I have a few tattoos. Not a ton, but enough and over long enough period of time that I’ve learned a bit about the process, and enough that I’m often asked by friends and acquaintances, many of whom are not tattooed, about it. I think there is a lot of unfortunate misinformation about tattoos out there, and I have decided opinions about most of it. Hence this handy guide for people thinking of getting their first tattoo, or their first good tattoo.
Find a good artist to trust.
Tattooing is an art, like any other. It’s less about bringing in a finished sketch or photo from the internet to have slapped on your skin, as if tattooists are photocopy machines, and more about working collaboratively with an artist to commission a piece of art with your guidelines and with her or his talent and expertise. Find a good artist. Go to their studios (yes, she or he must work in a studio - if I have to explain why getting tattooed by your cousin’s friend on his kitchen table is a bad idea, I’ll do that briefly later), look at their portfolios, have conversations with them. If you have a particular style in mind - Americana, photo-realism, traditional lettering, etc. - look for evidence of successful pieces they’ve done in that style. But please remember to listen to their input. They are the experts for a reason. They understand about body placement, technique and what kinds of art make for a lasting tattoo. If they don’t, then you need to find a better artist. I have tattoos that are the product of me simply giving a good artist broad subject matter (“Hey, I think I want a mermaid or something. Wherever on my back you want to put it.”) and letting them go. It’s pretty amazing when you find great artists and give them that trust. In my experiences, that yields the best results.
Let go of the idea tattoos have to “mean” something.
This is a scourge that needs to seriously go away. I flatter myself I never entirely bought into it, but even I have had to strip away superimposed standards of “meaningfulness” when it came to choosing to get tattoos. I think it’s evolved as a defense against the stigma of having tattoos. If you get a tattoo for dear, departed Aunt Martha, well, then no one is allowed to judge you for it. Except - if you care about being judged for your tattoo, you’re not ready to get one. That’s not what this art form is about. This isn’t to say you’re not allowed to get a tattoo that does have personal significance to you. It’s just to say you shouldn’t feel you have to. You’re allowed to get a tattoo just because you fucking want to. In fact, I would encourage it. Get a tattoo because it looks cool. Get a tattoo because you want to experience it. Get a tattoo because you don’t care about others’ judgment. When you do that, you end up focusing less on some abstract concept that might not translate well into a tattoo, or that might not mean as much to you at some point in the future, and more on just getting a rad piece of art. I believe the latter is really what the beauty and fun of tattooing is all about.
Expect - and offer - professionalism.
This is someone’s profession. That means you expect your artist to be professional. Take the time to look at her or his studio and equipment - if possible watch her or him prepare to tattoo. Their working spaces should be spotless. Do not ever get tattooed in someone’s house. Do not ever get tattooed in a location that isn’t sanitary. Tattooing is a harsh procedure - there is huge possibility for infection if it’s not done in the correct way, not to mention possibility for mistakes in the work. Necessary items like latex gloves, solvents, paper towels and proper trash receptacles should be clearly, readily accessible. Instruments should be bagged and all working surfaces should be covered. If you are nervous or curious about any aspect of the procedure, ask and expect complete, caring answers. Ask beforehand about healing instructions. Almost always, reputable artists will have information sheets to give to new tattoo recipients about aftercare and will make themselves available for questions or follow-up.
On the flip side of this - this is someone’s profession, so make sure you act professionally as well. Respect your artist’s expertise and time. Give your artist honest feedback and listen to their responses. Do not bring a group of friends to gawk at and chatter during the procedure, unless you have explicitly cleared this with both your artist and the other artists working in that studio - and, even then, I would advise against it. If you’re pleased with your artist’s work, do tip generously.
Be prepared for it to hurt.
You guys. Tattoos hurt. That’s all there is to it. Again, if you’re not prepared for the pain, you’re not prepared to get one. It’s impossible to predict how much it will hurt, because every body location is different and even differs from body to body. However, if pain is your major concern, there are some placements that might be better for you than others. Discuss this openly with your artist and make sure she or he knows this is a factor for you.
Put thought into it - but don’t hesitate too long.
I know quite a few people who have been mulling over their First Tattoo for a years. Just. Do. It. Seriously. Yes, it’s important to think about the decision. But, in the end - it’s just skin. You have scars and marks all over you that tell the story of your life. It’s not always neat and orderly. But it’s yours. Think of your tattoo like that. It’s part of your story. It doesn’t have to be perfect - what does “perfect” mean, anyway? If you want to do it, just go and do it. Follow the guidelines I’ve laid out here: start with a concept, find a good artist in a good studio and go to town. Chances are, you’ll come out of the experience already planning your next one.
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”—Steve Wozniak, The Rise of the New Groupthink
“In the bar I told Dean, ‘Hell, man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after all what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.’”—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.