Think before you ink. Tattoos can be like embarrassing nick names, or STDs; you’re stuck with what you get. It’s not like trying on a bunch of different jeans, the whole routine–jumping around, tugging and wiggling them on until they’re snug, then striking a pose, twirling around, picking out a couple pairs you like, and wearing them out a couple times. It’s more like picking out a pair you’re going to wear for your whole life, embroidered right into your skin. There’s no returning them because they didn’t fit the same way they did in the dressing room and they come with the added bonus of illness if you’re not careful about the store you shop at. Your ink (and whatever comes with it) is permanent.
So for the sake of your sanity and future happiness, I have devised a simple list of some precautionary measures that, if followed, should ensure a satisfactory and safe tattoo. If you’re already contemplating a regrettable design, I hope I can dissuade you. If you still have no idea what tattoo you want to get, I have a few ideas for you. Hear me out, so fifty years from now you still appreciate whatever you’re about to etch into your skin.
For first tattoos, I recommend you keep it to two things: small and simple. You may want to go all out, but trust me, take it easy. Don’t go in thinking you’re going to be some kind of instant badass, come out tatted head to toe, elaborately colored in. For one thing, that’s a lot of ink, a lot of agonizing hours lying still. The pain is one thing, it’s another not to move a single muscle. Anyone can take a pinch, but real body art takes patience. Like I said, keep it petite, the first time round.
Another thing: you’ll want to put it somewhere cover-up-able. Ankles and feet are safe, but hands and wrists are riskier. Behind the neck and on the shoulder can be easily concealed, not only from others, but also yourself. If you know yourself to be a painstaking perfectionist, I recommend you keep it somewhere out of sight. If you can see it, you will study your tattoo for imperfections. When you find them, you’ll obsess and ultimately go insane. Don’t let that happen.
Keep the content personal. Be careful not to “brand” yourself. Ladies, that means no Chanel, Louis Vuitton or Juicy labels etched across your lower backs. And boys, no energy beverage or beer logos, I beg you. You’re not fooling anyone with your Rockstar insignia, and no, it doesn’t make you magically more masculine.
You’ll also want to stay away from stock tattoos like skulls and crossbones, daggers bursting into flames and hearts with arrows shooting through them, dolphins jumping over suns, roses, stars and butterflies. I call these catalog tattoos, generic one-size-fits-all standards. Think of something you identify with sentimentally. Something unique and reminiscent of your life specifically, such as:
1) The skyline of somewhere you used to live, or travel to: mountains unfolding, mist emerging through the trees, a famous bridge, a city’s striking silhouette against the sunset. If you’re torn between a couple different places, that’s okay. In fact, combine them. Let two unrelated settings share the same horizon line, with one reflected in the other. Get creative. Make it totally your own.
2) Why not unleash your wild side with something tribal? Tribal emanates an air of mystery, intrigue and ancientness. So if you’re trying to get away from that whole whitey-tighty image you’ve got going, just go tribal. Tribal patterns offer several advantages. For instance, if you plan to build on something in the future (like you want to get a sleeve, but you can’t do it all at once) tribal’s ideal to expand on. When you add to your tattoo, try to repeat some of the elements from the original, and you’ll be able to retain a sense of continuity. Also, since tribal is abstract, it’s easily adaptable. Just weave in pieces of yourself. Say you’re a gamer, integrate the different suits: clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades (and you won’t need a poker face to pull a perfect bluff). Create a labyrinth of interwoven symbols of yourself. Another reason I prefer tribal tattoos is they require fewer colors, which contributes to their uniformity.
3) Think of something reminiscent of your past. Commemorate the many chapters of your life with different symbols. For instance, I might get a rosetta (latte leaf) on behalf of my years as a barista. Or piano keys, because I play piano. Or a dream catcher to keep me from my nightmares. Maybe I used to always be the top hat in Monopoly, that could be cute. Essentially, just gather emblems of your fondest memories. I call this scrapbooking. I know this goes against the golden rule of finding symbols that will still be relevant throughout your life, but hey, sometimes we need to be reminded. Just be cautious of discontinuity between tattoos. If your tattoos are unrelated to each other, that’s okay, but placement matters. You don’t want to look like toddlers went to town on you with their new sticker book. You want to look as though you put them there on purpose. Your body is the canvas of a single composition, not a picture book of independent pages.
