Tattoo Artists Share Their “…Are You Sure?” Stories

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Tattoos are really nothing new, and body art has been around for centuries. From “I Love Mom” hearts to intricate, colorful sleeves, body art can be whatever you want it to be.

Having carte blanche to put anything on your skin is liberating, sure, but many people seem to forget this kind of art is permanent — just ask Otzi the Iceman. We all like to be impulsive from time to time, but a new tattoo can sometimes be one pretty poor life decision. Just ask these tattoo artists (and a few regretful tattoo recipients) who shared their true accounts of “Are you sure?” stories.

A Classic First Tattoo Catastrophe

I actually refused to do this one. An 18-year-old girl came in wanting her boyfriend’s name on her lower back. She had never met him; she was his prison pen pal for a month, and he was being released in a couple weeks. She wanted to get it to surprise him. No judgments on ex-cons or 18-year-old girls, but I got the impression the relationship wasn’t going to last.

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Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Tattooed

A man comes in with his girlfriend, and they want each other’s names tattooed. I protest, but they insist. We know they’ll get them done elsewhere, and I’m in a walk-in shop at the time, so I say, “Whatever. Let’s go.”

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He gets the tattoo across his stomach in old English lettering. The moment we’re done, she yells something like, “Next time, you’ll think twice before sleeping with some girl behind my back!” and runs away. It was awkward to ask for the money.

Some People Never Learn

A guy came in and got his wife’s name covered up with a portrait of his new girlfriend. My coworker used part of the portrait’s shirt in the picture to cover up the name. Two months later, he turned his now-ex-girlfriend’s portrait into a demon.

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I started working at another shop and in came the same guy with a third girl. They were getting matching tattoos on their hands. When I walked to the front and saw him, he totally pretended he didn’t know me.

A Fairytale Ending

A man came in and asked me to tattoo a portrait of his girlfriend, only the portrait was a “duck face” selfie. I jokingly suggested adding her holding the phone and taking the selfie…and he thought it was a great idea. They’d only been dating six months and he didn’t tell her he was going to get it.

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He came back a month later to add her name above it.

Close Call

My tattoo artist told me a story about a man who was balding and wanted his bald spot tattooed over in black. My artist colored the bald spot in with a sharpie and told the guy to come back after he’d shown it to his wife. He didn’t come back.

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Parent of the Year

I was booking a tattoo one day and a woman came in to buy her almost-16-year-old daughter a tattoo. The owner (a tattooist) said, “Sure. We can sort something out. What is she wanting?” The mother replies, “She wants to get the Playboy bunny on the inside of her wrist.”

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The artist refused and said, “I don’t want to be responsible for something so cliche and visible on such a young girl.” There was an argument, but the woman left, yelling that she was going elsewhere where her money was good enough. He had strong views on neck, face and hand tattoos.

The Speedster

My tattoo artist’s most notable client was a man who wanted a solid, bright-blue “Speedo” tattooed over every square inch that an actual Speedo would cover. The artist said it was super awkward because it was one of his first tattoos. At least he made good money off of it. Nothing has really fazed him since.

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I Think I Know How To Spell My Own Name!

I was a shop girl, so it was my job to get everything set up for the tattoos. I had a couple come in and want each other’s names tattooed on them — okay, no problem. At this shop, we had a rule that anything involving words had to have the person sign a copy of the lettering to make sure everything was spelled correctly.

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So, they wrote their names down and the artists drew up the lettering. I gave them the copies so they could double-check spelling and sign off on them. The woman looked at the man’s name and said it was spelled wrong. We double-checked, and that was how he spelled it. He looked at it and said it was right, and they argued about this.

I went back and looked at how it was spelled on his ID, and sure enough, it was spelled wrong. So he decided maybe it was really spelled wrong, and the artist redrew it. On all his paperwork he had spelled his name wrong, the way he had written it for the artist. His name was pretty common; I think he just really didn’t know how to spell his name. This was a couple probably in their late 20s or early 30s with a few kids together.

He Thought Long and Hard About This

We had this lovely exchange student come into the studio for about a year to get all sorts of piercings. The day finally came that he turned 18. So, he asked to sit down and chat about what he wanted. The way he asked me made me think that it was going to be this big elaborate design.

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He asked for a math equation on his foot. He wanted “3+4=8.” I cautiously asked if he knew that was the incorrect answer to the equation. His response was, “Oh yeah, I know. I just think it’d make a funny tattoo.”

Bad Idea 101

My friend wanted angel wings tattooed on her back and asked me to go because I was the only person she knew with tattoos. So, we walk into a pretty well-known tattoo shop in LA and she explains to the artist what she wants. As she explains, it gets even more elaborate with the wings starting to decay farther down her back. The artist shows us some pretty sweet wings he’d done before. He explains how it’ll be done, saying he’d do the outline first and after a few weeks she could come back and he’d start the detail work.

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Fast-forward to three days later. She’s topless, lying on his chair, and he’s placing a stencil down. He asks her what other tattoos she has besides this one, and she tells him that this will be her first one. The tattoo artist’s face drops instantly, and he starts saying how he’s going to end up tattooing some of the most painful parts he could tattoo (the ribs mostly). He asks if she can handle it. She says “yes,” and after a little more talking, he starts tattooing. She cannot take the pain at all; she’s crying and gripping the cushion like she’s about to die. The artist looks at me with a look on his face like “Is she really going to do this the entire time?”

