Getting a tattoo : how to pick a design and artist?
March 7, 2014 2:11 PM   Subscribe

After years of careful consideration, I've finally decided to get a tattoo. I know what I want to get, but I don't have a specific design, and I don't know which tattoo parlor to go to. How do I find these things? I live in SF, but would be willing to travel for a really, really good artist.

For the past 12 years, I've known that my spirit animal is the caterpillar. I've wanted to get a caterpillar tattoo, but I've held off for fear I would regret it. I've finally decided to go for it.

The only important part is that it actually look like a caterpillar. So, fairly realistic. I guess it could look a little cartoony, but definitely nothing like the Disney Alice In Wonderland caterpillar or anything goofy like that. I want it on the side of my upper arm, facing out. I think that's the deltoid?

Is it a good idea to have a design ready before I go into the tattoo place? If so, where should I find this design? Could I find a picture somewhere and print it out? What's the average "DPI" of a tattoo? Could I use any old photo or drawing as a source? Or is it better to use a drawing created by an actual tattoo artist? Is there someplace online where I can go and say, "Hey, can someone please sketch me some ideas for a caterpillar tattoo?" Apologies for the n00b questions -- I'm super new at this!

As for the other part of my question : how do I pick a tattoo artist/parlor? I'd be interested in suggestions on how to find someone, as well as recommendations for specific artists. I live in SF, but I'd be willing to travel for an amazing, kickass artist. (I've heard there are good artists in PDX and LA?) In any case, I'm willing to spend a fair amount of $$$ on this; after all, this is going to be with me the rest of my life.
posted by evil otto to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have a non-cartoony tattoo of a red-tailed hawk tattooed on my forearm; I found the artist to do it when I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while who had a beautiful and non-cartoony tattoo of a mockingbird on his arm, and he'd gotten it done locally. So that's one way! Seriously, if you see someone on the street who has ink you like, you can compliment them on the ink and ask them where they got it done. It's not weird.

I got it done by Henry Lewis, who is local-ish (to us in SF, that is). On his fb page, he says to drop a line at the contact form here.

I took a photocopy of the kind of bird I wanted, in the flight position I envisioned, and he worked from that. And thanks for this - I could use a touch-up, so I will drop Henry a link myself.
posted by rtha at 2:19 PM on March 7, 2014

Every tattoo artist has his or her own style, and you may be able to find examples of various artists' work on line. But I have had a TON of work done by Gauge, now at Bulldog Tattoo in the Castro, and his work stays fresh and beautiful after years of use and misuse.

He is really wonderful at interpreting your wishes, and you absolutely can go to him with ideas presented verbally or you can bring a picture and say, "something like this only different in X way" and he can do it.

Here's a photo of one little thing he did for me. Here's his website and his yelp page.
posted by janey47 at 2:21 PM on March 7, 2014

I highly recommend Brucius at Black and Blue. I chose him by looking on Yelp and then looking at the websites of different shops and choosing the one I felt most comfortable with. I have a heart in a medical illustration style, which is a good match for Brucius's style. I have no regrets.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:23 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

And you might want to look at Tanya Wischerath (fb link), who's at Modern Electric. She's a friend, and I haven't had any work done by her YET, but she did do a fantastic tattoo on another friend, who is also a mefite.
posted by rtha at 2:26 PM on March 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

The best way to do this is to find an artist that you like and then confer with them about exactly what you want for the design. They will draw something up for you that will be exactly what you want and also look great on your skin.

Definitely bring inspiration images, ideas, sketches, collages, etc. but don't get too married to a specific thing until you meet with your artist.

In my experience, I have picked artists by going around to tattoo shops and looking at people's portfolios. Especially look for people who've done the kind of thing you want. For instance for my last tattoo, I wanted someone who had experience working with text. A lot of people have online portfolios nowadays (also look for Facebook pages!), but some people are still very hard media oriented, so it might be easier to physically go check out some shops.
posted by Sara C. at 2:28 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take all the artist recommendations that people give you and go through their portfolios. They should have a portfolio, whether it's online or in a photo album at the shop. Get a feel for their style and find an artist whose existing work matches up with what you have in mind.

