Always Right

Should a Tattoo Artist Tell You the Tattoo You’re Asking for Is a Terrible Idea?

Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Belyjmishka/iStock.

In December 2011, a young woman walked into a tattoo shop in Los Angeles and told an employee she wanted some ink on her forehead. More specifically, she wanted the word DRAKE, in all caps, big enough to cover the width of her face and the skin where she’d shaved off her eyebrows. Before long, photos of the woman’s permanently disfigured face had gone viral. Even Drake found it upsetting: “The guy who tatted [that] is a fucking asshole,” he said in an interview. “You should lose your job and should never do tattoos again.”

But the tattoo artist, Kevin Campbell, stuck to his guns. When a reporter from Vice asked him if he considered turning the customer away, he replied, “In the end, she paid me to do this to her, which really means she did this to herself.”

This grim story crystallizes a fundamental question about the service industry: What exactly are you paying for when you pay a person to do something for you? After all, when you interact with trained experts in customer service environments, you’re probably not just using them as conduits to deliver whatever things you desire—more likely, you’re hoping to benefit from their expertise. You go to a tailor, you trust the tailor to tell you your pants are too short; you go to a barber shop, you trust the barber to tell you that having too much hair on top while buzzing the sides makes you look like a fascist.

In the case of a customer service provider whose product will be on your body for the rest of your life, this part of the job would seem to be all the more important. An experienced tattoo artist knows all kinds of stuff that her customers won’t know: which kind of ink looks bad on which kind of skin, whether certain designs are doomed to quickly deteriorate, even how likely it is that someone will regret a given decision. In that light, the money one pays a tattoo artist should be buying, among other things, her honest and informed advice. A good tattoo artist ought to steer her customers away from a poor choice, even if that means dissuading them from spending their money.

Tattoo artists didn’t used to think this way. Matthew Marcus, one of the owners of Three Kings Tattoo, which has locations in New York’s East Village and Greenpoint, told me that in an earlier era, tattoo artists generally didn’t see it as their responsibility to steer people away from making bad decisions. This was in part because tattoos were much less common—tattooing wasn’t even legal in New York until 1997—meaning that customers who sought them out were more likely to be aficionados who understood and accepted the risks of ostentatious ink. In those days, Marcus said, the attitude of many in the tattoo business was, “Whatever comes in the door, I’m doing it.”

One tattoo artist I spoke to, who declined to be interviewed for attribution, told me that as recently as 15 years ago, he believed so strongly that “the customer is always right” that he wouldn’t even say no to swastikas or Nazi lightning bolts even though he himself is Jewish. He told me this excellent story:

I remember this guy came in late one night, and he wanted to get a swastika on his wrist. And you know, I wasn’t the first person to talk to him, and everybody else in the shop was like, “No, I’m not gonna do that.” So I went up to him and said, “Look, if you’re gonna wear it, if this is something you’re proud of, why don’t you really wear it?” And in my head I’m saying to myself, At least if we put it somewhere visible this’ll be a warning to everybody else to stay away from this guy.

So he ended up getting it real big on the top of his hand. He says to me, how much is it gonna cost? And I go, “500 bucks.” And he goes, “Whoa, why so expensive?” And I’m like, “’Cuz it’s a swastika, dude.”

But times have changed in the tattoo industry since the good ol’ days when you’d persuade a guy to get a bigger swastika. “Now you have kids who went to art school for college who become tattooers,” said Marcus, “and a lot of regular people who are coming in as their clients.” That creates situations where artists who see themselves as high-level professionals are confronted with a lot of customers who may not have thought their choices all the way through. Adam Suerte of Brooklyn Tattoo told me that he tries to persuade people not to get tattoos of their significant others’ names: “I’ll remind them that most marriages don’t work these days,” he said, “but if they insist and say they’ll just get it somewhere else, we’ll say, ‘OK, let’s do it in a color that’s easier to cover up.’ ”

Marcus, for his part, has an ironclad rule against doing any tattoos that involve hate, racism, or misogyny and makes a point of speaking up or refusing service if a client asks for something that gives him pause for either aesthetic or moral reasons. “If you don’t feel like it’s something you can sleep with at night, or if it’s something you think will look like crap a few years down the line, it’s your right to say no,” he said. If a woman comes in asking for writing across her chest, he continued, he makes sure she understands the risks: “I always say, ‘Listen, you know how many morons are gonna use that as an opportunity to talk to you, to ogle you, to be inappropriate?’ ”

No doubt that will strike some people as paternalistic or even insulting. One of the biggest controversies to strike the tattooing world in recent years involved a writer who wanted a neck tattoo of her daughter’s name and was told at a shop called New York Adorned that she’d have to go elsewhere. In a widely circulated post on Jezebel headlined “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Get a Fucking Neck Tattoo,” Jane Marie wrote that a tattoo artist at the shop named Dan informed her such a tattoo would look “tacky” and that he didn’t give neck tattoos to people who weren’t already covered with them.

Marie was incensed, detecting sexism in Dan’s unsolicited advice, and took her business elsewhere. In a statement responding to Marie’s blog post—which was praised by David French of the National Review—the tattoo artist referred to hand and neck tattoos as “job stoppers” that could keep a client from “that next job or promotion” and unethical to perform upon clients who were not “already committed to living as a heavily tattooed person.”

But in an economy that prizes customer service, tattoo shops are facing a new breed of customer—one who demands a tattoo he saw on reality TV or on Instagram and will become indignant if the tattoo artist tries to talk him out of it. “One of the big conflicts that we’ve seen over the past few years,” said Marcus, “is this attitude of, ‘It’s my body, my idea, it doesn’t affect you, let me just pay the money to do it.’ But for a good tattoo-er who works in a good shop, who considers themselves an artist, there’s such a thing as artistic integrity.”

It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I wish, for her sake, that the Drake girl had gone in to see Matt Marcus instead of the guy who bent to her will. On the other hand, part of what’s special about tattoos—as opposed to other, less permanent physical adornments one can use to project an image—is that they’re inherently risky and even a bit reckless. The prospect of getting a tattoo is meaningful, at least in part, because it very well might be a bad idea. Maybe you don’t want a tattoo artist to remind you of that.