Maybe one of your friends just got a new tattoo that they love and it’s sparked some envy. Maybe a talented tattoo artist’s posts have caught your eye while scrolling through Instagram. If you’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo for the first time, or even if you have a few tattoos already, the process of getting a tattoo can be intimidating. We talked to a few tattoo artists to get their perspectives on what you should expect when booking an appointment, from coming up with original tattoo ideas to what you should bring to a consultation. Tattoos may be permanent, but they’re also supposed to be fun; with these ideas and words of advice, your next tattoo will be a breeze.
Know Your Artist’s Style
Whether you’ve got a detailed vision for your tattoo or you’re still looking for ideas, it’s important to pick an artist whose style resonates with you. Janice Savonen, a Denver-based tattoo artist, says Instagram is extremely helpful for this exact purpose; you can spend time online just scrolling through artists’ pages to start identifying what you like. “The ideal scenario is that people have already looked at my portfolio or are pretty well versed in the work I’ve done, as that can give them an idea of what to expect,” she says. For instance, Janice’s style involves an illustrative aesthetic and tends to feature plants, animals and nature, so many clients seek her out for these themes. “Liking the style of the person you’re choosing more so than anything seems to be really important.”
If you’re new to tattoos, it can be helpful to start identifying the subjects and art styles that you like. Emrah Ozan, an artist based in Brooklyn, recommends trawling Instagram for inspiration. “Instagram is the most accessible way today to quickly find artists and to see their style. I would recommend finding some good studios to follow, and then start doing some research on the style that you’re most attracted to.”
Consultations Can Help You Hone Your Tattoo Ideas
Working with a tattoo artist is always both a conversation and a collaboration. Bringing reference photos to the table, either of a subject, an image, or a style you like, is a great way to help your artist know more about what you’re looking for. Carrie Metz-Caporusso, a tattoo artist based in Ann Arbor, says she prefers not to see photos of another tattoo artist’s work so it doesn’t compromise the uniqueness of her own creations. “I always ask for 4 things. The subject matter, the size in inches, the location and a photograph of the location,” she says.
“Consultations are pretty cool because I can get a look at someone and get an essence of what they’re already decorating themselves with.”
Janice says she likes clients to bring in photos of her work that they like to help her come up with the perfect tattoo idea. “I do have a few different styles, and pictures are great references for me to understand visually what they’re interested in.”
Janice finds that often, in-person tattoo consultations can be a great place for the artist and the client to collaborate on an idea. “Consultations are pretty cool because I can get a look at someone and get an essence of what they’re already decorating themselves with.” She says when clients are flexible, a conversation with them and a few key questions can help her hone in on a meaningful tattoo idea. “Do you like a certain type of flower? Or maybe I’ll play with astrology a little bit. If they’re not into that, I’ll ask what they’re up to or where they live or what they care about and get a feel for who they are to give me access points.”
If you’re struggling to come up with an idea for your tattoo, Carrie says she always recommends a bit of self reflection. “Think about what is unique to you. What represents who you are? For example, I have people who want dedication tattoos for a loved one who passed and they come to me with birth dates and death dates. There’s nothing wrong with this concept, but I encourage them to tell me what they think about when they remember their loved one. Was it a fun trip? A favorite song? That way I can come up with a unique design that’s special to them.”
Emrah says that the more he’s able to talk with his clients about the things they like, the easier it is to create a work they’ll enjoy. “[Bringing in references] helps me understand the direction for the design,” he says. “Often clients are unsure of the placement, so knowing the other elements can help me give a good suggestion on where it would fit best.”
If you’re getting your first tattoo, or even considering adding another to your collection, it can feel paralyzing to need to find an idea that’s “important” enough. Janice would argue that the very fact that you’re drawn to an image means it’s worth getting. “I love telling stories through art; [tattoos are] my favorite form. However, I really value when people don’t know why they’re getting the tattoo and just love it for the sake of what it is. Choosing it connects them to something bigger than they really understand and sometimes once you get the tattoo it slowly creates that meaning for you. It’s like you grow with the tattoo and the tattoo grows with you and slowly it decodes itself no matter what. When I’ve gotten tattoos, the meanings changed, or sometimes the meaning’s irrelevant because it’s more a time capsule of where you’re at.”
