4 Things Everyone Must Know Before Getting a Tattoo

Getting inked? Check out these important do's and don'ts from a legendary tattoo artist.
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Getting inked? Check out these important do's and don'ts from a legendary tattoo artist.
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Jonathan Shaw was one of America's foremost tattoo artists before he retired 15 years ago. Now he's got a new memoir, Scab Vendor: Confessions of a Tattoo Artist, and some hard-earned wisdom to share with an ink-obsessed world.

Here is Shaw's take on the four simple rules everyone should know before getting tattooed: 

For decades, I was known as a world-famous “celebrity tattoo artist.” Over the course of a long, surreal career, I rose up through the ranks of the international tattoo world to become one of the most infamous and influential tattoo men on the planet. 

My client list included cops, criminals and captains of Industry, along with many famous names.

Johnny Depp getting inked by Jonathan Shaw. 

Johnny Depp getting inked by Jonathan Shaw. 

Johnny Depp, The Cure, The Velvet Underground, The Pogues, The Ramones, Marilyn Manson, Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Winter, Kate Moss, and Tupac Shakur all were clients. 

Even Vanilla Ice was lining up for an appointment—much to my embarrassment—but hey, it was the '90s, right?

Iggy Pop and Jonathan Shaw. (Photo: Jonathan Shaw)

Iggy Pop and Jonathan Shaw. (Photo: Jonathan Shaw)

Strangely, I’m still one of the most respected names in the tattoo profession today—despite having officially retired over 15 years ago from an industry with an absurdly short memory—an industry I was unwittingly instrumental in pioneering.

Now that my 'qualifications' are out of the way, here's a few words of advice to novice tattoo aficionados, or anyone looking to pop their tattoo cherry.

1.  Think before you get inked

My suggestion would be to contemplate deeply and listen carefully to the hidden messages encoded in your own inner dreams and visions. Never underestimate the poetic complexity and magic of your own inspiration and its many diverse realms of knowledge and beauty. It is a limitless treasure trove lying just beyond our day-to-day shit-brained mental perceptions. Elusive as it may seem when we're all caught up in our day-to-day "real life" concerns, it is always accessible to us in those rare moments of calm awareness.

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Don’t be in a hurry. Pay attention to what your dreams and deepest inspirations are telling you. They are windows into a much higher, much wiser, much "realer" reality. Try accessing them as you think about what kind of imagery will most accurately represent the very best and highest in yourself, and see what kind of hidden treasure you encounter just beyond the veil of your knee-jerk conscious awareness. It will surprise and delight you (and your tattooist) to no end.

 2. Find the right artist for the job 

In today’s over-saturated tattoo world, there’s an almost unbelievable selection of incredibly talented artists. While a good number of these fine professionals are bread-and-butter “shop tattooers” quite capable of working proficiently in any style, others--like doctors--tend to specialize in a given trademark approach to their work.

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My advice here is pretty elementary. You wouldn’t go see a proctologist to treat an eye infection. In many cases, the same simple logic applies to tattoo artists. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” really applies here. Seeing really is believing. So when doing your due diligence in your quest for knowledge, check out as many different artist’s work as you can online. 

If you’re looking for a realistic portrait of your grandmother, you probably won’t want to make an appointment with the guy whose Instagram pages are full of tribal-style tattoos or traditional Americana--and vice-versa.

3. Leave your buddies at the bar 

Once you’ve found the artist whose work seems best suited to your particular project, go to their studio to meet with them in person for an initial consultation. If you’ve already followed my earlier suggestions, you’ll be well prepared to communicate your ideas to him or her and get a good sense if this is the person you’d like to set up an appointment with.

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For this interaction, I feel compelled to emphasize the importance going alone. After all, you wouldn’t bring your friends, family, or even your significant other, along to a dentist appointment. All they can do is get in the way - and, at worst, interfere with the kind of intimate one-on-one communication necessary between you and the artist to best achieve what you’re trying to accomplish. You know what they say about opinions--and in this instance, the only ones that really matter are yours and your artist’s.

While this advice must seem like common sense to most, you’d be amazed at how many truly unpleasant tattoo experiences I’ve had over my decades in the chair having to play babysitter or deal with crowd control--mostly due to the popular misconception of a tattoo being some sort of half-assed rite-of-passage or social occasion. While it might be seen as such by a nervous first-time tattoo-ee, believe me when I tell you that for many a dedicated professional tattoo artist like myself, it’s nothing but a distracting, unnecessary pain in the ass.

4. Don't look for a "bargain"

Once again, this advice would seem like a no-brainer to anyone with half a brain. But it’s pretty astounding just how many bargain-hunters are out there looking to get tattooed on the cheap. While the massive proliferation of new blood into the tattoo business over the last couple of decades has undoubtedly transformed it into a highly competitive field, thereby making it easier to find a cheap tattooist, the old shop adage that “good tattooing ain’t cheap, and cheap tattooing ain’t good” remains as true today as it was 30 years ago.

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If you’re looking for a bargain, I’d encourage you to shop at the 99 Cent Store instead of your local tattoo studio. Over the years, you’ll save a considerable amount of money that way. But if you want to get quality tattoo work by a reputable artist, don’t try to get a “deal” on it. If you do, you’re liable to wear the mark of the cheapskate for the rest of your earthly existence as an unhappy reminder that “you get what you pay for".