The best way to understand what makes a bad tattoo parlor is to understand what makes a great one. That’s why I spoke with Mark Mahoney, legendary tattoo artist and owner of the famous Shamrock Social Club tattoo shop in Hollywood, CA.
Mahoney, who has done pieces for high profile clients since the 70s including Sid Vicious, Lady Gaga, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, and Johnny Depp, among others, is a revered icon in the tattoo industry. If there is anyone’s opinion you can trust, it’s his.
It’s not clean
When you think of a tattoo shop, you probably think of a place that screams cool. But while walking into a well-decorated shop adds to the experience, the reality is that beneath all the punk decor it should be as clean as a doctor’s office.
"The visuals of it being clean and the [artists] being clean are just as important," fine line black and grey master Mahoney says. Remember, the tattoo needle penetrates the skin, so everything must be sanitized. If even the floor looks grungy to you, or you notice that your tattooer isn’t following proper protocol (i.e. wearing gloves, or taking a new set of needles out of a sealed package), walk right on out of there.
Your artist is inexperienced
The tradition of tattooing is a serious one that has its own set of rules. To become a professional tattooer, a person needs to apprentice with an established artist for several years. If you don’t know your tattooer’s level of experience, or if you know that they haven’t properly apprenticed, don’t get inked by them.
"Experience is an important thing now because there are so many tattooers who are self-taught," Mahoney says. "There’s a lot of stuff you can’t learn online. One of the things is how tattoos are gonna look in five years, ten years, twenty years. Kind of the only way to know that stuff is to have been around. The person at any given shop doesn’t have to be tattooing that long, but the fact that they’re working with, or hopefully apprenticed with someone who’s been tattooing a long time, can give you a bit more to go on."
If you’re asking yourself, "Well, how do I know?," it’s actually pretty easy to find out. Most shops — the good ones, anyway — have a website that lists their artists and a little bit about them. And don’t be afraid to straight up ask an artist you’re thinking of working with, either!
There’s no way to research the shop or artist
While walk-in’s are almost always welcome, you should still enter a shop with some knowledge. Even if you wake up one morning with the intense need to run out and get tattooed, sit for a minute and do some research online or ask your tattooed friends who the best person is to go to. "You probably shouldn’t get tattooed, just walking into a shop," Mahoney advises. "You should ask around a little bit first." Yelp is a great online resource to find out what other people have to say about their tattoo experience at a particular shop. If you can’t find the shop’s website or there doesn’t seem to be any helpful information on it, that’s a bad sign.
But don’t just read reviews, either. Look for reviews that also show images of work that the particular artist has done. The first thing a good tattoo parlor will ask you (other than what you want done) is who you’d like to tattoo you. Every artist has a different style, so make sure you have the answer to that question.
You haven’t heard anyone talk about it
Having been an icon in the industry for decades, Mahoney insists that the best way to spot a good or bad tattoo shop is to listen. "Photographs can lie," he says, "Make stuff look better than it is. Popularity on Instagram doesn’t really mean a person is a great tattooer. Word of mouth is always the best way."
If there’s a shop that you’ve heard people buzzing about, go check it out for yourself! If you’re wandering around and you walk into the first tattoo shop you spot — and you’ve never heard of it before — don’t commit yourself to that shop right away. Additionally, if you spot someone with tattoos you like, ask them where they went!
You can’t see samples of the artists’ work
When you walk into a shop, take a minute to look around and admire the walls. Most professional shops will have sketches or other artwork by their tattooers displayed on the walls. If you don’t like what you see, that place might not be the right one for you. You should also always take the time to sit down and thumb through each artist’s book. Typically, a tattoo parlor will have a stack of books on a coffee table that showcases each artist’s previous work. If you’re not liking those pieces, you probably won’t like the one you might get from them.
Also try to parse out what an artist’s strong suit is, and also, whether they have a weak spot in their skill set. "We’re kind of famous for doing the tattoos that other people say can’t be done," Mahoney says about his world famous shop. "We work in fine line all the time and we can do that stuff." A lot of artists, however, can’t pull off the kind of precision you may want for your tattoo. Be sure to recognize what style of tattoo you’re going for and whether a particular shop can pull it off. A person might not be a bad artist, they may just be bad at the particular style you want.
No repeat clients
Another good way to judge the quality of a tattoo parlor is to know who else has gotten tattooed there. "I think nowadays everybody knows people with a lot of tattoos [who] you can ask," says Mahoney. While not every shop has A-list clients like Lady Gaga (see her David Bowie tattoo as done by Mark Mahoney), you can still get a sense of a parlor’s level of expertise by seeing what other work they’ve done on other clients.
Hang around the shop a minute and ask the other customers there if they’ve gotten tattooed at this specific shop before. If they have, take a look. Hear their experiences. Even if you strike up a conversation with someone who hasn’t gotten tattooed there yet, they may have a friend who has, and recommended this shop.
The quality is cheap
Pricing really can help you gauge what kind of a shop you’re in. Great tattoos come with hefty price tags. You pay for what you get. For example, if a shop claims it can give you a large thigh piece for a mere $300, it’s time to raise an eyebrow.
If you’re totally new to the world of tattoos and aren’t sure what a piece should cost, do some more research. Some shops go by hourly rates, or will estimate a price based on the complexity of your design. For reference, this umbrella tattoo I got done by artist East at Mahoney’s Shamrock Social Club was a little over $300 because of the quality of the fine line work.
Never get a tattoo from someone you don’t like. If you walk into a shop and the artist you’re consulting with gives you bad vibes or isn’t listening to you, go somewhere else. "It’s more than just the tattoo," Mahoney shares. "It’s the experience. You want to be treated well. You want to have a memorable experience." Getting a tattoo should be a special, unique moment for you. You don’t just want an artist who is good at what they do, you want someone to share the experience with — in the best way.
Personally, I have refused to work with certain upscale artists because I felt a level of rudeness or apathy. I’d much rather go to a tattooer I can talk to, and who will give me a great piece. If you don’t like the attitude or atmosphere of a certain parlor, turn around.
Be smart about it
If you’re not feeling certain about the tattoo parlor you’re in, hold off. A tattoo isn’t something you want to rush into, or regret later.
There are multiple factors that go into choosing the right place for you: the quality of the artwork, the price, the condition of the shop itself, and the experience. Take your time to sort through all of these aspects before you sit in the chair and shell out a few hundred bucks. You should be able to walk into your shop and feel comfortable, and walk out with the satisfaction of having a great piece of artwork on your skin.