Can a Tattoo Artist Refuse to do a Tattoo?

Refusing service as a tattoo artist simply means that you’re refusing to work with a client. You can decline for any reason, whether it’s an artistic difference or you feel uncomfortable with the client. 

In this article, we’ll be breaking down:

  • The 4 main reasons tattoo artists refuse service
  • And how to do it correctly

1

Legal Requirements for Turning Down a Tattoo

Like all other businesses, tattoo artists can’t refuse service to someone based on their race, sex, nation of origin, etc. However, outside of this, there are no laws that require you to tattoo someone.

In fact, there are laws in most places that require you to turn people down. In most states, it’s illegal to tattoo:

  • Anyone who is under 18.
  • Anyone who is intoxicated.
  • Outside of a licensed shop.

If you break these laws, you will most likely be heavily fined (up to $1000) and have your tattooing license revoked. Serious offenses can even lead to a year of jail time. 

How to refuse service

Reason:

How to say no:

If someone is underage, keep it simple.

“Sorry, but it’s studio policy that we can’t tattoo someone under 18. We could lose our license, which will hurt the business. So, I’m not comfortable doing a tattoo for you today.”

If they’re close to being 18, don’t “let it slide.” Let them know they can come back after their birthday.

If someone is intoxicated, keep them calm.

Turning someone down because they’re intoxicated might make them aggressive. Try to delay them instead of deny them. That way, when they come back, they’ll be sober.

“Hey, we’re booked out for the rest of the day, but we’d love to do a tattoo for you. If you can come back tomorrow, we’ll get it done.”

If someone asks you to tattoo outside the shop and you’re uncomfortable doing so, just be honest.

“I’d love to tattoo you in the shop. But if we do that somewhere else, I could lose my job and it’ll be unhygienic, which might give you an infection.”

Most people will back off when you explain.

Reason:

How to say no:

If someone is underage, keep it simple.

“Sorry, but it’s studio policy that we can’t tattoo someone under 18. We could lose our license, which will hurt the business. So, I’m not comfortable doing a tattoo for you today.”

If they’re close to being 18, don’t “let it slide.” Let them know they can come back after their birthday.

If someone is intoxicated, keep them calm.

Turning someone down because they’re intoxicated might make them aggressive. Try to delay them instead of deny them. That way, when they come back, they’ll be sober.

“Hey, we’re booked out for the rest of the day, but we’d love to do a tattoo for you. If you can come back tomorrow, we’ll get it done.”

If someone asks you to tattoo outside the shop and you’re uncomfortable doing so, just be honest.

“I’d love to tattoo you in the shop. But if we do that somewhere else, I could lose my job and it’ll be unhygienic, which might give you an infection.”

Most people will back off when you explain.

Reason:

How to say no:

If someone is underage, keep it simple.

“Sorry, but it’s studio policy that we can’t tattoo someone under 18. We could lose our license, which will hurt the business. So, I’m not comfortable doing a tattoo for you today.”

If they’re close to being 18, don’t “let it slide.” Let them know they can come back after their birthday.

If someone is intoxicated, keep them calm.

Turning someone down because they’re intoxicated might make them aggressive. Try to delay them instead of deny them. That way, when they come back, they’ll be sober.

“Hey, we’re booked out for the rest of the day, but we’d love to do a tattoo for you. If you can come back tomorrow, we’ll get it done.”

If someone asks you to tattoo outside the shop and you’re uncomfortable doing so, just be honest.

“I’d love to tattoo you in the shop. But if we do that somewhere else, I could lose my job and it’ll be unhygienic, which might give you an infection.”

Most people will back off when you explain.

Tattoo Shop Requirements: When the Shop Expects You to Turn Down a Tattoo

Some shop owners will let you be picky about what you tattoo. Others will expect you to do whatever walks in the door. However, if a shop owner is threatening your place in the shop because you are uncomfortable doing a tattoo, the problem is with the shop, not with you. 

Special Rules

Depending on the type of shop, there will be some unspoken rules about which artists can take certain jobs.

When Will a Shop Expect You to Turn Down a Tattoo?

When it applies:

If you’re an apprentice

If you work at a custom shop

If you work at a street shop

If the customer is another artists’ regular client

Reason

Your mentor might limit the types of tattoos you can do.

For example, you might be able to tattoo script and symbols, but you can’t tattoo realism.

