Not too many years ago most cities did not have a single tattoo shop...
... and very few people had tattoos. In the last twenty years, shops have been popping up everywhere, from several per block in a busy city to at least one or two in the smaller towns. There are dozens, if not hundreds, within a few hours of travel from almost anywhere in the United States. It can be a daunting task to choose the right person to execute your first or next piece of skin art.
First, do some research. Look around your town and make a list of all of the reputable tattoo shops that you want to consider. A reputable shop is clean, uses sterile equipment, all of the artists have all of their current certifications, and the rates are around market value. That will largely depend on where you live and are looking to get tattooed; for example, in San Francisco most reputable tattoo artists charge 120-180/hr, and steeper if what they do is especially unique and/or they have ten years of experience or more. A reputable shop may or may not have a reputation. (A new shop with artists that have a fair amount of experience could be reputable but not well-known due to it's newness.)
Once you have your list of shops to consider, make another list of the artists at each shop. Look at the portfolios of the artists, and determine whose work you like stylistically. Next step is taking a closer look at the portfolio examples. Are the artist’s lines smooth? Do the pieces fit the body parts they are on? Do they seem well-placed? Do the designs look thought out? Does the shading look even? Cross out anyone whose work doesn’t satisfy your queries.
Now your list is probably not all that long. Maybe there are only a few artists left, or maybe you have a dozen. Look at each person’s page or website if they have one to see if you can get a feel for who they are. See if they have a blog. Would you enjoy spending several hours with this person? If you really like their work but can’t find any information, call or e-mail them, inquire about their services, tell them about your idea, and notice how you feel while talking to them or reading their response to your email. Trust your intuition.
The next and almost last step would be to set up a consultation or a few consultations with all of the people you would be happy to get tattooed by. Some tattoo artists charge for consultations, others don’t. It is fine to talk to several artists in one shop, but make sure to inform them of what you are doing. Do not expect several artists to draw for you, unless you are willing to give them all a non-refundable deposit. A tattoo artist may spend between an hour and several hours on each drawing. A lot of us do not charge for this preparation, however, if you decide not to get tattooed, your deposit will cover some of the time the artist spent on your drawing.
Come prepared to your consultation: bring references, if you were able to find them, and organized ideas. Be flexible, as the tattoo artist will probably have great suggestions to make your tattoo outstanding. In the end, go with the person that is excited about your idea, seems to be open and flexible, as well as confident, and once again, somebody you are going to enjoy collaborating and spending time with.