How To: Get a Tattoo
(I call this photo “portrait of the writer’s tattoos and also bird butt”)
The brain loves a pattern, doesn’t it? I’ve found the world of humanity can be neatly divided in two ways:
Miracle Whip People vs. Mayonnaise People
Tattoo People vs. “I would never be able to commit” People
Only a handful of people in the world seem to fall in some other third category like “I don’t like either of those what even.” You are weird, but this article is for you–those of you who have not yet gotten a tattoo but want one, and want to know what to expect.
Step 1: Be Eighteen Or Get Parent Permission
Do not get a tattoo from someone who will do it illegally. Consider: if they will do it illegally, they are probably not on the up and up as a tattoo artist. Do not let your cousin’s friend do it. Don’t try to do it yourself with a pen. Seriously–wait. Get a bunch of piercings instead. Tattoos will happen, kids. Hang in there.
Step 2: Get A Recommendation
There is exactly one way to know if you will be able to trust and like your tattoo artist. Find the person you know with the coolest tattoos you’ve ever seen, and ask where they go. Simple as that.
Style is important but not critically so–tattooing is an art and a business so most artists are used to working outside their preferred style. However, if you really like a particular kind of artwork, it doesn’t hurt to seek out someone who also enjoys doing that kind.
Pro tip: not every artist will even do every style. My artist refuses to do “watercolor” tattoos and white ink tattoos. He thinks they will fade and look like crap too quickly. There are plenty of other artists who will do that work, so keep looking if you’re really committed. However, keep in mind that if someone says that type of work may not last, they’re probably in the know.
Step 3: Safety
Basically any shop will be on the up and up (as opposed to that cousin’s friend), but if you need comfort in safety just make sure the artists open new needles with every tattoo (like, from a sealed package), and also keep their equipment sterile (using an autoclave) between each customer. Also they will wear gloves for everyone’s protection.
Eat and drink water before you go. You might pass out if you don’t. Every tattoo artist has a hilarious story about the big, tough daddy who crashed and burned after the first swipe with the needle. Eat. Drink. Don’t be that guy. Do not drink alcohol. Any reputable shop will turn you away.
Know your limits. You won’t know how much a tattoo is going to hurt until you get one, so don’t be afraid to start with something small and work up to that huge back piece you have planned. I scheduled my arm pieces in several 3 hour sittings so that I could heal in between. That’s what worked for me.
Placement matters. Consider future employment, if you want to be able to see it, how it will show at your wedding or in your commonly-worn clothing. If you have a skin issue like eczema, talk it over with your doctor first. Take your time, and feel free to ask the artist to re-place the tracing if you want to see your options. Don’t rush permanent body art.
Step 4: What to Expect
If you’re getting a small piece, you can probably just make an appointment for consult and tattoo all in one sitting. If you’re getting a larger piece, be prepared to discuss the image with an artist and have them reschedule for the actual tattoo. Also be prepared to discuss pricing at this time so that you’re not surprised later.
Choose your image carefully. A good artist will help you pick out something that won’t fade and will work on skin. Not everything will. Lettering, in particular, has to be large and bold to stay readable on skin. Tiny quotes will not work as tattoos for very long. For the love of all the gods, check the spelling on anything going on your skin. Do NOT be that guy.
Don’t tattoo other languages on your body. Unless you speak and write in that language, don’t do it. You look tone deaf at best. I saw a picture of someone who had the Hebrew word for “cracker” tattooed on their arm the other day (they thought it said “strength”). Definitely do not be that guy.
Don’t let anyone else tell you what to like or what is stupid. It’s your permanent body art, not theirs. Do listen to your artist, though. They know better than anyone else what will work on you and in general. That is why you get an artist who is trustworthy and talented. I give my artist wide berth to choose color, style and form because he is the expert I am paying to do the job.
Most of the time, the artist will draw or copy a line drawing of your image onto a special transfer paper, then place it on your skin. That way you can see how it looks, loosely, ahead of time. Some tattoos are done “freehand,” sometime with a felt pen and sometimes just with the tattoo machine itself.
Wear clothes you feel okay bleeding on or getting ink on, and that are easy to remove or roll so you can expose the area to be tattooed.
When it’s time to get tattooed, you will sit in the most comfortable position you can manage, exposing the area to be tattooed. They will fill tiny cups with ink and prep their machines and themselves with plastic, gloves and sterile whatnot. This is your opportunity to take deep breaths and get comfortable.
Most tattoos are outlined in black and then filled in with color (not all, of course). The outline comes first, using what is actually 3 or 5 needles grouped into a tight group and controlled by a machine. The coloring and shading happens using even bigger groups of needles. Here’s a really great video on how tattooing actually works (warning: blood):
The artist will be wiping excess ink and blood off frequently (tattoos don’t bleed a lot, just a bit). Sometimes the worst part of being tattooed is sitting still for long periods of time. You can get up and stretch and move around, just let your artist know. Don’t move unexpectedly.
It does hurt. It will hurt worse on skin with less exposure to sun and air. It will hurt worse closer to the bone. My arm tattoos are huge but didn’t hurt as bad as the smaller ring around my ankle. I haven’t attempted the top of my feet or hands, but I hear that hurts like a bitch. The tattoos on my forearms weren’t all that bad but the one on my chest stung like a mofo (low enough to be out of sun exposure most of the time). Tattooing doesn’t feel like needles poking you (like a shot or a jab with a sewing needle). It’s more like a low, buzzy, burning sensation with some sharp stinging that comes and goes as the nerve endings fire and burn out. As soon as you’re done it will feel like a bad sunburn, and two or three days later it will start to itch like crazy.
Expect to pay an artist well, and to tip well also (at least 20-30 percent). A happy artist is one who will treat you well each time. Do not complain or stiff your artist.
Step 5: Aftercare
Follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions. The best advice I ever got was not to mess with it too much at all. What wounds need to heal is air and time, not a bunch of goo.
My artist recommends washing the area a couple of times per day and applying a very thin layer of A&D Ointment for two days or so, then a very thin layer of mild lotion once a day for about a week. I usually use less lotion because if I put too much stuff on irritated skin I tend to get pimples that mar the tattoo. Leaving it alone as soon as possible works best.
The bigger the tattoo, the weirder the healing process. Little tattoos will hurt and itch and be done in a few days. The bigger tattoos, in my experience, leech ink for a day or so and slough off a layer of dead skin (this does not happen to everyone, I’m told). Protect bedding by wrapping the area in saran wrap just at night for the first couple days (always get the artist’s advice here), and use crappy pillowcases and sheets for a couple days also. I got tattoo ink plus whatever white blood cell goo was coming out of me all over the couch once. Don’t be me. This sloughing process only takes about a day, maybe two.
Do not scratch it. Do not scratch it. Do not scratch it. Leave it the fuck alone.
If it’s a bigger tattoo you may want to go in for a touch up appointment in a few weeks. Most artists will include those in the original price but be sure to ask. Sometimes the skin gets irritated and red and they miss a spot here or there.
Enjoy the attention and the weird comments for years to come! People are really weird about tattoos–often times the judging looks come from where you least expect and the high fives come from the little old lady down the street. Having visible tattoos is always an interesting sociological experiment.
Go forth and tattoo yourself–you deserve it! Just remember that one tattoo is a gateway drug to more tattoos. I think it’s something in the ink.