The shop will have artists that specialize in different styles. If someone comes in wanting a Japanese tattoo, then the Japanese specialist has to do it, even if he has more bookings than you.

In a custom shop, the job goes to the person who is best for the job, not to whoever has the time.

Some walk-in studios have a rotating system.

Bookings will get distributed evenly to keep things fair for all the artists, despite skill level.

Even if the client doesn’t ask for their specific artist, it’s very frowned upon to take another artists’ regular.

This is seen as stealing.

Ask the other artist before taking their regular client.

Note: The other artist might feel pressured to say you can take their client even if they aren’t okay with it. If you think tattooing their regular client could cause a rift in your relationship with them, it’s best to turn the client down.

How to say no
to the customer

“I’m not the best artist for this job, but I can refer you to [another artist in the shop].”

“I’m not the best artist for this job, but I’d recommend [another artist in the shop].”

“I’m currently booked, but [another artist in the shop]” is available.

“Since you’re one of [artist’s] regulars, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing the tattoo. If you’d like, I can make a booking for you with them instead.”

Note: If they still want you to do the tattoo, ask the other artist for permission to tattoo their client.

When Will a Shop Expect You to Turn Down a Tattoo?

When it applies:

If you’re an apprentice

If you work at a custom shop

If you work at a street shop

If the customer is another artists’ regular client

Reason

Your mentor might limit the types of tattoos you can do.

For example, you might be able to tattoo script and symbols, but you can’t tattoo realism.

The shop will have artists that specialize in different styles. If someone comes in wanting a Japanese tattoo, then the Japanese specialist has to do it, even if he has more bookings than you.

In a custom shop, the job goes to the person who is best for the job, not to whoever has the time.

Some walk-in studios have a rotating system.

Bookings will get distributed evenly to keep things fair for all the artists, despite skill level.

Even if the client doesn’t ask for their specific artist, it’s very frowned upon to take another artists’ regular.

This is seen as stealing.

Ask the other artist before taking their regular client.

Note: The other artist might feel pressured to say you can take their client even if they aren’t okay with it. If you think tattooing their regular client could cause a rift in your relationship with them, it’s best to turn the client down.

How to say no
to the customer

“I’m not the best artist for this job, but I can refer you to [another artist in the shop].”

“I’m not the best artist for this job, but I’d recommend [another artist in the shop].”

“I’m currently booked, but [another artist in the shop]” is available.

“Since you’re one of [artist’s] regulars, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing the tattoo. If you’d like, I can make a booking for you with them instead.”

Note: If they still want you to do the tattoo, ask the other artist for permission to tattoo their client.

2

Moral Objections: Tattoos That Artists Refuse to do

You are allowed to turn down any tattoo design that makes you uncomfortable - or a design that would make the shop look bad. 

For a lot of tattoo artists, what they are comfortable tattooing will vary, specifically when it comes to designs that have to do with religion and violence. 

Additionally, almost every tattoo artist will turn down racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise offensive tattoos. 

Note:

Word gets around in the tattooing community. If you decide that doing offensive tattoos is worth the money, it will reflect badly on you and your business.

Looking Out for the Client’s Future: Placement

Sometimes, you will want to turn down a tattoo because you know it will impact the client’s life in a negative way. 

For example, placement is a big deal - and a reason many tattooers will turn away clients. 

Face, neck, and finger tattoos are known as “job stoppers.” Most tattoo artists will not do them on young people unless they’re heavily tattooed because they know the consequences their client might face:

  • They won’t be able to get into high-paying professional careers.
  • They won’t be allowed to enter many pubs and clubs.
  • Many people will assume they’re a criminal - and will treat them differently because of it.
  • They will get stopped by police more often.
  • They’ll get pulled aside by customs while traveling.

Mainstream society still looks differently at people with tattoos, and tattoos in these areas are impossible to hide. You can explain this to a client who has no or few tattoos and offer a new placement. If they still want the tattoo, it’s up to you whether to tattoo them or not. 

How to say no:

Explain how job stoppers can drastically change their lives: “I’m not comfortable doing a tattoo that could have a massively negative impact on your life and limit your career opportunities.” 

