There are as many ways to do a tattoo as there are tattoo artists. Some folks hew strictly to tattoo tradition and some bring techniques from other art disciplines, like graffiti or oil painting, into their tattooing. I respect that each of us as artists and customers must find the mysterious combination of our influences and mix all those unique experiences into our chosen style and technique for doing a tattoo. For me to pretend that there is a “right ” way to tattoo is foolish and I wouldn’t dream of telling another tattooer how to do their job. However, there is a point you reach when citing ones personal “technique” becomes a refuge from shoddy workmanship or worse, as cover for ripping people off. Sometimes if it looks like bullshit and smells like bullshit then it’s probably bullshit.

About a month back a client came in asking if I could “finish” a tattoo of a butterfly she had started on her shoulder at another shop, she would eventually add some flowers around the butterfly but wanted to get the butterfly part done in the meantime while she decided on the next move for the tattoo. She explained that the work she had wasn’t very good looking, that she had left the shop disappointed in what the artist had done, and confused that he had told her that it would require “a couple more passes” to finish. Now, I have been tattooing long enough to have seen and learned about the work of artists like Guy Aitchison, and Pittsburgh locals Don McDonald and Jason Angst who use layers of color and black and grey to give a sense of depth and to use each layer to bring out a luminous quality that sets their work apart. These are layers with a purpose and each time these guys give a tattoo a pass it works the way an oil painter does with balancing neutral tones with the translucent quality of tattoo ink, in short when these kind of tattooers do multiple pass sessions it is for a good reason and their work shows it.

That wasn’t the case with this butterfly.

I was so annoyed at this poor woman having payed a lot of money for a smudgy mess that I wanted to get started fixing it right away and didn’t take a picture til we already had the right wing done.

What you see on the left there is not one session of a multiple layer tattoo, it is a shitty tattoo. Maybe more “layers” would have made it better, but frankly the work I did took one pass and about 30 minutes so I can’t see any reason for this tattoo to take multiple passes. Here is piece after I finished it.

Actually, I can think of a reason that a small, simple tattoo that could be done in one shot should take multiple sessions. . .


Times can be tough in this economy for a tattooer, if most of your business is walk-ins then you often don’t know when your next customer is coming through the door and in a city like Pittsburgh, where there seems to be a shop(or three) on every block, then competition is tight. If you were an unscrupulous sort then one way you could literally double your business would be for all of your tattoos to take twice as many sessions. I can’t claim to know that is what this tattooer was doing, but I do know that there was no reason for this piece to take more than one session.

Perhaps, at this point you might be saying “maybe the artist just wasn’t very good who did the work originally?” and I would agree except that I have seen many of this persons tattoos that were very solid and bright! This tattoo was a month old and so I know it isn’t the artists early work and since I have seen very solid work from them so I can only assume it was this poorly done for the purpose of forcing the customer to return for more “passes”.

I am not here to call anyone out and this person certainly isn’t the only tattooer I have run across in recent days doing this sort of thing. It must be a terrible temptation to pad your wallet with a couple extra “passes”, but in my opinion it is unfair to the clients and makes all of tattooing look bad. The point of this post is to warn customers that a good tattooer (like the three mentioned above) has good reasons to layer their work and will explain the hows and whys of their chosen technique, but the fact that good artists are doing this is, rarely, also cover for shoddy artists to take advantage of their customers. As tattoo customers it is your responsibility to look carefully at the artists portfolio, to ask questions, and if you are not satisfied with their answers, to go to someone else.


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One thought on “(p)layers

  1. Always appreciate the posts and your efforts to protect and educate in tattooing.

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