How to Effectively Describe Your Tattoo (To An Artist)


There are many ways to approach a tattoo artist to do business with them, your artist will take you seriously if you come well-prepared. If you aren’t prepared to commit to working with an artist and spending money, then you might end up wasting someone else’s time. Being self employed, time will mean food on the table and paying the bills. As the consumer, it is your responsibility to respect your chosen artist’s resources.

Let it be clear that is a fact for not only tattoo artists, but ALSO jewelers, illustrators, photographers, graphic designers, painters, sculptors, crafters of all kinds, and artists of all kinds. We are choosing to live a life that allows us to prioritize things that we can’t in traditional employment, such as mental illness, physical disability, chronic illness, family/childcare/dependents, etc. Artists are not charity, artists are one-person businesses. We rely on reliable humans.

*Disclaimer, this is a general guide to approaching artists, not specifically for my practice as I do not do color/gray work or take very many custom work.

Onward, there are a few basic ways to think about your tattoo design. I will talk through the basics and name a few simple methods:

  1. The basics on getting a quote (size, placement, color/black and gray/no color, etc.)
    +It might surprise you but I almost always have to ask people the size and placement of the tattoo that they want. It might not be totally obvious to some that placement+size is an important first thing to know. Knowing that allows us to come to a quick conclusion on an approximate price and how much depth a design can have. Sending a photo of the area of skin/part of your body may be helpful (ask for consent if it’s personal).
    +It is also helpful for artists to know the approximate size of the piece. Try to use universal measurements such as inches or centimeters. Describing something as “palm sized” or an “orange” can differ greatly from one person to another. The bigger the piece, the harder it is to accurately price the project. For larger pieces (4+ hours) such as half sleeves, full sleeves, back pieces, whole calf/thigh pieces, etc. most artist (including myself) will go by hourly rate.
    +Also let your artist know what colors you are thinking you would like them to use. Options include: just black ink, black ink with ___ colors, black and gray (no color), or full color. Generally speaking, the more color other than black used, the more time a tattoo will take to complete. Make sure you know your artist’s style so you don’t end up asking them for something they may not do. Some artists are open and practice all styles, which should be evident in their portfolio!
  2. A Drawing/Sketch
    +I believe that everyone is capable of drawing-doodling a sketch of the tattoo design they want in a communicable manner. You are totally capable of drawing the layout of things in your tattoo, or photoshop it together with stock images if you must. Your artist may suggest changes for a better/lasting tattoo, or if you’re feeling open (check in with yourself and make sure you really are) let the artist do the layout for you (see #3. List)!
    I believe in you! Drawings can be helpful in visually communicating and your tattoo artist will likely be a visual communicator.
  3. A List
    +Maybe you don’t know exactly what you want your tattoo to look like, but you know what things you want to see in the tattoo. Things (symbolism) that pull meaning from your life or memories. You could present a list of things you want to have done incorporated into a single design in the style of the artist of your choice.
    BAD example: flowers, horse, sage, and rope…?
    GOOD example: wild roses, a mustang running, desert sage brush and a lasso rope.
    That’s a good specific simple list, pretty straightforward. Specificity is important because things like “sage” could be interpreted as any variety of sage (white, purple, golden, etc). It could also be interpreted as the whole plant of sage, instead of a few leaves.
    +It is good to be aware of the size your tattoo is going to be and how many things you can ACTUALLY fit into that space. All tattoos will eventually age into wide/light lines and there are methods that artists have to keep your tattoo looking good for a long time (*IF they’ve been doing it for a few years, I’m gonna be real about that). The more content you have in your design, the bigger the tattoo should be.
  4. Reference photos
    +First, if you are communicating remotely and doing a consult thru emails, it is often helpful to take a photo of the area you want tattooed on your body. It is especially helpful if you have other tattoos that you are asking the artist to work around.
    +Find photos of the artist’s own work that you like and can pull examples of what you like (or don’t like) about them for your own tattoo. You can find tattoos (or any artwork) from other artist’s too, but please be aware of intellectual property/copyright. Try not to completely copy another person’s tattoo/art unless you have permission from them or the artist.
    +If you want a specific type of flower, plant, animal, thing, or place, it will be helpful to find some photos of them that you like! Places like Google Image search, Pinterest, and Instagram hashtags are good places to start (again, be aware of copyrights). A thing to be aware of is that MANY Google Image search photos have already been tattooed many times. If you are looking for something more unique, let your artist do their interpretation of it!
    +If you are specific about the kind of a flower, pose of an animal, angle of a plant, or view of a thing, it will be helpful to find a reference photo. Remember that things are interpreted differently between one person and another, specifying can be really important.
  5. Payment
    +Artist’s shouldn’t work for free, so most artists will ask for a deposit, sometimes drawing fee, when discussing a design or setting up an appointment. Sometimes you may have to pay time for a consultation. If you aren’t sure, do your research and ASK.
    +It may also be good to inquire about approximately how much your project is going to cost, especially if you are uncertain or on a budget. Some artist can be flexible enough to work around a budget, some won’t. Some will have minimums and some will cost thousands of dollars. It may be best to be upfront about how much you’re willing to honestly spend on your tattoo, your artist will give you guidance and options (it is important to trust your artist because of this, use your instincts!). Artists that are higher in demand may have higher hourly rates. Average rates will vary from city to city as well.
  6. Timeframe
    +Let your artist know if you have a specific date or timeframe that you’d like to get your tattoo done. Many artists these days may be booked out for a certain period of time, maybe a couple weeks to a couple months on average. If it’s a smaller piece, they may be able to fit you in sooner, or you can get on a cancellation notification (if they have a list).
    +Artists of higher demand may be booked out for many months, maybe even a year or more! It depends on the artist’s preferences and how they run their business. Some artists will “open” their books for scheduling on their own time (they may specify a certain date which you contact them).
    +You may be inclined to inquire whether they have “sooner openings,” this is the equivalent of asking if you can cut in line. Generally speaking, like being direct about your budget, it may be best to be direct about what timeframe you are seeking and trust that your artist will tell you what they can manage.

    Lastly, make sure you really want to work with the artist you are about to contact. It wouldn’t be fair to shotgun your project ideas to half a dozen artists at the same time (assuming you choose one, the other five will have wasted their time). Being prepared will more likely than not give a good first impression and show that you are serious. Being prepared will go further than flattery!