Industry Insider: Behind Tattoo Slang

Every industry has its own long list of slang words. For some sectors, like the medical field or engineering, slang is used as shorthand to communicate complex ideas. Others, like the shorthand that truckers speak via CB radios, have a more playful tone.

Regardless, slang can become so ingrained in a particular hobby or pastime that it slowly finds its way into pop culture. For example, even those who don’t watch boxing know that ‘hitting below the belt’ means a move was uncalled for. 

But tattooing, with its short history as an accepted form of expression, tends to be a niche industry. It closely mirrors the rise of poker, which only gained popularity among the general public in the last two decades. 

Though poker, like tattooing, has been a part of US history for over a century, the practice only took off nationwide in the 2000s via big tournaments. As such, terms like rockets and ducks might be recognized by long-time poker players, but few else in the industry. In other words, it signals the industry insiders from the newbies.

The same goes for tattooing; only those with a solid amount of time in the industry will be able to identify a scratcher or know who Sailor Jerry is. Still, as more and more people opt for a bit of ink, these terms are likely to become ubiquitous in pop culture and amongst friend groups. 

Think you’re savvier than the average ink slinger? Keep reading for industry slang, broken down by degree of usage.

Everyday Slang

Anyone with a tattoo has likely heard these terms used before, either whilst in the shop to get their first tat or in general pop culture.

  • Carving: the act of tattooing. Sometimes, carving is used to describe tattooing a thicker black line, which serves as the outline of the whole tattoo.
  • American traditional: this type of tattoo is ubiquitous in American culture, stemming from the navy-style tattoos in the early 1900s. Its characterized by thick outlines, bright colors, and (usually) a ravenous animal.
  • Canvas: in a tattoo shop, canvas always refers to the skin about to be inked—no paints involved.
  • Flash: this is a type of pre-designed tattoo that many shops arrange into booklets or hang from the walls. Customers can flip through to find inspiration or select a design.
  • Sleeve: a tattoo design that covers the arm from the shoulder to the wrist. Half-sleeves typically stop at the elbow, while leg sleeves include tattoos that cover the leg from ankle to upper thigh.
Tattoo Slang

Shop Slang

Only those who’ve spent more than an hour or two of quality time in a shop will recognize these terms.

  • Cadaver: someone who doesn’t move, flinch, or otherwise show emotion while getting inked.
  • Collector: someone who prefers to ‘collect’ tattoos from the trendiest artists, similar to how a fine art collector would acquire paintings.
  • Wrestler: someone who moves, jerks, or squirms throughout the process of getting inked (the opposite of a cadaver).
  • Tenderfoot: a tattoo artist who just started their professional career.
  • Blackwork: a style of tattoo that’s composed of thick, black lines without any color added.

Pro Slang

Don’t recognize any of the terms below? Don’t worry—they’re for industry professionals only.

  • Showcase: a finished project that both artist and recipient are proud of. They both choose to ‘showcase’ this work, which is typically a large design like a back piece or sleeve.
  • Dealer: someone who haggles on the price of their tattoo, usually to the dismay of the artist.
  • Autoclave: a tool used to sterilize the tattooing devices after each session.
  • Blowout: a tattoo that’s improperly applied. Often, it goes too deep into the skin, causing a gray-ish halo to surround the entire tattoo.
  • Sailor Jerry: the tattoo artist responsible for popularizing tattoos in the early 1900s and helping create the American Traditional style.
  • Saturation: a way for artists to gauge the level of ink and color ‘saturation’ for a tattoo design before deciding if it’s finished.
  • Scratcher: an underqualified tattoo artist that lacks the certifications and licensing to run an actual tattoo shop.

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