“I really value when people don’t know why they’re getting the tattoo and just love it for the sake of what it is.”
Janice says that it can be really freeing just to submit to the process instead of worrying about having the “perfect” tattoo idea. “It’s a huge form of letting go. When you get a tattoo you’re surrendering; it’s almost like a surrender to your body. I think it’s self expression but it’s also a transcendence. You’re transitioning. On a cellular, metaphysical way you’re changing your body too.”
Carrie adds that as long as you’re following your intuition, you’re going to have a good experience. “You know what you like best so lean into who you are and you’ll never have a regrettable tattoo.”
Trust Your Artist
When you hire a tattoo artist, their role isn’t just to copy an image onto your skin; you’re hiring them not only for their style, but for their expertise as well. Tattoo artists can help you translate your ideas into body art, which is harder than you might think. “It’s really important that it’s a conversation because there are some things that I can’t do,” Janice says. “There are certain things that just don’t make sense in tattoos; drawings don’t automatically translate. It has to be a dialogue. When someone says ‘I love your art, I trust you,’ when they’re flexible, it allows me more room to be creative and apply the skills and passion and excitement.” She says it’s ideal when a client comes to her with a few key elements and lets her make suggestions about how to incorporate them. They might say they like mammals and flowers and Janice might recommend a pairing of a bear and a peony, with some decorations.
Alexey Trofimov, based out of Brooklyn, says that after he works with a client on a tattoo idea and they agree on references, the client won’t see his final design until the day of the session. “As practice shows,” he says, “when a client has a design, he begins to doubt it and always tries to change something.” He says this can interfere with the process and even result in a cancellation because a client can’t stop overthinking the design.
“The outcome of the tattoo isn’t just the image; it’s warrior training in a way.”
Janice says one of the more interesting parts of working as a tattoo artist is that you don’t know exactly what the end result will look like; there’s a magic in the capturing of that moment. She says this is what differentiates it from many other art forms. “When you’re tattooing, you’re holding that space with a person and energetically you’re connecting.” The fact that the art manifests itself in that moment, as a collaboration between a client and an artist, only adds to its value. “You can never fully know what the tattoo is going to look like until the day of, and it’s painful, it forces you to meditate and get through it. The outcome of the tattoo isn’t just the image; it’s warrior training in a way.”
Tattoos Are All About Loving Your Body
Tattoo artists can also have an expertise when it comes to placing tattoos in a way that elevates your body instead of distracting from it. “I’ve spent a lot of years training,” Janice says. “I’ve taken a lot of figure modeling classes and I’ve figure modeled myself and understanding those angles and those flows and ways to accentuate the body is really cool because a tattoo can make you feel really sexy and confident, and it can change how you see your body.” She especially loves to do bigger, more flowing designs on thighs. “In my personal experience I wouldn’t want to put a small tattoo on someone’s thigh because it’s such a big beautiful area and that’s really a fantastic opportunity to flow.”
“You know what you like best so lean into who you are and you’ll never have a regrettable tattoo.”
Emrah says that whether his clients’ tattoos are spontaneous or commemorative, he can see the impact it makes on their self esteem. “I find that tattoos increase people’s body positivity, and that no matter the reason behind it, they end up leaving the session very happy.”
Carrie’s newest pursuit is using tattoos to emphasize and celebrate parts of the body that we are often encouraged to hide or downplay. “I’ve mocked up a bunch of adornments around fat rolls.” She says the idea is to “encourage people to use tattoos as a tool for loving their bodies as they are now. Tattooing has helped me love my body and I want to help spread that love to others. I’ve only ever seen tattoos that ‘enhance’ a thin or muscular body type; I’d love for people to start looking at their current bodies as something worthy of decoration.”