Additional Placement Problems

Sometimes, tattoo artists turn down the placement for other reasons.

hand tattoos

Placements that tattoo artists turn down the most include:

  • Intimate areas
  • Lips/mouth (the texture makes it difficult to get the right needle depth, and the tattoos don’t last long)
  • Hands, particularly palms and fingers (difficult healing, so painful that clients are more likely to tap out)

How to say no:

You can explain by saying, “The skin in this area doesn’t do great with tattoos. Most of the time, the ink will drop out and you’ll have to pay for multiple sessions to get it to stay. Plus, as a tattoo artist, my name is attached to every tattoo I do. So, if the ink does drop out, it can reflect badly on me and hurt my career.” 

Note:


Some tattoos you won’t want to give because you’re looking after your client’s health. Sometimes, doctors need to monitor a scar, mole, etc. on a client. Make sure your client has the go-ahead from their doctor before covering up a skin condition or scar.

Designs Clients Regret

As a tattoo artist, you’ll start seeing a pattern on which type of tattoos clients regret - and cover up - the most. Refusing to do the tattoo might make them think twice about a tattoo they’ll hate a year or two down the road…and keep you from having to do a coverup job. 

Their Significant Other’s Name

guy name tattoo
girl name tattoo

Most artists know that an SO’s name is going to get covered, so they’ll refuse to do the tattoo. 

Note:


Names get covered a lot. Only the names of relatives or friends who have passed away or pets are “safe” names to get as tattoos.

How to say no:

“I’ve covered up thousands of names in my career. Most people who get them regret it later and choose to get them covered or lasered.”

3

Artistic Differences and Bad Designs

Even if you don’t disagree with a design morally, you can still turn down a tattoo for any reason. Most other tattoo artists will turn down a client if:

The client wants an exact copy of another tattoo

It’s looked down in the tattooing world to steal other artists’ work. If one artist copies another person’s work, they’ll get labeled as a copycat or could even get blacklisted. This could limit their chances at sponsorships and guest spots, and get them called out on social media.

Instead of copying a tattoo, try to design something similar in your own style. If the client still wants an exact replica, most professional tattooers will turn it down. 

How to say no:

“I’m not comfortable taking someone else’s design because it’s considered stealing from another artist, which could really hurt my career. Would you be open to changing the design slightly so it's an original piece?” 

If they can’t be talked out of getting the exact copy, you can refer them to someone else. This will build goodwill and keep them from bad mouthing you.

The artist doesn’t like tattooing the requested style

Particularly if an artist has lots of clients, they’ll only take on designs that they specialize in.

Early in your career, you have to do whatever comes through the door. As you build up your clientele, you want to be more picky about what you tattoo because you tend to get more of what you put out.

For example, if you specialize in traditional, but then you do one great tribal piece, that client might go out and tell all their friends, leaving you with a ton of tribal tattoos you don’t want to do. 

This is why many tattoo artists tend to stick to the one style they like - so they get more just like it. 

How to say no:

I don’t think I’m the best artist for that job. Refer them to someone else in the shop w less experience or someone who specializes (keep the money in the shop if you can) 

The client’s design won’t work

Most customers don’t understand tattoo design, especially if it’s their first tattoo. Lots of people will ask for complicated designs on their finger, watercolor tattoos with no black in them, or a design you know will fade… and then ask for multiple touch-ups when the tattoo ages poorly.

This is why if the client wants a design that won’t work - and they refuse to let the tattoo artist redesign it - most artists will turn them down. The tattoo could end up online, and the artist won’t want their name and career attached to a bad design.

How to say no:

Tell them the facts without insulting their idea. Remember, that while you are around tattoos all day, the client has no idea what will look good or bad. 

For example, if the client wants a complicated fine-line design on their finger, you could say: “Overtime, the tattoo won’t look good because the small lines will expand. A lot of the tattoos you see on Pinterest are either fresh or photoshopped, which is sort of like false advertising. I want to make sure that you’re getting a tattoo that will still look great on you in five years.” 

Note:


Sometimes, a customer will have a design drawn by someone they love, but it won’t work as a tattoo. The best way to turn the design down without insulting the client is to explain why it won’t work as a tattoo.

For example, if the client wants a design with no black in it, you’d explain: “As tattoos age, black is the color that holds everything in. Without black in the tattoo, it’ll fade really quickly, and it will look like I did a poor-quality tattoo. And because of that, I’m not comfortable doing a tattoo that I know won’t look as good as the day it was done in a couple of years from now.”

The client wants the design tattooed upside-down

most tattoo artists turn down upside-down tattoo designs

Some clients will ask for the tattoo to have the design be upside-down because they want the tattoo facing them, even if it means that the design looks upside-down to everyone else. 

