumpy old dude who could give two fucks. I’ve had artists who use the numbing cream because they don’t want to see me in pain and artists who view the pain as earning the tattoo, who do not offer numbing cream. Look at their previous artwork. Look at their style. Ask your inked friends where they go. I wouldn’t recommend an impulse tattoo with a new-to-you artist. That’s a recipe for disaster. Do your homework.
  2. Have an idea of what you want before you go and communicate this before your appointment and at your appointment. Don’t draw it out in great detail and show it to the artist. Odds are, they are WAY more likely to create something gorgeous. This is their job, after all. You could do a quick very rough sketch to show them size and scale, but nothing beyond that. It’s considered disrespectful to a lot of seasoned artists I know.
  3. Decide where you want it. I always point exactly at the spot, and show them on my body the size I’m thinking.
  4. Decide the scale. Some people just want a very small tattoo on their wrist or fingers. Almost all of the artists I’ve had and witnessed have asked me if it could go bigger. They compare it to a large blank wall. The idea is you wouldn’t put a small frame on a huge, blank wall. It looks disproportional. If you want smaller, be firm and tell them you want it smaller. If you need more time to think, ask what they think. They then draw it out and use it as a stencil type thing to show you the scale. That is the time when you can ask for bigger or smaller. You know your body and mind — you know what you want. Don’t let them talk you out of it.
  5. Decide what colors/color scheme you want. Do you want black/white, gray scale, pastels, jewel tones, blues and greens, many different colors, etc.?
  6. Decide what style of tattoo you want. I myself like American classic tattoos which have bold lines and bright colors. Think Sailor Jerry. There’s also: minimalistic, line art, realistic, portraits, surreal, abstract, geometric, Japanese, floral, watercolor, and even glow in the dark. Ensure your artist has experience in the style you want before you go. The last tattoo I got is not in the style I envisioned it, but I also did not communicate what style I wanted. I like the tattoo, but I was picturing something different.
  7. Don’t let someone talk you out of what you want. Tattoo artists don’t know your mind and heart like you do. Trust yourself. You may want something the artist will think looks goofy, but it’s your body, your choice.
  8. Don’t ask if it’s going to hurt. Y’all, yes. It’s a tattoo. It’s going to hurt. The level of hurt depends on one’s body and the placement of the tattoo. I’ve known artists who won’t serve someone who asks if it’s going to hurt. All of mine hurt. The most painful was my ribs, then my wrist. My arm was third, and my thigh was the least painful. The more fat or fluff the area has, the less painful it will feel. It’s different for everyone though.

    My body inevitably goes into shock and alarm when they first press the needle to my skin. My body cries out, WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL ARE YOU DOING, GET OUT! But then I take deep breaths until the panic subsides. It feels more like a meditation after that. My pumpkin tattoo took 3 hours, and I literally stared at the wall for the entire time. Talking helps distract me, but my artist was not a talker and seemed generally annoyed that I’m a woman. He asked me if I could handle a tattoo of that size (though I had a visible larger tattoo on my leg). He asked if I wouldn’t be able to handle the pain and if we need to do it in two sessions. I said, “I can if you can, bro.” And I didn’t flinch one damn time or take a break. He was the one who needed a break. If you do flinch or experience a lot of pain, that’s okay too! Find an artist who is gentle and gives a shit about your pain level.
  9. Continue to communicate throughout the process. They will stop every now and then and ask if you like it or what additions you’d like. Some ask if you need a break. If they don’t, let them know when you need one. No shame in that game. Take care of yourself and your body. Sometimes they will recommend additions, so make sure you have enough time to think and decide. Listen to your gut and your body. It’s easy to feel intimidated, especially if you’re new to tattoos or identify as a femme or woman.

What tips would you recommend when getting a tattoo?



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