After half an hour of tattooing with the occasional break, he says he can’t deal with her screaming in the shop, so he stops. He had probably 10% of the outline done on the right wing. We leave with another appointment set so another person could help her with the tattoo and make it into something smaller. I didn’t go back, but she went with two female friends. From what I heard, it was another 10 minutes of tattooing. She ended up having a nice wave outline on her back.

Teens Do the Darndest Things

During the Twilight craze, a mother brought in her 14-year-old daughter to get vampire bites tattooed on her neck — little holes with blood streaming down. We refused, and they got angry.

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A few years later, I saw that girl in public. She must have gone to a bad shop. She had two quarter-sized black dots with red strings all the way down her neck.

You Go, Grandma

There was an 85-year-old woman who came into my tattoo artist’s shop, saying exactly: “I want a skull with daggers and fire!” My artist said “Yeah!” Now she’s an 85-year-old grandma with a skull and daggers on her chest.

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Just Brows-ing

I tattoo eyebrows specifically. I’ve had a few clients come in and not know they’re getting a tattoo.

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I had an older woman come in with her paid deposit, thinking that I was going to wax her eyebrows. She thought the deposit was the price of waxing eyebrows ($110). I felt terrible. I waxed her eyebrows, showed her how to fill them in with a pencil and then refunded her deposit. Other than that, there’s the usual “freak out” before starting. So, I’ll always ask, “Are you sure?”

Typical Husband Move

My dad has a terrible tattoo on his arm of his and my mom’s names. Years ago, she told him to get something around it to make it look a little nicer. He came back with a dolphin on his pec.

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That’s What Friends Are For

My good friend who is also a tattoo artist talked me out of getting Spider-Man swinging from one nipple to the other. I’m still not sure he was right.

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Butter Them Up

I once tattooed a stick of butter with wings attached — get it? It’s a butterfly. It was dumb but fun.

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Silver Linings Do Exist

A distraught man came in wanting a portrait. I asked to see the reference photo that he wanted to get tattooed. He showed me a bunch of low-resolution webcam shots of this lady from a dating site. I assumed he was trying to impress an online woman he met.

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So, without telling him that was a horrendous idea, I instead said it wouldn’t work due to the low quality of the pictures and the heavy filters she used. I later learned that the pictures were of his ex-wife from her new dating profile. He was having a really hard time getting over her, so I convinced him that this probably wasn’t the best way to get over someone. He ended up booking an appointment to get his sons’ portraits instead…and then didn’t show up for the appointment. So, happy ending?

They Call Me Mellow Yellow

My friends called me “banana man” in high school. I had long blonde hair that I dyed totally yellow. When I sat on the couch, vegging out, it was often a scene of me with my hair over my face looking like a banana. Hence “banana man.”

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Fast forward a beat and you have me, in the Army, with no more long hair. I’m inebriated and on my first Phase 3 outing. I’m feeling homesick and tired — a typical, moody new Army recruit. I stumble into a tattoo parlor outside of Ft. Lee, Virginia, and ask for a “banana man” tattoo.

A lady there says she’ll do it. Her reasoning is that she has fantasy items she wants to tattoo. In the previous month, she’d gotten to tattoo a toaster on someone, and now she gets to mark “banana” off her list. She draws me up a cartoon of a smiling banana half out of its peel and I love it! Before I know it, I’m back in the barracks rubbing ointment on my upper arm.

Now I’m in my late 30s and I have had to explain this dumb tattoo far more times than I’m comfortable with. I’ve gotten a few more tattoos, and I love them all except this dumb drunk purchase that I can’t get rid of.

Straight From the Source

A long time ago when I’d first started out in this industry, freshly out of my apprenticeship, I used to secretly do these girlfriend/boyfriend names with a dark gray wash instead of pure black so they’d be easier to cover later.

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After nine years, I now do them as bold and black as possible and make sure that whoever has to cover it up six months later (once the couple has broken up) has a hell of a time doing it. If they come back to me, I make sure to charge extra. I think I developed this bit of misanthropy after almost a decade of giving people “Hey, you may not want to get this. I cover these up all the time and it can be an expensive mistake” warnings that they always blew off.

Some Serious School Spirit

A few years back a young man from the wonderful area of Inverness, Florida, stumbled in while we were taking a break on my leg piece. As part of a high school senior class scavenger hunt (and the top points prize), he wanted a simple tattoo — but on his right butt cheek.

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We asked him a few times if he was sure, considering he originally came in asking if the shop did “semi-permanent” tattoos. Once we explained to him that the shop did not offer that, he shrugged and said, “Alright, let’s do a real one.” The artist asked me if it was okay if he knocked that one out quickly, and I said it was. They did the tattoo, and the kid thanked us all for not being mean and left.

Three more showed up that night because we were the only shop open on a random Sunday. We turned them all away. The others didn’t take that part of the scavenger hunt seriously (they thought nobody would do it) until the kid who showed up first started texting the photo of it around. I just wanted to finish my leg piece and go home.

