The word "tattoo artist" generally applies to anyone who creates tattoos. And if you're familiar with the tattoo process, the tattoo artist doesn't actually draw the tattoo by hand (unless he's got mad skillz); he or she will use a stencil (a pre-drawn pattern) and will apply the pattern to your skin using some transferring liquid. The process is exactly the same as those temporary tattoos that kids like to wear, except in the case of an actual tattoo, the stencil is only a line drawing without any color. This makes the tattoo artist more of a "tracer" and "colorer" than an actual artist, but there is a tremendous amount of artistic skill that is necessary to pull off a good tattoo.
The technique of tattooing is very different than drawing on paper with a pen. The machine is bulky and vibrating, and skin is not totally smooth and flat. So the technical skill of a tattoo artist must be above and beyond a skilled drawer. But where the artistic element comes is is in the improvisation. As I said before, a tattoo design is pre-applied to the skin in a stencil, but this is only a rough idea. Stencils are sometimes crooked or jagged where they should be smooth and straight, and a good tattoo artist will be able the visualize the tattoo outside of the stencil and work towards the finished product, rather than follow the details of the stencil.
As you can probably guess, this is where the difficulty comes in with finding a good tattoo artist in China. There are many tattoo artists with decent technical skills but who lack creative vision. In China, tehcnical ability is equivalent to capability; i.e., if you can execute all of the steps in a waltz correctly, you must be a good dancer. This is only half-true; Chinese culture by and large does not take into account the soul of the person performing the action if that action is not inherent to Chinese culture (Chinese calligraphy is a notable exception to this); that is to say, whether or not the person executing the dance steps with robotic precision actually feels the dance in their spirit, and more often than not, the answer is no. The same goes for tattooing. Yes, maybe the tattoo artist can stay in the lines and color-by-numbers, but there are numerous instances during a tattoo that require the artist to improvise, and the only source for this improvisation comes from the art that lives inside him, and unfortunately I've come across many tattoo artists that are good at the tattoo part but the artist is AWOL. If the stencil becomes smudged or he needs to add a little bit of flair that isn't in the original design but will certainly enhance the tattoo, many tattoo artists will find themselves floundering. I've brought crude drawings to tattoo parlors of designs that would be too big to draw on paper with the expectation that the tattoo artist could envision the design like I did and simply draw the pattern into my skin, but many times I've been met with nervous downcast eyes. My initial thought is "Are you serious? You really can't see what I'm imagining here?" But then I remember where I am and what the cultural emphasis is on. Chinese mindset: if you provide a workable pattern, I will happily fit my work into it, but if you ask me to improvise, I can't promise anything.
Of course, it's a great relief to find someone who is artistic as well as technical. China abounds with excellent artists, however most of them are holed up in smoky studios with oil and brushes. But when one ventures into the world of tattoos, it's a golden combination. It merges Chinese dedication to perfect replication as well as the creative soul that adds flourish and character to the final result. So the moral of the story is: find a tattoo artist that is an artist foremost. If he has his original artwork hanging on the walls of his parlor, that's a good sign. If he gives you a quizzical look when you ask him if he could add a little bit here or there when there is no pre-drawn stencil, that's bad. Just make sure that your artist knows how to color outside the lines (though only in a metaphorical sense).