A Los Angeles Tattoo Artist on the Dos and Don’ts of Permanent Ink
Tattoos certainly aren’t what they used to be. As time goes on, the ink that was once associated with sailors and jailbirds has become more widely accepted as a form of art. In Los Angeles, tattoo artists have adapted well to their expanding base of clients. The best tattoo shops in LA—and thus, some of the best tattoo artists in California—aren’t off-limits to anyone now.
With that said, it takes serious care and effort for these artists to create compositions that look good on skin. And, as we learned from speaking to Justin Boyle of Alchemy Tattoo in Silver Lake, just because something looks cool does not mean it will look cool as a tattoo. Over time, colors fade, ink bleeds, and tiny details merge together on the skin. It’s the job of artists like Boyle to tweak and improve designs so they continue to look beautiful for years to come.
To get the scoop on what it’s like to tattoo for a living, we asked Boyle to share his thoughts on trends, terrible requests, and how he got his start. Read on for his candid take on the industry—especially if you’ve been thinking about getting inked.
GROUPON: How did you get your start? What was the first tattoo you did?
JUSTIN BOYLE: After years of tracing tattoos in magazines and teaching myself to simplify my drawings to be translated to skin, I met some guys from Insight Studios who were willing to apprentice me. It was a lot of working the counter and cleaning, but eventually I was allowed to tattoo myself. My first tattoo was a panther on my ankle. It turned out better than expected, but my back was pretty sore from sitting with my foot in my lap.
G: What's the most important thing you've learned?
JB: I think the most important thing you learn when you start tattooing is how to talk to people. Tattooing can be a scary, intimidating experience, so it's important to make someone feel comfortable.
It's also important to be able to explain the best way to give someone a tattoo they will be happy with. The Internet has made it increasingly difficult to convince someone their idea won't work. People see fresh tattoos, but never see how poorly they age and settle into the skin. Being able to find a middle ground on designs, size, and placement is all a part of being able to communicate to a client.
G: What's the best advice you'd give someone getting their first tattoo?
JB: I would advise someone to find an artist who seems competent and willing to help get their idea to skin in the best way possible. Don't be afraid to ask questions. … Most professional artists would rather be honest with you and make sure you're happy than give you a tattoo that you'll regret later. Sometimes your happiness long-term can be overshadowed by trends and outside influences. Your artist is unbiased to your design and should be trusted with making it awesome.
G: Have you noticed any trends in the world of tattooing?
JB: Trends come and go all the time with tattooing. Geometric designs are popular, fonts are popular, tiny tattoos are popular. Many of these can be tattooed very cleanly with ultimate longevity. Unfortunately, many clients fail to understand how tattoos age and settle in the skin. I do my best to educate the client and have no problem telling them “No” if their design won't work.
G: What’s the worst request you've ever gotten?
JB: The worst requests are usually people that want their hands or fingers tattooed but have zero visible tattoos elsewhere. I try to remind people of the ethical dilemmas involved. Tattooing is pretty accepted in a lot of today's workforce, but it's not certain to stay this way forever. Many designs will look better larger and on other parts of the body, as well. Tattooing hands and fingers is a case-by-case basis.
G: What inspires you?
JB: I am inspired by lots of artists past and present. There are so many awesome books these days filled with flash from tattooers around the world. It's hard to keep up sometimes. It's good to take photos of the world around you, too. Real life always lends the best reference to tattooing. The magic is in simplifying the real world to look solid as a living tattoo that will stay with you until you die.
Interested in learning more about tattoos? Check out our guides to the history of body modification and the right age to get your first tattoo.