This article is from the Tattoo FAQ, by Stan Schwarz with numerous contributions by others.
Whenever you ask to see their collection of photos, the person in the
shop will hopefully immediately recognize you as someone who knows a
little more about tattoos--at least enough not to be satisfied by
looking at just the flash. If the shop is not too busy or if the artist
is not in the middle of working, they might stand on the other side of
the counter to have a conversation with you. This is a wonderful
opportunity to ask questions of the artist.
Some reasonable questions to ask in your conversation that shouldn't
take too much time for the artist to answer:
What is their favorite style?
If what *you* are looking to get done happens to be their specialty you
are in luck; be it tribal, wildlife or whatever.
Is there any one particular subject they like to do?
One artist, without hesitation, told me his favorite was skulls. I
would've jumped for joy had that been what I wanted.
How long has the shop been here?
This may be an indicator of the stability of their business. The tat
industry in itself fluctuates, but continuity implies business acumen,
responsible practices and that they are not a fly-by-night operation.
How long have they been at the shop?
The shop may have been there for 20 years, but the artist may only have
been there for a couple of months. If they have been there for what you
consider a short period, ask them where they were before.
How long have they been tattooing?
It might not matter so much that the artist has only been there for a
short while, if they've been tattooing for several years. They might
come from various backgrounds--anywhere from working on friends to
having a fine arts degree. This type of information will give you more
insight into the artist's attitude as well as aptitude.
Do they get to do much custom work?
This may depend on where the shop is located, but it also depends on
how good of an artist they are, and whether they have their own style
for which they are known for.
Do they use apprentices at the shop?
It is often difficult for new artists to break into the business, and
an apprenticeship is often a very good way to learn not only about
tattooing itself, but also about the day-to-day operation of a small
business. For artists to take apprenticeships means they're interested
in expanding the artform, in giving a new person a break (so to speak)
and feeling confident enough about their own skills that they feel they
can offer some insight and experience for the new person. This again
goes back to the attitude of the artist and the shop.
Don't let the looks of the artist intimidate you. Tattoo artists usually
have a lot of tattoos themselves. In fact, I would be somewhat leery of
an artist who has *NO* tattoos at all. The main thing is that you need
to talk with them and get a feel for what they are like. As you talk
with the artist and build a rapport, if you feel comfortable you may
want to broach the subject of what you're interested in getting done.
Bounce your idea off with the artist and see what they are willing to
help you with.
Remember however, that the artist is running a professional business! Be
polite--don't linger and overspend your welcome if you don't plan on
getting any work done at all.
[Note: Don't base your decision according to what tattoos you see on the
artist--they were not done by that person!]