Walk into any professional, licensed tattoo shop just about anywhere in the United States, and you'll likely see this message in some form or another prominently posted: "Good tattoos aren't cheap. Cheap tattoos aren't good."
That's the mantra of licensed professional artists who abhor being lumped together with back-alley hacks they refer to as "scratchers."
"Scratchers are an epidemic in the area," said Reggie "Joe" Robinson, owner and master artist at Hawaiian Joe's in Salem. "Most people will go to a scratcher because they can get a tattoo cheaply," he said.
Ashley Boyle got a Jolly Roger pirate skull tattoo for her 18th birthday done by Reggie 'Joe' Robinson of Hawaiian Joe's in Salem. (Photo by Nancy Tullis)
Professional artists, however, say it's better to pay a little more for quality work done safely. Standard rates in the area for licensed, store front shops are a $50 minimum with quotes by the piece or by the hour.
Eddie Gorby, owner and master artist at West Coast in Calcutta, has been a professional artist for more than 20 years, and learned the art of tattooing from his father, "Big Ed" Gorby. His shop manager, Pain Sadler, has been a professional artist for more than a decade.
Gorby said scratchers give legitimate artists a bad name, and adding insult to injury recently is a new show on the cable channel TLC called "Tattoo School." The show follows want-to-be tattoo artists through a two-week training program.
"This show is really going to do great damage to the industry," Gorby said. He is angered by the show's portrayal of people becoming tattoo artists quickly and easily. The National Tattoo Association recommends a two- to three-year apprenticeship for artists in training.
Gorby and many other licensed artists are urging their customers to let Discovery know they are not pleased. The company's viewer-relations website is:
"There's no way you can become a tattoo artist in two weeks," said Robinson. "It takes a good two or three years, depending on the aptitude of the apprentice."
Apprenticeship, working under the direction and guidance of an established and licensed master artist, is the accepted means of becoming a legitimate tattoo artist, he said.
Robinson has been an artist since 1995.
"Anyone can go on the Internet, buy tattoo equipment and supplies, and call themselves an artist," said Dallas Cole, owner and master artist of Alcatraz in Chester, W.Va.
Cole dilligently works to keep up to date on the latest state-of-the-art techniques, equipment, and procedures. That includes training in sterilization procedures and blood-borne pathogens, he said. He currently offers traditional electric tattooing and the latest evolution of the art, pneumatic tattooing.
Cole said while regulations vary from state to state, legitimate tattoo artists will comply with local laws regarding procedures and safety standards. Customers must have proof-of-age identification such as a driver's license or birth certificate.
Anyone younger than 18 must have the permission of a parent or legal guardian. The parent or legal guardian must personally give their permission, provide the minor's birth certificate, their own identification, and proof of their relationship to the minor receiving a tattoo. For most shops, the minimum age allowed is 13.
Robinson said it's worth the effort to research area shops before getting a tattoo. Artists should be willing to give prospective customers a tour of the shop and explain sterilization procedures and after-care instructions. Certificates and licenses should be prominently displayed.
The four artists said they have all seen the effects of a bad tattoo,and bad artwork is the least of the problems. Health risks are high, from a minor infection to diseases such as hepatitis, they said.
Robinson said one potential customer limped into his shop wanting a poorly-done tattoo repaired by him. The scratcher had done the tattoo with gel pen ink, and the site was so badly infected, it took an entire year for it to heal before he could work on it.
"People come in to get something repaired or covered completely, and the first thing we have to tell them is see a doctor, then come back when it's healed," Robinson said.
Cole said the bottom line is spend the extra money to have quality, safe work done by a professional. If someone used to have a shop and doesn't anymore, there's probably a reason.
Part of being a tattoo artist is attention to not only the tattoo itself, but to the reaction of the client while working, Robinson said. "You have to make sure they're comfortable, and stop when they're not. And scratchers tend to overwork a site. If you're doing a tattoo properly, there shouldn't be blood."
Scratchers can be formerly-licensed artists who don't want to go to the time, trouble or expense to work out of a licensed shop, Robinson said. Others have never been licensed at all.
Sadler said another good way to find a quality shop is to look at how long the shop and it's artists have been in the area. Artists who aren't very good will move around a lot, he said.
Find out about the artists' reputations, and know their work, Sadler said. Make sure they're an artist, and not just a tracer, someone who simply does a tattoo from a stock drawing.
He said a prospective customer should also ask for references of customers and see in person what the finished, healed tattoo looks like. Some artists are good on paper, but the talent doesn't translate to skin art, said Sadler.
"There are a lot of ink junkies out there who don't care what a tattoo looks like," Robinson said. "They don't care about their clients, or their safety. They're just in it for the cash."