A friend of mine posted an inspired and lengthy rant on Facebook the other day about getting tattoos; namely, that several people has asked him if he thought it would be a good idea to for them to get one. In a nutshell, his answer was “Not if you have to ask me that question.”
It got me thinking. There are tons of things I wish I’d known before getting my first tattoo – and although I love the ones I have and have been happy with them for many years, I will admit that I would have done so much more if I’d known I could. So I figured I’d put together a list of Things To Think About When Getting Tattoos.
The art is arguably the most important part of the tattoo. What are you getting done? Is it symbolic? Is it something you’ll continue to like for the rest of your life? Life is both too long and too short to be getting crappy tattoos. If you’re not convinced, look here. There are hundreds of examples on that site of art you will not want etched on your body for all eternity.
If you’re getting a tattoo that you think is funny, for example, ask yourself: will this still be funny in 10 years? 20? 50? If you’re getting a tattoo that is meaningful, will it still be meaningful to you when you’re 60? If you’re getting someone’s name, will they still be important to you when you’re old and grey? Will they still be a part of your life? Are you sure?
Put together a sketch or some reference material that approximates the tattoo you want to get, and hang it in your mirror for six months to a year. Put a jar underneath it. Look at that thing every day. Each time you look at it and think “Hell yeah, that’s badass,” put $5 in the jar.
If you get to the end of the year without taking it down or changing it completely, then take all that money you’ve been saving up and go get your tattoo. Oh, which reminds me:
A good tattoo ain’t cheap, and a cheap tattoo ain’t good. It’s as simple as that. Tattoo art is one of the few industries left in (arguably) the world where you really do get what you pay for. A better artist will cost more. A better artist will also be booked farther in advance – which, honestly works out to your benefit. That gives you more time to save up, and more time to be sure it’s what you really want.
Like I said, a better artist will be booked farther in advance. That’s a good thing. Seriously, don’t go with an artist that takes walk-in appointments. Think about it this way: the more any artist practices, the better they get, right? So if your tattoo artist is sitting around waiting for you to wander in off the street and get a tattoo, how much practice do you really think they’re getting? How likely is it that they’ll be able to apply your artwork with a skilled and confident hand, without making any (permanent, un-erasable) mistakes?
The other argument against walk-in appointments is the artwork itself. Any tattoo artist worth working with is going to provide you with a sketch of the artwork they’re doing before they ink it onto you. I’ve had artists do this even when I walked in with the artwork pre-drawn and ready to go. It’s important that they sketch it themselves – it helps imprint the artwork into muscle memory and makes it less likely that they’ll screw it up later on.
Even better than that is to have the artist design the tattoo themselves. It doesn’t cost you any extra, and in my experience it looks way, way better. Remember: this is their job. They make art. It’s what they do. So let them do their job. They will do it better than you can.
Choosing an artist may take time. Every tattoo artist should have a portfolio out somewhere at the shop where they work. Look through all of them and keep track of the pieces you like best. Lots of artists have an individual style, or certain strengths – for instance, I chose my current artist because she specializes in cover-ups and is good at matching the styles of pre-existing tattoos – which is exactly what I was looking for. If I wanted someone who was good at realistic portraits, I may have picked a different artist. Same goes if I wanted someone who did really good Sailor Jerry-style artwork, or traditional Japanese tattoos, or cartoon characters, etc. Ask someone at the shop who they’d recommend. Ask your artist what their strengths are. Be picky. If nothing else, ask the artist for a sketch and compare it to the artwork you’re bringing in yourself. It won’t cost you anything, and then at least you’ll know you’re getting the best artwork you can for your money.
Ask how well they really know their stuff. This isn’t just about the artwork, either, but how well it’s applied. Unless you have sensitive skin or scar easily, a tattoo should be totally smooth when it’s healed over. There shouldn’t be any bumps or raised bits. There also shouldn’t be any lines or parts that look faded. If the tattoo isn’t applied well, it won’t heal well, and that will affect the outcome of the artwork. Make sure they know what they’re doing when it comes to poking holes in your body.
One of the main considerations, obviously, is “Can I cover it if I need to for a job?” This might not matter depending on your chosen industry or your level of give-a-shittedness. It is also true that tattoos are gaining a wider and wider acceptance within mainstream culture – a sleeve down to your wrist isn’t as big a deal as it used to be. Still, a tattoo on your forehead or “Thug Lyfe” across your knuckles will probably limit your employment opportunities – so be very sure of your career path before going down that route.
Another, less obvious, consideration is “How will it look where it’s placed?” A good artist should be able to help you with placement. You want the artwork to enhance the body part it’s on, not clash with it. My tattoo artist described it to me this way once: “I like to leave the work sort of open-ended, so it can be added onto later if you want.” Rather than looking like the piece was just stamped on, your artist should be able to make your artwork look like it belongs there. Another thing to keep in mind is stretching. If you plan on getting pregnant, you might want to reconsider that ring around your belly button. And no matter what you plan, take into account the possibility of weight gain as you get older. It might not be wise to get tattooed in places where you have (or are likely to get) stretch marks.
I’m sure we all know by now that tattoos hurt. But, of course, not all tattoos hurt equally. In conjunction with The Part, The Pain is important to consider. Getting a tattoo down your spine will hurt considerably more than getting one on your ass. Getting tattooed in your ticklish spots will make your artist grumpy as you writhe and twitch on her table (trust me on this). I’ve heard that the underside of your arm is unbearably painful; a lot of arm bands have an empty space there for that reason. In general, spots where the bone is close to the skin or where the skin is thinner will be more sensitive and thus more painful – which explains why so many tattoos exist on the muscle of the outer arm, and the meaty parts of the back, and so on.
The other thing to plan for is the size of your tattoo, especially if it’s your first. Consider getting a small tattoo for your first one, or a small part of a larger design that would look ok on its own if the pain turns out to be too much to handle. (And for the record: there’s no shame in getting a small tattoo and deciding you never, ever want to go through that again. Seriously.) Keep in mind that larger tattoos will take longer to finish, and will cost more – all the tattoo artists I’ve seen charge by the hour. Know your limits. Don’t be afraid to end a session earlier than you planned if you’re reaching the limit of your pain threshold. You can be a badass once the tattoo is done and healed – no one wants to see you passing out on the artist’s table because you were too macho to say stop.
If you’ve spent this much time and money getting a tattoo, it only makes sense to put some time and effort into maintaining it. You wouldn’t spend $300 on a painting just to nail it up in your front yard and let the wind and rain destroy it, right? So protect your tattoo. Don’t let your asshole friends slap it while it’s healing. (Besides hurting like a bitch, from what I’ve heard, it can also break the lines and color and actually damage the artwork. That is a seriously dick move.) Let it heal properly – don’t pick at the scabs, and give yourself enough time between sessions. Wear sunscreen if it’s going to be exposed while you’re in the sun, no matter how long you’ve had it. Sun damage will make even the best tattoo look like crap. Keep it moisturized. Try not to get injured in spots where you have tattoos (i.e. maybe reconsider getting that wrist-length sleeve if you’re, say, a mountain biker who breaks falls with their bare forearms).
Look. I happen to think tattoos are awesome and super fun. They’re addictive – I’m not even done with my back piece and I’m already planning a new half-sleeve. They’re a great form of self-expression and a very cool art form. But that doesn’t mean they’re right for everyone. Make sure you think it through. And if you decide to get a tattoo – don’t settle for anything less than the coolest, awesome-est, bad-ass-est tattoo you can possibly get. Whatever that means to you.