A Tattoo Artist's Tips for Getting a Tattoo You'll Love Forever
As a tattoo artist, I answer a lot of questions. I have clients asking for advice every day. If you are seriously thinking about getting a tattoo and want to avoid some common mistakes, I invite you to read on.
A big part of my work is covering up tattoos. Unfortunately, some ink cannot be fixed, and all I can do is recommend laser removal, a procedure that takes a long time and is very painful and expensive. Although the laser will fade the tattoo so that it can be covered, the skin will never be spotless again.
It's much, much smarter to get what you want to begin with. Below, I include all the topics you'll need to consider to make sure you get a tattoo you'll be happy with. Get it right the first time around!
How to Make Sure You Get a Tattoo You'll Love Forever
- avoid these ten rookie first-tattoo mistakes (see the list below),
- research, design, and decide exactly what you want (with links for inspiration),
- learn the language and proper, accurate terms to describe the type of tattoo you want,
- consider a list of questions to ask yourself before you get a tattoo (and what to discuss with your artist before you get started),
- find the best tattoo artist for the tattoo of your dreams,
- prepare your skin for the big day (and take care of it afterwards),
- calm yourself and control the pain while you're getting tattooed.
Each of these ideas is described fully below.
Step One: Avoid These 10 Most Common Tattoo Mistakes
- Don't get a tattoo too early in life. Getting a tattoo before the age of 18 is almost a guarantee for regret. For one thing, it's unlikely that a professional tattooist will do it, so you'll have to take a risk with an amateur. If you are young and want a cartoon character tattoo, picture one of your parents with a Yoshi tattoo and think again. It is worth it to wait. There is no rush.
- Don't be cheap. It's the art that you want, not a bargain.
- Don't go to just any tattoo shop. If you don't do your research, you may end up with an artist who does poor work.
- Don't tattoo a person's name on your body. Not even your child's.
- Don't leave a tattoo unfinished. Save up and make sure you can pay for the full tattoo at the outset. It is not cool to walk around with an unfinished tattoo.
- Don't get a tattoo by a random tattooist. Even if you're on vacation and the tattooist is on the beach. Not a good idea.
- Don't take tattoo aftercare advice from friends. Get your advice from a reputable tattooist.
- Don't get a tattoo from a friend. Letting someone practice on your body is very kind of you, but it's a recipe for disaster.
- Don't get a tattoo while intoxicated. Although it's unprofessional, some tattooists will do the work as long as you pay. Don't take anything that will cloud your judgment or delay your healing, or you'll be sorry.
- Never tell the tattooist to do whatever they want. You are the one who will wear it, so think for yourself. If you see something you don't like while they're working, don't wait to say something. The mess will only get bigger and more difficult to fix.
Step Two: Know Exactly What You Want!
If this is your first tattoo, here's my best advice: Take your time deciding what you truly love. It doesn't really matter how much it costs or how much it hurts or how soon it can be done. Do not ask for tattoo advice of your friends unless you want to have something they like. If you want a tattoo you'll love forever, do not go for the easiest or most obvious choices (like your own name or initials or those of your boyfriend or girlfriend). Fashions come and go. Tattoos stay.
To begin brainstorming ideas for a first tattoo, sit down with a pencil and paper and start sketching out ideas. Nobody can do this for you, but it's a crucial first step. You have to do this task yourself, using your own brain power. While you're at it, you'll start to get a clearer picture what you really want.
Questions to ask yourself before you get a tattoo:
- Why do I want a tattoo? (Don't skip this question: It's important!)
- Do I want it fast or do I want it good?
- How far am I willing to go and how much am I willing to pay?
- Do I want a unique tattoo?
- Do I want to design it myself? (I recommend this only for those who are very good at drawing and design.)
- Do I want my selected artist to design something special for me?
- Does it matter if somebody else has the same image already?
- Does the tattoo have to mean anything and if yes, then what?
- Where is the best place for me to have it? Do I want it visible or easy-to-hide?
- What is the size that I imagine it to be?
- What colors am I considering?
