There’s a corner of Instagram full of limbs and lines. The images are carefully composed, often black and white or gently filtered. Set against pale walls, arms and legs bear delicate flowers, bosomy Sailor Jerry-type women, skulls and snakes, animals of all sorts, and plenty of hands doing all the things that hands do.
This is Tattoo Instagram at its height: part art collective, part marketing tool, part window-shopping for new ink. Through hashtags and artists’ accounts, window shoppers can find virtual galleries full of body art, all carefully curated and enthusiastically faved.
It’s how I found my first tattoo. I’d had an idea for years—three small asterisks forming Orion’s Belt—but always felt intimidated about the process. Then a friend found an artist she loved on Instagram. She and I had chatted about taking the plunge together—the sort of conversation that comes up right after a third round of drinks, always decided on but never planned for. Finally my friend bit the bullet, put a date into an email, sent it to the address in the artist’s Instagram bio, and we had an appointment. We sent ideas and received sketches in return. A few weeks later, we had ink on our skin.
Of course, immediately afterward, we whipped out our phones to search for the best camera angles for our flowers (hers) and stars (mine). We took photos of ourselves, of each other. Our tattoos were thrilling on their own—uniquely ours, permanent, very pretty, a first for each of us—but the subsequent social shares provided endless aftershocks of excitement.
Like an artfully garnished avocado toast or a just-setting sun, no tattoo is now complete without its companion Instagram: First comes the ink, then comes the photo posted so friends can affirm your decision—or whatever reason it is that you tell yourself you’re using the country’s eighth-most-popular app.
While the check-out-my-new-ink update has been around since social networks were born, this habitual cataloguing of our lives has turned body art into much more than the newsfeed item of the day. Thanks to a number of features rolled out in the past two years, Instagram has transformed the tattoo industry, and handpoking in particular: from the way artists promote their business and publicize their work, to how we shop for our own.
It’s made tattoos—learning about them, browsing them, booking them—far more accessible, particularly for those not well-versed in what they want.
“Before I had tattoos I found it intimidating to walk into a shop and ask questions, in the same way that a very cool record store felt intimidating when I was a teenager,” said Jamie Keiles, a Brooklyn-based writer who has found the majority of her tattoo artists on Instagram. “It let me educate myself to a point where I could develop a taste of what I like, and also learn the words to describe it without having to take up an artist’s time with a million basic questions.” Ten years ago, you may have found tattoos you liked in magazines like Inked and Tattoo. Now, just scroll right through, hopping from hashtag to hashtag far more quickly than one could ever go from tattoo shop to tattoo shop.
Hashtags are a boon to the artists, too: They increase visibility and connect them with other artists and potential clients alike. Tea Leigh, who tattooed me and who specializes in handpoking, used them to gain traction when she was new to tattooing; these days, with almost 50,000 followers, she no longer uses them. But the biggest shift, she saw, arrived with Instagram’s Discover feature, which lets an algorithm suggest photos for you to like and accounts for you to follow, complete with market-savvy controls on target audiences and names and click-right-here contact info right in your bio. “That changed a lot of things for a lot of tattoo artists,” Leigh said. It made Instagram a true social network, “not just a place to post photos. That’s when people said, ‘Oh, these are tattoos that I want.’ From there, [my account] turned into the brand that it is today.”
This was also a time when handpoking—a style of tattooing that employs handheld needles instead of machines and results in a delicate, distinctive look—was experiencing a boom. While it’s an ancient tradition, it has only begun to skirt the mainstream—and enter tattoo parlors—in the last few years. Instagram has increased its visibility, exposing millions of people to a style they may never have learned about otherwise. While all sorts of tattoo styles thrive (and inspire their own family of hashtags), handpoking has seen a particular boost thanks to Instagram.
The app has also fostered a fellowship among artists. “I’ve met a lot of friends through traveling or doing guest spots, and they are really supportive,” Leigh told The Daily Beast. “It provides this unique space for artists to really support one another’s work—we have a network of tattooers that we look out for and are excited to see grow. When a friend of mine gets another 2,000 followers, it’s like, ‘Yes!’ It’s not a competition.”
She estimates 70 percent of her business comes through the app, which she calls her “moneymaker.” But she also uses her account to promote the work of other artists—tattoo and otherwise. “I want to use my follower base as a platform for anyone that I can; for me, that’s the sole purpose of Instagram,” she told me. “Part of my personal brand is promoting the art that I want other people to know about.” Interspersed with her elegant ink work, you’ll find illustrations, paintings, and photos from her own travels across the country.
You’ll find this personal/profession balance on many artists’ accounts—and not just because they like sharing beautiful images from their own lives. “Tattooing can be an intimate experience: You’re [sitting there] with the tattooer, and there’s a lot of trust involved,” explains Louis Brengard, another Brooklyn-based tattoo artist who works in both handpoking and machine tattooing. “So some people are selling who they are, and what the experience is.” After all, you’re not just buying a piece of art; you’re signing up for an experience, and with it a memory. Just as we like to know where our food comes from and the name of the person who knit our Etsy-sourced infinity scarf, many of us want a story to tell about the person who inked the naked lady on our calf.
Eva Bryant, a Vancouver-based handpoke tattoo artist, finds this balance important, so much so that once she gained a certain following on Instagram, she retroactively deleted some of her earlier, more personal posts. “At this point I’ve gone back and removed most personal photos so [that] my Instagram is my portfolio,” she told me, “with enough of my life shown that prospective clients can find me accessible, relatable, and interesting.” Two-thirds of her work comes from Instagram and other digital sources, she says, and has helped her connect with a wide range of other artists. These connections make a big difference: When she traded tattoo images with esteemed artist Pony Reinhart in Portland, Oregon, her following quickly grew by 5,000.
This social calling card has also supplanted the traditional résumé. Brengard, who now operates out of a shared private studio thanks in part to the work he’s found on Instagram, used to work at Brooklyn’s Black Square Tattoo, and did some of their hiring. “Instagram is a big thing that we would look at,” he remembers. “Usually if we wanted to interview someone, it was based on their Instagram account.” And it’s important for “guest spots,” too, when a visiting artist will work out of a tattoo shop for a few days or weeks at a time. “Any tattoo shop that sees you have 10,000-plus followers is going to know that you will make them money,” adds Bryant, who has a few upcoming stints in Europe this year.
Leigh compares Instagram to a sort of Yelp for tattoo artists, where you can both browse feedback from followers and clients. She recommends checking out those comments: A client commenting on a photo of their tattoo with thanks and praise is a good sign that they had a positive experience, and you will too. That little bit of research is important, particularly as more of these Instagram accounts appear. “Instagram enables a lot of tattooers to run their independent businesses but also gives into the idea that anyone can do this,” she says—which isn’t always a good thing. So she encourages prospective clients to follow tattoo artists for at least a few weeks, to get a sense of both their work and their relationships with their clients.
I’ve continued to follow Leigh ever since that first email, and through her I’ve found other tattoo artists—like Brengard and Bryant—whose work I enjoy, whose work I could see living on a limb of mine someday. It’s led me to artists as far-flung as Moscow, which allows for tattoo daydreaming to coexist with vacation daydreaming.
Now my own feed has become something of a fixation, a seed in the back of my brain. It has fostered an appreciation of the craft and a plan to expand my collection. “These days, it’s more appealing to many people to collect tattoos from as many great artists as possible, rather than the old-fashioned thing of having an artist you must remain loyal to,” Bryant said. Tattoos have always served as a way to collect images and memories on our bodies; thanks to Instagram, that curation feels all the more meaningful, and all the more self-directed.