You can then set up a consultation to see what they think of the idea and how they would draw it and place it. You can also get a feel for how you get along with them, which is not unimportant. Go prepared with reference images or elements that you'd like the design to contain, but let the artist who's going to do the tattoo do the drawing. They're artists, it's what they do! As much as it sounds like a great, personal idea to design your tattoo yourself, I don't think that it usually works out for the best. You will usually need to put down a deposit before they'll draw the tattoo. Any artist worth their salt will take feedback about the design and adjust it so that you're happy with it.
posted by marshmallow peep at 2:30 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm sure people will add more knowledge to this, but here's what I've got.

A few months before I got my tattoo, I started following a bunch of tattoo blogs on Tumblr. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but seeing lots and lots of tattoos scroll past my screen gave me a little more of a sense of the kind of style I was looking for. Not cartoonish, not not photorealistic, kind of stylized - you realize pretty quickly how much variation there is once you start looking.

After that, I started googling around, and pretty quickly I found the best-reviewed tattoo place in my area. All the artists had pictures of their work up on the website, so I could pick the person whose style I liked the best.

After that, I made an appointment for a consultation. That usually costs something like $50 -which eventually goes towards the cost of the tattoo. You can bring in images - either one that you're sure of, or a bunch, that you could give to the artist for "inspiration." I went in with a particular image, but if I get another one, I think I'd give the artist more leeway - imho the really gorgeous tattoos happen that way. Anyway, she drew a mockup and emailed it to me, and I liked it, as well as an estimation of how long it would take (which was also an approximate price estimate). You can have as many consultations with as many different artists as you want - take the time to find one you're in love with.

A few things:

-Size matters. If you give your artist an incredibly detailed, large photo and ask her to shrink it down to a tattoo the size of a quarter, she's going to have problems. In general, the more detailed you want something, the larger it will need to be.

-Placement also matters a lot - not just where on your body, but how the specific site that you've selected works with your particular tattoo. Your artist should bring that up in conversation. I love my tattoo, which is between my shoulder blades, a lot when it peeks up from my shirt, but when my whole back is exposed, it looks a teeny tiny bit like it's floating in mid-air. Luckily, no one but my fiance usually sees that, and he thinks it's fine, but it bugs me. Before you go, maybe find a photo of a tattoo that's placed precisely where you want yours, and talk to your artist about it.

-If your tattoo design is small and simple enough, a lot of places will let you skip the consultation step and just walk right in and get it. Don't do that. Not only will you miss all the important conversations I've outlined above, but you'll most likely get their newest, least-experienced artist. My friend got a line of text running up her arm...and it took longer than mine (a pretty large, multicolored, realistic image from a painting) because she got the new guy. It looks great, but that's still an experience I imagine you'd like to avoid if you can.

Good lucK! Post pictures when you get it.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:35 PM on March 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

many of my friends have had beautiful (botanical and animal-type) work done by iggy vans (he is also married to a friend of mine, but i'd think his work was excellent regardless.). i am debating a couple tattoos, and will more than likely go to him to do it. he just opened a new shop in the mission with three other artists called lampblack tattoo.

and i agree with marshmallow peep about how to approach the process. this is what all my friends have said the experience has been like for them. look over portfolios, go to the shops that you find fit with your vision, and talk to them. don't get it unless you're fully happy with the design beforehand.
posted by koroshiya at 2:47 PM on March 7, 2014

Oh, and I'd suggest looking at the portfolios of the artists at Seventh Son.
posted by marshmallow peep at 2:54 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's generally preferable to have some sort of concept in mind when you go to a tattoo parlor. This will be a tremendous help to the tattoo artist who can help you narrow down your selections or draft something for you. Giving the tattoo artist a starting point is vital, IMHO.

A design could be gleaned from in-shop or online tattoo books or via an image search. Of course, this will land you results that everyone else can also find - meaning your tattoo might not be as unique. But it's a good starting point and you can bring in examples of caterpillars that you like the most. You can simply find a picture somewhere and print it out too. Many people do this.

You could also use an old drawing or photo. But I would allow the tattoo artist to edit it as they saw fit. Some photos/images will need to be adjusted for better translation into a tattoo - especially if the linework isn't clear/concise. And chances are your tattoo artist will edit any image you bring in for him/her to work off of anyway. Some are great at creating their own art - some do better making edits/adjustments to already existing. This is especially true if you're asking a tattoo artist to do a subject he/she may be unfamiliar with (such as caterpillars). The best practice here is to simply ask the tattoo artist how comfortable they are drawing (caterpillars).