- What styles of tattoo appeal to me most (old school, minimal, realistic, etc.)?
- What if my tastes change?
If you have a tattoo already, take a close look at it. Are you completely and totally happy with how it turned out? Could you benefit from reworking or covering something that is looking old and tired or maybe done not-so-well? Before starting on a new tattoo, fix the old one and you will feel ten times better.
Step Three: Research and Design Carefully
Once you have ideas about what you want, the next step is research. Create a file or folder full of things you like. You'll bring this with you when you go to meet your tattoo artist for the first time.
How do I search for and research tattoo design ideas?
- Instagram, Pinterest, Google Images, and Deviantart are good places to start. Another place to look for inspiration is tattoo magazines. You will find them in shops and also online. These magazines include up-to-date tattoos and artist directories. You can also look for a design in the tattoo shop; it could be something from the artist's portfolio, flash designs, tattoo magazines, or online.
- Online tattoo design websites (like TatRing, Tattoo.com, Tattoon.com, and Tatoodo.com) are very good for ideas, and you may find your dream tattoo there. Scrolling through many different tattoo ideas will open your eyes to more possibilities.
- Let's say you want a dragon tattoo. Type "dragon tattoo" into a search engine to see what other people have already done, but if you do not want to copy someone else's tattoo, then leave off the word "tattoo." By just entering "dragon," you will see dragon artwork, statues, figurines, jewelry, and fantasy art. If you search "dragon drawing" or "dragon illustration," you'll find many different styles and designs. This is all great material to help you create your own unique dragon.
- Let's say you want flowers. Be specific. What kind of flower tattoo? Search for images of particular flowers in specific colors.
- Print up the images that you like or save them to a folder.
- If it is writing, a quote, or text that you want, play around by putting the words in different fonts and sizes.
- Print it up, cut it out, and place them where you want the tattoo. See how the design fits on your body, how it really might look, and if it's all good.
- Do not just print a thumbnail and ask your tattooist to work from that. Most of the time, the quality of the picture is too blurry and the detail will be lost.
- You are getting closer! Take your research seriously, as the more thought and time you put in it, the more special your tattoo will feel to you. Do not think about what you should have, but rather what you want. No matter how old you are, you should be getting the tattoo for yourself, not for your parents or friends.
- Style is important, as we tattooists each have our own. Often, tattoo artists prefer one style over another. If you choose a tattoo artist based upon their style, then the best thing is to let them do what they like the most. However, you will still need to know what you want and give guidelines to your artist.
- You'll want to know which style of tattoo you want. Learn the words for the style or technique that appeal to you so that you can communicate effectively with your artist.
Tattoo Drawing Styles
Black and Grey/Shaded
Step Four: Find the Right Artist
This is the most important step. Take your time with this one, and remember: the artist is not the same as the shop. An artist is a person. If somebody recommends a particular shop, ask them for the name of the particular artist they like. Sometimes people go to a recommended place and get tattooed by an apprentice or guest artist that has very little experience. Avoid being disappointed!
- The best place to find a tattoo artist you love is by word of mouth. If you see a tattoo you love, don't hesitate to ask where they got it.
- The second best place to look for an artist is on the Internet. A professional artist will definitely show their work on a website. The easiest way to recognise a great artist is by the "wow" factor. If the work is not impressive, then don't expect miracles. Also, note that the photos you see on the artist's online portfolio are the best ones he has done and most likely are touched up with Photoshop.
- Look through photos of tattoos the artist has already done. See if their style is what you are looking for. Somebody who loves doing tribal may not be perfect for a portrait job, for example.
- Beware of imposters. If you see in an artist's bio that he studied at an art academy, but he can't draw, then he won't be able to give you a piece of art.
- Look for photos of healed tattoos in the artist's portfolio. If all photos are of fresh tattoos and none of healed, it may be because they did not heal as intended and only look good while fresh.
- If you need to travel to get to the artist you like, then do so. "I want a tattoo now" is not the right mindset when getting something for life.