No matter what you want to get or where you think you wan to get it, try a temporary (henna) version first. Live with it a couple weeks, see how it looks with different outfits. Try it on for size before you get the real deal. Like I said, keep it petite. Don’t overdo your first tattoo. Stick with starters just to taste, and if you’re hungrier for more (which you inevitably will be) you can always go back for seconds.
Once you think of a design you can commit to, I suggest you talk to somebody who has a few tattoos. Correction: quality tattoos. Perhaps they know a place, or recommend a certain artist. You can also go online. A lot of artists have web pages dedicated to their work. Check out some relatively local tattoo artists’ galleries and when you find someone you like, someone you think is a good fit for your tattoo, call them up. It really pays to do your homework. And whatever you do, never accept a free tattoo. Don’t look for “deals;” cheap tattoos are always cheaper for a reason.
Even if you’re happy with the design and click with the artist, if the shop itself isn’t up to snuff you’re going to need to find someone else. It’s extremely important for your tattoo to be done under sanitary conditions. If the shop was a restaurant and you wouldn’t eat there for fear of getting a roach in your soup and food poisoning with your pasta, don’t get your tattoo there. There are needles involved and they do pierce your skin (if you didn’t realize this, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and forget about getting a tattoo till you’ve done your research). Getting a tattoo in a shop that does not follow appropriate sanitary practices can result in bacterial infections (at best) or contracting Hepatitis C or HIV (at the extreme worst). That being said, don’t panic. If you choose a shop with good practices, you’ll be just fine.
Besides the obvious look of “cleanliness” a shop should have, keep your eyes out for the following: disposable coverings on all areas that people are asked to sit or lay on while being tattooed, medical gloves on all artists (coverings to the elbow and face masks are an added bonus), tattoo ink in small disposable caps, and of course a brand new needle. It’s good practice for your artist to show you the sealed fresh needle, open it in front of you, and show you it being installed into the tattoo gun. It’s also good practice for them to show you the fresh ink being added to the cups for one time use on your tattoo. Don’t be afraid to ask to see these things. Any good artist will be happy to oblige and if they’re not, you don’t want a tattoo from them anyway.
If you’re squeamish I should warn you: you’re going to feel it (depending on the individual it can feel like a tickle or broken glass scratching sunburn), there will be blood (which you probably won’t see depending on where the tattoo is being done) and it’s going to be loud (kind of like the dentist). If you’re getting something solid, it is going to be sore, and I mean sore. You just might benefit from watching someone else getting tattooed before you step up to the plate. When I got mine, the thing I found the most alarming was the sound. It sounded like a tiny chainsaw gnawing at my back. (Don’t worry though, if you’re anything like me it feels more like a vibrating electric toothbrush.)
As far as after care goes, you’ll need to keep it moisturized so ask your artist what they recommend and do some research online for the best products to use. Just be ready for that section of your body to be sticky for the next few days for sure, if not several weeks. You’re going to need to wrap it up so as to keep whichever product you choose for moisture from spreading all over your clothes, but make sure it’s loose; you don’t want anything to rub against it. Your tattoo is scar tissue, it is a wound—it’s healing. It’s going to ooze and flake and rise a little bit in the beginning. If your skin is sensitive, it might take longer to recover. If you can’t reach it yourself, make sure you have somebody else to clean and moisturize it for you. But you’ll want to let it breath a little bit—don’t suffocate it. If it’s covered up all day make sure you let it out at night, or it will take longer to heal. Do not pick at it—it’s going to peel on its own, and when it does it’s going to get on everything (sleep on a towel). And Don’t plan on swimming for several weeks.
Make sure you think before you ink. You need an image you aren’t going to regret. You need an artist you can trust to execute what you envision. Your after-tattoo routine is going to consist of cleaning/moisturizing at least thrice daily. So whatever you do, don’t impulse buy your first tattoo. It’s nonrefundable.