If you're seeking out an artist for your next big project, or you simply want something small and simple, there are certain elements to watch out for. These can be found by visiting a shop to meet the artist and flip through his/her portfolio or by going to tattoo conventions to meet dozens of artists all in one spot.
1. Feeling: The most important part about getting a tattoo is safety. I'm sorry to sound like an after school special but do you really want a disease to go along with your new ink? Really, it could be really dangerous if you go to a scummy shop and your experience would be ruined. Abbie Mullett, a piercer at Stingray Body Art in Allston, MA nailed it when she said "Getting a tattoo is all about the experience."
No matter how good an artist may be, if he/she is giving tattoos in a kitchen, find someone else. There are enough decent artist out there that you will find one who will be able to tattoo what you want AND do it in a safe, clean environment. Rocket science, no?
It's also pretty damn important that you feel comfortable with your artist. Face it, some personalities just miss one another. It's not a judgement on you or the artist, but if you're not comfortable around him/her, why would you want to spend a substantial amount of time with them? Also, if you find an good artist with a matching personality, it'll be that much easier to get exactly what you want. These people are not mind readers and sometimes you can go through a series of sketches with minor adjustments until you have what you want. You have to have the courage to speak up or you're most likely going to be unhappy with the experience or the tattoo, or both.
2. Overall Style: Does the artist have a specific style (i.e. Sailor Jerry, Japanese, tribal, graffiti, etc.) or does their portfolio offer a spectrum of different concepts and styles? Is their style similar to the one you're searching for? Some tattoo artists are very malleable and can adapt their techniques to better suit your design. Others are much more set in their ways. Imagine tattoo artists to be like actors. Some are like Johnny Depp and Philip Seymour Hoffman in that they can can tackle whatever comes before them and deliver an excellent performance. The latter are more closely compared to actors such as Michael Cera and Woody Allen who generally give their best performance within a smaller spectrum of genres.( Stay with me here, the analogy will be over soon.)
Michael Cera is great if you're looking for someone to portray a skinny, awkward guy, but if you're looking for a suave, macho man then you're going to keep looking. The same goes for tattoo artists. While someone might be amazing at tattooing traditionally, you're not going to choose them to do a portrait of your dead dog, Fluffy. Dig?
3. Accuracy: Do the tattoos look like they're supposed to? Look at text for legibility and spelling. You definitely don't want to end up a mockery like the poor soul who's misspelled tattoo is now displayed on the band's Myspace page with the caption, "Always check spelling before getting a tattoo."
When you're looking at an artist's portfolio, pay attention to limbs of people and animals. One of the most common mistakes in bad tattoos is disproportional or missing limbs. Seriously! It's a wonder sometimes how people don't notice that one of the legs on their pin-up girl is half the size of the other, or bent inhumanly.
4. Ability: Can the artist draw a smooth, straight line? Are all the lines extra thick? Thickness is a great way to mask the failure of an inaccurate line. If you're anywhere near as neurotic as I am, imperfect lines will drive you crazy. You're not going to find absolute perfection anywhere because it's just impossible to defy human error. Artists' hands aren't 100% steady and it's just plain hard to sit completely still when someone's drilling ink into your body.
What about shading and color? Does the artist seem to shade randomly or does it make sense for the drawing/style? Joey Fisher, a traditional artist at Lightwave Tattoos in Saugus is a great guy and his portfolio illustrates his exceeding ability in line work but his shading is not always the most accurate. I hate to throw him under the bus like this, but the pin-up girl he included on his website just so happens to illustrate a few of my points really well. The shading on the face makes the girl look like she has a five-o'clock shadow! She's missing a leg and the arm on the right is doing all sorts of weird things. Just goes to show you that you need to be careful.
5. Pricing: Yeah, money's tight. Tattoos are expensive, so pricing should be a concern. You don't want to be overcharged, right? Well keep in mind that a tattoo is permanent and you might as well spend a little extra to get exactly what you want. If you choose your artist by price you might sacrifice quality. That's not to say that an artist who charges less is less skillful than an expensive one, but cost should never be the most important factor.
Best thing to do if you're sincerely strapped for cash and the artist you want is expensive: Wait! Save a little more and go to the guy (or lady) that meets your standards.
These are the important factors to consider when getting new ink. When all is said and done, the tattoo is for YOU. It's going to be on your body forever (or at least for a while) so you damn well better do your homework.