How to say no:

Before turning them away, you can try to talk them into getting it right side up by saying: “I understand your reasoning but tattoos always look better facing right side up. When your arm is down, you want the tattoo to flow correctly with the body. If it’s upside-down it looks a bit awkward, and I’m not comfortable doing that.”

Most of the time, people will take your advice and get their tattoo right-side up. 

The client wants a design outside an artist’s skillset

If you know you don’t have the skills to pull off a certain tattoo (for example, fine line tattoos), it’s better to turn away a client than give a bad tattoo. If you do a bad tattoo, it can haunt you on the internet for years. 

How to say no:

Don’t say you’re not good enough to do it, as that will reflect badly on the shop. Instead, say, “I’m not the best artist for the job, but I can recommend someone who specializes in that style.” Then, you can point them to an artist who would be able to do the tattoo. 

4

Client Behavior

When it comes to refusing service, it doesn't have to be the design, it can be the client. 

You should never have to do a tattoo on someone who makes you feel uncomfortable. Sexual advances, harassment, poor hygiene, or even threats if you don’t do a tattoo are all reasons to turn down a client. 

Dealing with sexual advances

If a client makes you feel uncomfortable and they try to book in again, you can say that you’re booked out and not taking appointments. You can then tell the shop not to book them again.

Stopping angry customers

You always have to be polite, even if a customer threatens to blast you on the internet. 

Make it clear that the reason you’re turning the tattoo away is because of the design, not out of a personal issue you have with them: “I don’t think I’m the best artist for this type of tattoo.” 

“I turned them down and they went on an internet rampage. Now what?” Check out how to handle negative online reviews here

Turning someone down with poor hygiene

When you tattoo someone, you’re sitting next to them for at least an hour, if not much longer. If someone has very poor hygiene or smells bad, it’s understandable that you don’t want to spend so much time tattooing them. However, telling someone that their hygiene is the reason you’re turning them away is a quick way to offend them (and get a bad review for the shop).

Instead, you can say that you’re booked out for the rest of the day (or even several months), which will often get people to leave instead of booking in for another time. Or, you can quote a very high price. If they say that’s too expensive, then you can refer them to another studio. 

In most cases, you want to keep the client in the shop and refer them to another artist. But for this particular scenario, your goal is to get them out of the shop, so you would want to reference a different studio.

How to Turn Down Clients Without Hurting Your Business

We’ve been through a lot of scenarios, but here’s the basic formula:

chart explaining how most professional tattooers turn down clients

Whatever the outcome, remember that you’re the professional. Even if the customer is frustrated or angry, it’s your job to stay calm.

Key takeaways:

  • You’re not required to do any tattoos you are not comfortable with.
  • Never appear irritated, even though you deal with this every day.
  • Be honest with yourself about your ability, let them know when there’s a better artist for the job
  • Never insult the client or the design
  • Don’t let a client pressure you into doing a tattoo that you know you shouldn’t do/could hurt your career
  • Your career is on the line every time you do a tattoo, refusing a tattoo is required in some instances to be a successful tattoo artist

Note:

If you do a tattoo you know you shouldn’t, the client will be happy on the day. But as more people tell them it’s a bad tattoo, they’ll start to say it’s your fault to save themselves from embarrassment, and that could come back on you.

Tattoo artists with big client lists deal with fewer frustrating clients. If you want to know how to get more clients that love your artwork and style, check out our marketing guide, 15 Steps to Growing Your Tattoo Business

Learn More About Working with Clients and Building a Tattoo Business

To be a successful tattoo artist, you not only need to know how to tattoo, you also need to know how to work with clients, create stellar designs that flow with the body, and handle every aspect of the business.

Our Artist Accelerator Program takes you further into the world of tattooing. Not only does it guide you through the advanced tattooing techniques you need to know, it also breaks down how to work with clients specifically in the tattooing industry.

Inside, you’ll find modules explaining how to handle client consultations and positioning clients during tattoo sessions, as well as walk-in challenges and more.

Over 2500 students have used the Artist Accelerator Program to advance their tattooing careers, many of them now owning their own shops. When you become a student, you’ll receive instant access to the material that taught them how to get there. You’ll also be invited to join the online Mastermind community, where you can ask questions, get feedback from professional tattoo artists, and find other tattooing tips and inspiration.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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