Getting Your First Tattoo
This past weekend I had the honor of taking my best friend to get her first tattoo. I planned on taking her and her girlfriend (who was going to be getting her second tat) to my favorite parlor, "Il Bacio" in Trenton, NJ. I'm not sure if most unadorned people realize it, but there is a specific process to getting tattooed that goes beyond just choosing what to get.
STEP ONE Decide on a tattoo design. Websites like bmezine and chopper-tattoo offer free, comprehensive galleries featuring thousands of photos of real tattoos. Does that mean that you should replicate someone else's image exactly as shown? No, not necessarily, but the photo galleries are great inspiration for figuring out new ideas. On bmezine, for example, the images are broken down into several dozen categories such as Sci-Fi, Lettering, Angels & Fairies, Dragons, Geek, Portraits, Stars, Music, Tribal, Religious Symbols (click the links to see my photo hubs of the different genres) to help you easily navigate through the themes you are most interested in.
STEP TWO Decide on the placement. Where on your body would you like this tattoo to go? Do you have any special requirements or restrictions? Figure out what your criteria are, if any. I once worked with a guy, an upscale salesman in a corporate office who had to wear a three-piece suit every day of his life. You wouldn't have known it, but beneath his bourgeoisie threads he was inked from front to back, neck to foot. His job prevented him from having any visible tattoos on his neck, face or hands, so he tattooed the rest of his body instead. When going to the tattoo parlor for a new addition, he was always sure to bring a button-down dress shirt with him. He would put it on to show the tattoo artist what the space limitations were (nothing above the collar or below the cuffs.) So think about this beforehand. Do you want a tattoo that can be easily hidden if necessary? Easily hidden most of the time? Or does it not matter either way? There's no way to explain the specific pain of a tattoo gun needle penetrating your skin at about a billion jolts per second, but if the idea of pain really freaks you out, you may want to consider placing your tat on a fleshier part of the body, like your upper arms or the back of your shoulder rather than your lower back, which is tender in the middle near the spine, or your wrists or ankles, which do not have the added protection of a lot of skin and muscle.
STEP THREE Select a tattoo parlor. Word of mouth is the best way to go. If your friends or acquaintences have tattoos that you admire, ask them where they got their work done and if they remember the name of their particular artist. You may also look online for suggestions, at sites like AAAtattoodirectory for a list of all businesses in your area. If all else fails, you can just default by going to the shop closest to your home and praying for the best.
STEP FOUR Call the tattoo parlor and ask if they have time to do two small tattoos/one mid-size tattoo/the first session of a huge, ongoing backpiece. This is not usually necessary, as most tattoo shops gladly take walk-ins, but it's courteous and it can't hurt to inquire. Plus, if the shop happens to be overrun at the moment by a group of twenty teenagers from the cheerleading squad all there to get matching pom-pom tattoos, you'll know to wait a few hours before going in. It helps to eat a decent size meal beforehand, as some people have weak stomachs when it comes to tattooing and tend to feel nauseous either during the procedure or just after.
STEP FIVE Approach the counter and explain that you're looking to get three words above a picture of a heart tattooed on your upper arm. You don't need to go into detail with this person, because most likely he or she is there to take calls and introduce customers to their artists, which is what will happen next. Whichever worker's turn it is will come up to you and you will discuss what you want with him. If you've brought in a picture, hand it over. If you're unsure what type of lettering to get, ask to see a book of fonts (almost all stores have them.) Once you've selected, give the artist a few minutes to draw it up onto a transfer sheet which will later be applied to your skin.
STEP SIX Don't be afraid to be assertive. Tattoo artists aren't mind readers. They create the design based on the image in your head, so you have to give them a good idea of what you're looking for. After he draws up the first draft, he'll show it to you for your approval. It is okay to say no. Don't be afraid to say, "That looks great, but can we maybe make it a little bit smaller?" It is no trouble at all for him to use the copy machine to shrink it down to size. Remember, you are a paying customer, and the artists are there to ensure you have a great experience. The same thing goes for when the stencil is placed on your skin. He will apply the stencil and then ask you to look at it. If it's crooked or off-center or anything else, speak up. He will be happy to smear the stencil off your skin and reapply it. Always trust your instincts. If the artist gives you a hard time for wanting to be specific, you may want to consider finding a new shop. This is going to be on your body for the rest of your life, and you have every right to want it done perfectly.
Girl getting her first tattoo
STEP SEVEN I'll get into tattoo parlor etiquette in another hub, but suffice it to say that even if you're getting work done by a 300-lb. man named Snake, standard rules of courtesy still apply. DO NOT try to bargain with the price quote, DO NOT brag or make offhand remarks like "My friend so-and-so said his tattoo only cost $75, and it's even smaller than mine is going to be!" Be polite--tattoo prices are not up for discussion. It's okay to be nervous, but try to keep your emotions in check. I'll never forget the embarassment I felt years ago while taking an acquaintence to get her first ink. She screamed out a horrid rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to help her deal with the pain, then fell off the chair and crawled her way into the restroom when she thought she was going to vomit. If you get hit with a sudden wave of nausea and feel as though you might be sick, don't just jump out of the chair and sprint for the nearest bathroom as this can destroy the precise handiwork of your tattoo. Simply announce to the artist that you feel sick, he'll stop and you can head for the toilet. Finally, DO NOT enter the parlor drunk or under the influence of mind-altering substances. First of all, the artist has the right to refuse to work on you if he sees you are under the influence and secondly, you'll make a fool out of yourself. Stay as still as possible and try to relax. Focusing on something other than the pain helps (look at the artwork on the walls or a magazine in your hands.) Take deep breaths in and out and eventually your endorphins should kick in and the pain will be tolerable. At the end, thank him for his time and hand over his tip. Yes, tattoo artists get tips. Ten to twenty percent is usually a good amount. For example, I typically leave a maximum of $20 on a $100 tattoo.
STEP EIGHT It is common procedure for the artist to explain to you how to care for your new body modification, and most places will supply you with a print-out detailing proper aftercare techniques. If they do not do so, ask for a quick primer in what to do once you get home. When all is said and done, your new ink will be bandaged up with saran wrap and possibly a little bloody, but when you remove the treatment later that evening to wash it and apply the A&D cream, you'll be happy to find a crisp, fresh and hopefully beautifully completed work of art.