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How to Choose Your First Tattoo

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I write on many different topics, some of which include tattoo art, health, wellness, recipes, sustainability, and sewing.

How to pick your first tattoo.

How to pick your first tattoo.

How to Pick Your First Tattoo

After much thought, you have finally decided to get a tattoo. There are a plethora of ideas to pick from. I want you to love your first tattoo and have a great experience getting it, which is why I'm going to tell you how to choose your first tattoo:

  1. Do your research (and check out the list of places to look below).
  2. Brainstorm ideas and think about what you love.
  3. Choose a style from the many options.
  4. Consider size options carefully.
  5. Play with placement.
  6. Prepare for pain.
  7. Plus one last word of advice on communication with your artist.

Below, you will find full discussions of each of these points, plus links to helpful resources.

1. As Mom Says, Do Your Homework!

Spend time looking at pictures of tattoos. Look on Instagram, where you'll likely find the best examples. Sites like Tattoo.com and Tattoodo.com will be very helpful, too. Tatring has lots of ideas. Your local library might have big books full of images, too. Peruse the walls of tattoo studios, look at artists' websites and portfolios, and check out the tattoos on everyone you meet.

Whenever you find a tattoo you like, save it. After about a month, review all of your liked tattoos and I promise that you will have changed your mind on some of those favorites. This will help you to hone in on an idea that you will enjoy for many years to come.

Approach this process with some flexibility. You may have been influenced by your parents or others who have gotten tattooed. No offense to mom and dad, but tattooing has come a long way in the past 20 years. If you go to an artist with a picture that came straight out of the 90s, that is what you will get. Then later, when you do research for your next tattoo, you will realize that you had many more choices available to you. However, it may still be your favorite, because it was your first!

A classic idea for a tattoo with roses and a compass - this one is large enough for beautiful detail.

A classic idea for a tattoo with roses and a compass - this one is large enough for beautiful detail.

2. Think About What You Love

What do you love? This may seem like a strange question, but hear me out. Obviously, not everybody gets things that they love tattooed on them. Sometimes, people choose a design simply because it looks good. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but if you are having doubts about what to get, this is not the best way to choose your first one. You may get lucky and love it forever, but you could just as easily end up with a constant reminder of how impulsive and indecisive you are.

Speaking of regret, it is always a possibility. One way to alleviate future disappointment is to choose a design that is meaningful to you or is a nostalgic reminder of who you were at a certain point in time. It might reflect a life-changing event, but it doesn’t have to. I suggest taking this approach because you will be less likely to regret it in the future.

3. Consider Style

Let’s say you are certain that you want a tattoo of a St. Bernard because that was your first dog and it passed away last year. Well, that is a great start, but you are not done yet. There are several tattooing styles and if you know what they are, you can communicate more clearly and your artist will understand what you are looking for.

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Different styles include (but are not limited to): traditional, new school, realistic, 3D, portraiture, black and grey, tribal, and Japanese. You can easily find samples of these examples on Google image search. (Learn more about the different tattooing styles here.)

Unsurprisingly, a St. Bernard done as a traditional old school design will look very different from one done in new school style. Chances are that you know what style you like—you just have to be able to tell the artist.

You can expect exquisite detail in a flower of this size. This tattoo was done in black and grey style.

You can expect exquisite detail in a flower of this size. This tattoo was done in black and grey style.

4. Go Big or Go Home?

It makes sense that the larger a tattoo is, the more detailed it can be. But how big should you go for the design you've chosen? An experienced artist can help you answer this question. After you show your artist what you like, they will be able to tell you how large (or small) they can go. If it is too small for the amount of detail it has, it will degrade and blur over time. Most artists will tell you if what you are asking for is unrealistic.

5. Where Should You Put It?

Since you are an empty canvas, you can get your first one anywhere! Popular choices include the calf, shoulder, thigh, and upper arm. People choose these areas because they are less painful and can be easily covered with clothing if desired.

For more information, read Tattoo Placement: The Best Place on Your Body for Your First Tattoo.

If you are uncertain of your pain tolerance level, start out with a small tattoo.

If you are uncertain of your pain tolerance level, start out with a small tattoo.

6. As Far as Pain Goes. . .

If plucking your eyebrows is a torture that you are not willing to endure (those suckers are really rooted in there!), it is safe to say that you will have a harder time getting tattooed than somebody who can ignore this type of pain. Don’t freak out, though. Even though it hurts, your body will help you out. After about 10 minutes, your brain produces neurochemicals to ease the pain. It really helps!

But if you have to sit for a couple of hours or more, you will notice that the chemical releases ebb and flow over that time. If you are not sure if you can handle the pain of that huge St. Bernard tattoo, be creative and get something smaller, like a bone, a paw print, or a favorite toy. A tiny tattoo will not hurt as long, so you are pretty much guaranteed to be able to sit for it. After your first tattooing experience, you can then decide if you want to sit longer for a larger and more detailed one.

For more information about pain and how to control it, read

7. One Last Piece of Advice

Don’t ask your artist what you should get. That is not part of their job! They are artists, not mind-readers. You should approach them with your idea in hand. Read more about designing a tattoo with your artist, which also leads to another relevant post: How to pick a tattoo artist.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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