- Do not always automatically take your friend's tattoo advice. See for yourself. Please do not trust your friend with a tattoo machine to practice on you. Sometimes tattoos done by friends are beyond repair, and that can end a friendship.
- When you meet an artist, take a moment to notice how you feel around them. Do you trust them? Are you comfortable? Are they listening to you? If not, leave! Do yourself a favor: Do not go against your gut feeling. Intuition knows best. If you feel that you are in the right place, make an appointment for a consultation.
Step Five: Share Your Ideas With Your Artist
Avoid asking questions like:
- "How much for a 4x8 angel?" (This question has no answer.)
- "How much does it hurt?" (No one can tell you exactly how much something is going to hurt.)
- "Can you give me a cheaper tattoo?" (This question is both dumb and insulting.)
Before talking to the artist, you should have a more-or-less clear idea of what you want. You will need to bring some examples of images with you so you can demonstrate what you like and what you don't.
What should you discuss with your tattoo artist?
- Discuss idea, size, placement, color, and style. Ask about how much time your project will require and how much it'll cost. Ask the tattooist if he/she feels comfortable doing this tattoo design for you: They may recommend somebody else more suitable for the job. You should ask every possible question before you start.
- Listen to your tattoo artist's advice, as he/she is the expert who knows best what is possible.
- Do not ask your tattooist what you should get. It is your own body, so it is your own decision. No one knows you better than yourself. You can ask for professional advice and feedback about which design would work better if you have to make a choice between a few designs. Also, the size of the tattoo will need to be negotiated, as it depends on its detail and the placement on your body.
- Once you agree on the details, make an appointment. This gives you another chance to rethink and get ready. If the chosen artist has a waiting list and you're willing to wait, that is a good sign.
- Ask your artist about tattoo aftercare. Every artist has their own instructions, based upon experience with what works. Not every shop sells healing cream, so you may need to get it yourself. If you get it before the session, you will not need to worry about it afterwards.
Step Six: Prepare Your Skin
A couple of words about skin: The better the canvas, the better the drawing. That means if you have dry, flaky, or damaged skin, the quality of your tattoo will suffer.
Condition your skin for a couple of weeks before your appointment by using moisturizers, lotions, body butter, or whatever works for you. This way your skin will be softer, more elastic, and more likely to heal smoothly.
Sunburnt skin cannot be tattooed, so make sure you leave enough time after your holiday in the sun to let your skin recover. If you are quite hairy, it's a good idea is to shave the area before you meet your artist.
Step Seven: Remain Calm During the Tattooing Session!
- Stay calm and relaxed. It will hurt, but the intensity of the pain is less if you are relaxed.
- Getting a good night's sleep and eating a big meal right before the tattoo session will also make it easier.
- There is no point in thinking too much about what it's going to feel like. Worrying too much about pain will leave you drained before it is even started. If you know that you want it, go for it. You will see that it is not as bad as you imagine.
- If you are really scared, do everything you need to do to calm down as much as possible.
- Stay away from alcohol for at least 24 hours before your appointment. If you consume alcohol, you will bleed a lot. Alcohol thins the blood and it makes it more difficult for the tattooist to put the ink into your skin. Your healing may be complicated.
- Bring a sugary drink, a bar of chocolate, or something else sweet to keep your sugar levels up.
- Consider buying some aftercare cream before your tattoo session so you do not need to worry about it later. I recommend Bepanthen, a baby care cream that works magic on tattoos. Ask your tattoo artist what they suggest. In my experience, creams described as "tattoo healing creams" may not be the best options. They may smell nice, but that is not why you should choose a cream.
- Remember, the more relaxed you are, the better it goes. If you are too tense, too tired, or too afraid, there is a good chance that you may pass out.
How can you control tattooing pain?
Staying relaxed and being prepared will help, but It is also worth investing in a numbing cream if you know that you have a low pain threshold. I recommend Ametop cream, which you get from a pharmacist or chemist. Apply it 2-3 hours before the session. Dab it on, cover the spot with cling film, and seal it with tape. It usually works well for about 1-2 hours before wearing off.
