Is it Safe to get Tattooed at a Flea Market?

Updated on May 18, 2010

Ever seen a Tattoo Booth at the Flea Market?

Tattoo 'shops' (if you can call them that) do exist at some flea markets.  Often these tattooist offer great pricing, and it's usually one of those things that is 'too good to be true.'  All that I have seen have been indoors (thankfully), but I have heard of outdoor flea markets having tattooist as well.  One that I was told about by  friend was a "Mobile Tattooist."  This meant an outdoor flea market tattooist that had a small set up in his van... It's scary to think about, but this does happen.  Flea market tattoos have a few things going for them, but I'd like to expand on why you should stay away from flea market tattoo 'booths.'

Buyer Beware

That great deal that you're getting offered at the flea market for a tattoo comes with some additional prices to pay that you may not be thinking about at the time.  Before I start bashing flea market tattooist I'd like to say that there are some (the exception) that do high quality work.  They may be flea marketing because they like the freedom or they just tattoo as a hobby, or whatever other reason.  Most of the tattooist at the market are just beginners without the necessary skill to get into a tattoo studio or open a business of their own.  Here's some things that I find unacceptable about flea market tattoos.

  • Cleanliness -  Most flea markets are filthy places with a lot of people.  Keep in mind that most shops are going to be very clean.  A well run tattoo studio will be one of the cleanest places you will go in a day.  A tattoo is an open wound!  Needles go into and out of your skin thousands of times, and the air quality (dust, germ, all that crap) is going into your wound as you get tattooed.  A flea market can be acceptable if the area where the tattoo is being done is very clean, and isolated into a separate room from all of the flea market traffic.  Look for mops, bottle of bleach, germicidal sprays, anything you can to determine the cleanliness of the area.  Ideally tattoos should be done in as close to a sterile environment as possible.
  • Artist's Experience Level -  A flea market tattooist will usually be new to the scene, and almost always he/she will be self taught and never have been under the guidance of a respected artist or business owner.  They may not be trained in blood borne pathogens, If they are they will typically have a certificate hanging somewhere to look more 'legit.'  Because they are usually new tattooists you should be skeptical of the quality of their work.  Ask to see a portfolio! Or watch them working.  If they have no examples to show you then leave right away.  Do not trust this person with your skin!  If you look at their work and it looks good ask if they use plastic disposable needle tubes.  If not, then once again leave.  Stainless steel tubes should only be used at a shop with proper sanitizing techniques.
  • Quality of the Artists 'Tools' -  This can actually make a big difference in the final quality of your tattoo.  Because most of these tattooist are new they tend to have inferior tools.  They may have cheap machines that rattle and vibrate all over the place, and they may struggle making smooth lines.  They may have some cheapo needles that will rip up your skin twice as fast as they should.  And They probably have cheap low quality inks.  These inks will fade quickly, and be less vibrant than they should.  Even a good artist can't make great art with terrible tools, so it can stand to reason that an amateur artist can't either.  

Come on... Take a poll =)

Given the quality was guaranteed the same would you get tattooed at a flea market or by a mobile tattooist if it was 25% cheaper than in a shop?

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My Personal Experience

One of my first tattoos was at a flea market.  I heard the price and I just couldn't resist!  75 dollars for a rather large piece on my arm in full color.  That was half the price of any of the shops that I went to.  I was cheap... I was young and dumb.  The phrase 'what you pay for is what you get' has a lot of truth to it that I just didn't realize when I was young... Well I'm still kinda young, but you get the point.

As I started to get tattooed, the 'artist' took forever to set up... It was like he didn't know what he was doing, and that should have been a sign for me to leave right there, but I didn't.  After he finally set up he was dripping the colored inks into the ink cups, and I had a problem with the green color he was going to be using.  It looked like teal! I wanted green.  He seemed to not know what to do about it so I had to tell him specifically to add some yellow ink to the green.  Once again proving to me that he didn't know what he was doing.  Finally we were ready to go.

He started his tattoo machine and it was running so hard that his whole hand vibrated all over the place.  About ten minutes in it started to splatter ink all over the place.  He fumbled with the machine for a good fifteen minutes trying to fix it but he didn't know what to do.  He just continued tattooing with the ink spitting all over making it very hard to see what was even being tattooed.  About an hour later he finally finished the outline.  It was the sketchiest, poorest, most uneven outline I had ever seen.  Most of the lines didn't even connect!  Again I should have got up and left, but I figured, 'maybe when he starts to color it it'll look nicer.'  Well it didn't.  I was one of the worst tattoos I had ever seen.

Around a few months later I had gone back to the studio that I wanted to do it originally.  The guys there didn't even know what the tattoo on my arm was.  After explaining to them what went wrong and what it even was (A Vine) they said that they could "help it" the best that they could for around 150 dollars...  I let them touch it up and it look a million times better, but still not great.  And I spent now $225 on something that looks worse than if I just spent $150 in the first place.  And since that touch up, I have touched it up myself twice since learning to tattoo, and it still bothers me!


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      Dox 2 years ago

      I own a closed 2 artist booth with running water a sink and all my health dept certificates on the wall and my bio medical waste permit. I worked in drama filled shops and put in a good 30 plus hours a,week at my shop. We have a heater and ac as well... the question i would ask is why is not the writer of this article working at the new york times or even a reputable tattoo magazine

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      joe 7 years ago

      hey how are you to the poster of this article. i encourage you to contact me i am one of these artists who work in a flea market. we have a closed off shop with ac on one of the main isles in a busy market we have large 8' by 10' windows looking out into the isle for everyone to watch and we have been there twenty years! we have a sterile room and a piercing room as well and our work is displayed in the window please email me and maybe we can work out you coming check us out! thank you