Listen to Your Stomach

My friend got the Simpson’s doughnut tattooed on his shin. It was really big, with the pink frosting, sprinkles and bite taken out of it. I went to visit him a few weeks later and he’d added a huge slice of bacon on the other shin. I asked him why, and he said he really likes bacon with doughnuts.

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How Heavenly

In the little college town I live in, all these girls want crosses on their wrists to show how “spiritual” they are. Every one of them wants me to place the cross so it’s facing them. That’s upside down to everyone who sees it. These sweet college girls are getting upside-down crosses and looking like Satan’s little devils.

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I do ask them if they know it’s upside down. In true self-centered college girl fashion, they invariably reply, “It’s right-side-up to ME!” like the billions of other people on the planet don’t matter. Okay. One upside-down cross, coming up.

A Sad Tale

I was halfway through the tattoo when I had the “Are you sure?” question go through my mind. A man in his 50s came in wanting “RIP Melinda Bethany Jason” (names changed for anonymity). Not wanting to prod him about this sensitive tattoo, I got to work on his arm.

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After a few minutes, he started bawling his eyes out and shaking like crazy. I tried to comfort him, and we got to talking about what happened to the people whose names he was getting tattooed. He said, “They’re not dead. I’m dead to them.” He went on to tell me he’d just gotten out of rehab. The names were his children’s, and they’d said they’d never speak to him again.

Surfin’ USA

I’ve had three tattooists ask me “Are you sure?” over the same tattoo. I lost a bet and ended up with a phallus-shaped surfboard tattooed on my behind. Well, it turns out this is a great conversation starter and always gets a giggle from everyone who sees it. But the tattoo itself isn’t great, so I’d like to tidy it up and make it look better.

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Every single tattooist I’ve asked has looked at me like I’m crazy. One went as far as telling me that a young woman should not have surfing genitalia on her butt.

Wrenched Up

I’m not a tattoo artist, but the last time I got a tattoo I overheard the guy in the stall next to mine getting a tattoo of three wrenches along his forearm. His tattoo artist was asking “Why wrenches?” Was he a mechanic or an engineer? Nope. He was a chef.

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Maybe he wanted to be a mechanic? Or it was a hobby or something? Nope. He had always wanted to be a chef and loved his work. Then why the wrench? It turned out that he just really liked wrenches.

Meat Your Match

I had a man come in wanting a raw T-bone steak on his chest. I told him “no,” but the guy insisted. I finally let him make an appointment to come back in a few days when he was more clear-headed to talk about it.

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The man actually came back and was still insistent that he wanted the steak. I told him to put together some sample art, still thinking this guy would change his mind and not show. But he came back, and he loved the art that I showed him. So I said “Why not?” and did it.

A Kick in the Face

I worked in a tattoo shop for a few months while learning to be a body piercer. The owner was this gruff older guy.

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One day, a younger woman walks in and wants a tattoo of a daisy on the top of her foot. It was her first tattoo. The owner tried for a good 10 minutes to talk her out of it, explaining how painful it was to get a tattoo there. She basically told him, “Shut up and do the tattoo, old man.” So, he did.

She got about a half-inch line done before she screamed and kicked him right in the face. She started bawling her eyes out about how badly it hurt. She left with nothing but that half-inch line as a “trophy” for her own stubbornness.

A Little Late

My dad and my stepmom got tattoos the day before they impulsively got married in Vegas. My stepmom got his last name tattooed on her inner forearm. It was about three inches long. My dad? He got an enormous full-body portrait of my stepmother in lingerie. It covers his shoulder and almost all of his upper arm. I was about 13 at that point and I was livid after they came back and showed us their new ink and their rings. At least they’re still married now.

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Not One, But Two!

I knew a soldier in my unit who wanted “Florida” tattooed on his chest (that’s where he was born). The tattoo artist put on the stencil and asked him to check it out. He looked in the mirror and declared that it was backward. The artist began to explain how mirrors work, and the soldier quickly responded with, “Look, I can see it’s backward. Just flip it, OK?” So, the artist obliged.

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When the soldier proudly showed off his new tattoo, the amount of laughter that ensued embarrassed him into wearing T-shirts every second of every day for months. However, he redeemed himself by getting the word “Cavalry” tattooed on his back because, as I’m sure you guessed, he was in the cavalry at the time. However, he once again messed it up by getting the word “Calvary” tattooed on his back. It’s a very subtle but very important difference. Both tattoos were big, bold block letters — absolutely impossible to cover up. 

I’d Rather Not

I have a fair number of tattoos, and I generally give the artist full control over the tattoo they give me without much input from me. I just like cool ink. Some artists even go so far as to simply freehand stuff without telling me what it is, which is fine and has resulted in some tattoos I love.

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There was one issue once though. One artist said he drew up something awesome and no one had gotten it yet so he would do it for a small amount of money. Awesome for me, right? Nah. It was just a female chest with a bunch of flowers and an extremely vulgar phrase around the image. I don’t know why he was so pumped about it. He got offended when I said I’d rather have something that might not offend someone.