Illustrated by Lindsay Hattrick

How Instagram Has Changed Tattoo Culture

Call it the millennials influence

Getting tattoos doesn’t involve flipping through books of illustrations at a tattoo parlor anymore, but rather, in the age of Instagram, it means scrolling through an endless feed of ideas. Instead of going somewhere local, you might schedule an appointment based off when an artist is going to be in your city (you can find out their travel schedule via their feed). You probably have a curated collection of designs you’re considering that you've liked, so you can easily reference them. You even have a caption ready for when you inevitably post it. As with so many other industries, millennials have changed how to get tattoos, so that it's now done in the way we do everything else: selectively and on our own terms.

Of course, change is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, Instagram has made getting tattoos more accessible for people who used to find tattoo parlors intimidating. And even if you didn't find the spaces themselves difficult to navigate, finding an artist whose style you admire could still be overwhelming. Instagram, then, acts as an approachable bridge from artist to client. By following an artist, you get a better sense of what they like doing and the designs they gravitate toward, which informs whether or not you book that appointment. “Instagram allows people to trust more in the experience of getting a tattoo, since they can easily choose and contact artists they can relate to aesthetically, which ensures a better outcome,” tattoo artist Esteban (@otro) says. 

Ariel Wyu (@arielisgood), another tattoo artist, says that about 70 percent of her clients are from the ‘gram now. She’s gotten a significant amount of work specifically because of the platform, too. “Of course, the most important thing is giving a great tattoo, but artists can also market themselves better through their IG presence,” she says. “There are millions of artist existing in this industry, and you need to stand out among them.” 

And because Instagram is a feedback-driven platform, for customers, it acts as something of a Yelp for tattoo artists. For artists, it’s another way for them to promote themselves and build their community. It also allows customers to get to know the artist better. “I think people want a more personal experience when it comes to getting tattoos,” artist Erika Kenia (@st.kenia) says. “As an artist, Instagram allows you to share more of yourself and give your followers a peek behind the curtain—whether it be your best life OR your real life. Being able to relate to the artist on another level makes their work that much more collectible.” 

Instagram has also made it possible to expand the world of tattooing into marginalized groups, who didn't feel at ease in traditional tattoo parlors—i.e., everyone who isn't a straight white man. Mary Meyer and Emma Kadar-Penner, owners of Friends in Brooklyn, have been throwing flash tattoo parties at their shop for the past year. They make it a point to include female artists which, they say, has gotten easier with the rise of Instagram. “At first we tried to tap tattoo parlors [for artists], and it was so male-driven and very chauvinistic in a way… they were all very condescending,” Meyer says. “To me, Instagram has made the art of tattooing a little less of a boys club. It seems there are more women involved in the social media tattoo world than traditional parlors.”

But just because Instagram has become a haven for people who want tattoos, that doesn't mean it isn't without its problems for the artists themselves. Perhaps the site's biggest issue right now is copycats, a problem that customers often make worse. “It's good to be inspired by other artists or an IG account, but some customers just screenshot those works and ask tattoo artists to do the exact same thing, which is not respectful to the artist, as well as the customer who got the original tattoo,” Wyu says. “It's both the artist's and customer's job to not to think copying is an okay thing… maybe it means a lot to the person who made the original design.” 

And tattoo artists love to do original work—they're not interested in just churning out the same things over and over. “I would rather have one client that dug deep to find my work than 30 people that just want infinity symbols at a discounted rate,” artist Melody Mitchell (@melodytattoos) says. “But it’s a balance, there’s always good and bad.” 

Good tattoo etiquette requires the customer to go to an artist who specializes in the style of the tattoo they want. In other words, don’t go to someone who’s known for blackwork and ask for a fine line design. It’s like going to Van Gogh and asking him to paint for you like Picasso. 

About 47 percent of millennials opt to get tattoos (compared to 13 percent of Baby Boomers), and that percentage is bound to rise for members of Gen Z, so it's important that people go into their tattoo sessions with their eyes open. As my mom stresses every time I bring up wanting another one, tattoos are permanent. They live on your body forever (or until you undergo the even more painful process of getting it removed). So it's undoubtedly a good thing that people are finding designs they like online beforehand, rather than walking into a parlor and getting one impulsively. Though if you are still doing that, more power to you. Maybe just, like, avoid the face