Step Eight: Follow Aftercare Advice
Listen to your tattooist. She or he knows best. Here are some general tips to keep in mind:
- Your tattoo will be covered with cling film and secured with micropore tape. The morning after the session, remove the cover and wash your tattoo with warm, soapy water. Shower gel is fine.
- Be gentle; do not rub. Pat dry with the towel and wait for a few minutes until it dries completely.
- Apply a very thin layer of Bepanthen cream. Make sure to remove any excess with a tissue. It should not be white once the cream is applied.
- Put another layer of cling film on, fix with the tape, and keep on until the next morning.
- If it's comfortable to do so, repeat these steps again one more day. If it gets too irritating or hot, do not recover it for the third time.
- Wash your tattoo daily and apply the cream twice for the rest of the week, morning and evening. If it feels dry, apply a thin layer in the afternoon. Do not use the Bepanthen cream for more than 2 days total. You may apply some normal moisturiser or lotion after the first week, but that is not necessary. The skin will heal by itself.
- The tattoo will peel like sunburned skin. Just let it heal. Do not pick or scratch.
- Do not soak in water. No baths, no steam rooms, and no swimming until it heals. Quick showers are fine, as are daily washings.
- Do not expose a new tattoo to UV rays for as long as 4–6 weeks. Sun will make it fade. Later, if you go out in bright daylight, apply sunblock.
- One of the biggest mistakes people make is putting too much cream on their new tattoos for too long. This delays healing.
- Follow your tattooist's advice thoroughly.
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Readers Share Their Opinions
Use Numbing Cream While Getting a Tattoo... or Not?
Yes, I would use numbing cream.
No, I wouldn't.
"I say hellz yes I'd use numbing cream!!! I recently got my first tattoo on my back and hurt way bad, so bad I'm nervous about getting it finished. Some people have a high tolerance for pain and I'm not one of them."—Anonymous
"No way, it's part of the experience. I just got my first tattoo on my foot (which everyone says is very painful) and I wouldn't trade it for anything. It didn't hurt, it was just slightly uncomfortable... my tattoo was worth the pain."—Anonymous
"Yes, I am a wimp with pain but I know I want the tattoo!!!"—Anonymous
"Personally, no. Getting through the pain is part of the tattoo process and it feels like I've earned the design."—Anonymous
"If it has no negative effects, why not?"—Anonymous
"No, numbing cream only affects the top of your skin while the tattoo goes deeper than that so no—because it's pointless."—Anonymous
"Yes every person is different and why have the pain when it can be easily avoided?"—Anonymous
"No—experience the needle through your skin. See it as a ritual the pain in your body is the price you have to pay to your new tat."—Anonymous
"I used to think it was cheating, but we don't get tattoos for the pain, we get them for the art."—Anonymous
"No, if you can't handle the pain, don't get tattooed. The pain is part of the experience, and you will be much prouder of your ink if you sit through the pain instead of wussing out."—Anonymous
"I have four tattoos that I got 100% sober and without numbing cream. However, I am considering purchasing it for my next one. It really depends on where you get your tattoo: Some places are just much more painful than others."—Anonymous
"I would not not not use a numbing cream! A tattoo is an experience. The pain is part of it & why take away from the whole? For a few minutes of pain, you get a lifetime of beautiful art!"—DeniseDurham2011
"I'm planning multiple tattoos, as a set. Some, for example, the first two should be medium sized, on fleshy areas (upper arms/shoulders). However the tattoo for my back, with spine & shoulder blades, is probably worth the numbing cream, depending on what my first two experiences were like. "—Anonymous
"Tattoos are not that painful. Right now I am in the process of learning how to be a tattoo artist and we have people come in all the time asking to be numbed. We do not offer numbing cream where I am at. The discomfort of it is a price you pay to have a piece of art on your body."—Anonymous
"Sure, why not? Especially the area is especially sensitive.and it helps keep you in control of the pain so the tattoo artist can do their job."—ferbscosmetics
"Sometimes I like pain... wouldn't want to miss out if that gets triggered. ;)"—Anonymous
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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.
© 2008 Ilona Ciunaite