With so many options for your first tattoo, how do you know where to start?! (photo courtesy Zebra Tattoo & Body Piercing)
Any good comedian will tell you that comedy = tragedy + time. Unfortunately, this mantra doesn’t really hold water when you’re speaking about a tragic tattoo. We’re not talking about a bad haircut; your bad tattoo will live on forever. It’ll live on long after the honeymoon phase turns into the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and then finally, Acceptance. Yes, there are options for dealing with a bad tattoo, complex cover-ups and expensive tattoo removal are thriving businesses in any city with a late night tattoo shop, but ideally, by knowing what makes a fundamentally strong artist, you can avoid those last resorts altogether. Of course, a quality artist is only part of the battle, another huge part is a good design, but for now we will focus on choosing the right artist. Taste is subjective, and chances are high that if you really love that tribal butterfly, an article on the internet won’t convince you otherwise. Hopefully, by learning what makes a technically good tattoo, at least it’ll be a well done tribal butterfly.
So, how do you choose an artist? The first step is to narrow the field; decide what style of tattoo you want, and find an artist who specializes in that discipline. There are enough varying styles out there to fill an encyclopedia, so be wary of any tattooist that claims to be able to “do it all”. They exist, but are few and far between - choosing an artist who has a style that appeals to you will go a long way in getting a great tattoo. Once you’ve done that, get independent opinions from people that have been tattooed by the artist you’re interested in. Take the opinions of those that have been recently tattooed with a grain of salt, they will almost always love their shiny new tattoo. Instead, ask people who were tattooed a few years ago what they think. When you have chosen an artist that may be right for you, check out their portfolio, which should have plenty of high quality, high resolution, full color photos. If the portfolio seems small, chances are the tattooist in question lacks experience, or has an otherwise very shallow pool of work they are proud to display. This should be a red flag, consider walking away.
Portfolio in hand, carefully examine each photo. Be careful not to be distracted by the tattoo as a whole, it may look good overall, but the devil hides in the details. Instead, break it down into sections, here’s what to look for:
THE OUTLINE Arguably the most important aspect of your tattoo. A good outline will give your tattoo strength. Certain styles aside, an outline should be done in a single pass, with no lines having been hit twice, or gone over repeatedly to achieve consistency. Make sure the lines are smooth, have even width, and display consistent richness of black throughout. Look for gaps in lines that are supposed to connect, check where lines terminate to make sure they finish cleanly. Pay special attention to circular and parallel lines, check them for consistency throughout.
COLOR, SHADING AND CONTRAST These factors, when done right, have the power to turn a mediocre design into a beautiful tattoo. When done wrong, the best design in the world will be flat and lifeless. A tattoo that shines in these areas should be just as readable from 10 feet as it is from 2 feet away. Whether you are looking at a black and grey, or a full color tattoo, it should leap off the skin. A skilled artist should be able to do achieve more with four colors than an unskilled artist does with 20.
DEPTH Depth is where a strong outline combines with the effective use of color and contrast to give your tattoo a life of its own. When looking at an artist’s portfolio, look for that depth, it’s what makes a tattoo on a flat surface appear to be three dimensional. It’s what gives your tattoo personality and a makes people stop you in the street to ask who made it. A ball without depth is just a circle, but true depth will make the ball look like its curves could be felt.