Photo by Ryan Bolton at Sals Tattoo in Toronto
Photo by Ryan Bolton at Sals Tattoo in Toronto

Tattoo shops can be intimidating places.

Here’s the oxymoron about tattoos: it’s an uber-personal thing that is, in turn, public. What I mean is, your choice of tattoo, be it a skull on fire or a unicorn shitting rainbows, is a form of self-expression. It’s a very personal choice. And that personal choice is then on display for the rest of your life. Especially at the local pool.

This is the point where people lose their shit about “it being on you for life.” And “I don’t know if I like something enough for it to be on me for, you know, life.” Well, that’s kinda the point. You don’t know. A tattoo is a memory. It’s a piece of art. It’s self-expression. A tattoo, for Christ’s sake, doesn’t have to mean anything. We get so caught up with symbolism and everything meaning something. (We have hordes of LA Ink shows and its brethren to thank for that).

Here’s a secret: A tattoo can just be a tattoo. *Michael Bay-esque explosions in the background.*

That’s something I’ve learned inside a tattoo shop. I’ve spent many hours, in fact, inside tattoo shops. It started after I got my first tattoo of Incubus’ “Make Yourself” in some shitty cursive font (you gotta start somewhere, I guess). My time in shops then extended, considerably, when I got two full sleeves, some leg pieces, and then my full upper back. Then I went around and interviewed dozens of Toronto’s top tattoo artists for two years with blogTO. I ended up profiling about 20 shops. I befriended a few of the artists I met and have since spent an inordinate amount of time just hanging out in tattoo shops.

There’s a lot to see and learn inside a tattoo shop. I’ve seen people get face tattoos. I’ve seen people pass out. I’ve seen people get 7-hour rib pieces in one sitting. I’ve seen people get matching cheeseburger tattoos. I’ve seen grown-ass men weep in tattoo shops.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned inside a tattoo shop.

Photo by Ryan Bolton at Sals Tattoo in Toronto
Photo by Ryan Bolton at Sals Tattoo in Toronto

Yes, it Fucking Hurts

Anyone that says otherwise is a fucking liar and/or on percs. It’s the most common question that the non-tattooed ask the tattooed. There’s nothing cool about being a “tough guy” and saying, “just a little bit.” No, it fucking hurts. Someone is pushing various sizes of needles into your skin over and over again. And if we’re talking about the wrist, elbow, close to your armpit or your ribswhich are the fucking worstit’s going to hurt. Next question.

Sometimes, Art is Just Art

It’s totally cool if you got a portrait of your brother following his passing. Hell, that’s straight-up beautiful. But there doesn’t need to be “a reason” or a story behind every tattoo. Get a tattoo because you want to get a tattoo. Maybe something speaks to you. Maybe you just like skin art. Maybe you want to remember something forever. Maybe you just want to get a tattoo. I’m not saying drop this magazine, forge your parent’s signature if you’re under 18 and go get tatted up. Or maybe I am. I don’t know. The point is, you do you.

Just be Cool, And Respectful

Don’t come in like a tough guy. Or that you know everything about Sailor Jerry (that’s not his real name, by the by). Like your parents taught you, be considerate. If not, you’ll be put in your place pretty quick. Many tattoo artists are straight-up, no-bullshit people. Be respectful.

Haggle Elsewhere

Speaking of which, don’t haggle on the price. They’re artists. And if you’re someone that likes to go on about it “being on you for life,” then, well, pay for some art that’s going to be on you for life then. It’s disrespectful to the artist and what they do, especially as they have set costs. Start with a consultation and get a quote. Shop around for the right artist that is well-versed on the style of tattoo that you want. Bring in an inspiration piece to go over with the artist. The Internet is a beautiful place for this kind of thing.

Shut Up and Listen to the Artist

I’ve never told a plumber how to do their job. Or to wear a belt. I don’t tell the veterinarian how to inspect my dog’s scrotum. I have no idea what the fuck they’re doing. Same applies for tattoo artists. We don’t know how to operate a tattoo machine that is injecting indelible ink into the skin. We don’t know how the ink is going to set. We don’t know the best size for a detailed tattoo. We don’t know what’s going to work for what location. The tattoo artistas long as you’re not in a scratcher shop (Google it)has done this a ridiculous number of times before. They’re skilled. They know what they’re talking about. They know what works. Trust them.

Originally published in Archenemy Magazine. Check them out.

Written by Ryan Bolton

Ryan is a Toronto-based writer and photographer that likes to break the rules. His work has taken him around the world to do what he truly loves—storytelling. And drinking cold beer.

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