Two years ago, I got my fifth tattoo, a large red and black crown on the back of my neck. I went home to visit my parents and was stunned by the lack of commentary. Eventually, I just had to ask.
“Mom, did you see my new tattoo?”
“Yes. It’s … big.” Clearly, she’d made an uneasy peace with the idea that her daughter loves ink.
But in years past, my mom had actively lamented my choices, saying, “Oh, Sal. What will you do when you’re 90 and living in a nursing home?” And I thought to myself, Blend right in. My peer group is practically soaked in ink, and if tattoos continue to increase in popularity, I have to imagine that when I’m old and infirm, those without tattoos will be the sore thumbs.
Does that mean I think you should run right out and get inked? Oh, hell no. The “everyone’s doing it” argument is, hands down, the dumbest rationalization known to humankind, and choosing to get tattooed just because it’s become a common practice is most unwise. The clothes you wear may broadcast how you feel today, but the images you have drawn on your skin broadcast information about your inner self every day of your life.
Now, before you decide I’m a stodgy killjoy, let me say this: You’re a grown-up and grown-ups can make their own decisions. If you want a tattoo, you’re going to get one no matter how much finger-wagging and sage-advice-dispensing I do. Nevertheless, here are a few things to consider before you hand over your MasterCard and prepare to go under the needle:
If You Don’t KNOW, Don’t Go.
Tattoos are expensive, painful, and permanent. Tattoo removal is expensive, painful, and often ineffective. If you have doubts – and I mean any niggling, tiny, whispery, itty-bitty baby doubts – just wait. Wait until you know exactly what you want permanently inked onto your skin, why you want it, where you want it, and exactly what it means to you. What’s your rush, friend?
If You Need To Ask Someone Else’s Opinion, Don’t Go.
Think About Placement.
The folks who choose to get tattoos on body bits that are absolutely impossible to conceal with clothing are making choices about their careers and lifestyles by altering those body parts – and they know it. Face, hand, and throat tattoos are relatively uncommon for this reason. But arm, ankle, wrist, and neck tattoos can also be challenging to mask, and the vast majority of tattooed people will want to disguise or downplay their ink under certain circumstances.Your placement choice should make sense in conjunction with your chosen art, but consider your potential concealment-related work-arounds if you put an image on some fairly public skin.
Understand Your Art.
Asian language characters are very popular tattoos with non-Asian-language-speakers, because the characters themselves are beautiful. This is true of Hebrew, Arabic, and several other languages with elegant glyphs. But unless you read and speak a language that utilizes logograms, you may be unaware that some characters represent several words or ideas depending on context. If you don’t read or speak Japanese, how do you know that the Japanese character for “truth” doesn’t also mean “chicken pot pie”? And if you don’t read a given language and are choosing a character from a wall of flash art, how do you know it means what the parlor says it means? You can’t control how people will interpret your tattoos, but you can control what those tattoos are. At the very least, make sure that you understand your own art.
Do A Background Check.
There are crappy, sloppy, irresponsible tattoo artists out there, so do your research. You can get scarred and/or infected if you end up getting work from a sub-par artist, so it’s worth your while to do some digging.
Ideally, you should get a recommendation from a friend or acquaintance who’s had a positive experience working with a local artist. Otherwise, consider group review resources like Yelp where you can read about the experiences your peers have had in great and gorey detail. Play detective for a while before calling around or making appointments.
Be Patient, Be Collaborative.
Most artists insist on a consultation before the actual tattooing begins, and if that initial meeting isn’t offered up front, insist. You want to talk with this person, see if you click, discuss your art, placement, the artist’s plan for execution, the amount of time it will take, the fee. If you only have a vague idea of what you want, you need to brainstorm. If you’ve got an image or word already selected, you still need to consult with the artist about color, shading, and any alterations to it. You’re going to be eager to dig in, but try to be patient. You want this done right, and that means careful planning.
Insist On Seeing Sterilization Equipment And Sealed Gear.
Now that you’ve found a great artist, planned out your piece, and shown up for your appointment, your final dealbreaker should be equipment cleanliness. You may have noted overall tidiness (or lack thereof) during your initial meeting, but you need to get more in-depth before the inking actually begins.
Most artists will offer up this information without being asked and in some states, tattoo parlors are required by law to walk their customers through the facility’s sterilization equipment and procedures. Regardless, before your artist digs in, you need to be shown that the tools are completely clean and safe for use. You don’t need to know all of the nitty-gritty details involved in prepping a tattoo station, but you do need to be shown an autoclave, sterilized needles, fresh latex gloves, and all necessary ink and equipment laid out on a clean work area. The artist should remove all sterilized equipment from its packaging in front of you. If that doesn’t happen, ask. If you’re refused, or feel uneasy about what you’re shown, walk away. Not worth the risk.
Yes, It Will Hurt.
How much it will hurt will depend on placement, size, complexity, and your own personal pain threshold.
Tattoos placed over bones and tendons (spine, neck, back of ankle), on body parts with relatively little padding (feet, hands, joints), and anywhere with loads of nerve endings (nipples, fingers, face) will be the most painful. Your decision about placement is on par with your decision about art, so don’t chicken out just because your chosen area is a sensitive one. The best tattoos are the ones that work organically with the contours of the body. Just be aware that some bits will be more pain-prone than others.
Obviously, larger pieces will hurt more since they will take longer to execute. As you may have heard, the outlining process is generally more painful than the filling/shading process. Most tattoos are outlined in black, and the initial process of setting the outline down will, inevitably, make you grind your teeth.
Everyone has different levels of tolerance for pain, and yours will play into how difficult it will be to endure the tattooing process. In my opinion, the pain of receiving a tattoo is unlike any other pain. It’s not sharp, but it’s not dull either. It’s a bit like getting an absolutely epic sunburn on a very small area of your skin. And then letting someone take a toothpick and poke around on the sunburned area for a while. It’s tolerable, as pain goes, but decidedly not fun.
Leave It Alone.
All five of my tattoos were done by different artists in different studios and I have received five different sets of care instructions for healing — everything from keep it covered for several days to unwrap it after several hours, rub with ointment twice a day to keep it clean and dry. But the common thread: leave it alone. Do not poke, pick, soak, or otherwise molest a healing tattoo. It is a wound and needs to be dealt with gingerly. No matter how much it itches, don’t scratch. No matter how much you want to fondle it, don’t touch. It’s yours for life. Don’t mess with it while it’s healing, and remember you’ll have until the end of your days to admire it.
Now that you’re sufficiently terrified, allow me to say this: I love my tattoos. I love them as much as I love my carefully-curated wardrobe, and for many of the same reasons — they make artistic, visual, highly personal statements about my inner life. I tell people things with my tattoos before I ever tell them anything with words, and that gives me such a thrill. But I think it takes a certain personality to commit to and adore something as permanent and statement-making as a tattoo. Piercing holes heal and hair can be re-dyed, but tattoos are just about as “forever” as it gets, so be sure before you bedeck your bod. But if you’re ready to get inked? You’ll have access to a rich, unique, and highly addictive vehicle of self-expression.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my plans for tattoo number six.
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based blogger, freelance writer, and communications professional who writes the daily style and body image blog Already Pretty.