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9 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Got a Tattoo

Got my first tattoo at 18, then waited 32 years to get another. Meanwhile, I'm the editor of TatRing, a body art website.

Not that I regret it, but there are a few things I wish I'd known before I got a tattoo.

Not that I regret it, but there are a few things I wish I'd known before I got a tattoo.

1. Nobody Cares About Your Tattoo But You

You think your tattoo is a spectacular display of your personal aesthetic and a profoundly meaningful symbol, but nobody else gives a whit about it.

When I first got my tattoo I wanted to show everyone, but I quickly learned to keep it to myself. At first, some people made gasping comments like Oh, God! or You really did it? or That’s a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be! People might say things like I suppose you can always cover it with your sleeve, or I hope it didn’t cost a lot.

You'll be listening extra hard to hear what they think about it because you're so excited, but they might not even notice. Or they might just stand there just squinting and tilting their head from side to side.

But most of the time, they won’t say anything at all. And maybe it’s better that way.

Who does my tattoo belong to? The answer is complicated.

Who does my tattoo belong to? The answer is complicated.

2. Who Owns Your Tattoo: You or the Artist?

Who does my tattoo belong to?

Bruciüs was my tattoo artist, and he applied the ink with skill and inspiration, but it was my idea. It’s my skin but his ink (or at least the ink was his before I paid for it), and when he was done, he asked if he could take a picture. Part of me wanted to say no but I stood still for the photo, which he posted to his social media, even though I never signed a model release.

So this begs the question: Whose tattoo is it, mine or his? Could he legally put my tattoo on someone else's arm? And who controls a photo of a tattoo: the artist, the model, or the photographer? If someone asked him if they could use the photo, I’d want a say in the matter, and if they were offering to pay, I’d want my fair share. But the answer is complicated. Because we collaborated on the design, we're both copyright holders. I wish I'd known that before. The idea that someone else has rights over something on my body is just profoundly creepy.

Aside from the legalities, I have to admit that even though it's my tattoo, it’s kind of his, too. Sort of how both parents have a say in their child’s life: There’s a strange, unavoidable, indelible intimacy to the process of getting tattooed. The tattoo is like our baby: I have custody, but the evidence of his hand is permanent. There is no DNA or maker’s mark or signature to prove it’s his work, but it is. So knowing that the tattoo retains an essence of the one who made it is just one more reason to choose your artist very, very carefully!

If people can see it, they are going to ask you to explain it.

If people can see it, they are going to ask you to explain it.

3. Do You Know What Your Tattoo Means?

If people can see it, they are going to ask you to explain it, so you’ll need to prepare an answer.

I’m not very share-y and prefer not to spill my guts to perfect strangers, so the first time this happened, I actually stammered and blushed.

Since then, I’ve crafted a scripted answer that summarizes without being too revealing. If your tattoo represents something intensely personal, private, emotional, revealing, embarrassing, or potentially even shameful, keep in mind that you will be asked (by first dates, grandmothers, neighbors, potential employers, various health care professionals, children, and check-out clerks) to put it into words.

So instead of always stuttering something like “I used to like this TV show, but I don’t like it anymore” or “It’s a memorial tattoo for my little brother who drank himself to death” or “I got it in prison—I don’t really know what I was thinking,” you’ll want to practice better or more appropriate responses for any situation.

Neon signs advertising tattoos and piercings.

Neon signs advertising tattoos and piercings.

4. Why a Tattoo Shouldn't Be Cheap

Tattoos are not cheap. And they shouldn’t be.

In this culture where artists are expected to work for free, I strongly believe creatives should get paid fairly for what they do. A tattoo is something you’ll look at every day, after all: This is no time to look for bargains or cheap knock-offs. Does discount sushi sound like a good idea? Do you really want a $5 haircut? Would you buy underwear from a thrift store? “Cheap Tattoo!” is not an enticing tagline. If you pay $10 for a painting that took the artist (who endured an apprenticeship, an MFA, and twenty years of experience) three months to paint, then the artist’s work loses value and you own a painting that’s arguably worth $10.

So I found a local artist whose work I admire and paid him what he asked for, although I probably could have looked for someone whose hourly expectations were a bit closer to mine. Let me put it this way: I had to work 31.5 hours to afford my tattoo. I traded a week of my work for a few hours of his. It was an insane amount of money, and every time I look at my tattooed arm, I see an invisible price tag. The expense was as painful as the process, but still, I’m glad I did it.

If you manage to finagle to get one inexpensively, or if you find an artist who’s willing to work with you on the price, think of creative ways to properly thank and repay them somehow.

5. Your Tattoo Is Not Going to Look Exactly How You Imagined

Get ready to be surprised.

There’s just no way it could possibly end up exactly how you saw it in your mind’s eye, not even if you inked it on yourself, not even if an artist could read your mind. When it’s translated from idea to ink on paper to ink on skin, it’s inevitably going to change. It might even be better than you imagined, but it won’t be identical, and as soon as you get it, it starts to change. Some of the ink will slough off. It will fade. You’ll gain or lose weight, you’ll get pregnant, you’ll get old, your skin will wrinkle, and so will your tattoo.

