I won’t tattoo your dead Grandma on your arm

I won’t tattoo your dead Grandma on your arm

It’s OK to say no to clients. Seriously.

As a tattooer, there’s no better feeling than waking up in the spring and looking out the window and seeing clear blue skies. A quick check of the weather forecast  is all it  takes. If I  see an icon of a cartoon sun smiling at me – I smile back. When the season  changes from sweater weather to shorts, tanks, and sun dresses, I  know the dry spell  is over.

As people start showing more skin for summer, they  get the itch to decorate it. That  means back-to-back tattoos for the next six months. Good bye Wendy’s value meals. Hello, *whispers* Sizzler. You have to say it with a whisper. It just adds to the high-class vibe of the food.

Seriously though, when the temperatures warm up, everyone  wants a new tattoo.  They’ll show up at the tattoo shop with a napkin sketch, a picture from the internet, or my biggest nightmare : a photograph of grandma from Christmas a few years ago.

“Tell me about your ideas for your new tattoo”, I would ask. “This is a picture of my nina”, they would say, “She passed away last year”. I would lower my head and tear up a little bit. It  works well for the client. They think that I’m showing empathy. The truth  is, I  refuse to tattoo portraits.
There are two fundamental reasons why I hate portrait tattoos:

large-bad-people-portrait-tattooFirst, they’re hard as hell to do. Imagine trying to draw a realistic picture of someone you know and capture their heart and soul on paper. It’s next to impossible. Now, think about doing that using a moving electric machine. Take it even further and try recreating that picture on a round surface like a balloon.  The odds are stacked against the tattooer in those situations. It might look like your lovely grandma or it might look like Dave from those Wendy’s commercials.

Second, nobody wants to talk about them. When you see a portrait tattoo on someone and it’s not a famous movie star, nobody wants to ask you about it. “Hey, nice tattoo! Is that a dead relative on your arm”? Think about it, how often do you ask a stranger about the portrait tattoo on them? Everyone just assumes it’s a dead person and avoids the subject. Or, they just see Dave from Wendy’s and invite you to go grab something off the value meal.

I had two options when these requests walked through the doors.

  1. Explain the client’s options.
  2. Suggest a different artist that can do a better job than I would.

Let’s look at option one in detail.

When someone wanted a memorial tattoo, I would ask them one simple question  : “Why”?

When someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, what they really want is a way to honor them. They think the best way to do that is with a portrait tattoo. Let’s look past their initial request and get to the heart of it though. They don’t really need a portrait of grandma to  honor her.

I would ask the client, “Tell me more about her. What is your fondest memory of your loved one?”

I would  then tell them my story of hanging out at Grandma’s house on Sunday nights sitting on one of those rocking horses with the springs on the legs that let you rock back and forth. We would watch Lawrence Welk before the Muppet Show came on. She would tell me about dances she went to with my Grandpa and share what the world was like then.

il_570xn-201001975If I were to get a tattoo to memorialize my own grandmother, I would get a tattoo of that springy horse instead of a portrait. Nobody wants to ask a question about a portrait, but they will ask you why you have a tattoo of a children’s toy on your arm. That gives me a chance to brag about my grandma and share her stories with other people.

If there’s just a picture with some dates and “R.I.P” around it, nobody will ask and you’ll never get a chance to brag about them. You don’t get to share their legacy.

Clients are the same way. Let’s look beyond their initial request and find out what their desired result is first. They’ve probably done a little research and heard a few industry terms thrown around and they think they know what they want. What they really want is a result, not a technology per say. *

If you’ve spend more than a few years in the web design business, you’ve undoubtedly heard the most feared request any self respecting designer can hear. This phrase brings about the same pain and frustration as the tattooer who hears the word “Portrait”.

“I want a Flash intro”… Damnit….

It’s our job to ask our clients :  “Why?”. Why do they want a Flash intro? What are they hoping happens when a visitor sees it? Discover the motivation and offer a solution that works. This is your opportunity to really delight your client with a creative solution that delivers on the results they want.

Not all clients are wrong and sometimes they know exactly what they need. It’s OK to say no and suggest a competitor that can execute on their request perfectly. Am I suggesting you actually pass up on a paying customer? Yes, yes I am.

If they need a product or service that you simply can’t provide, point them in the direction of someone who can. The client will appreciate your honest opinion and walk away your biggest fan. Seriously. It’s better to build your brand by being honest about your skill level than be the person who tattooed a portrait of Dave from Wendy’s instead of Grandma on their arm.


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