The tattoo that stretches across both of my shoulders is large, impossible to miss, and had to be done twice.
The first time around, I went to a newly opened shop. It had a license, an autoclave sterilizer and clean needles - and because I was pretty green to the whole thing, the shop seemed as good a place as any to get work done.
Well, it wasn't. After two hours of having a tattoo needle scraped across the tender flesh of my back, I looked at my sore, bleeding shoulders in the mirror and realized the practitioner's license held by the tattoo artist was no guarantee of artistic competency.
Local artists and tattoo shop proprietors say the market has been flooded with new tattoo studios employing inexperienced artists like the one who botched the tattoo on my shoulders. This has affected the reputation of the industry as a whole and made it harder for the average consumer to find a competent tattoo artist.
"There are a couple of shops in town who have opened up with absolutely no experience. Those shops do poor work, and those [shops] that are reputable suffer too," says Rob Beyer, owner of Blue Lotus Tattoo and Piercing Lounge, which has been open for 15 years and has three locations in the Madison area.
There are 36 licensed tattoo shops in Dane County, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Though facilities are periodically inspected to make sure they're following sanitation guidelines, the only thing the tattoo artists working at these establishments have to do to get a practitioner's license is pay a fee and sign on the dotted line. No experience required.
Still, a license remains a reasonable guarantee that a shop is following health and sanitation requirements: Tattoo shops are required to sterilize equipment with an autoclave, which uses pressurized, superheated steam to kill germs and bacteria. There are also specific state laws about the facility itself and the use of needles (tinyurl.com/db2jrg)
So while a cursory inspection of a studio's license and sterilizing equipment can keep you safe, doing a little additional homework could mean the difference between a great tattoo and one like mine, which I had to have redone by an experienced artist.
Probably the worst mistake I made was not inspecting the tattoo artist's portfolio to see if his style and skills were up to the task at hand. Portfolios, though not always kept up to date, are a window into an artist's technical abilities and personal style. They are often posted at a shop's website and can also be found in-store.
When viewing a portfolio, look at both design and technique. After 11 years in the business, artist Dave Nielsen of Steve's Tattoo on Williamson Street knows exactly what to look for: "Smooth, clean, crisp lines. I look at how the color is put in. Is the color splotchy, or are there smooth gradations?"
Aside from technique, Nielsen recommends choosing an artist whose portfolio reflects the style of tattoo you'd like. For instance, if you want a portrait of your mother tattooed on your arm, make sure the artist has portrait work in his or her portfolio. Also, ask for photos of both fresh tattoos and healed tattoos, which can appear quite different from each other.
Nielsen has heard stories like my own many times before. The proliferation of tattoo shops makes it tempting to go hunting for the cheapest tattoo, rather than the highest-quality tattoo: "It shouldn't be about that; it should be about what the tattoo should look like at the end," he says. "The market is definitely oversaturated.... I assume people's eyes will eventually open, and the people who aren't as good won't last too long in the industry."
Nielsen points to four longstanding tattoo studios in the Madison area as examples of shops that have spent years solidifying their reputations: Steve's Tattoo, where Nielsen works, has been in business for about 30 years. Blue Lotus has been open for 15 years. Capitol City Tattoo has been open for about nine years, and Ultimate Arts Custom Tattooing has been open since 1988.
Back at Blue Lotus, Rob Beyer's parting words of advice are "Be patient." Instant gratification and customized tattoos are incompatible. His artists focus almost exclusively on time-consuming work tailored to individual clients: Only one of his three studios has pre-drawn tattoo flash books on hand, which serve mainly to keep waiting customers entertained. "Especially when you get into the larger-size tattoos, it takes time to draw that up, have it reviewed, make alterations to the design. And then you make the appointment to have the tattoo," he says. "The days of going in and picking a design off the wall are gone, are fading away."