This is the difference between fantasy and reality, and if you're anything like me, it might be a challenge. I have strong ideas about what I like and I prefer to retain some control over certain things (my body, for example). Getting tattooed was an exercise in communicating exactly what I wanted, but it was also a zen-like lesson in the fact that I don’t have control. Control is merely an illusion.

(I had to go back again to have the artist add to the design. Find an artist who understands and respects this messy, creative process.)

Just because a tattoo is static doesn’t mean it can’t suggest movement.

Just because a tattoo is static doesn’t mean it can’t suggest movement.

6. How the Shape of Your Body Affects Your Tattoo

Square peg, round hole.

I'm not entirely sure my tattoo fits me. I spent so much time thinking about what the design would look like, I forgot to consider how it would look on my arm.

In retrospect, I'd like to point out to myself that if you draw a square on a curved surface, it will have to bend. I'd also tell myself to consider the negative space the design will create, the shape it will give the skin surrounding it.

Here are some visuals to help you see what I'm saying:

  • Have you ever seen someone whose pants pockets were too small for their butt? Yeah, it's not pretty.
  • What if a waiter brought you a huge plate with a tiny, lonely dollop in the middle? How would that make you feel?
  • On the other hand, what if it was heaped so high the food slopped over the edges and you couldn’t even see the plate?

The skin-to-ink ratio is important. Consider these questions:

  • Do you want to see only the tattoo or the body it’s on, as well?
  • Will we see skin peeking through and around the ink or will your “canvas” be completely covered in pigment?
  • Is the tattoo hiding or enhancing your body? (Neither is better, it’s just something to consider.)
Tattoos can suggest motion in various ways.

Tattoos can suggest motion in various ways.

7. Tattoos Move!

I’m talking about the guy with the sexy woman inked on his arm, and when he flexes, she dances.

But I’m also talking about someone with an arrow shooting down their arm and off the end of their wrist or an ink dagger plunged into the skin, with drops of blood squirting out, or a bird madly flapping its wings.

Just because the tattoo is static doesn’t mean it can’t suggest movement, if you want it to. Blur marks, motion lines, and placement all help your tattoo come alive.

When the artist warned me, in writing, not to use aloe vera, I had to ask why.

When the artist warned me, in writing, not to use aloe vera, I had to ask why.

8. Why Can’t You Use Fresh Aloe Vera on a Tattoo?

Aloe vera. Ok or not?

When the artist warned me, in writing, not to use aloe vera, I had to ask why. He didn’t have a good explanation, so after about three weeks of healing I cut a hunk of aloe from my plant, washed it thoroughly, and applied it as I always do for skin wounds or abrasions. It worked fine and I healed very quickly.

Maybe he meant I shouldn't put aloe vera gel on my tattoo, since that has alcohol in it and will dry your skin. Maybe he meant I shouldn't put it on right away, which also makes sense since you want to be careful about sterility. I am not an expert and have no medical training whatsoever, so I don’t know what gave me the idea that I can disagree with my tattoo artist, but still, I did.

Has there ever been a reputable study that proves fresh aloe vera (from the plant) isn’t okay for healed tattoos? If you have information, share in the comments section below!

9. Tattoos Are Seriously Serious

The process of getting inked can make you feel scared, vulnerable, and emotional. And it's seriously painful!

Tattoos have become so common that we might mistake the procedure for a simple cosmetic process, like getting a haircut or going to the dentist. Well, it might be a nice little cakewalk for you, but don’t be surprised if it isn’t. You might also feel scared, terrified, emotional, vulnerable, attacked, or triggered, and all of these reactions are completely normal.

I didn't think about this before it happened. On a test for pain tolerance, I'd probably get a very high score. I thought, I've had two children without epidurals, this will be a breeze. And then I felt that shockingly wrong needle in my skin and I had to just lie there quietly, as receptively as possible, screaming "OW!" in my head. It took all my strength not to move my arm. The pain was so intense it threatened to bring my lunch back up from my stomach. My life flashed in front of my eyes. The ghosts of my dead relatives loomed over me, shaking their heads.

Think about it: In what other situation in life would you ever invite a complete stranger to not only touch you, but to hurt you? Even the dentist offers novocaine. But all you can do is lie there in masochistic surrender. As I lay there biting my lips, silently pleading with the ceiling, I realized that it's not just a little cosmetic thing. It's intensely vulnerable, surgical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and scary. It is SERIOUS.

Maybe that’s part of why so many people get inked.

What about you?

© 2018 Joanna Fonté

What do YOU wish you'd known before you tattooed? What was your experience? Please share!

Santanu on February 04, 2019:

excellent article, thanks for sharing us

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on February 01, 2019:

This is an excellent article! I'm not a tattoo person but I didn't think of any of this stuff.

Nilza Marie Santana-Castillo from California on May 07, 2018:

Number 2 is something I have thought about, but never explored the legality of it. My tattoos have been partly inspired by photos of tattoos I came across on the internet, and I would not mind if someone took inspiration from my own tattoos, but I do not know how I would feel if someone copied one of my tattoos completely. It's something I'll be more mindful of if I agree to have a photo of my tattoo that can be put on social media or spread widely.