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We Asked Tattoo Artists for the Lowdown on Modern Ink

"I hate that it's called a tramp stamp," and other things tattoo artists won't normally tell you.
October 16, 2016, 11:55am
McCurdy inks a client. Photo courtesy the artist.

Unless they’re inking Justin Bieber, most tattoo artists will caution clients against face tattoos. But would you guess that many will also deny hand tattoos? Showing a little tatted skin is less taboo than it used to be, but the artists who watched the profession migrate from the fringe to being featured on Pinterest know more about the process than anyone. To shed some light on why and how people get inked, we asked a handful of NYC-based artists to give us the lowdown.

Why it’s cool these days to get a design on your hand, not your hip

Tattoo parlor signs in NYC. Photo by the author

New York City only legalized tattooing in 1997, but as society relaxed, artists who’d been inking underground could finally show off their work. Visible tattoos came to light – literally. “Tattoos themselves migrated to more in-the-open places,” Willie Paredes, co-owner of Brooklyn Tattoo tells The Creators Project. But echoing your parents’ claims that visible tattoos make you unhirable, Paredes prods clients to think about their lifestyle. “While still impractical, and not necessarily the wisest decision depending on your status in life, we’re less reluctant to do [visible tattoos] than we were when it was very underground,” he says.

Paredes from Brooklyn Tattoo. Photo by the author

According to veteran artists, visible tattoos became trendy when celebrities started getting them. In the aughts, Pamela Anderson-esque arm bands were fashionable, as were imitations of Nicole Richie's ankle cross. Jeff Oscar, an artist at Whatever Tattoo, reports constant asks for shoulder patterns like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s and, more than anything, finger tattoos. “No one in this particular generation is getting them as a throwback to a previous culture,” he says. “It’s because Rihanna got a finger tattoo first.” Things RiRi can also take credit for: ribcage tattoos. The tiny gun she had inked below her armpit marked an uptick in the number of asks for similar tats. Keith “Bang Bang” McCurdy, the artist who gave Rihanna that now-famous design, agrees that the singer’s tattoo influenced others but doesn’t see it as a bad thing. "Everyone is influenced by someone else. This is why celebrities are adored by people. Their taste and choices appeal to the masses,” he says.

On why a neck tattoo could be a mistake

Whatever Tattoo in New York. Photo by the author

“When people see a celebrity’s many tattoos, they don’t consider that those people don’t have to worry about looking for a job one day,” Yoni Zilber of Adorned NYC says. “It’s not gonna affect their daily life or their finances. But a hand or neck tattoo cuts your options in half. Even today, you usually can’t be a bank teller. Even some garbage companies won’t hire hand-tattooed people.”

“We have a responsibility to educate people on the risks of getting tattoos in very visible places. People will look at you differently. I have guns tattooed on my neck, and I’ve had them for over 10 years. And anybody who doesn’t know me is immediately taken aback by them,” McCurdy says. “I’m comfortable with them now, but they make me make an extra effort to be nicer to people,” he says.

On what they definitely won’t do

Dan Bythewood and Zilber of Adorned NYC. Photo by the author

Most tattoo artists won’t let you get a tattoo they think you’ll regret. Across the board, artists will refuse service if they think it could negatively affect that person’s life, and they caution against visible ink if patrons have little-to-none already. “Instagram has changed tattooing,” Zilber says. “If you see face tattoos all day online, you think it’s more acceptable than it is. I know some men who wish more than anything they could afford, physically and financially, to have their neck tattoos removed. It’s their biggest regret.”

Artists also level expectations if perfection isn’t feasible. “Many times, no matter how well we do our job, no one can guarantee that a finger tattoo will be perfect. I don’t know how well a person will hold it, or how it will age,” Paredes says. McCurdy draws the line at offensive material. “I will not do racist tattoos or anything that is harmful or offensive. I’ve not been asked yet, but I’ve seen it done. And it’s not funny at all,” he says.

On what they want most

Jeff Oscar of Whatever Tattoo. Photo by the author

Artists want a good relationship with clients, recurring or not, and sometimes that means refusing to ink walk-ins. “I will never, ever hurry someone into this. All I’ll ever try to do is get them to slow down,” Paredes says. “You know how cool it would be if you took your time, and ended up with nothing but beautiful work all over you?”

On their biggest ink-related pet peeve

Bang Bang NYC in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Photo by the author

“I hate that it’s called a ‘tramp stamp.’ That’s actually a beautiful spot for a tattoo,” Paredes says.

Adorned NYC. Photo by the author

McCurdy’s tattoo of his daughter. Image courtesy the artist

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