Fifty years ago, if you wanted to be a tattoo artist, you had to be willing to dedicate your entire life to the craft. Finding an artist skilled enough to be able to teach you—and then convincing them to spend all their time and effort doing so—was no easy feat. And even if you did go through the painstaking process of finding a notable instructor and apprenticing under them for God knows how long, you still had to stand out to garner your own loyal following of fans and clients—usually by word of mouth.
Things are a little different these days. Tattoo apprenticeships come easily, and it seems everyone with a few thousand fake Instagram followers and a tattoo gun can call himself or herself a “tattooist.” That’s exactly why it’s more important than ever before to pay attention to the real talented artists when we spot ‘em. We’re not saying getting appointments with these tattoo artists is easy (in fact, you can almost guarantee there’s a long line of appointments ahead of you), but we are saying that their juice is worth the squeeze.
Here are the 10 Best U.S. Tattoo Artists Everyone Should Know:
Brian Woo, better known by his tattooing name “Dr. Woo,” has become one of the most popular tattoo artists in the country—and we’re talking way before he was featured on Viceland’s Tattoo Age. His style is unique, distinguishable by his very thin line work, his obsession with shapes and parallelism, and of course, his one-of-a-kind “Woo arrows,” which have become staples of his work. His landscape and portrait work are unbelievable, as well as his simple geometric designs. Hell, we’ve even seen him bang out some incredible traditional stuff, too.
We’ve seen a sharp rise in fine line and stick and poke tattoos over the last few years, and while an overwhelming majority of them are usually done by college kids in dorm rooms while Fleet Foxes records play in the background, Tea Leigh, out of Brooklyn’s Welcome Home studio, does some of the most beautiful hand poked tattoos in the world. As a queer tattooist with a passion for social justice, Leigh takes a lot of pride in helping her clients reclaim their bodies from prior abuse and trauma. So that’s neat. However, if you’re trying to book some seat time with her, be prepared to wait quite a while.
We love encountering artists who are really, really pushing the boundaries of everything we know about tattooing, which is exactly why we’re proud to put Amanda Wachob down here. She is probably one of the most unconventional tattooists on this list, and her work deals primarily in deep, vibrant watercolors, as well as wild abstract stuff. We’re not fans of the whole, “Their work speaks for itself” characterization people so frequently place over the heads of their favorite artists, but when it comes to Wachob, we 100% stand by that statement. Looking at her tattoos is like being in a modern art museum.
You might know him as a judge on the hit show Ink Master, but it’s important to understand that Oliver Peck didn’t get to such a prestigious spot by chance or luck. He’s arguably the best traditional tattooist in the world today, and if you’re lucky enough to get an appointment with him either at Dallas’ Elm Street Tattoo (Where he’s co-owner) or while he’s on the road (He spends half the year traveling around) you can consider yourself one lucky son of a gun. What people love most about Peck’s work is that he doesn’t muddy up the water with new twists and angles; he’s a master of American Traditional through and through.
Another master of Traditional American style, Tim Hendricks is the brain behind Saltwatertattoo Supply. While he’s revered the world over for his handmade tattoo machines, he’s also a massively in-demand artist who dabbles in everything from standard traditional, to black and grey, portraits, and even some modern tribal. You can email him for appointments, but good luck there—the guy essentially spends his free time making machines and being happy.
Jonathan “JonBoy” Valena
We don’t really care about “clout” around here, but Jonathan “JonBoy” Valena has a reputation for being one of the far and few tattooers of the stars. He’s tattooed everyone from Kylie Jenner and Zayn Malik, to Hailey Baldwin, Travis Scott, and some of Hollywood’s A-listers. He’s the guy who’s responsible for the cross tattoo on Justin Bieber’s face. Most important, however, is the fact that his simple brand of teeny tiny micro-tattoos—usually black and grey—are really, really good, and appeal to people who aren’t necessarily looking for massive pieces. However, as one would expect, JonBoy’s work doesn’t come cheap, and getting an appointment with him is… well, let’s just say it isn’t easy.
Scott Campbell is the kind of tattoo artist whose work is so unique and original that publications like Los Angeles Times write feature pieces on him when he closes up his shop in New York and moves to LA. Another celebrity tattoo guy, Campbell has done work for the likes of Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., and perhaps most famously, Marc Jacobs. Campbell’s style is hard to pin down, but it’s a mix of fine and bold lines, in a contrasting blend of simple traditional stuff and very, very complex fine art pieces. He is a master of details, and uses very innovative styles of lining and shading to create some of the most unique—and telltale—tattoos out there right now. In a word, his work is intense.
When it comes to incredible tattoos, Jacksonville, Florida, generally isn’t considered Mecca. However, if you’re into the American Traditional game, Mike Wilson is a modern god. His style is traditional, even for tradition’s sake, and his use of sharp, vibrant colors and old-school hard lines is what he’s most known for. Probably one of the easier guys to get an appointment with on this list, Wilson tattoos out of Insmith & Rogers, and can be booked by appointment only.
Chris Garver is consistently considered one of the best tattoo artists in New York City, and his incredibly detailed Japanese, black and grey, and American traditional work is second to none. His color work is incredible, and people also really love his floral stuff. If you’re interested in an appointment with him, you can find Garver at Five Points NYC, where he is both owner and tattooist. Of all the stuff of his we’ve seen, this piece probably characterizes everything we love about his style all in one photo.
Of all the people on this list, Robert Ryan has arguably the most unique style of all. His beautiful use of intricate vibrant colors, his bold line work, and his love of symmetry are what make his work really special. He’s very interested in symbolism, eastern religion, and ancient iconography, and he’s also beloved by his clients and friends because he’s really just a wholesome, talented, hard-working dude. Unlike most of the people on this list, he does take walk-ins from time to time, but his availability is really a toss up.