The Perfect Tattoo Artist
Tattooing is minor surgery--it involves the puncturing of the skin with a foreign object. To be safe, you must shop for tattoo artists like you would for a dentist. There are many things that tattoo artists must do to keep their work area clean and avoid contamination from blood-borne pathogens, since a small amount of blood is a normal part of the tattooing process. There are things you should look for in your prospective artist's studio, such as a neat and clean appearance, an autoclave and ultrasonic cleaner, a clearly labeled sharps container for used needles, plastic barriers on all tattooing equipment, and instruments that are taken out of autoclave pouches with proper sterility indicator. Your best bet when scouting for a new tattoo artist is to talk with them and ask questions about these things first. Any respectable tattoo artist will know all about the safety concerns of their craft, and should not have a problem answering some basic precautionary questions. Indeed, your tattoo artist should be way more concerned about being clean and safe than you are--after all, you deal with only one tattoo that day, but your artist is likely dealing with many people, every day. If the artist blows off questions or gives you vague answers, that's never a good sign. If they are happy you are asking, answer your questions clearly, and show a genuine concern for safety then you are probably in good hands.
Again, no tattoo artist should ever be annoyed that you are asking about your safety, because your question directly relates to their safety. They don't want to contract a disease from the tattoo process any more than you do. Although the chances of this happening are slim, it still does happen, so you should always err on the side of caution. With very few exceptions, this means that getting tattooed out of someone's house or at a 'tattoo party' is not a good idea. Sure, it may seem more 'authentic' to get a tattoo from a friend in the clubhouse basement, but it's not. Authentic tattoos are done in a professional environment by experienced tattoo artists who have learned from industry leaders. In any event, artists tend to create an environment that works best for them, so that they will be on top of their game at the place of their choice. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and some tattoo artists who have learned in a professional environment end up working from their homes after crazy tattoo studio owners, well, go crazy. Be very forewarned, though: unless you really know your tattoo artist and his or her history, getting tattooed out of someone's home is generally not a good idea.
This may seem obvious to most people, and once stated it's easy to understand, but many first timers don't realize that tattoo artists vary drastically in ability. Every tattoo artist has different talents and abilities. Some, unfortunately, don't have much of either. Tattoo artists aren't made equal, and picking an artist without knowing what's possible in tattooing is a good way to get shitty tattoos (we know this firsthand!). Consider this metaphor: There are tons of rock bands out there. Without too much 'music training' you will find that there are bands you like and bands you hate. If you listen to lots of music for years with a critical ear, you can start to pick out the bands that are popular because of marketing, and which are popular because of talent and hard work. It takes a bit of learning and experience to really pick apart the music scene and find the good stuff--the same applies for tattoos. Chances are, if you just flip on the radio or stop off at a local rock club and listen to a band at random, they probably aren't that good. Likewise, if you have picked a tattoo artist without researching and looking at hundreds and hundreds of tattoos, then chances are pretty good you will just get an average, if not downright bad tattoo. Before you can properly tell good tattoos from bad tattoos, you need to look at the artistic ability of many tattoo artists to see what's really possible with the art-form, and then you will have the experience and knowledge to pick a tattoo artist that's perfect for your idea or design.
QUALITY TOOLS AND TECHNICAL ABILITY
As you may have guessed, artistic talent alone does not make a good tattoo. The artist needs to combine that raw talent with precise technical ability and the right equipment. Tattoo artists must have the proper tools and techniques to tattoo well.
While you can find homegrown methods to making your own tattoo machines and giving tattoos, quality tattooing takes years of patience, learning, practice, and experience. If learning to tattoo is not done in a proper studio environment, tattoo artists tend to screw up their friends and other poor suckers for years in an effort to learn the proper ways to do things. Don't be one of those suckers. Learn through research which tattoo artists are able to combine their art knowledge with sound tattoo techniques--not all good artists can use a tattoo machine properly, and not everyone who's managed to learn how to use a tattoo machine can create good art.
Unless you are a tattoo artist yourself, it can be very hard to tell if your artist is using quality equipment or supplies, but chances are that if their work is comes out amazing and heals well, they are using the right stuff and you can feel secure in your decision. Its also worth noting that good equipment costs more money, so tattoos from artists with better tools tends to run higher. A few general things to look for to judge whether your artist has quality tools and technical ability are crisp, clean, solid outlines, and evenly saturated color with smooth blending and shading, all with the tattooed skin NOT looking like it is very rough or chewed up. If you don't have an artist picked out yet, then looking for these attributes while researching hundreds and hundreds of tattoos from various tattoo artists will give you an idea about possible skill levels. So if someone comes at you with a needle and thread or a homemade 'tattoo gun' telling you they'll do it for free, run away yelling "guns are for killing, I want a tattoo!" Believe the guinea pigs, cheap tattoos are done dirt cheap and worth every penny.
Remember--good art alone does not make a good tattoo, and a well done tattoo does not mean that it is also good art.
HONESTY, COURTESY, AND ETHICS
Tattoo artists, like everyone else, come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. You will be doing yourself a favor by choosing an artist who is honest (you're trusting them with your body, after all), courteous (who wants to be permanently marked by a jerk?), and ethical (will you feel safe with someone who is obviously only after your money?). A quality tattoo artist should be honored that you would want their artwork on your body for the rest of your life--in essence, you will be wearing a piece of them; their mental and physical energy will be transferred directly onto the surface of your body in the form of your tattoo. You are complimenting their artwork by letting them use your skin as a canvas (assuming you are getting a somewhat artistic tattoo). If the artist blows you off and doesn't treat you well, find another artist who has better manners (unless their artwork is truly perfect for you, and you feel you can put up with it!). Of course, you also owe it to your tattoo artist to in return be honest (about your expectations), courteous (don't make an artist draw for hours then skip your appointments, etc), and ethical (don't make one artist draw something and take it to another to tattoo for cheaper, etc). The entire tattoo process is one based on trust, respect, and commitment that goes both ways.
Rumors, reputation and second hand stories are never completely accurate, and every tattoo artist has at least a few people who don't like them for some reason. Even still, it might be a good idea to find out about a tattoo artist's reputation on the street. Honest, quality tattoo artists tend to have many more people talking good about them than bad. Just because you have two friends that got a tattoo from someone and love that tattoo artist is not enough. Now, if two dozen people and a few tattoo artists with excellent tattoos all tell you you're in good hands with the same artist, that's a good clue the artist has what it takes to do your tattoo.
Ok, so you've done your homework. You have shopped around for a clean, ethical and honest tattoo artist who has great technical and artistic abilities, and a style that suits you best. Now it's time to work with him or her to find the perfect design.