Alternatively, most art websites (DeviantArt, Etsy, ect.) have forums that will be filled with artists (not necessarily tattoo artists) who can sketch you out a design for a given price. IMHO, this is the most desirable way to get a tattoo design - you know it will be unique - you'll have the only one of its kind (unless the artist wants to retain the right to resell the design). Design work generally runs $25-$200+, depending on complexity/color. When I was a freelance illustrator a few years ago, I did a few tattoo designs. To give you an idea of pricing, I charged roughly $150 for a full-back, original color design. For a more professional artist, you'll need to take reproduction rights into consideration. Most professional artists will charge additionally if the commissioner doesn't want the art to be reproduced in any way (including for print sales). Since the artist loses out on that potential income, the cost of the design will be higher.

For your particular situation, I'd narrow down what kind of caterpillars you like, and gather some photos/drawings of them. Either bring them to a tattoo artist and let them design your tattoo based on those references, or commission an artist (from an art website) to do it for you.

I'm not in the SF area, so I'm afraid I can't help you locate a potential shop, but always make sure the shop you're interested in is clean, has sterilization practices in place, and is comfortable for you. If you get weird vibes, leave - you need to really trust your tattoo artist.
posted by stubbehtail at 2:55 PM on March 7, 2014

I had two Hebrew lettering tattoos on my wrists about a year ago at this place (which is in Marin, but has a great reputation and a lot of really beautiful designs on their walls and on their website). I brought digital images with me of the lettering exactly the size and shape I wanted it, and they printed out a temporary tattoo as a guide then tattooed it on. The first one has lines that just aren't as crisp as I wanted them to be (but the second is perfect) but the size, shape, placement and colour are fantastic otherwise.

Because my tattoos only took 15 minutes each and consisted of three/four letters, I skipped the consultation and went with the person available. Because of the tattoos I chose and the fact that I already had an exact image ready for them, that was a completely reasonable choice. I probably would follow pretentious illiterate's advice about the consultation because you don't know exactly what you want.

Good luck. I waited until I was 30 to get mine done and I LOVE them now. Can't really imagine not having them, honestly.
posted by guster4lovers at 2:58 PM on March 7, 2014

My stepmother got a series of gorgeous tattoos at Diving Swallow in Oakland, and I hung out with her there a couple of times. (Hers were done by Marie Brennan, who is still working there, and another artist whose name escapes me now.) I was really impressed with the work, service, and the pleasant vibe of the shop. Most of the artists there seem to specialize in animals and nature imagery, which might be great for you.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 3:08 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have any specific artist recommendations in SF, but you are getting some great advice about how to go about choosing a design. Most artists will talk to you about what you want and where you want it, then look at any reference images you may have. Then they will draw something up based on the reference images, the size & position that will work best on that part of your body, and their own knowledge about placement, detail, etc. They'll then make a stencil (usually; my artist sometimes doesn't) and apply it to your arm and let you take a look so you can approve of the size & placement before they tattoo you. It is ok to ask them to adjust it at this point - they want you to be happy with all aspects of the tattoo. Once you've both agreed on everything, then the tattoo will happen.

Shorter answer: you don't need a pre-made design but you can bring in images that you like for the artist to reference.
posted by bedhead at 3:27 PM on March 7, 2014

This picture isn't tattoo-ready but could be inspirational for an artist - it's one of my favorite pictures ever, and it just happens to be a caterpillar.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 3:44 PM on March 7, 2014

I was just coming in to recommend Tanya Wischerath who does exquisite work but rtha beat me to it!
posted by Nimmie Amee at 4:24 PM on March 7, 2014

I got a tattoo by Brucius at Black and Blue and get compliments on it all the time. He does fantastic, intricate work. A caterpillar sounds right up his alley!

To find him, I searched MeFi and then emailed him with two design ideas. He told me that one of them would be a bit too cartoony for his style, but the other one would be right up his alley. I met with him to design it, and then returned a couple days later to do the full session.
posted by yaymukund at 5:06 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Shannon Archuleta
posted by Swisstine at 8:14 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found my last artist by asking a stranger who had done their work and then checking their portfolio and reviews. (I actually ask people about their tattoos any time I see something striking, just for future reference. I know not everyone is comfortable doing that, but I've never had anyone be less than helpful.)
posted by Room 641-A at 3:28 AM on March 8, 2014

In case you are still dithering/looking, here is the American kestrel Tanya put on me yesterday.
posted by rtha at 7:42 AM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

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