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What to Consider Before Getting Your First Tattoo

So You Want a Tattoo

Once reserved for military men, bikers, and circus performers, tattoos are now common among people from all walks of life, with a 2019 Ipsos poll suggesting that about 30% of American adults have at least one tattoo.

I received my first tattoo at the age of eighteen. It was a fairly large rose on the top of my thigh, resembling the style popularized by early American tattoo artists. In the years following, I grew in my passion for tattoos, eventually doing some promotional work at tattoo conventions and working as an assistant and bookkeeper for a professional studio as I grew a collection that has taken over 100 hours of tattooing to develop.

In that time, I've seen the power tattoos have to improve peoples lives, allowing them to feel more comfortable and confident, cover unwanted scars or birthmarks, and celebrate important moments in their lives.

However, despite the many benefits of getting tattoos, those interested in going under the needle need to remember that the choice to get tattooed is permanent, and difficult if not impossible to change. But by carefully planning, and reflecting on a few important questions, you can approach your first tattoo with confidence that you will receive a piece that you will appreciate for the rest of your life.

Good tattoos aren't cheap, and cheap tattoos aren't good. If you want a quality tattoo, be prepared to spend a lot of money.

Good tattoos aren't cheap, and cheap tattoos aren't good. If you want a quality tattoo, be prepared to spend a lot of money.

How Much Will My Tattoo Cost and What Am I Willing to Spend?

In tattoo culture, we have a common saying: "Good tattoos aren't cheap, and cheap tattoos aren't good."

Though the amount an average professional tattoo costs will vary depending on where you live, it's common to pay roughly $150 to $300 per hour of tattooing, with most shops requiring a minimum of $60 to $100 for any amount of tattooing, even if your tattoo only takes five or ten minutes to apply.

Even if you just want a simple tattoo, it is best to find a professional tattoo shop where the artists charge industry standard rates because even the most uncomplicated tattoos require precise application to ensure appropriate line weight, even saturation, and careful placement.

When I worked in a shop, I regularly received calls, asking how much a particular tattoo will cost. This is not a productive conversation to have over the phone since size, placement, and intricacy will all affect the price you will pay. If you want to know roughly how much you might need to pay for a particular tattoo, the best thing you can do is schedule a time to meet with an artist, and bring some reference photos for what you are interested in. Most tattoo artists will be willing to give you a general range of prices. If you don't live near your preferred artist, call their shop and ask them how they would like to communicate to discuss tattoos and schedule appointments. Many artists use Instagram direct messages or e-mail to communicate with potential clients.

When approaching a tattoo artist, you are well within your rights as a client to inform your tattoo artist of your budget. However, you should also be willing to remain flexible with either how much you will be willing to pay for what you want, or what your tattoo artist is able to provide within your budget.

Some may feel awkward about approaching a tattoo artist with a budget, but trust me, many tattoo artists appreciate the candor. Coming to the table with a price in mind can very quickly get you and the artist on the same page about the content, size, and placement of the tattoo.

What Style of Tattoo is Best for Me?

Like any form of art, tattoos reflect a diverse array of styles and traditions, with many tattoo artists specializing in a specific artistic style. When researching what tattoos you are interested in collecting, many find it helpful to research a number of common genres to guide them in envisioning both the content and style of their tattoos.

Some common styles include:

American Traditional: One of the oldest modern styles of tattooing practiced in the United States, this style is marked by bold black outlines, heavy saturation, and a limited color pallet. This is the style that I prefer!

Japanese Traditional: A style similar to American traditional in its application of bold lines and heavy color saturation, but typically featuring wider color pallets, and including prominent cultural icons in the Japanese tradition.

New School: A style of tattooing that emerged in the 1980's and gained traction in the 1990's, this style features the bold lines common in Traditional tattooing, but often features a wide, vivid color pallet, and more cartoonish concepts.

Portrait and Realism: Through advancements in the quality of tattooing machines, portraits and realism have become a more popular tattooing style, distinct for their realistic depiction of their subjects.

Where Should I Place My First Tattoo?

Placement is an important factor to consider for those interested in getting their first tattoo. Of course the size of the piece and whether you plan on collecting dozens of tattoos or just a few will affect where your first tattoo will be placed. Having worked at a tattoo shop myself, I have seen a number of people get their first tattoos, and some of the most common placements include:

  • Wrist
  • Outer Bicep
  • Tricep
  • Top of the Thigh
  • Outer Ankle
  • Top of the Forearm

Will My Tattoo Hurt?

The simple answer is yes. When getting tattooed, you will need to remain still while one to many needles simultaneously penetrate the top layers of your skin, pushing ink into its bottom-most layer.

Many compare the feeling of a tattoo to a cat scratch, or an extended sensation of receiving a vaccination. For me, the sensation is usually quite uncomfortable, but by focusing on my breathing, and bringing along some music or a podcast to listen to, I find myself being able to manage the pain successfully.

However, the degree of pain you will experience will vary widely depending on where you place your tattoo. Below, I've included a list of general areas on the body and how painful they can be to tattoo based on personal experience, and observation of clients.

Least Painful Areas

  • Outer Bicep
  • Top of the Forearm
  • Outer Ankle
  • Shin
  • Top of the Thigh
  • Outer Thigh
  • Outer Wrist
  • Shoulder

    Moderately Painful Areas
  • Inner Wrist
  • Inner Ankle
  • Inner Forearm
  • Tricep
  • Inner Bicep
  • Calf
  • Knee
  • Elbow
  • Buttock
  • Collarbone
  • Face
  • Back of the Hands and Fingers
  • Inner Lip

Very Painful Areas

  • Chest and Sternum
  • Ribs and Stomach
  • Side and Back of the Neck
  • Head
  • Inner Thigh and Back of the Thigh
  • Elbow Ditch
  • Knee Ditch
  • Armpit
  • Top of Feet
  • Spine and Hips

Most Painful Areas

  • Throat
  • Palm of the Hand
  • Sole of the Foot
  • Pubic Area

Enjoy Your Experience and Don't Take It Too Seriously

Although taking the plunge and getting your first tattoo shouldn't happen before careful consideration, many find that once they become comfortable with the concept of being tattooed, the stress of committing to a lifelong piece of body art melts away after the tattoo has been applied.

I recall being very nervous that I would regret my tattoos. Now, a decade later and covered in over 100 hours of tattoo work, I can say that, while I would make different choices about some of them, I don't feel negatively toward any of my tattoos. When I look in the mirror, I don't so much see the tattoos as much as I see myself in skin that makes me feel more like myself!

So relax, enjoy the experience of getting tattooed, trust your artist, and most importantly, don't be afraid to begin collecting more and more!

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.